Spiritual formation has a beginning. For Christians the process of spiritual formation begins as a work of grace. Jesus tells us; “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught of God,’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father, comes to Me.” (John 6:44,45) Mark Maddix (Spiritual Formation, p. 11) writes; “Every discussion of Christian Spirituality presupposes divine activity in the form of grace. For Wesleyan theologians ‘prevenient grace’ . . . provides a theological explanation of this cultural phenomenon of the pursuit of higher meaning. Prevenient grace is the grace that God gives to every person, the grace that draws a person into a relationship with God if he or she responds to it.”
Every person who longs for meaning in their life – who longs to love and be loved by something beyond their own self-will have an encounter with Jesus. And depending upon their response they will begin a relationship with God that will deepen and grow over time. Jesus describes the beginning of this relationship as being ‘born again’; “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:5-6)
Like Nicodemus we can ask – ‘How can this be?’ (John 3:9) How does it work? What is the mystery of being born again? Jesus tells us that it is a mystery and beyond us like the wind blowing where it pleases. Jesus continues to say to Nicodemus that our spiritual birth is brought about by faith – our response to His testimony about Himself and His death and resurrection on the cross; “Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:11-15)
Mark Maddix (Ibid) points out that; “. . ., [the] heightened search for spirituality in society today should not be seen as dangerous or threatening but as the wooing of the Holy Spirit. In other words, hearts are already awakening and stand in need of the proclamation of the truth of Jesus Christ and the way to salvation.” This is true provided this searching spiritual desire in people is drawn to the truth of Jesus Christ in His Word. It is out of this interchange between belief in Jesus’ testimony and the Holy Spirit that spiritual birth is conceived. Without it there is no birth, no being ‘born again’. A person remains flesh – yet as subject to spiritual forces as to physical forces such as gravity. Some are doomed to operate spiritually like a golem, serving their own flesh and the anti-Christ; “For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things . . . ” (Philippians 3:18,19)
What stops the process of being ‘born again’? Unbelief; “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:4) We should never be confused on this point. Religion, ritual and tradition are not substitutes for the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Jesus nailed the Pharisees of His day on this very point; “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:6-8) The religions of this world even those masquerading as Christianity are full of golems pantomiming a sick parody of carnal and fake ‘spirituality’.
What is the mark of a person ‘born again’? How do we know if a spiritual birth is viable and not a ‘still birth’? Most importantly what is the test for ourselves when we look in the mirror? Paul urged the Corinthians to put themselves to the test; “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5) And what was this test? Paul tells us; “Now we pray to God that you will not do anything wrong—not so that people will see that we have stood the test but so that you will do what is right even though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.” (2 Corinthians 13:7,8) Does your life uphold the Gospel? Or as some like to say – If Christianity was a crime would there be enough evidence to convict you? Do you stand up for God’s Word and the entire testimony of Jesus Christ? Or do you just fit in and get along?
Mark Maddix (Ibid p. 12) tells us that after being born again a process of transformation occurs; “It is a process that happens to everyone if he or she keeps in step with the Spirit. The most despicable as well as the most admirable of persons can be spiritually formed after their new birth. Spiritual formation is about pilgrims on a pilgrimage, Christians on a journey to become more like Jesus.” The best a person can do in this process is the only thing a person can do – co-operate with the Holy Spirit. Turn your eyes toward Jesus; “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2) Let go of your own agendas and prejudices; “. . . just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12,13)
Finally, how then do we do this ‘letting go’ of self. The first cry of a new-born babe in Christ is the cry of repentance. What does a baby have to regret and repent of. Are they not innocent? The Bible tells us; “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me. Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, And in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom.…” (Psalm 51:5,6) A baby’s spirit knows this because of the Holy Spirit’s work in him or her. The first tentative spiritual movements often halting and clumsy are those of sorrow over our short comings; “Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication!” (2 Corinthians 7:9-11) Here we see repentance – Godly sorrow and its fake imitation – worldy sorrow. The former is about God that latter is about self. Letting go is the outworking of Godly sorrow as the Holy Spirit works in us.
Repentance isn’t a one time event – it happens many times as we mature and let go of more and more. Repentance is practiced as the Holy Spirit show us more and more about ourselves. Golems don’t repent, they don’t change and they don’t mature. Mark Maddix says; “The journey of spiritual formation aims at growth in grace toward Christian maturity” (Ibid. p. 13) The Bible tells us; “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.”(1 Corinthians 13:11,12)