until Christ is formed in you …
Not surprisingly, by endeavoring to be obedient to God’s call Christians often find themselves out of step with the rest of the world. This is not an uncommon experience; many godly people in Scripture were also estranged from their contemporaries (e.g. Noah and his ark, Genesis 6; Abraham, who began a new life at 75, Genesis 12.1; Samson with his Nazarite vows regarding his hair, wine and dead things, Judges 3.5). Sometime after Paul’s conversion he was set apart by Christ (Acts 9.4-5) to become an apostle to the Gentiles (Acts 9.15) and lived out the remainder of his life as an itinerant preacher (2 Corinthians 11.16-33). As strange as some of these behaviors may appear, it is the same thing that motivates all Christians who are mindful of God’s call upon their lives. Godly people are by the constraint of God’s love upon their lives; and this love finds its expression in a love for God’s people (John 17.20-21; 1 John 4.19-5.2). Indeed, there is no force in the world that can compete with the loving indwelling power of God’s Spirit. So, then, how is the Christian to understand the trials and conflicts he encounters as a believer? Keep in mind that Satan does not ignore believers (Ephesians 6.12), so it is not surprising that Christians undergo trials and temptations (1 Peter 4.12-13), but God does not intend for his children to be overcome by sin (Romans 13.11-14; 1 Corinthians 10.13; James 1.2-4, 12-15). It has been said, “there are two things in the world, power and love, and you cannot have both.” Is it not interesting that the Devil, and the darkness he represents, is frequently associated with power and self-fulfillment (Matthew 4.8; Ephesians 6.12), while the light of Christ is associated with humility, service and sacrifice (John 13.12-17)?
Christ calls men and women to live in a vital, life-dependent relationship with him (Luke 14.26). The call of Christ on one’s life is not an invitation to embrace a new fad or philosophy. Being a follower of Christ requires that the believer be in communication with him. It is not enough to admire, respect or esteem the things Jesus represents; you must love Him, and this you cannot do without the Holy Spirit who sheds the love of God abroad in your hearts (Romans 5.5). So, the apostle Peter wrote: Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1.8-9). Oswald Chambers expresses this idea in his devotional classic, My Utmost for His Highest: “Whenever the Holy Ghost sees a chance of glorifying Jesus, He will take your heart, your nerves, your whole personality, and simply make you blaze and glow with devotion to Jesus Christ.” The love for the Lord Jesus Christ is such that by comparison love for family appears to come in a distant second place (Matthew 10.34). Of course, practically speaking, one’s love for God increases a Christian’s true love for his or her family (cp. Mark 7.11).
Mankind’s only enduring significance, whether he knows it or not, lies in his relationship with God. If he misses that, he misses everything of importance. Given this profound truth it is sad how little thought and even less action is devoted to cultivating the spiritual virtue of being conformed to the image of Christ (Galatians 4.19; 2 Peter 1.3-11). I am not, of course, referring to intrinsic virtue (that is, the virtue of mere physical creatureliness), but that virtue which is the product of being created in the image of God. St. John Chrysostom in his 4th century treatise, None Can Harm Him Who Does Not Injure Himself, observes the horse’s virtue is not in its gold studded bridle but in its strength, speed and courage in battle. So, too, for man; his virtue is not in the possession of riches so that he is immune to poverty, nor health that he should have no fear of sickness, neither in being the object of popular public opinion, nor in a host many other lesser things that men have come to value. Of course, it is important to understand biblical doctrine and holding fast to these eternal truths (cp. 1 Timothy 3.15) and to maintain godly rectitude in life (Hebrews 5.14; 2 Peter 1.10); but these things might be achieved, to some degree, by a mere force of the will but cultivating a heart-beat for Christ is the power behind this Christ centered life (Philippians 1.19-21; 3.1-11). The person who possesses these things can never be dispossessed of his treasure (Proverbs 4.7-8, 23). “All true needs—such as food, drink, and companionship—are satiable. Illegitimate wants - pride, envy, greed - are insatiable. By their nature they cannot be satisfied” (cp. Herbert Schossberg, Idols for Destruction, p. 107). Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs (Jonah 2.8, NIV).
TRUE AND FALSE RELIGION
True religion is completely theocentric because it has its origin in God, not in man. God tells his children what he expects of them: how they are to live and how they are to worship him. The Bible makes it clear that true religion involves a union of the soul with God: this is one of the great themes of Scripture. Henry Scougal commented: “The worth and excellency of a soul is measured by the object and intensity of its love” (Henry Scougal, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, p. 62). Peter said, His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the dive nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (2 Peter 1.3-4). The image of God is etched upon the soul of the believer or, as the apostle Paul phrases it, Christ formed within you (Galatians 5.19).
As wonderful as this sounds there is a caveat: that is, the true spiritual life has its artificial counterpart. There is an appearance of religion in some people that has no more depth than the skin of godliness. Such a person’s soul is vapid and devoid of the Spirit’s presence. Jonathan Edwards writes of this duplicity in his classic work Religious Affections. Scougal likewise writes of a fair imitation of virtue and goodness. Self-love, for example, may be a sufficient force to restrain a man’s baser instincts. A man so constrained may observe the rules of moral justice but only to secure his own interests and maintain his credibility among his peers. This kind of natural reason may even take the shape of piety and religion – it might even lead men to pursue the study of Scripture or a religious office. For such people are as curious as any about life after death and a ‘higher order of things.’ Some such people may even be quite eloquent about religion and lead something of a devotional life. Things about heaven may appeal to the carnal mind as well as to the spiritual. The religiously moral person may even have a moderate affection for Christ as a great benefactor of mankind. But all of this may be but an imitation of the true life in Christ.
The love which a pious man bears to God is not so much by virtue of command enjoining him so to do, as by a new nature instructing and prompting him to it. He does not make his devotions as an unavoidable tribute only to appease the divine justice, or quiet his clamorous conscience; but those religious exercises are the proper emanations of the divine life, the natural employments of the new born soul. (Scougal, p. 36)
There is a law in love evidenced in the believer that is a law unto itself. There is a Latin saying which, when translated, means: Who shall prescribe a law to those that love? Love is a more powerful law that moves them. Regarding the Christian’s life Henry Scougal writes:
He who is utterly destitute of this inward principle, and does not aspire to it, but contents himself with those religious performances wherein he is prompted only by education or custom, by fear of hell, or carnal notions of heaven, can no more be accounted a religious person, than a puppet can be called a man. (Scougal, p. 38)
Ultimately, it is not demands of doctrinal fidelity that conscripts the Christian into service; rather, it is the love of Jesus which inwardly compels him to take up his cross (Romans 5.6-11; Galatians 2.20). When viewed from the perspective of heaven the radical demands of Christ are quite reasonable (see my notes on The Marks of a Disciple). Christians believe that Jesus died to secure eternal life and salvation for all who put their faith in his redemptive work. Thus, all who love Jesus delight in obeying his commands (John 14.15; 1 John 2.3; 5.2).
Let us then stand in awe of this great God! And let us turn from all the trivial resentments and fleeting pleasures and petty pursuits of materialism and merely human “spiritually.” And let us be caught up into the gladness that God has in the glory of his Son, who is the radiance and image of his Father. There is coming a day when the very pleasure that the Father has in the Son will be in us and will be our own pleasure. May God’s enjoyment of God—unbounded and everlasting—flow into us even now by the Holy Spirit! This is our glory and our joy. (John Piper, The Pleasures of God, p. 40)
Christians depend on God’s word and turn to it for guidance in everything (John 8.31). Their understanding of what it means to be conformed to Christ is based on Scripture. That is not to say that adherence to doctrinal suppositions is all there is (cp. Revelation 2.2-7). It is obvious that one cannot be properly called a Christian whose only claim to faith is that he has not denied the creeds of the church. What is to be said for the man who professes to be a disciple yet neither trembles, nor thrills, nor hopes, nor dreads, nor desires, nor does any single thing because of his belief (Alexander McClaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, 10.335). Saving faith is not merely acceptance of the creeds of the church. It is the reliance of the soul on Jesus: it is a heart that is fully committed to him.
John addresses the theme of being formed in Christ in his farewell discourse (John 15.1-16). All true believers are fruitful and they all abide in Christ. There is a living and dynamic relationship between the Father and the Son, and the Son and his disciples. How this relationship is maintained is the focal point of Jesus’ use of the extended metaphor of the vine and its branches (a common image in the Old Testament: Psalm 80.7-13; Isaiah 5.1-7; 27.2-5). Even in the non-viticulture it is easy to understand what Jesus is talking about when he refers to himself as the true vine and his Father as the vinedresser. As branches the disciples are only productive if they are attached to the vine. Moreover, all the branches must, at some time or other, be pruned (Hebrews 12.4-11). Though the experience may be painful it is essential. Without it there can be no fruit of Christ-likeness.
So, then, the question is a simple one: how is Christ being formed in you?