If discipling relationships have Christ-likeness, or transformation, as their goal, are we using all available means to accomplish this task? Is it possible that in our efforts to practice what God has commanded, we have overlooked something?
As the years have gone by as a Christian, I am amazed by the way that God works through discipling, or one-another, relationships. It’s sometimes messy and not always pretty, but somehow God works. He works despite our weaknesses, sins, and failures.1
Consequently, my faith is strengthened by the knowledge that I worship a God that can use less-than-perfect instruments to accomplish his perfect ends. Just what end does God seek in our discipling relationships? “Until Christ is formed in [us]” is the way Paul expressed it (Gal 4:19). This article, however, is not a defense for these types of relationships –others have already done this.2 But we might ask ourselves: If discipling relationships have Christ-likeness, or transformation, as their goal, are we using all available means to accomplish this task? Is it possible that in our efforts to practice what God has commanded, we have overlooked something? This is the question this article seeks to explore. With this in mind, consider the following:
And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (Eph 3:16-17)
And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Rom 8:13-14).
...who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience (1Pet 1:2).
In one way or another from different angles, each of the above passages touch upon the concept of transformation into Christ-likeness3, which, as we have stated, is the goal of discipling relationships. What you might not have noticed is that each of the above passages also speak about the Spirit as primary to this work. That is, through the Spirit we participate in a transformational ministry that is even more glorious than the one given to Moses, glowing face and all (2 Cor 3:18); we have power in our inner being to realize Christ in us (Eph 3:17); we are given resurrection-life to defeat sin (Rom 8:13); and, finally, we are sanctified for obedience (1 Pet 1:2). All of this accomplished by the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Consider the following observation by Ferguson:
“The only resources for such sanctification are in Christ. Our sanctification is Christ’s sanctification of himself in our humanity progressively applied to and realized in us through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.”4
This author makes a crucial point: our transformation is not merely a human process, but a divine imperative wrought by the Holy Spirit. This is the same Spirit that brought us into union with Christ. And this is the same Spirit in every baptized disciple of Jesus.
So, then, we pause here to consider the implications of the above upon our discussion: namely, if God intended for our discpling relationships to help form Christ in one another and God gave his Spirit for this same reason5, how do we interact with one another so that we work in harmony with God’s Spirit, not apart from Him? This is a dimension that I believe we have yet to fully realize.
To answer this question and further our inquiry, we will briefly examine the relationship between the Spirit and the individual disciple where sin is concerned. Why focus on sin? Simply put, it is the mortal enemy that threatens our progress in discipleship, seeking to ensnare us at every opportunity and devours our spiritual vitality (Heb 12:1). In short, sin is at the front line of the spiritual battle. Therefore, if we can gain a more biblically informed perspective about the Spirit in this area, then, I believe, we will be better equipped to expand our theological horizons elsewhere. To that end, let’s consider the following:
Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit. Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own;(1Cor 6:16-19)
In combating sexual immorality, Paul’s words have direct bearing on our discussion. Following one of his many “don’t you know” statements of the Corinthian correspondence (v. 19), Paul says something of great significance and import –we are a temple of God by his Spirit. Sins against the body have a dimension that goes beyond the physical act. It is sin against the very Spirit of God that dwells inside, and it is like joining the physical members of Christ in this sinful activity. This is a repulsive thought, and one that should sober us.6 Perhaps we might dismiss this warning because we have not engaged in sexual immorality. But all of us have enlisted the members of our body as mercenaries for sin in one way or another at one time or another, whether through lust of the eyes on the internet, or the greed of feet in chasing after wealth, or a countless other sins. Let’s consider another passage along this same thread:
Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness….And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.(Eph 4:21-24,30).
In the above, Paul admonishes the Ephesian disciples to "put off" the old self and "put on" the new self in response to “the truth that is in Jesus.” After enumerating a number of specific sinful attitudes and behaviors to “put off,” Paul concludes by explaining that to live in a way contrary to our high calling is to grieve the very Spirit of God. What can we learn from this? Namely, when you and I sin, our sin encounters God’s Spirit. We do not sin alone. And we do not sin apart. The campaign of violence against our souls is not waged in darkness or in obscurity. It is witnessed by the Holy Spirit. And He is not neutral about sin.
Having examined the interplay between our sin and the response this provokes from the Spirit, we are now, I believe, ready to return to our main discussion and thus draw several conclusions that will allow us to advance our goal of working in harmony with the Spirit in our one-another relationships in a wholesome manner.
First, since God’s Spirit is in each disciple, we should treat one another with respect. Don’t read on too quickly. Let this set in. Often times in my zeal to deal with others’ sin, I have not always acted in a way that properly recognizes and affirms that they, too, are sanctified by God’s Spirit. Consider Paul’s words to the church at Corinth, a church not widely recognized for its spiritual fidelity:
To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours…(1 Cor 1:2)
….But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:11)
Even while addressing some very disturbing issues –sexual immorality, incest, drunkenness, factions, just to name a few –Paul still recognizes these sin-laden Christians as vessels of God’s Spirit.7 He even went as far as to claim them as a letter of commendation from Christ, inked by this same Spirit:
You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody.
You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God (2 Cor 3:2-4).
So, too, we must strive to pierce the thick, suffocating shroud of sin to allow the fire of the Spirit to guide each other back to Jesus, back to the cross. With the love we should inspire one another to live up to his or her privileged position in Christ as love-ransomed sons of the King. Otherwise we run the risk of viewing each other as “problems to be solved” rather than “mysteries” to be enjoyed.8 The former leads to looking down upon each other; the latter looks upwards towards Christ.
Second, let the Spirit do the convicting. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). When it comes to confronting sin, realize that the Holy Spirit is also working to convict the individual. He or she might have ignored it or constructed rationalizations to support his/her actions, but the Spirit doesn’t let it sin slide. For our part, we can assist in this process by bringing the word of God, the sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17), to bear upon the situation. For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12). All of us who became Christians can testify how powerfully God’s Spirit worked to bring us to repentance from a life of sin and godlessness. Do we think this divine activity stops once we get on the other side of the cross?
So when we need to have one of those difficult talks, we can have confidence that God’s Spirit is working in concert with us to bring the individual back towards repentance and into a reconciled relationship with God.
Third, we can leave room for the Spirit to work. When we have talked with a brother or sister and have been frank and honest with our concerns, and this has not met with an appropriate response at first, we can continue to take up the matter with confidence to know that God, too, is working through his Spirit.9 The Holy Spirit is not passive. He is working. It might come to the kind of dramatic and decisive conclusion as seen in Acts chapter five with Ananias and Sapphira, but it does not go unnoticed. God will reveal men’s sins. Consequently, sometimes we need to give God space to work. There are no “free” sins.
With the above points in mind, how then can we bring the Spirit to bear upon our relationships? Simply put, we can include the Spirit in our discussions with one another. As an example, in a recent conversation I had with a brother where a particular sin continued to manifest itself despite numerous previous attempts to address it, I asked the brother: “How do you suppose the Holy Spirit feels about this?” He correctly responded that his actions (or lack thereof) was grieving the Holy Spirit. This line of questioning threw the discussion along a whole new axis and put matters in an entirely different frame of reference. No more prodding or persuading on my part was needed. It was now his decision whether to continue along the same course of action or to turn towards God in repentance. This is no clever ministry parlor trick; it is in keeping with the numerous passages that point us towards the Spirit as the core of the Christian life. Indeed, we cannot even live the life apart from the power of the Spirit. Witness Paul’s careful exhortation below:
For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his Holy Spirit (1 Thes 4:7-8).
Paul could have ended his appeal by saying that they were rejecting God (and this would have been sufficient!). But Paul, guided by the Holy Spirit, reminded them that the presence of the Spirit that was a gift from God. Rejection of the call to holiness was not a rejection of man. It was a rejection of God, who gave the Spirit. In doing this, Paul kept the Spirit in view to stimulate their thinking towards holy living. So, too, we should remind one another that we bear a divine gift (and it is a gift). We are made holy by God’s Spirit, and we continue in holiness by this same Spirit.
In conclusion, I believe that if we are to be more effective in our interactions with one another, we must given due consideration to the belief that the Spirit is actively working inside each disciple. Furthermore, we need to respond in such a way so that we work in harmony with the Spirit to continuously reconcile each other to God in ever-increasing faithfulness (2 Cor 5:18). I believe it is a dimension that is worth our careful consideration and prayerful exploration.
Under His Mercy
1 Some have hastily dismissed these relationships, citing shortcomings, but I think that gives man too much credit and God too little. The presence of failures does not prove the practice is inherently wrong. If this was true then we might we reconsider marriage or child-rearing since the same argument could be levied against them.
2 For example, see Discipling: God’s Plan to Train and Transform his People by Gordon Ferguson, DPI or Master Plan of Discipleship by Robert Coleman.
3 This can alternately be referred to as sanctification, or some even use the term Christo-formity.
4 See The Holy Spirit by Sinclair Ferguson
5 There are other dimensions to the presence of the Holy Spirit, but we explore this one for our purposes.
6 We also see a similar warning furnished by the writer of Hebrews. To continue in willful and unrepentant sin is to trample upon the blood sacrifice of God’s Son and to insult the Holy Spirit, giver of grace (see Heb. 10:29).
7 This is not to suggest a tolerance for sin. Paul was on a rescue mission to restore a church that was desperately sick and in spiritual danger. His letter bears out several strong warnings. Yet, he purposely reminded them of where they had come from and whose they were.
8 The Living Jesus, Luke Timothy Johnson, pg 58, Harper Collins, San Fransico.
9 This statement does not take into account incidents that require formal church discipline.