A Biblical and Theological Perspective
Following is a brief summary of the core beliefs that form the foundation of our approach to spiritual transformation.
Christ Formed in Us. Spiritual transformation is the process by which Christ is formed in us …for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives, and for the sake of others. (Galatians 4:19; Romans 8:29; Romans 12:1, 2) The possibility that human beings can be transformed to such an extent that they image Christ is central to the message of the gospel and therefore it is central to the mission of the Church. Spiritual transformation in the lives of redeemed people is a testimony to the power of the Gospel and it results in an increasing capacity to discern and do the will of God. (Romans 12:2)
Renewing the Mind. It is God’s will and delight that we actively resist being conformed to this world and seek instead to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. The Greek word nous (translated mind in Romans 12:2) includes, but goes far beyond, intellectual or cognitive knowing. It denotes the seat of reflective consciousness and encompasses a person’s faculties of perception and understanding as well as the patterns of feeling, judging and determining that shape our actions and responses in the world. Thus, any approach to transformation that seeks to bring about real change must go beyond merely grasping information at the cognitive level to full knowledge that impacts our deepest inner orientations and trust structures, false-self patterns, and any obstacles that prevent us from fully surrendering to God. This kind of change involves clear teaching about the nature of the Christian life, concrete practices that help us internalize truth in ways that change how we respond in the world, and community that supports and catalyzes the process.
The Work of the Spirit. Spiritual transformation is something of a paradox in that it is quite natural for Christ followers to grow and to change just as it is natural for human beings to grow from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood. The seed of the Christ life (“everything we need for life and godliness”) is planted within us at salvation and if the conditions are right, that seed will grow and flourish. However, the process of transformation is also supernatural in that it is something only God can accomplish in our lives through the work of the Holy Spirit. The third person of the Trinity has been given as our advocate, teacher and counselor to lead us into truth as we are able to bear it (John 15 and 16) and to communicate the depths of God. (I Corinthians 2:9-16) We can find ways to open to this process of transformation as it is guided by the Spirit, but we cannot control it or make it happen ourselves. The wind of the Spirit blows where it will. (John 3:8)
Paul alludes to the paradox of the natural and the supernatural by using two metaphors. The first is the process by which an embryo is formed in its mother’s womb: I am in labor until Christ be formed (morphoo) in you. Even though human beings have their part to play in conceiving and giving birth to children–and even though we think we understand certain facts about it–there is something that remains a mystery. No matter how much we think we understand it, the process of conception and birth is always a miracle. It is something God does. Every single time.
It is the same with the process of metamorphosis, to which Paul refers in Romans 12:2. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed (metamorphoo) by the renewing of your mind. The Greek work metamorphoo refers to the process by which a caterpillar enters into the darkness of the cocoon in order to emerge, eventually, changed almost beyond recognition. Through the process of metamorphosis, the caterpillar transcends its previous existence to take on a completely different form with a completely different set of capacities. The caterpillar’s transformation seems to have little to do with cognitive understanding about the process of metamorphosis; something more primal and God-ordained is at work.
Embracing Mystery. Both the formation of the embryo in its mother’s womb and the transformation of a caterpillar in the cocoon are natural phenomena in the physical world, but there is something about both that is a God-thing. These metaphors place the process of spiritual transformation squarely in the category that we call mystery—something outside the range of normal human activity and understanding that can only be understood through divine revelation and brought about by divine activity.
In fact, everything we affirm as central to our Christian faith is somewhere in Scripture referred to as a mystery. The mystery of God (I Corinthians 2:1)…We are servants and stewards of God’s mysteries (I Corinthians 4:1)…The mystery of God’s will (Ephesians 1:9), the mystery of Christ (Ephesians 3:4)…the mystery of the Gospel (Ephesians 6:19), the mystery of marriage which is applied to Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31, 32)…the mystery of Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)…God’s mystery which is Christ himself (Colossians 2:2)…the mystery of the faith (I Timothy 3:9)… just to name a few.
If we are not comfortable with mystery, we are not comfortable with the very gospel we preach. The journey of transformation requires some measure of willingness to relinquish control and give ourselves over to a process that we cannot fully understand nor can we predict the outcome. We know we will be more like Christ but we cannot predict exactly what the person of Christ lived in and through us will look like or where it will take us.
The Role of Spiritual Disciplines. While we cannot transform ourselves into the image of Christ, we can create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place. This is where spiritual practices come in. Spiritual practices are not ways to make brownie points with God or to prove our spiritual superiority to others. They are not a self-help program by which we take control of our journey and change ourselves. Rather, spiritual disciplines are concrete activities that we engage in in order to make ourselves available for the work that only God can do.
This is what Paul is referring to when he appeals to the Christians in Rome to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1) He is saying that we can be intentional about creating the conditions for transformation by engaging disciplines that help us surrender ourselves to God –not just in theory but in reality. As Richard Foster describes it, “[Spiritual] disciplines are the main way we offer our bodies up to God as a living sacrifice. We are doing what we can do with our bodies, our minds, our hearts. God then take this simple offering of ourselves and does with it what we cannot do, producing within us deeply ingrained habits of love and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Renovare Perspective, April 1999)
The Necessity of Community. Spiritual transformation takes place incrementally over time with others in the context of disciplines and practices that open us to God. In general, while we are still on this earth, our transformation will happen by degrees (II Corinthians 3:18) and we need each other in order to grow. (I Corinthians 12)
Paul’s teaching on spiritual transformation in Romans 12 and in the other epistles is always given in the context of community—the body of Christ with its many members. We are given to one another in the body of Christ for mutual edification and to spur one another on to love and good deeds. Our spiritual gifts are given, not primarily for our own benefit or self-aggrandizement, but so we can be agents of grace for one another, building up the Body of which we are only one part. As Robert Mulholland writes, “We can no more be conformed to the image of Christ outside corporate spirituality than a coal can continue to burn outside of the fire.” (Invitation to a Journey, p.145)
While our spiritual practices certainly include private disciplines (solitude and silence, prayer and meditation, scripture, self-examination and confession, retreat, spiritual direction), to be effective they must also include disciplines in community (corporate prayer and worship, teaching, communion, Sabbath, hospitality, caring for those in need, spiritual friendship and direction), and disciplines of engagement with the world (evangelism, caring for the poor, compassion, justice, etc.)
For the Sake of Others. Spiritual transformation is both an end in itself in that it that brings glory to God and it is a means to other ends in that it enables us to mediate the presence of Christ to others and to discern loving action in the world. The litmus test of mature spirituality is obedience to Christ’s commandments (Matthew 28:18-20), which always involves an increasing capacity to love God and to love others. (Mark 12:30, 31; I Corinthians 12; I John 4:7)
Loving presence and action in the world includes sharing our faith (evangelism), giving generously of our resources, reconciliation and peacemaking (interpersonally and also across lines of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and people groups), working for justice, exercising compassion and care for the poor, and working for the betterment of life in the human community in Jesus’ name.
All true Christian spiritual formation is for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives and for the sake of others or it is not Christian spiritual formation. For this we toil and struggle with all the energy that God so powerfully inspires within us.
©Dr. Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. Not to be reproduced without permission. Ruth is the founder of the Transforming Center. As spiritual director, teacher and retreat leader, she is the author of numerous articles, books, and resources on the spiritual life.
This statement of what we believe about spiritual transformation can always be found here.