Written by Paul J. Bucknell on March, 04, 2020
Spiritual Formation: The Christian’s Developmental Process
The spiritual formation of the Christian believer takes place throughout his earthly spiritual journey in various ways. Although spiritual growth is commonly seen as one process with one goal—to be “complete in Christ” (Col 1:29), multiple developmental paths need to be crossed to reach closer to that goal. The three areas suggested below, though overlapping and never-ending in this life, attempt to provide an overview of the spiritual development of the Christian as the following illustration depicts.
- Fight against sin
- Surrender of will
- Delight in God’s will
Each pathway requires progressing through many lessons that build upon each other. Although a unique spiritual experience might heighten our growth rate, it only forms another part of our overall spiritual development rather than the fulfillment of it. Our goals at each stage slightly differ because our battles have significant distinctions. However, like three intertwining strands that form a rope, they serve one overall purpose of advancing Christian growth.
(1) Fight Against Our Sin
Paul, in Romans 6, clearly states that we have died to sin. This statement might sound crazy for those who are presently battling sin, but the apostle clarifies himself. This concept describes a one-time event when a believer first puts his or her faith in Christ and salvation. “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom 6:2) Genuine believers have already “died to sin.” It is at this point, believers gain a new master, the Lord Jesus Christ, since they have left behind the old tyrannical master of his power over us. So this is not our focus here.
Paul, however, continues by challenging believers to die to the carrying out of sin in their lives. “Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness” (Rom 6:13). This verse is what I refer to in our “fight against sin.” Although our old body of sin is dead, we are regularly tempted to subject ourselves again to its powers.
And so, during this period, our struggle is to increasingly be alert to and reject temptation, standing firm in obedience. Practically, believers must continually present themselves as holy before the Lord and therefore separate themselves from sin’s effects on their lives. Sin undermines holy behavior.
During this battle, spiritual growth mainly involves slowly learning the evil one’s tactics and persistently putting sin off. Rigorous spiritual disciplines help young and old believers stabilize their spiritual endeavors by helping them get beyond these incessant struggles known in the young believer’s life.
It is essential to remember that believers regularly face various kinds of sins, including those of the flesh, attractions from the world, and temptations of the evil one. But sin, here, is used in the broadest sense to include them all. Some struggle with one kind of sin more than another. For example, coveting plays a critical role in the way the world flirts with our soul (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). Our eyes see and want (covet). The world uses all sorts of means to seduce us through our flesh and the temptations of the evil one. Our fight against sin needs to persist but the grace of God delivers us and brings us to what is good, reasonable, and beautiful (Phil 4:8-9).
While combating our sin, we sometimes conclude that this kind of struggle summarizes the Christian path of growth–but it doesn’t. Let me describe the second phase, the surrender of will.
(2) The Surrender of the Will
Another kind of struggle appears after the fierceness of battling sin subdues. Sin and disobedience will always remain a threat. Rudeness, anger, anxiety, lusts will ruin us every time that we imbibe in them. This problem of the control of our will starts from day one of our Christian life, but we are not keenly aware of it until we gain some measure of victory from the sins that assail us (phase 1).
In this second phase of the battle, we experience the refining of the will. God wants us to trust and obey Him completely. This battle of the will is, in many cases, also a struggle with sin and law, though on a different level. Those around us will not know when and if we sin. The Lord in His subtle ways through the Holy Spirit prompts us to follow His leading, maybe to share the Gospel, stop watching a video, or call a friend. No one will know how the Spirit has prodded us. He asks us to choose His will over ours. Alas, in many cases, we ourselves also will not notice.
God has not saved us to do our will but His. The Word of God, along with His Spirit, gently, though sometimes rather forcefully, leads us along. The battle for us now is to surrender our will to Him. We need to positively affirm His will is best and follow Him. This takes trust.
Our reluctance to freely and fully give our whole lives to the Lord reveals our ignorance and doubt. And so, this disobedience to the Spirit’s prodding is sin. Sometimes, we don’t know what He wants (because we don’t spend enough time with Him), but often, we arrogantly think our ways are better than His. The Lord, through this period, asks us to be willing to give up leadership to Him in each area of our lives. This might include birth control, where He wants you to live or work, or what you do in your free time. We are His servants; He is Lord and our Judge. He patiently trains us to deny our preferences so that He can have free reign of our lives.
This kind of growth only takes place when our hearts are seeking Him. Otherwise, we will not even hear or see what He wants. The battle of the soul takes place on a very different level than the first growth phase (law) but also differs significantly from the third development phase—delighting in God’s will.
(3) Delight in God’s Will
I think it unwise and unhealthy to consider our pursuit of Christ to be looked at in negative ways—surrender to His will. Yes, we fight against sin and struggle with our will and self-confidence—the spirit of the modern world. Notice how Paul goes on to describe the following aspects of pursuit—we “live with Him.”
8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom 6:8-11)
We are now “alive to God in Christ Jesus.” The expression of the new life only follows after we no longer allow sin to dominate us. This delighting to do God’s will comes from a special awareness of Christ living in and working through our lives.
Christ demonstrates a positive, affirming, and intimate relationship with the Father. “Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner” (John 5:19). Jesus called us to follow Him by dying to one’s self (phase 2) so that we could follow Him (phase 3).
This aspect of Christian growth nicely highlights how God exercises His purposes in our lives. While some denote a Christian calling for full-time ministers of the Gospel, it would be more accurate to the scriptures to see every believer with a calling to live as a saint (Eph 1:1), make disciples, and complete His will for us. So each believer ought to delight, understand, and pursue God’s will. Our spiritual life springs to life when we know our calling can be discerned and completed by consistently abiding in Christ who lives in us. This, then, is the opportunity and calling for all believers.
This ‘calling’ recognizes a unique purpose for each believer’s life. It’s often confused with a position such as a preacher, but the calling always delves more in-depth into God’s purposes for us and is only sometimes manifested in our work positions. For example, many a time, the saints are in a holding or waiting pattern. This waiting period is no less a calling than a place of influence that they might later hold.
Our success in fulfilling this calling is not attached to a position but on whether we persistently seek and trust the Lord’s will for our lives. If those positions of work or fame are gained, we should be prepared to face new temptations that attempt to frustrate God’s will being done through our lives.
Only by abiding in Christ can we timely and adequately know and pursue His will so that the fruit remains (John 15:16). How many great men around us have fallen? What keeps us different from them? It’s this determination to seek His Father’s will that characterized Jesus, never so busy or willing to dismiss the difficult requests of His Father.
Do you remember when Satan tempted Jesus? Satan promised Jesus all the kingdoms. “Again, the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8). Jesus renounced this shortcut to glory. Or, having fed the multitude, we see a similar challenge when the people saw Jesus’ power. They wanted Jesus to be their king.
14 Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 So Jesus, perceiving that they intended to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone. (John 6:14-15)
Though being the Son of Man, Jesus’ pursuit was not to be acclaimed king as soon as possible. His calling all along was only to do God’s will. Jesus knew God’s will included the cross, and so He kept that goal fixed before His eyes. This life-shaping pursuit becomes for us a wonderfully helpful model for our lives. Position, wealth, and titles often blind us to our mistakes, such as placing our decisions or pursuing our fame as more important than meeting the needs of individuals. Whether the calling is to be a father or mother, a judge, a bus driver, a pastor, or prime minister, etc., let us remember the real contest of success runs deep beneath the position that requires us to pursue God’s will persistently.
Notice how the Psalmist, also prophetically referring to Christ, gives reference to how he pursued God’s will rather than the glory of the position.
I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:8)
Teach me to do Your will, for You are my God; Let Your good Spirit lead me on level ground. (Psalm 143:10)
“Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (In the scroll of the book it is written of Me) To do Your will, O God.’” (Hebrews 10:7)
Jesus was king, but the coronation followed the cross. Like Joseph, Christ’s heart was first tested. Success only comes when we seek God’s will over any position. A position is a place of temptation. Jesus was fully committed to God’s coming kingdom. He could wait. He preferred God’s will to all. And so it should be for us all.
“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).
During this third phase of spiritual formation, our roots go deeper to issue forth holy desires for Christ’s life to direct our lives. Our wills are no longer ours. Nor do we suspect that His will is in any way inferior. This delight in God’s will provides extra patience, joy, and fruitfulness. Our hearts are taken away with the wonderful ways He graciously entwines us in His will.
Once a person becomes a Christian through faith in Christ, the Lord sets him on a path of spiritual development. Spiritual life follows spiritual birth. Although this spiritual growth forms one path, we discover three distinct levels of training and development. It’s not as if one area stops and the other starts. Instead, the development in one area assists a person in pursuing a more refined growth.
The first two paths blend by restraining our fleshly ways, often accompanied by much inner conflict. They lead us to the final path of delight in God’s will. We gladly continue on, allowing further bursts of faith and delight in God’s will to guide us faithfully. Our full joy rests not in position or recognition, but in our God-given grace to fulfill God’s precious will to glorify Him.
Discussion Questions on Spiritual Formation
1. What are the three stages of spiritual formation?
2. What are the biggest challenges faced in stage 1?
3. What characterizes stage 2?
4. Describe stage 3.
5. What differentiates stage 1 from stage 2?
6. What differentiates stage 2 from stage 3?
7. How do the three phases overlap?
8. At what stage might you be in your Christian life?
9. As time allows, describe various battles that you have experienced along the way. Which do you presently face?