Where the world comes to study the Bible

7. Beliefs Leading to Christlikeness—The Spiritual Life

IA. Theological Synthesis of the Spiritual Life: Growth in Christlikeness/Holiness14

In chapters one through three we learned what a disciple is, the theological context for discipleship (i.e., God’s plan to bless the world), as well as the importance of understanding the relational context of discipleship. In short, we said that a disciplemaker is a committed follower of Jesus Christ who loves other people by bringing God’s truth and blessing to them; he/she, by the power of Spirit, models Christ and helps others to do the same in their own lives, contexts, and relationships.

In chapters four and five we outlined a basic, Biblical worldview that can be used to evaluate your discipleship relationships, goals, and strategies. In chapters six and seven we are going to deepen our understanding of the theology of the spiritual life; we are going to focus on the area of sanctification. What we said by way of brief introduction in chapter five, we are now going to flesh out somewhat. There is perhaps no more confusion in any area of the Christian experience than our thinking about how a person grows spiritually once they become a Christian. There are many voices, but no consensus.

We hope to bring together several strands of Biblical teaching and put them together in a coherent whole that is biblically accurate, realistic, and hopeful. It is crucial that we understand this doctrine from the beginning: (1) so that we can live it out; and (2) so that we pass on a Biblical model in this area. We do people a great deal of disservice when we pass on either an unrealistic or watered down version of the Bible’s teaching concerning sanctification. A great deal of time in your discipling relationships will be spent on this issue. Your disciples need to understand God’s truth here, and you need to teach them. So let’s dig in.

1B. The Ground and Goal of the Spiritual Life

The Spiritual life has to be seen within the larger context of God’s work in creation and redemption. We have been created in God’s image and salvation is designed to recreate that image; it is designed by God to conform us to the image of Christ (Rom 8:28-29). Therefore, our election, calling, justification, regeneration, spiritual growth, and glorification are all preplanned to move us in that direction. Thus the unshakeable ground upon which the spiritual life is built is the unconditional election, calling and justification of God. We have been permanently adopted into his family and now he moves in us, initiating, prodding, strengthening, and carrying on his work of making us look like a real family member, i.e., like His Son. We have been called to Christlikeness and that’s the same thing as saying that we have been chosen, called, and destined for holiness. Any teaching on the spiritual life that does not have this as the focus is errant for it is not in keeping with our election, calling, the work of the Spirit, and our glorification. To the degree that any strategy for discipleship does not place this at the center, is to that degree quenching the Spirit of God.

2B. The Nature of Holiness: Personal Transformation through Consecration

The nature of holiness is spiritual and moral transformation that comes from dedication or consecration to God. He has sanctified us, made us acceptable to him and set us apart for his use. We, for our part, sanctify ourselves through confession and a Spirit-inspired determination to trust and obey Him.

1C. Positional Sanctification

1 Corinthians 6:11 Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

2C. Determined Effort and the Initiating Work of God

Philippians 2:12-13 So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, 2:13 for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God. See my commentary on this passage on the website ( )

3C. The Result: Sanctification

Romans 6:22 But now, freed from sin and enslaved to God, you have your benefit leading to sanctification, and the end is eternal life.

2 Corinthians 3:18 And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Romans 12:1 Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice—alive, holy, and pleasing to God—which is your reasonable service. 12:2 Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God—what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.

3B. The Context of Holiness: Justification

The context of sanctification is justification—the forgiveness of sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness. Through faith in Christ we have been legally declared righteous. We are not working for grace, but from grace. We are not striving to attain standing before the Judge of all the earth; He has already granted us both a full pardon and perfect standing with the law. The call to take up arms to holiness (e.g., Rom 6:12-14), then, must be seen in this context, lest it denigrate into a work’s righteousness laden with guilt, shame, and failure (Rom 3:25).

Romans 4:3 For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 4:4 Now to the one who works, his pay is not credited due to grace but due to obligation. 4:5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in the one who declares the ungodly righteous, his faith is credited as righteousness.

4B. The Root of Holiness: Co-crucifixion and Co-Resurrection with Christ

The root of holiness, that is, the wellspring from which it flows is our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. We were co-crucified with Christ in order that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, to be completely eradicated after death (only). We have been co-resurrected with him that we might live in newness of life, i.e., resurrection life.

6:4 Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in new life. 6:5 For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will certainly also be united in the likeness of his resurrection. 6:6 We know that our old man was crucified with him so that the body of sin would no longer dominate us, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.

5B. The Agent of Holiness Is The Holy Spirit

The One who produces holiness in us is the Holy Spirit of God and he works at both the level of motivation and impulse, as well as at the level of the will and actual living. His desire is to reproduce the life of Christ in us. In fact, his primary ministry centers on mediating the presence of Christ to us. It is in the context of making Christ and our sonship known to the heart, i.e., a relational context, that the Spirit uses several means, i.e., the Bible, prayer, Christian community (e.g., godly counsel, sermons), the sacraments, etc., to transform our mind, emotions, and will into Christlikeness. The way in which he builds these things into our lives is through habits of holiness and over time he works his transformation in us. Thus discipleship is fundamentally a call to become, through the work of the Spirit, an example of Christ-like holiness.

John 16:13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. For he will not speak on his own authority, but will speak whatever he hears, and will tell you what is to come. 16:14 He will glorify me, because he will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you. 16:15 Everything that the Father has is mine; that is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what is mine and will tell it to you.

2 Corinthians 3:18 And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Phil 2:12 So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, continue working out your salvation with awe and reverence, 2:13 for the one bringing forth in you both the desire and the effort—for the sake of his good pleasure—is God.

Galatians 5:22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 5:23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

6B. The Experience of Holiness Is One of Conflict

There are many errors that people fall into regarding the NT truth that our experience of holiness is one of conflict and struggle. Some say that there is a higher life for the totally surrendered such that they can rise above the conflict. In short, not every Christian, they claim, has to go through this turmoil, but only those who as of yet, for whatever reason, have not hit that “place” of total surrender. In keeping with this idea, these believers generally have a pacifistic approach to holiness: “just let go and let God” is often their motto. The problem with this view is that it appears to go far beyond what Scripture promises in this life (cf. Rom 7:14-25; 8:23).

Still others suggest that the Christian life is simply one of inner turmoil and conflict all our days, with virtually little or no hope of any real experience of peace, growth, and transformation. For many thoughtful Bible readers, however, this model seems to stop far short of their experience, let alone what the Bible/Spirit seems to clearly teach; Scripture encourages us to rejoice, put sin to death, and celebrate God’s goodness.

All sides undoubtedly capture an element of the truth, but taken in themselves—as complete ways of viewing sanctification—they represent serious errors. We need to carefully explain this area of discipleship to our disciples. Untold harm is done if we do not keep in the circle of truth in this area. Let me explain the balance found in the Bible.

The substructure of New Testament thought regarding our present and future experience of salvation (i.e., our sanctification) has been categorized as a “now/not-yet” reality. We possess the Spirit now, but we still live in mortal, fallen bodies (i.e., they are “not-yet” glorified). We will someday, however, be completely glorified with no “remainders” whatsoever of indwelling sin: we have been saved, are being saved and will someday be completely saved from the penalty, power, and even presence of sin.

Those who think that this life, if lived with so-called complete surrender, will result in unmitigated inner peace, are misinformed about what the New Testament promises in the “now time” and therefore they are misinterpreting their own experience. They have brought too much of the future into their thinking about the present. The longing for such a peaceful existence is, in itself, good, but we must remember that the reality awaits God’s timing and glorification. Struggles from without and within, hand designed by God himself, have been divinely woven into the fabric of our present experience of salvation. Paul makes this clear in Romans 5:1-5.15

On the other hand, those who suggest that a Christian can expect little growth and change, do a great disservice to the gospel’s power and the present, liberating ministry of the Spirit. Many of us can testify to having tasted that the Lord is good and the peace that passes understanding (Phil 4:6-7). The balance then lies in the middle. This life is filled with conflict and peace, comfort and struggle, growth and periods of apparent stagnation. The key is twofold: (1) trust Christ to sanctify us, and (2) pursue holy obedience with zeal, not letting struggles stop us, but rather allowing them to confirm (if we’re following His commands) that we’re on the right track. Have a look at the following texts.

Romans 7:20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.

1 Corinthians 9:23 Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. 9:25 Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 9:26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. 9:27 Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified.

2 Corinthians 7:1 Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves from everything that could defile the body and the spirit, and thus accomplish holiness (ἐπιτελοῦντες ἁγιωσύνην) out of reverence for God.

Galatians 5:17 For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition (ἀντίκειται) to each other, so that you cannot do what you want.

Galatians 6:7 Do not be deceived. God will not be made a fool. For a person will reap what he sows, 6:8 because the person who sows to his own flesh will reap corruption from the flesh, but the one who sows to the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

Philippians 3:13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: forgetting the things that behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, 3:14 with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

7B. The Personal and Community Standard of Holiness Is the Law of Christ

The standard of holiness for the Christian is expressed in “the Law of Christ.” The Law of Christ is the moral Law as found in the Old Testament, preached by the prophets, and interpreted, lived, and applied by our Lord and His apostles—only now in a new covenant context. Like everything in the New Testament, the law too comes through Christ and is therefore, in a post “first-coming” setting, often referred to as the Law of Christ. The term “law” here refers to the commandments Jesus and His apostles give us and which constitute a holy life, pleasing to God and beneficial to men and women. The Law of Christ is the standard for the Christian and Christian community, not our feelings or uninformed ideas. It calls us to a righteous and holy life. Holiness has particular reference to our relationship with God and righteousness involves the living out of that relationship with those in the world.

It is important at this point to take note of two problems. First, there are those who suggest that there is absolutely no Law in the New Testament. Any mention of Law in a post-cross setting is not Biblical to them; again, Law was only for the Old Testament, or so they protest. But Romans 13:8-10 reveals the inadequacy of such a position. So then, there is “moral” Law in the New Testament as well, and it is spelled out in the imperative, i.e., commands that are to be followed. It is, however, to be understood and applied according to Jesus’ teaching and life; he was the perfect example of Law incarnate. We understand what the command “to love” looks like by looking at him. After all, it’s into his image that we are being transformed.

Second, there are those who claim that bringing Law into a sanctification context leads inextricably to legalism. This is no more true of the New Testament saint than it was of the Old. We are not to obey His commands in order to secure a relationship with God (Pharisaism), but rather as a way of living rightly in our relationship with Him—a relationship he initiated (election, calling), sustains, and will carry on forever, by grace. And, all obedience to his commands springs from humility and personal trust, or it is of no value; the very nature of God’s holy commands requires that we trust him as we seek to obey. On the other hand, legalism is the attempt of a darkened heart, through doing “good works” or demanding a certain lifestyle from others, to merit favor with God, either for salvation or Christian growth. Legalism is ugly and springs from a heart unacquainted with God’s marvelous presence and grace. It is proud that it has accomplished so much “growth” for God, but is ignorant of the cross. Those who abide in Christ by obeying his commands, however, know the difference.

John 14:21 The person who has my commandments and obeys them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and will reveal myself to him.”

Ephesians 4:22 You were taught with reference to your former life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, 4:23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 4:24 and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image—in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth.

1 Corinthians 9:21 To those free from the law I became like one free from the law (though I am not free from God’s law but under the law of Christ) to gain those free from the law.

Romans 7:12-14 So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good.

8B. The Heart of Holiness Is Love

Jesus is the one and only example of a man who kept the Law perfectly. He lived a life of holy love. He is Law incarnate. Therefore, there is no room in the Bible for a brand of holiness that stands aloof from people and their needs or is condemning, self-congratulating, arrogant, or stern and inflexible in relationships. We need to be careful in our discipling others, that as we grow in holiness, we are actually loving people more not less. We must learn to hate sin and love the sinner and therefore we must be patient with others in their spiritual journey. The heart of holiness is love; love for God and love for people.

Romans 13:10 Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. 13:9 For the commandments, “do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 13:10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

Galatians 6:2 Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.

IIA. Summary

It is important that we get our disciples off on the right foot in this area of the spiritual life. We have outlined eight basic ideas for understanding the spiritual life and which form the foundation for the development of the virtues and habits of a disciple of Christ. They are to be “seen” together, each one balancing the others. Our people must learn to reflect on these truths long and hard so that the Spirit of God, like a master builder, might grab each truth and drive it home in the construction of a fit house for his dwelling.

IIIA. Questions for Thought

1. What do you think it means to be personally transformed into the image of Christ?

2. What areas of your life, right now, do you think God wants to transform, according to the Christlikeness? What areas of your disciples’ lives? Are you praying for both them and yourself? Have you shared your concern for your spiritual growth with them and others?

3. Why is it important to understand and to help our disciples understand justification?

4. How is the Holy Spirit the agent of holiness in our lives? What is his primary role and how does that relate to sanctification?

5. What does Paul mean by the “flesh”? (See also Galatians 5:16-26)

6. Does inner struggle necessarily indicate that we have done something wrong or that God is displeased with us? How do you view the war that goes on within you sometimes (1 Peter 2:11-12)? Do you think that someday, before you’re glorification, the “war” will suddenly come to an end? How do these passages relate to this idea? On the other hand, do you often feel yourself wondering whether you’ll ever have victory over some besetting sin? Do people you are discipling struggle with certain sins? How does Paul’s advice in Galatians 6:1-2 relate to this?

7. How important is it to clearly understand that the heart of holiness is love? What are some versions of holiness that fail the test in light of the criterion of love?

14 The outline for this material and a large measure of its substance is indebted to J. I. Packer, Keeping in Step with Spirit (Fleming H. Revell, 1984), 94-120. I also owe a great debt to Sinclair B. Ferguson, “The Reformed View,” in Christian Spirituality: Five View of Sanctification, ed. Donald L. Alexander (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 47-76 and John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, and The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers (see The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold [Avon: Banner of Truth, 1967: VI]). See our website at for an outline and exposition of Owen’s Mortification.

15 See our website for my article on this passage: “Romans 5:1-5: Our Relationship with God—Experiencing the Future Now.” ( )

Related Topics: Christology, Spiritual Life, Discipleship

Report Inappropriate Ad