Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Spiritual Formation and the Reversal of Romans 7:19

Here are the notes I'm using today in my Redeemer Ministry School Spiritual Formation class. I'm teaching out of Dallas Willard's essay "Spiritual Formation: What it is, and How it is Done."


The “heart” is the place in human personality where spiritual formation takes place.
            It is the inner nature of the tree that determines its outward product.
            Therefore, change the inner nature, and the outward product changes.

Spiritual formation in the tradition of Jesus Christ is the process of transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being, the heart, which is the same as the spirit or will. It is being formed (really, transformed) in such a way that its natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ.

Only God can transform the human heart into Christlikeness. But still, we have a part in the transformation. There are some things we must do. For example, 1 Peter 1:4-7:
You are a partaker of the divine nature. Therefore:

  • Apply all diligence
  • In your faith supply moral excellence
  • In your moral excellence supply knowledge
  • In your knowledge supply self-control
  • In your self-control supply perseverance
  • In your perseverance supply godliness
  • In your godliness supply brotherly kindness
  • In your brotherly kindness supply love

 It is true that, as Jesus says, “Without me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
            But the flip side of that verse is: “If you do nothing, it will be without me.”

            This is about: obedience.

I am the one who has to "give all diligence to add to my faith moral excellence and add to my moral excellence knowledge"--I'm the one. Again: Do I do it alone? No. But if I do nothing, it will not be done.
In spiritual formation this is called “the union of passivity and activity.”

“Spiritual formation is something that requires us to take wise steps in accomplishing it. The "old man" will not be put off, and the "new man" put on, unless I do something--and, indeed, unless I do the right things. And so the need as we approach the topic of spiritual formation, is to understand as well as we can what is our part and what is God's part, and take care of our part that God may be able to work with us in bringing us to be the kinds of people that we need to be and he wants us to be. (If the idea that we must do something to "enable" God to do something bothers you, you have just hit a major barrier on the pathway of spiritual formation.)”

The inner formation of Christlikeness can look like this:
"There is a real possibility of looking at I Corinthians 13, for example, and being able to see that the love that is portrayed there can actually come to occupy the human heart. People can really be like that--"Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." People can be like that, not because they do such things, but because agape love has occupied them effectively as a result of their having learned how to receive it into the deepest part of their being."

The spiritual formation is about: Me.

"Haven't we been told that judgment begins at the house of God? That means, first of all, it begins where I am. I am a man of unclean lips who lives in the midst of a people of unclean lips. I have to own this. We have to own it."

“Spiritual formation can be understood as the process by which true Christlikeness is established in the very depths of our being.” “Spiritual formation” is “a term for those processes through which people are inwardly transformed in such a way that the personality and deeds of Jesus Christ naturally flow out from them when and wherever they are.”

“Spiritual formation could and should be the process by which those who are Jesus' apprentices or disciples come easily to "do all things whatsoever I have commanded you." What I call "the great omission from the great commission" is the fact that Christians generally don't have a plan for teaching people do everything that he commanded. We don't as a rule even have a plan for learning this ourselves, and perhaps assume it is simply impossible.”

"When we talk about spiritual formation we are talking about framing a progression of life in which people come to actually do all things that Jesus taught. So we are obviously going for the heart. We are aiming for change of the inner person, where what we do originates."

"Biblically and systematically, it is appropriate to identify the heart and the spirit of the human being and the will as roughly the same thing."

·         The spirit is that part of the human being that has the capacity of moving without being moved. (=”FREE WILL”]  

·         It is the depth of the human being where freedom really exists. It is that part of us that is self-determined. That's the heart.

·         That's why evil and good come out of the heart, it's because that's the part of us that is really us.

·         It's really ours.

·         And spirit is of that intensely personal nature.

God is spirit. Therefore God is wholly self-determined.
We are self-determined only in a very small way.

This part of the human being--the spirit, the will, the heart--is the place where the work of spiritual formation has to be done.

·         Remember the words of Samuel: "Man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart."

·         Functionally the will is the executive center of the self.  [= choice-making; decision-making]

·         When it comes to life in God through the new birth, its task is then the re-formation of the whole self in co-operation with God.

·         Will is not exactly character, but is formed into character as it becomes habitual and automatic.

The human will exists in there conditions or dimensions.

1.    The vital or impulsive will

a.    “This is a willing that is outwardly directed and moved by and toward things that are simply attractive. You see this in a baby. A little baby very quickly begins to be attracted to things, to reach for them, and move in relationship to them. And that's all there really is to will in the baby.”

b.    This is: “I want to,” and “It please me.” E.g., “I want to eat ice cream, therefore I will eat ice cream.”

c.    You simply choose what you desire.

2.    The reflective will

a.    The reflective will is oriented toward what is good for the person as a whole, not merely to what is desired. And so we have the conflict that we all know too well, as human beings, between the good and the bad, and the good and the not so good, and the good and the better. This conflict goes on constantly in our lives…”

b.    Reflective will is the will oriented toward what is good for the person as a whole, not toward the merely desired.

c.    Instead of just doing what you want or desire, you choose for what is good. For Jesus-followers, you choose what God wants.

d.    This is the “WWJD” stage.

3.    The embodied will

a.    “Embodied will is where one of the other two has sunk down into your body to such an extent that you automatically do what they dictate. And this is the standard situation for most human beings on earth. Their body is running their life from choices that have formed their will and positioned it in their body.”

b.    When Peter denied Jesus three times, that was “embodied will for evil. Peter reflected after the fact and discovered what he was really like inside.”

c.    Or, when people are insulted, they normally insult back. “That’s embodied will as it exists in a fallen world… That’s what I call an “epidermal response,” because it lies right at the surface of your skin – you thought and feeling.”

d.    Embodied will – this is who you really are.

Now watch closely: ”Spiritual formation in Christ transforms your embodied will. It transforms your embodied will so that what comes out of you automatically are the words and deeds of Christ.”

            This is the point where we can stop thinking about our responses.

            This is the point where we have the mind of Christ.

Willard says: “Christian spiritual formation is the process through which the embodied/reflective will takes on the character of Christ's will. It is the process through which (and you know Gal. 4:19) Christ is formed in you and me. Think of Paul's magnificent statement: "The life which I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me." Not faith in, but the faith of. I have taken his faith into me. I am now being inwardly the person that Christ has called me to be, and this inward faith has now spread throughout my socially embodied self.”

We see that “spiritual formation” is never merely inward.
            Every spiritual discipline is a bodily behavior.

“The one reason why the idea of spiritual transformation through being merely preached at and taught doesn't work is because it does not involve the body in the process of transformation.”

Willard: “Spiritual formation in Christ would, then, ideally result in a person whose reflective will for good, fully informed and possessed by Christ, has settled into their body in its social context to such an extent that their natural responses were always to think and feel and do as Christ himself would. Their epidermal as well as their deliberate responses are then those of Christ.” [Cmp. Nouwen – that the truths of the mind would descend into one’s heart.] 

This reverses Romans 7:19. There, Paul writes:  "The things that I would not that I do, and the things that I would, that I do not."     

But now, upon spiritual transformation: "The good that I would I do, and the evil that I would not I do not." Again: Of this person we no longer have the diagnosis, "The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." (Matthew 26:14)

            In other words…, the “flesh” is no longer “weak.”

            Look at it this way:

1.    In Christ the flesh was not weak.

2.    Christ is formed in us.

3.    Therefore, our flesh is not weak.

Willard says…

We have the Vision of the kind of glorious life in Christ there is for us.

Next, we add Intention. “I must decide that I will have that kind of life.”

We engage in spiritual disciplines; i.e., we respond in Obedience. If Willard can be said to have a Method, then this is it.

Regarding obedience, Willard writes:

“We have to find the ways of taking our body into solitude and silence, into service, as well as into worship, into prayer, as well as into study; and we have to plan our lives around this objective of fulfilling the vision that our intention has set before us. That, briefly, is how spiritual formation in Christ is done: vision, intention and method, in that order. In this way we succeed, as Paul says in Romans 6:13, in "yielding ourselves unto God as those that are alive from the dead, and our members as instruments of righteousness unto God." It can be done. It can be yours and it can be mine, and we can give it to other people, if, in the fellowship of Christ, we offer them the vision, exemplify and help them with the intention, and teach them the method.”

Willard concludes:

“Spiritually, in "the inner man," we are meant to be a different species of human being. (Eph. 2:15) That's the picture, the New Testament picture--a different kind of humanity. And we can manifestly become that if we will set ourselves to learn and accept inward spiritual formation from the hand of Jesus Christ. Very likely we will not become perfect for some time yet; but we can, as Paul urged the Philippians to do, "become blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine like stars in the world." (Phil. 2:15)”