Synthesis and Conclusions


I. Characterizing the Journey

    We have been exploring on this subsite the concept of spiritual formation for followers of Jesus Christ.  We have reached some conclusions about its nature and how to go about engaging Jesus’ call and plans for our life and we wish to begin to share & summarize that here: 

    So how do we characterize this journey?  We want to highlight at least five things that come to mind from our exploration of the texts.

Abiding in Christ

    First, we hold the putative belief that spiritual formation is a continuation of and a direct result of beginning a relationship with God is correct.  Before that beginning, though, we are created  in His image (and as such his “offspring”) we are fallen creatures. Yet, we have intrinsic worth and dignity as persons, whether or not we ever come into relationship with him.  

    We are corrupted “totally” in the sense that every important part of us is to some degree or other corrupted…things like our emotions, our will, our mind and our body. Though we have inalienable intrinsic worth independent of that corruption, the corruption brought on us by living in a fallen world and that which we bring on ourselves comes by degrees.  Therefore, despite appearances the best among us are fatally flawed and the worst among us have some good. Thus, all of us before coming to faith in Christ are in need of redemption by God’s grace.

    Around this central premise are a cluster beliefs relevant to spiritual birth and formation that seem consistent with this view, such as: good habits and character that one might have developed before becoming a follower of Christ may be extremely useful in many ways, but without the work of Christ in our lives through regeneration and salvation (appropriated by faith), those good habits and character are in a sense tainted by a significant motivational deficit--it was not motivated to the glory of God in a way acceptable by Him.  And by that taint (at least), even our best behavior and habits before faith in Christ leave us separated from the life of God in Christ. 

     Even after coming to faith in Christ and having established the beginning of a relationship to the life of God, true believers in Christ can through ignorance or error fail to continue on their spiritual formation journey in a way that pleases God.  In other words, God’s grace in Jesus Christ is central to our salvation and central to our spiritual formation afterwards for without that we might be (depending on cases) either not joined into the life of God or joined but not in a moment to moment fellowship with God. And consistent with that view we hold that we cannot be spiritually reborn through a process of socialization alone or properly grow in our fellowship with God without an understanding of and an accessing of the provisions God has made available to us as believers for that growth in His grace.

    When we place our faith (belief) in God’s effective grace in Jesus Christ we are spiritually reborn and that marks the beginning of our relationship with God and that also marks the beginning of what might be afterwards called our moment to moment fellowship with God. While the Scriptures teach we cannot “lose” our relationship with God once it is established by grace and faith in Christ, we can, depending on our attitudes and behavior be in or out of moment to moment fellowship with Him.

    Following that beginning, one’s relationship with God continues forever, but our moment to moment fellowship with God is qualitatively dependent on the sort of moment to moment walk of faith we enjoy with Him and quantitatively dependent on whether we remain or not in the proper fellowship with Him.  We will discuss this important concept of fellowship with God moment by moment, which immediately follows the beginning of a relationship with God, later in this paper and in greater detail elsewhere on this site. For now we will summarize other issues that have emerged from our study.

Salvific Trajectories

    Second, what emerges from our study of Scripture and observing sociological trends is that there is more than one trajectory in life’s journey that brings people to this relational beginning in Christ.  What we are not saying is that there are many mutually exclusive and logically contradictory ways to begin a relationship with God. You cannot believe just anything to come into a relationship with God. However, there are many diverse life journey trajectories that may, either sooner or later, end in coming to know and understand who Jesus is and know and understand His work in salvation for us. And, by that knowledge and by appropriating that personally by trust, we by His grace through (our) faith can come into relationship with God, on His terms.

    In fact, it is very likely there is a wide spectrum of life journeys, which “end" at this relational beginning with God, but all who ultimately come into a relationship with God are dependent on Jesus Christ.  

    We now turn to a related issue: for the time being we will talk about two broad trajectories that occur frequently enough in Western Christianity to be identifiable for large segments of the population.  When we take in a larger geography or culture there may be more:

Trajectory A--a clearly defined temporal beginning point

    For instance, one common way this spiritual rebirth is manifested is by way of a path that culminates in a more clearly defined point of understanding who Christ is, what He has done for us and our choice to go beyond mere intellectual assent of the truth of these things, to “accepting” or the appropriation of these things by faith (personal trust). In other words, we hear and understand the essential and great things of the gospel and accept it at some point by placing, either publicly or privately (but eventually made public), who Jesus is—the incarnation of God and what He has done for us.  That is, that He has provided a substitutionary sacrifice on the cross, which satisified God’s punitive displeasure with our sins. We initiate that by accepting that provision on the basis of God’s promise to do so (forgive in Christ) and believing it so.

Trajectory B--a less temporally defined beginning point

    Another trajectory includes a scenario that typically (but not always) produces a personal perception that this beginning is somewhat less temporally defined, but one that still represents a real and proper acceptance of grace by faith. In this second trajectory, we maintain that socialization does not alone produce the conversion, but rather plays an important part of one’s coming to understand and to accept the truth of the gospel.  Nonetheless we see in this scenario, since that understanding came over a period of time, there is a tendency to not be able to pin down exactly when “saving faith” arrived in one’s experience.  

    This second scenario is often more characteristic of “second generation” Christians (though not necessarily), who grow up in a believing family and/or who “grew up” in the church and by those means were exposed to Christian things incrementally and who understood them incrementally and thus seem to make acceptance of the gospel incrementally. When this happens it can become difficult for the believer to temporally identify when necessary and sufficient knowledge and belief was attained and thus, when they came to personally believe it in such a way that it produces salvation. Yet, they do find themselves knowing what they need to know, and that they do believe what they need to believe, and are therefore followers of Christ in the salfific sense.  By clarifying this notion of multiple trajectories to the beginning our relationship with Christ, we can properly broach the subject of a sustaining and healthy fellowship with Him. 

    We maintain both types of trajectories are valid because the knowledge of God’s grace in Jesus Christ is properly fused with personal faith, just in noticeably different ways to consider them trajectories with a distinction. 

Maturity in Christ

    We can now ask, is the spiritual birth of which we are talking about be the end all for which God seeks?  

    Important and necessary as it is, we do not believe it is the end all for which God seeks.  Rather, we hold that He has revealed specific things in Scripture that for us believers there is something beyond the initial establishment of relationship that leads to the end for which He seeks.  

    That is, He seeks maturity for us in this life and beyond as individual believers in Christ.  And we hasten to add, it is also His desire and His end for the whole body of true believers in Christ, taken together, to mature in such a way as to provide help and solace to the other members of the body of Christ and to work together for the progress of the gospel. 

    Thus, we hold this perspective is not merely an individualist view of salvation though it is not less than that.  It involves the intellect and will of the individual in coming to faith. However, since both individuals and community are important in God’s plan, we take it that is not just the individual that is the end for which He seeks; that is, there also exists a strong communitarian element in what God intends for His people.

    That raises questions: what is needed in order grow from spiritual birth to spiritual maturity in Christ?  Also, what is needed for the church (the at-large body of true believers) to grow to spiritual maturity? 

    A very short answer to that question is something like this: an individual and corporate  awareness of the life of Christ in us and what it means to walk with God by faith in His life that is now within us, and a process of appropriating that grace moment by moment by fundamentally trusting Him. 

    That answer is intentionally somewhat brief, but it is also so general that it might not be all that helpful for a fuller understanding. That answer amounts to identifying the need to have it spelled out and “thickened” in greater detail.  That’s why a thorough knowledge of the Bible and its teaching on these issues is so important. 

    Of course, we do learn that though we live in God’s creation we also live in the enemy of our soul’s territory; we are sojourners and pilgrims on our way to His inaugurated but not yet consumated Kingdom. Thus, we live in a fallen world with other fallen human beings some of whom are in and some of whom are outside of the body of true believers. True believers are capable of being primarily helped by God’s Spirit--the Holy Spirit—and God’s Word in this pilgrimage, and to varying degrees helped by other sojourners in our pilgrimage.  It is also possible for true believers indviduall or corporately to regress by either neglecting their personal relationship(s) with God or by means of the influence of the world (the world “system" that is apart from God), and by means of our own desires, or by means of the influence and power of the Satan.  

    One of the roles the Bible plays in "answering” the question, what does spiritual formation amount to is that we can learn from it the propositional truths of the Bible--see the manuscript studies we provided on this subsite--and we can learn from it by means of narratives and biblical stories, which "thickens the meanings" of the propositional truths He has revealed. 

    While it’s true that some of the narratives, stories and parables, for example, can be reduced to propositional truths, all of what they teach may not be able to be reduced in that manner...hence the need for narratives, stories and parables. The most important NT story/narrative to teach us, is the life and person of Jesus.  

    Jesus taught by means of who He was, what He said, and the way He lived. There are also important secondary stories and narratives besides that in Scripture which help us to understand what it means to live lives faithful to Christ and His grace, in a wide variety of vocations, callings, social settings, and so forth.

    To a lesser degree, but still important we can learn (and are to learn) from one another, from our Christian community, yet supremely from Christ and the Bible what this life looks like.  This doesn’t negate the value of good individual habits and dispositions, but allows those things to be properly empowered by Christ, producing the fruit of sensible humility, avoiding harmful hubris where one might unwittingly desire or try to “grow” spiritually independent of the grace of God.

Responding to Grace

    There is a real sense in which we are drawn into God’s call for our lives as we realize more deeply who He is and the extravagance of the love He has for us. We see spiritual formation or what some call spiritual growth as fundamentally our God-given response to God and His love for us: we love and obey because He first loved us. If we do not really know who He is or of His pursuing love for us we will likely not be inclined to want to grow spiritually--into a more intimate fellowship with Him. (This can be tricky for some as for various reasons we will discuss below.)

    It is He and His grace and mercy toward us individually and toward our community that draws us practically into the many facets of our life together in Christ.  Again, if we do not profoundly know, understand and to some extent feel this grace then much of what comes afterward is truncated in terms of what is intended for us.  

Fundamental Hinderances to Growth and Maturity

    Fourth, spiritual formation and growth can be truncated in various ways.  This truncation can be caused by a number of factors, not the least of which might be an ignorance of the extent and (sometimes subtle) implications of what it means to be forgiven and cleansed of our sin by God.  

    This truncation is experienced in degrees and can be a result of the extent of our fallenness and brokenness which comes by degrees in individuals—our capacities and the proper function of our spiritual and moral faculties can be affected by these sorts of things even after conversion.  This by degree brokeness and falleness can be affected by the willful choice of those who have the capacities to experience this, but for whatever reasons choose not to go on to maturity in the faith.  In the first case above, the truncation is due to the degree of our inherited fallenness.  In the second case, truncation is due to a greater degree by our willful choices, motivated by whatever “reasons" we might have.

    At the heart of His grace toward us is the forgiveness of our sins, purchased at great price through the willing atonement of Jesus Christ.  He who knew no sin (Jesus) became sin in order that that God would be both just and the justifier of them who believe. 

    God’s grace is appropriated by the individual through faith in Jesus Christ, that is by our believing in Christ’s work on the cross for us and His resurrection as satisfying God’s righteous judgment on an individual’s sins. Therefore, once that is accepted the believer sin is now forgiven and is cleansed. Driving this truth as deeply as possible into one’s soul (by our willingness to do so and by His grace to do so) can be quite helpful for all believers, but especially for those whose souls that are deeply injured by whatever causes. These wounded souls, as it were, often have a greater difficulty with understanding the mercies of God (at least emotionally) because of their wounds, and regarding spiritual growth because such wounds can create barriers to good habits and forming healthy affections and dispositions. This site has and will to discuss and develop in some detail the importance of this and some of the “how to’s” for working with “wounded souls” in a way that is redemptive.  That is, in a way that is compassionate and in a way that Jesus modeled in His ministry.

Summary

    Thus, the telos of spiritual formation with respect to the individual is maturity in Christ—to have Christ-like character, attitudes and actions produced in us through Him—where one’s characteristic and habitual response to life is to allow Christ to be formed in our lives by a continual attitude of faith in God’s grace. And, with the relevant changes, maturity in Christ is also His telos for the whole body of true believers in Christ.

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