For the Chris­t­ian, heav­en is not a goal; it is a des­ti­na­tion. The goal is that Christ be formed in you” to use the words of the apos­tle Paul (Gal. 4:19; all pas­sages quot­ed are from the NRSV unless oth­er­wise not­ed). To the Romans, he declares, Those whom [God] foreknew he also pre­des­tined to be con­formed to the image of his son” (8:29). And to the Corinthi­ans, he says, All of us, with unveiled faces, see­ing the glo­ry of the Lord as though reflect­ed in a mir­ror, are being trans­formed into the same image” (2 Cor. 3:18; empha­sis added in all three). Thus the dar­ing goal of the Chris­t­ian life could be sum­ma­rized as our being formed, con­formed, and trans­formed into the image of Jesus Christ. And the won­der in all this is that Jesus Christ has come among his peo­ple as our ever­liv­ing Sav­ior, Teacher, Lord, and Friend.

He who is the Way shows us the way to live so that we increas­ing­ly come to share his love, hope, feel­ings, and habits. He agrees to be yoked to us, as we are yoked to him, and to train us in how to live our lives as he would live them if he were in our place. 

Now, we must insist that this way of life is reli­ably sus­tained in the con­text of a like-mind­ed fel­low­ship. Essen­tial to our growth in grace is a com­mu­ni­ty life where there is lov­ing, nur­tur­ing account­abil­i­ty. Christ-like­ness is not mere­ly the work of the indi­vid­ual; rather, it grows out of the matrix of a lov­ing fel­low­ship. We are the body of Christ togeth­er, called to watch over one anoth­er in love. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in our day there is an abysmal igno­rance of how we as indi­vid­u­als and as a com­mu­ni­ty of faith actu­al­ly move for­ward into Christlikeness. 

We today lack a the­ol­o­gy of growth. And so we need to learn how we grow in the grace and knowl­edge of our Lord and Sav­ior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). In par­tic­u­lar, we need to learn how we coop­er­ate with the means of grace” that God has ordained for the trans­for­ma­tion of the human per­son­al­i­ty. Our par­tic­i­pa­tion in these God- ordained means” will enable us increas­ing­ly to take into our­selves Christ’s char­ac­ter and man­ner of life. 

What are these means of grace”? And how can dis­ci­ples of Jesus Christ coop­er­ate with them so they are changed into Christlikeness? 

Formed by Expe­ri­en­tial Means 

God works first through the ordi­nary expe­ri­ences of dai­ly life to form the char­ac­ter of Christ in us. Through these expe­ri­ences we come to know on the deep­est lev­els that Jesus is with us always, that he nev­er leaves us nor for­sakes us, and that we can cast all our care upon him. In addi­tion, we learn that ordi­nary life is sacra­men­tal, and that divine guid­ance is giv­en pri­mar­i­ly in these com­mon junc­tures of life. 

Work as sacra­ment. The most foun­da­tion­al of these char­ac­ter-for­ma­tion expe­ri­ences is found in our work. Work places us into the stream of divine action. We are sub­cre­ators,” as J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us. In say­ing this, I am not refer­ring to shar­ing our faith at work or pray­ing through­out our work. Both of these are good, to be sure; but I am refer­ring to the sacred­ness of the work itself. As you and I care for our dai­ly tasks, we are glo­ri­fy­ing God in the work itself. When Mar­tin Luther gave us his rev­o­lu­tion­ary teach­ing about the priest­hood of all believ­ers, he was refer­ring not just to the fact that the plow­boy and the milk­maid could do priest­ly or litur­gi­cal work, but that the plow­ing and the milk­ing them­selves were priest­ly work.

If we are work­ing to the audi­ence of One,” we will find Jesus to be our con­stant com­pan­ion and friend — though our work be so mun­dane as pick- ing up sticks. We will grow in inti­ma­cy with God and patience with oth­ers. And we will expe­ri­ence divine care and super­nat­ur­al guid­ance in the most ordi­nary cir­cum­stances —like dis­cov­er­ing the prob­lem with the wash­ing machine or find­ing the right words for a dif­fi­cult conversation. 

Jesus, we must remem­ber, spent most of his earth­ly life in what we today cali a blue-col­lar job. He did not wait until his bap­tism in the Jor­dan to dis­cov­er God. Far from it! Jesus val­i­dat­ed the real­i­ty of God in the car­pen­try shop over and over before speak­ing of the real­i­ty of God in his min­istry as a rab­bi. So, whether you eat or drink, or what­ev­er you do,” says Paul, do every­thing for the glo­ry of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).

Tri­als that pro­duce endurance. Anoth­er expe­ri­en­tial means of grace for the for­ma­tion of the human per­son­al­i­ty is found in the var­i­ous tri­als, tribu­la­tions, and dif­fi­cul­ties through which we go. The apos­tle James reminds us, When­ev­er you face tri­als of any kind, con­sid­er it noth­ing but joy, because you know that the test­ing of your faith pro­duces endurance” (James 1:2 – 3). This endurance” is what the old moral philoso­phers called for­ti­tude,” and they viewed it as one of the foun­da­tion­al virtues that was essen­tial for a good life. James adds, And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and com­plete, lack­ing in noth­ing” (1:4).

At times, these adver­si­ties are trag­ic in the extreme. The com­pa­ny you worked for your entire life goes bel­ly-up and you are left with­out a job. Your only daugh­ter dies sud­den­ly and need­less­ly in a car acci­dent. A tiny error at the hos­pi­tal ren­ders you per­ma­nent­ly blind. These are the sor­rows that are writ­ten across the face of humanity. 

But most often, the tri­als we face are of the gar­den vari­ety rather than hero­ic. Your supe­ri­or at the office makes a mis­take that places you in an awk­ward posi­tion. Your son puts a nice round hole in the neighbor’s win­dow with his new BB gun. You are embroiled in ongo­ing ten­sion with some­one who used to be your best friend. 

But through the oper­a­tions of grace, even these work endurance in us, and we learn some­thing of the cos­mic patience of God. We come to see God’s tim­ing and God’s ways as alto­geth­er good. We become what George Fox called estab­lished” men and women. 

Tri­als, tribu­la­tions, per­se­cu­tions — these we should expect. They are part of life. Even more impor­tant, they are part of our dis­ci­ple­ship to Christ — Indeed, all who want to live a god­ly life in Christ Jesus will be per­se­cut­ed” (2 Tim. 3:12). The key is how we are shaped and formed ever more ful­ly into the way of Christ through the process of these experiences.

Mov­ings of the Spir­it. Still anoth­er form of the expe­ri­en­tial means of God’s grace comes through our inter­ac­tion with the mov­ings of the Holy Spir­it upon our hearts. Have you ever felt the draw­ing and encour­ag­ing of the Spir­it? You prob­a­bly did not hear an audi­ble voice — though we must nev­er rule out that pos­si­bil­i­ty. But more like­ly you sensed the weight and author­i­ty that comes with divine com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The clar­i­ty of the Word of Truth was unmis­tak­able. And it coin­cid­ed with God’s revealed truth in Scrip­ture, for the same Spir­it who inspired Scrip­ture is at work with­in you. 

Often the Spir­it comes to us as Teacher. Per­haps we receive a sim­ple word of assur­ance and care: You are loved in ways you nev­er dared hope.” Maybe there are blind spots that need his ten­der scruti­ny. Per­haps there is instruc­tion in truth. The key lies in our reac­tion to and inter­ac­tion with God’s grace-filled teaching. 

We may hard­en our hearts and turn away from the light. But God’s patience and love over­comes us, and we repent and turn into the light. We may argue, debate, ques­tion. Back and forth we go until we come to see the good­ness of right­ness. Through­out, God is mold­ing, shap­ing, form­ing us into crea­tures that can bear the beams of his over­com­ing love; crea­tures that can con­tain God’s good­ness with­out being com­plete­ly done in by it. 

At oth­er times, the Spir­it comes as coun­selor and guide. Per­haps we are giv­en prophet­ic words to share, and so with fear and trem­bling we speak out in the gath­ered meet­ing for wor­ship. The expe­ri­ence is so exhil­a­rat­ing, how­ev­er, that we for­get our­selves and speak beyond our lead­ing. Soon sen­si­ble of our error, we grieve over our dis­obe­di­ence, know­ing that words once spo­ken can­not be retrieved. All the time we are learn­ing to dis­tin­guish the life-giv­ing words of the Spir­it from the death-giv­ing words of the flesh. We see that our human­ly ini­ti­at­ed words van­ish into thin air, and that only the debar Yhwh, the word of the Lord, endures, and we come to trea­sure these won­der­ful words of life. 

All these expe­ri­ences, as var­ied and diverse as life itself, are meant to draw us deep­er in and high­er up into Christ­like­ness. And so they do when we are docile of heart. God takes the dynam­ic give and take of our inter­ac­tion with him­self and plants with­in us deep-root­ed habits of the heart — habits of joy­ful alle­giance and glad sur­ren­der, habits of faith­ful obe­di­ence and patient endurance. 

Con­formed by For­mal Means

The for­mal means of grace refers to well-rec­og­nized dis­ci­plines of the spir­i­tu­al life: dis­ci­plines like prayer, study, fast­ing, soli­tude, sim­plic­i­ty, con­fes­sion, cel­e­bra­tion, and the like. I call these for­mal” means because they involve for­mal ways of arrang­ing our lives for train­ing in the spir­i­tu­al life. We sim­ply must under­stand that we will nev­er grow in Christ­like habits and dis­po­si­tion with­out intense, well-informed action on our part. 

Now it must be said with vig­or that these acts do not make us accept­able to God. Our accep­tance is by grace alone, and our jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is by grace alone. The dis­ci­plines make up the ground of this action. They are spir­i­tu­al exer­cis­es through which we bring our lit­tle indi­vid­u­al­ized pow­er pack” — we call it the human body — and present it to God as a liv­ing sac­ri­fice (Rom. 12:1).

Ath­letes of God. But these spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines do train the body, mind, and spir­it for the things of God.“Train your­self in god­li­ness,” says Paul (1 Tim.4:7). The back­ground to Paul’s cali is the Greek gym­na­si­um where ath­letes trained to par­tic­i­pate in the games. And Chris­tians from the ear­li­est cen­turies spoke of them­selves as the ath­le­tae Dei, the ath­letes of God.

We have embed­ded in our bod­ies and our minds habits of evil that per­me­ate all human life. And our bod­ies and minds need prop­er dis­ci­pline to be freed from these destruc­tive habits so that they can be brought into a work­ing har­mo­ny with our spirit. 

Now, it is impor­tant to dis­tin­guish train­ing” from try­ing.” I might try very hard to win a marathon race, but if I have not trained, I will not even fin­ish, not to men­tion win. With­out train­ing, the resources sim­ply are not in my mus­cles, they are not in the ingrained habit struc­tures of my body. On the day of the race, no amount of try­ing will make up for the fail­ure to train. It is the train­ing that will enable me to par­tic­i­pate effec­tive­ly in the race. The same is true in the spir­i­tu­al life. Train­ing builds inte­ri­or habits with­in us, holy habits.” 

Con­quer­ing pride. Sup­pose I am long­ing to win the bat­tle over pride. (I know that today peo­ple are not much con­cerned about pride, but the devo­tion­al mas­ters always saw it as among the most destruc­tive sins.) I can nev­er defeat pride by try­ing.” Direct assault against pride will only make me proud of my humil­i­ty! No, I must train. But what do I do? 

Well, as I read the great writ­ers on the soul— Saint Bene­dic­t’s Twelve Steps of Humil­i­ty,” for exam­ple — I dis­cov­er that they cali me to deal with pride by train­ing in Ser­vice. Why? Because Ser­vice takes us through the many lit­tle deaths of going beyond our­selves. A father, for exam­ple, dies to his desire to watch Mon­day-night foot­ball in order to play with his chil­dren. Or a hus­band dies to a pro­mo­tion that would mean relo­cat­ing in order for his wife to advance in her cho­sen vocation. 

These are lit­tle deaths, to be sure. But each one takes us beyond our­selves, and God uses these sim­ple acts of Ser­vice to work a mir­a­cle in us. Through serv­ing oth­ers we learn how pre­cious peo­ple are. We come to val­ue them as per­sons, delight­ing even in their idio­syn­crasies. All of this places us in a right rela­tion­ship to oth­ers. Me” and mine” give way to we” and ours.” We come to see our­selves as part of a whole.

If, in addi­tion, I read William Law’s Seri­ous Call or Saint Bernard’s Twelve Degrees of Humil­i­ty and Pride, I become aware of the impor­tance of wor­ship as a dis­ci­pline for nur­tur­ing humil­i­ty. As I begin to see God as high and lift­ed up, to over­hear cheru­bim and seraphim prais­ing God and all the heav­en­ly host cast­ing their crowns before the throne, singing, You are wor­thy,” I am brought into appro­pri­ate per­spec­tive with rela­tion to God (Rev. 4:9 – 11). I real­ize that all I am, all I have, all I do is derived. I am not the cap­tain of my sal­va­tion nor the mas­ter of my fate. Far from it. I am utter­ly, com­plete­ly, rad­i­cal­ly depen­dent upon a lov­ing Father who brings me rain and sun as I need them, and in whom I live and move and have my being. You are, too. 

Do you see what these basic spir­i­tu­al exer­cis­es have done for us? They have nur­tured us into prop­er per­spec­tive toward oth­ers — right hor­i­zon­tal rela­tion­ships —and into prop­er per­spec­tive toward God — right ver­ti­cal rela­tion­ship. When these things come into place, we can under­stand what William Law meant when he spoke of the rea­son­able­ness of humility.” 

Now, these lit­tle exer­cis­es of Ser­vice and wor­ship do not make us right­eous. Right­eous­ness is first, fore­most, and always a work of God by grace through faith.” No, these exer­cis­es mere­ly place us before God — the sim­ple offer­ing of a liv­ing sac­ri­fice. But from this small offer­ing God is able to bring forth far greater good: such as cre­at­ing in us an inte­ri­or dis­po­si­tion of pre­fer­ring oth­ers; such as under­stand­ing God as the cre­ator and sus­tain­er of all things; such as see­ing our efforts as reflex respons­es to divine urg­ings, and much more. 

This, in God’s time and in God’s way, pro­duces a pleas­ing bal­ance in our lives so that humil­i­ty flows from us as nat­u­ral­ly and as effort­less­ly as breathing. 

A menu of dis­ci­plines. I have men­tioned the dis­ci­plines of ser­vice and wor­ship. There are many oth­ers. Inward dis­ci­plines, like med­i­ta­tion, prayer, fast­ing, and study, cul­ti­vate our heart and mind toward the way of Christ. Med­i­ta­tion is the abil­i­ty to hear God’s voice and obey his word. Prayer is ongo­ing dia­logue with the Father about what we and God are doing togeth­er. Fast­ing is the vol­un­tary denial of an oth­er­wise nor­mal func­tion for the sake of intense spir­i­tu­al activ­i­ty. Study is the process through which we bring the mind to con­form to the order of what­ev­er we are con­cen­trat­ing upon.

Out­ward dis­ci­plines, like sim­plic­i­ty, soli­tude, and sub­mis­sion, cul­ti­vate our appetites toward the way of Christ. Sim­plic­i­ty is an inward real­i­ty of sin­gle-eyed focus on God that results in an out­ward lifestyle free from cum­ber,” as William Penn put it. Soli­tude involves cre­at­ing an open, emp­ty space for God that under­cuts all the false sup­port sys­tems we use to shore up our lives. Sub­mis­sion is the abil­i­ty to lay down the ever­last­ing bur­den of need­ing to get our own way. 

Cor­po­rate dis­ci­plines, like con­fes­sion, guid­ance, and cel­e­bra­tion, cul­ti­vate our affec­tions toward the way of Christ. Con­fes­sion is the grace through which the sins and sor­rows of the past are for­giv­en. Guid­ance is the expe­ri­ence of know­ing the theo­crat­ic rule of God over our lives. Cel­e­bra­tion is being, as Augus­tine said, an alleluia from head to foot!” 

Now, I have no exhaus­tive list of the spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines, and as far as I know, none exists. We are sim­ply find­ing ways to place who we are— body, mind, and spir­it — before God. All of this, I must add, flows out of a prop­er dis­po­si­tion of the heart: seek­ing first the king­dom of God, hun­ger­ing and thirst­ing for right­eous­ness, long­ing to be like Christ. 

Doing these things to be seen by oth­ers is a fail­ure to under­stand that the dis­ci­plines have absolute­ly no mer­it in and of them­selves. They do not make us right with God or improve our stand­ing with God. All the dis­ci­plines of the spir­i­tu­al life do is place us before God. At this point, they come to the end of their teth­er. But it is enough. God takes this sim­ple offer­ing, imper­fect and mis­guid­ed as it may be, and uses it to build with­in us virtues and graces we can hard­ly imag­ine — con­form­ing us, always, to the way of Christ. 

Trans­formed by Instru­men­tal Means 

The instru­men­tal means of grace refers to the var­i­ous phys­i­cal and human instru­ments God uses to trans­form us. God in his great wis­dom has freely cho­sen to medi­ate his life to us through vis­i­ble real­i­ties. This is a great mys­tery. God, who is pure Spir­it, utter­ly free of all cre­at­ed lim­i­ta­tions, stoops to our weak­ness and changes us by phys­i­cal and vis­i­ble means. 

Many and var­ied are the instru­men­tal means of grace. Bap­tism is a means of grace where­by we are buried into Christ’s death and raised unto his life. Preach­ing is a means of grace in which the sacra­ment of the Word” is giv­en to us, and the min­is­ters of Christ are them­selves the liv­ing ele­ments in Christ’s hands, bro­ken and poured out in soul. The lay­ing on of hands is a means of grace through which God imparts to us what we desire or need, or what God, in his wis­dom, knows is best for us. The anoint­ing with oil is a means of grace for the heal­ing of the sick. Inter­ces­so­ry prayer is a means of grace through which God freely uses human instru­men­tal­i­ty to speak forth his will on earth as it is in heaven. 

Trans­formed by Scrip­ture. There is prob­a­bly no more trans­form­ing instru­men­tal means of grace than read­ing, study­ing, and med­i­tat­ing upon Scrip­ture. Habit­u­al read­ing of the Bible touch­es the affec­tions; sys­tem­at­ic study of the Bible touch­es the mind; and sus­tained med­i­ta­tion upon the Bible touch­es the soul. 

When we read Scrip­ture, we gain a world-view. We become immersed into holy his­to­ry.” In read­ing about God’s inter­ac­tion with Abra­ham and Ruth, Mary and Paul, we under­stand some­thing of God’s deal­ing with us. Read­ing whole sec­tions in a sin­gle set­ting — Jere­mi­ah, for exam­ple, or John or Romans — gives us the larg­er sense of the unseen world. With Abram we begin seek­ing for a city that has foun­da­tions, whose archi­tect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). With Mary we con­fess, Here am I, the ser­vant of the Lord; let it be with me accord­ing to your word” (Luke 1:38). With Paul we can press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward cali of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14RSV). 

Through this process the Bible becomes all over auto­bi­o­graph­ic of you,” to use the phrase of Alexan­der Whyte. As we study Scrip­ture, we are seek­ing the intent of the Author, search­ing for the mean­ing of the text. Gram­mar, his­to­ry, geog­ra­phy, and crit­i­cal research all play a vital part in our inquiry into the Word of God writ­ten. We sub­mit to the results of our study, for we want what the Bible says more than what we want it to say. 

When study­ing the Ten Com­mand­ments, for exam­ple, we dis­cov­er through his­tor­i­cal research that it par­al­lels close­ly the form of the treaties of the ancient Near East in which the suzerain tells of his great grace and mer­cy to the vas­sal, and in grat­i­tude, the vas­sal agrees to the stip­u­la­tions of the covenant in obe­di­ence to the suzerain. Grace comes before oblig­a­tion! All of a sud­den, the words of God to the peo­ple of Israel take on an enlarged mean­ing: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slav­ery” (Exod. 20:2). Study, you see, brings die mind into con­for­mi­ty to the ways and nature of God. 

In med­i­tat­ing upon Scrip­ture, the heart and the soul are mold­ed ever more close­ly to the love of God. How can young peo­ple keep their way pure?” cries the psalmist, and then he answers his own ques­tion: By guard­ing it accord­ing to your word” (Ps. 119:9). Sus­tained rumi­na­tion upon Scrip­ture — in daïs case, Torah — will keep our way puré, par­tic­u­lar­ly by puri­fy­ing the aspi­ra­tions of the soul. 

We are also giv­en new pow­er. As we med­i­tate, for instance, upon Jesus’ stag­ger­ing words, My peace I give to you” (John 14:27), we are bap­tized into the real­i­ty of which the pas­sage speaks. We brood on the truth that he is now fill­ing us with his peace. The soul and spir­it are awak­ened to his inflow­ing peace. We feel all motions of fear and anger stilled by a spir­it of pow­er and of love and of self-dis­ci­pline” (2 Tim. 1:7). And the grace-filled result: a heart enlarged to receive the love of God; Oh, how I love your law! It is my med­i­ta­tion all day long … How sweet are your words to my taste, sweet­er than hon­ey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:97103).

The Lord’s Sup­per. An obvi­ous instru­men­tal means of grace is the bread and the wine of Holy Com­mu­nion. Regard­less of our par­tic­u­lar the­o­log­i­cal posi­tion on the Eucharist, we all agree that, in ways we can­not ful­ly com­pre­hend, the life of God is medi­at­ed to us through the bread and the wine. We bow under the won­der of this incar­na­tion­al reality.

But how does our par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Eucharis­tic feast work to trans­form us into Christ­like­ness? Well, first of all, near­ly every aspect of heart devo­tion is found at the Lord’s Table — exam­i­na­tion, repen­tance, peti­tion, for­give­ness, con­tem­pla­tion, thanks­giv­ing, cel­e­bra­tion, and more. And gen­uine heart devo­tion always pro­duces char­ac­ter trans­for­ma­tion, repen­tance, peti­tion, for­give­ness, con­tem­pla­tion, thanks­giv­ing, cel­e­bra­tion, and more. And gen­uine heart devo­tion always pro­duces char­ac­ter trans­for­ma­tion. The Eucharist is the most impor­tant moral action of the church, because its cel­e­bra­tion incor­po­rates us into the ongo­ing sto­ry of God’s redemp­tive work.

Then, too, the Lord’s Sup­per brings forth inward trans­for­ma­tion in the way in which it forces us to keep com­ing back to the Great Sac­ri­fice: Jesus’ bro­ken body, his blood poured out. This is how we live. This is how we are strength­ened. This is how we are empow­ered. We all come to the Com­mu­nion Ser­vice pray­ing the prayer of the child — the prayer of receiv­ing. We come with open hands. We also come with emp­ty hands. We have noth­ing to give. All we can do is receive. Each and every one of us approach­es the Table declar­ing, Just as I am, with­out one plea but that Thy blood was shed for me.” What hap­pens then is all of grace and noth­ing of us. Heart trans­for­ma­tion. Faith. Hope. Love. An amaz­ing sim­plic­i­ty that is free of manip­u­lat­ing and man­ag­ing and maneuvering. 

And emp­ty hands” brings us full cir­cle, back to grace where we start­ed. And what a trans­form­ing grace it is! It is a grace that not only gets us into heav­en when we die but gets heav­en into us here and now. It is a grace that is con­tin­u­ous­ly form­ing and con­form­ing and trans­form­ing us into the like­ness of Christ. The only ade­quate response to such amaz­ing grace” is doxology. 


Text First Published February 1996 · Last Featured on May 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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