Spiritual Formation: A Journey Towards Christlike Transformation

I was reared in a loving Christian home. My parents stressed education, both secular and religious. They taught my siblings and I that God loves each one of us, that the God of the Bible always rescues His people. Upon placing our faith in Him, we could become members of the church, and when I was nine, with my Father’s encouragement, I joined the church and was baptized. At this young age, my knowledge of the church was limited. I didn’t fully understand who Jesus was or what it meant to be a Christian. Though I couldn’t define conversion, discipleship, sanctification, or regeneration, I did know that I wanted to be a Christian and that it was not merely the immersion in the water that saved me. I knew I enjoyed the assembly of His people, whether it was Bible study, Sunday church school, the choir, or Sunshine Band. I knew that Jesus was the Son of God and that He died on the cross and arose three days later. I also knew I was born again by God’s amazing grace and was one of His disciples.

When I turned eighteen, I wanted to understand the doctrines and beliefs of the Baptist Church. I wanted to dedicate my life, time, talents, and resources to serve Him and others. Since that rededication, I have become more aware of God’s involvement in my life, and have sought to strengthen my relationship with Jesus Christ by gaining knowledge of His ways, and by accepting His grace. My aim is to develop a lifestyle that would offer warmth, love, and care to those I meet. Although I was converted as a child, I knew then that I was a work in progress, that I must continue to learn what it means to be Christlike, to be His disciple and how to use my gifts to build up the family of God. Therefore, I must continue my spiritual development by reading the Scriptures and applying God’s teachings in my life.

To discover what it meant to be Christlike, made in the image of God and to be a disciple I asked questions: What is a Christian? What does it mean to be a disciple? What is the church’s definition of Christian discipleship? How can I become formed into the image of Jesus Christ? Strangely, I found I had more questions than answers. Because I knew that the Lord said in His word, ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door would be opened, I knew the answers would come.

I learned through preaching, teaching and various biblical and spiritual resources that a Christian is a person on a transformational journey toward Christ and His likeness, growing spiritually in the context of community. A Christian disciple is defined as a believer who accepts and follows the teachings of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to live in a way that reflects Him. Discipleship is the cultivation of a lifelong, personal relationship with Christ that produces spiritual maturity and the transformation of values, and character into Christlikeness. The aim of Christian discipleship is to embrace the ethics, values, and character of Jesus Christ.

Discipleship answered for me the question every believer raises concerning becoming more like Christ. Being a disciple of Jesus is a learning and growing process that requires a daily walk and commitment to do the right things according to God’s Word. Every believer is on a journey toward spiritual transformation, God’s work of changing a believer into the likeness of Jesus Christ by creating a new identity in Christ and by empowering a lifelong relationship of love, trust, and obedience to glorify God. Within me grew a deeper hunger and thirst for more of Christ and His Word. I desired to experience this new identity in Christ and grow spiritually. I asked more questions: Where am I as a Christian? Have I matured in faith since I started on the spiritual path? On what level am I now and how do I move to the next? To fulfill my desire for more of Him, I applied and was accepted in the Master’s Program at Ashland Theological Seminary (ATS).

When I began my studies, I was introduced to “spiritual formation”, a term that Ashland Theological Seminary emphasized. It is the process of nurturing an intimate relationship with God, encompassing the heart, soul, and mind. It is obedience to the word of Christ and a commitment to grow, study, pray, and be held accountable for our life and witness, both before God and one another. I asked: What does the Bible say about spiritual formation? What are the essential steps toward being formed into Christ’s image? Why am I just now hearing the term “spiritual formation”?

In The Great Omission: Rediscovering Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship, Dallas Willard explains that this term’s recent emergence reflects a realization that teaching and preaching alone are inadequate to fulfill Christians’ spiritual needs. Spiritual formation, Willard suggests, is training for successful Christian leaders.

Ashland Theological Seminary Professor Terry Wardle describes spiritual formation as a rugged journey that we must experience to grow Christlike in our thoughts, actions and attitudes. The apostle Paul recorded in Galatians 4:19 says, “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ be formed in you.” Diane Leclerc and Mark Maddix, co-authors of Spiritual Formation: A Wesleyan Paradigm, also define spiritual formation as, “the whole person in relationship with God, within the community of believers, growing in Christlikeness, reflected in a Spirit-directed, disciplined lifestyle, and demonstrated in redemptive action in our world” (Leclerc and Maddix
2011, 12).

In Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation, M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. added that spiritual formation reflects Christ’s compassion towards others by forgiving, loving and healing. Believers on this journey will love and serve as Jesus did. Moreover, as we experience spiritual growth, we will become more loving, compassionate, patient, understanding, caring, giving, and forgiving.

Henri Nouwen, author of The Wounded Healer, connected spiritual formation with discipleship resulting in becoming Christ’s true brothers and sisters and becoming God’s sons and daughters. I was touched by the truth that spiritual formation also involved responding from the heart to the needs of others. Nouwen said, “A true disciple of Jesus Christ will always go to where people are feeling weak, broken, sick, in pain, poor, lonely, forgotten, anxious, and lost” (Nouwen 2010, XXVII).

We are being transformed into the image of Christ that we may think like Jesus, talk like Jesus, and live like Jesus. He gave Himself totally, completely, sacrificially, and unconditionally for others. Jesus liberated those who were oppressed through active ministry, boldness in speaking, steadfastness in conflict, and a suffering love. He cared for the varied needs of the brokenhearted, the captives, the bruised, and the blind. He spoke to those to whom no one spoke and with whom no one dined, as well as those thought to be the lowest members of society. In Foundations of Spiritual Formation: A Community Approach to Becoming Like Christ, Paul Pettit identified the following resources that enable spiritual formation: God’s word, God’s Spirit and God’s people.

After much research, I learned that as we become more like Christ, our devotional time positions us for His power to fulfill his purpose for our lives. It is impossible to become formed to the image of Christ without becoming spiritual. When we make ourselves available to Him and place ourselves before God, He can transform us and make spirituality a reality. The spiritual disciplines such as study, prayer, fasting, meditation, solitude, and worship position us to experience the power and presence of God in our lives. The power and presence of God in individuals and communities inspire and empower us with qualities and gifts we would not otherwise possess. Spiritual disciplines bring us to the point where we can be faithful and useful to the Lord. Spiritual disciplines exercised in the context of our everyday lives move us to spiritual depth, free us from destructive habits, help us to experience a life of relationship and intimacy with Christ, and put us in a place where God can bless us. Moreover, we provide Him the means for cultivating and deepening our growth into Christ’s image.

In conclusion, spiritual formation is the process of nurturing an intimate relationship with God and transforming into the image of Christ. The Christian journey is a continuous commitment to a lifelong process of growth toward wholeness in Christ. We are commanded to love and serve as Jesus did. Whether it is called “discipleship” or “spiritual formation”, we are on a journey to be transformed into the likeness and image of Jesus Christ for the sake of others.

About the Author
  Rev. Dr. Deborah Dennis

Rev. Dr. Deborah Dennis received her Doctor of Ministry degree in Transformational Leadership from ATS in 2007. She serves as Minister of Christian Education at the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, Columbus, Ohio, under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Charles E. Booth.