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Spiritual Formation– Restoring the Imago Dei

Wong Yoke Ming

Malaysia Bible Seminary, 2013



This is an essay based on the book titled “The Kingdom Life” edited by Alan Andrews and is composed of contributions from various spiritual formation leaders.

The Bible, as the Word of God, has told us that, from eternity past, God had hidden a secret wisdom that is destined for our glory and will be revealed by His Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:6-10). The Bible also tells us that our Lord Jesus said to His disciples

“But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come”

(John 16:13 NIV)

As Christians who believe the Word of God, we must therefore believe that our lives can only be lived in a way that is directed by the Spirit of God. For our Lord has completed His work on the cross. And He has promised us “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16-17) to guide us forever.

This then gives us an insight to how our lives should be, as guided by the Holy Spirit. This thus provides the basis for spiritual formation.

Francis Chan, in his book[1] “Forgotten God”, says that we ‘desperately need to think about and relate to the Holy Spirit’. And well we should; for this is the Spirit of truth, the Author of our salvation. What then gives basis to this solemn warning? The Bible warns us that we will be challenged by our own sinful desires, our own sinful nature and the attractions of the secular world. Indeed these are clearly illustrated in the temptations that our Lord Jesus went through after His own baptism (Matthew 4:1-11). It was the Spirit who led Him to the desert and it was the power of the Spirit that delivered Him.


The “Imago Dei”

The living creatures in creation indicate different origins – in Genesis 1:20, “the water” teemed with living creatures at God’s word and birds flew above the earth. In Genesis 1:24, the “land” produced “living creatures according to their kinds”. These all happened at the command of God. But God said,

‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the living creatures that move along the ground’

Genesis 1:26

Thus man is the only living creation made by God in His image and in His likeness, the Imago Dei. Grudem[2] argues that God did not need to create man and yet created man for His glory. The fall of man in sin, he argues distorted that image but did not lose it. What then is the image of God that needs to be restored? Grudem writes that the Hebrew words for “image” (tselem) and for “likeness” (demut) simply refer to something that is similar but not identical to whatever it represents. So to the original reader of this, it would have just meant that man has been created to be “like us” and to “represent us”.

Understood in this manner, spiritual formation would be a major part of correcting the distortion of the Imago Dei caused by the fall.

And in order to make this correction, the true image must be the reference. The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthian 2:11-12 that only the Spirit of God can reveal to us what God has freely given to us. Thus spiritual formation is not possible except through the power and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.


Challenges to Spiritual Formation

God is Spirit and physical man cannot be restored to spirit. Therefore we ask the question ‘What form will the restoration take?’ Again, the Apostle Paul writes

‘The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.’

2 Corinthians 4:4 NIV

[Emphasis added]

This immediately tells us the first condition for spiritual formation to take place – it will not happen in the life of a non-believer. Grudem writes that, although it would not be possible to define all the ways we had been created to be like God, there are certain aspects that we can mention in this regard[3]

·       Moral aspects – we are morally accountable before God (our actions)

·       Like God, we have a spiritual aspect to our existence so that we can relate to God, Who is Spirit (our nature)

·       We had been created with the mental ability for discernment as opposed to animals, which cannot reason but would respond to memory or instinct (our attitude)

Dallas Willard, in his contribution to “The Kingdom Life”[4] sums up what is at stake. He cites the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:1-3 (emphasis provided)

1As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.’

[NIV – emphasis provided]

So the oft-heard statement of “the world, the flesh, and the Devil”, Professor Willard says, originates from here and those are the formidable array of forces against our living a spirit-filled life.

Professor Willard suggests that our culture is primarily built on ‘idea systems’ which are commonly held assumptions about what we perceive to be reality[5]. These idea systems are the targets of the forces of evil that works against our spiritual lives. We have grown up with teachings, expectations and observable behaviors and the enemy uses these pre-conceptions, as a primary point of attack, to challenge God’s purpose for us. The idea behind Satan’s temptations has not changed since Eden. It remains as placing doubt in our mind as to the purpose God has for us and suggesting to us that we are the true masters of our own destiny. The only defense that we have against this is not from ourselves but from the grace that God has shown us. Professor Willard writes that God’s plan allows for a kingdom of darkness to exist and spiritual formation is thus the journey leading away from this, our natural kingdom since the fall, to the kingdom of light. That, of course, is not possible other than by the grace of God, but it also requires an initial choice from us to take the first step.


Steps to Spiritual Formation


It’s a journey

Made in the Imago Dei, we have the freewill to make the choice to choose a path back to the light. Therefore, we need to recognize that spiritual formation is a process that requires a co-operation between ourselves and the grace granted by God. In this process, we will need to continue to make choices and the journey will not be a smooth one.

Another thing working for us in this process is that Satan is under God’s control. Whatever has been said about the Prince of Darkness, he does not have freedom to do as he wishes. He is still a creature of God and so is still subject to God’s control (Job 1:12; 2:6).

Realize also that our greatest enemy has been defeated, and our strongest weapon of defense against him is precisely what defeated him, which is the cross of Jesus Christ (His death, burial and resurrection). But realize also that we live under grace, and as John Newton writes ‘tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home’.


It will not be a smooth journey

Given that this is to be a journey of obedience to transform and to conform to the likeness of Christ, we can be sure that it will not be a smooth journey. Jesus said ‘If they persecute me, they will persecute you’ (John 15:20). This may seem to be a persecution from man but it will be one instigated by the forces of evil because this is a spiritual battle. Spiritual victory gives us the right to call Jesus “Lord” and  that is not possible except through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).

The Apostle Paul has already told us that we battle against the world, the flesh and Satan. We know that persecution will be instigated by Satan. But there are also the other two elements of oppression against us – namely our flesh and the temptations of the world. The desire for power and wealth drives the modern world. This desire drives us to covet anything that will give us control over everything and everyone else. The world, also being home to like- minded people in the pursuit of wealth and power, provides the objects of desire. We must therefore remember that, while there is an “enemy without”, there is also an “enemy within”. These three factors work together to ensure that the journey will not be smooth.


It will be a long journey

Given that the secular world gravitates more and more away from God and spiritual formation goes the other way, we have a long journey ahead. We will experience hills and valleys, storms and peaceful days in our journey. Long and difficult journeys are best travelled in company and spiritual formation communities become a critical consideration in the journey into the kingdom life.


Spiritual Formation Communities (SFC’s)

In “The Kingdom Life”[6], contributors Bill Thrall and Bruce McNicol write that spiritual formation is rooted in relationship – both with God and with our fellow men. Because we have blessed with God’s grace of salvation, it is also through communities of grace and that we make our journey of discovery into a kingdom where trust, love, grace, humility, dignity and justice rule.

In the Garden of Eden, God provided a perfect environment for man to enjoy and to walk with Him in the cool of the day. But man did not act with the trust, humility, dignity and love that should have been the just response to a loving and gracious God. Thus the response of Adam and Eve broke the community relationship that was intended from the beginning – the relationship with God, with each other and with the entire creation. That brokenness brought about pain and suffering and a curse upon the earth. SFC’s are a big step towards restoring that relationship and re-establishing the perfect environment created for man.

Through the passage of time and human efforts to find the missing bridge to joy and fulfillment, we have come to twist the meanings of words so that we may have a visual grasp of an objective to attain. Such a word (among many others) is the word “grace”. Thrall and McNicol argue that “grace” is not a theological state as we have come to understand it but a kingdom realm where God lives. It is a community that we enter to experience restoration of the intended origins[7].

SFC’s are communities of grace where the central focus is Jesus Christ and the door to SFC’s is the Cross of Christ. Thus, Thrall and McNicol point out, the entry through this door of grace is only by humility on our part in the recognition that it is only by God’s mighty hand that we do so (1Peter 5:5-6).  The Kingdom Life is not for the proud who thinks that it is by his own effort that he can attain such shalom.

As believers and disciples of Jesus Christ, we have a purpose to serve. Many non-believers who seek sanctuary from the strife of modern day living tend to avoid churches and other Christian enclaves[8]. Why should this be so? Because non-believers do not see Christian lives reflecting what has been proclaimed. Many see through our thinly veiled masks over our evidently secular life styles. Christians are saved by grace for a purpose (Ephesians 2:8-10) which is to bear witness to that grace found within an SFC. SFC’s point us towards a pre-destined heavenly realm where we shake off the troubles and strife that we cannot do in this fallen world. 


Transformation Process

Keith J. Matthews[9] writes that the transformational process, that we pursue, begins with a regenerated life. It involves public, communal and personal commitment as Christians showcase their lives in Christ-likeness in their communities of spiritual formation and the manifestations of spiritual formation in personal lives.

While it is true that salvation is by grace alone, we also have the responsibility of intentionality. Our intention to experience spiritual transformation will challenge our current attitude to one of repentant discipleship. Dallas Willard[10] says “God is not opposed to effort but to earning”. Intentionality shows our effort to change for the better but we do not try to earn our transformation – salvation is not by works (Ephesians 2:8) but good works reflect our new attitude to a reformed life (James 2:17-19).

Spiritual formation begins as an intentional attitude change and not just for salvation but for discipleship in Jesus Christ. Gospel teaching in today’s postmodern world is very focused on self-salvation, after which discipleship is seen as the next option or the next step in a relational progression. But if we believe what the Apostle Paul says, that we are “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do”, then we cannot separate being saved and being a disciple of Christ upon receiving our salvation simply because the “good works” evidence our “being saved”.

Thus, spiritual transformation is ultimately a Christ-like character formation; it takes time (a life-time, in fact) and the learning is experiential. This means that it is internalized learning and transformation is from the inside out, a slow process indeed.

Bill Hull, another contributor to “The Kingdom Life”, related an experience on a flight home after a convention. In the course of conversation with a young man seated next to him, he shared this (all emphasis provided)

‘I have spent a lot of my life trying to make things happen and trying to get people around me to do what they didn’t want to do or didn’t have the character to do. I have decided to stop trying to change the world. I’ve even stopped trying to change the church. People seem to get so angry. I have decided to focus on changing me. I’ve hit a lot of walls in my life and have hurt a lot of people. I’m finished with that. I just want people to be attracted to Christ because of who I am and what I have to say and the way I say it.”[11]

The young man he was speaking to turned away in tears and Bill Hull believes that the young man had heard the spirit of the gospel for the first time because of his (Hull’s) own ongoing transformation.

Two other factors make transformation a life-long process. The first is the need for changing a natural human condition; one so well described by C. S. Lewis (speaking of human pride) when he wrote ‘But a proud man will take your girl from you, not because he wants her, but to prove to himself that he is a better man than you”[12]. Lewis calls it the great sin, that of pride, and it is human pride which will block the humility necessary for spiritual transformation. The second factor is the “felt need for speed” which is prevalent in current culture. Bill Hull reckons that impatience is the most accepted sin in the West but this “speed” culture, because of the advent of media technology, has also gushed into the culture here in the East. Given a process that requires patience and time, this is not conducive to spiritual formation.


The Image of Christ

Spiritual formation is to eventually take on the image of Christ. Therefore it is important to look to where we may acquire a mental picture of what this image may be like. It is important to understand what Jesus purpose is. Of course, we may find all this in the Bible and the study of this book written through men by the Spirit of God becomes indispensable in the spiritual formation journey.

The Apostle Paul has said that we should ‘work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.’ (Philippians 2:12-13). If we study these words, there is a two way flow in the way we work out our salvation. The first is that God is working within us thus causing an attitude change from the inside out; then we see Paul’s exhortation to us to work out our salvation, meaning, an observable life that reflects God’s inner “out working” in us.

Here then is serving God’s purpose through our own efforts – God’s sovereignty and man’s volition. Paul says in Romans 8

28And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”

The Cross opened the door to a pre-determined destiny and provided a way into the Kingdom Life. This is not merely a personal call; it is a call to community.


It is a journey home

SFC’s are not merely about numbers. They are about a communal way of life that is relational, that is caring and, most importantly, that brings to mind the image of Christ and the way He lived during His earthly ministry. It is about regaining a paradise lost through the grace of our Creator.

Given our own fallenness, we are unable to make this journey alone. One way is to have a personal prayer partner. The prayer partners will support each other on this journey. What I have personally found helpful is to have a small accountability group. We call this our “Intentional Discipleship Studies Group” or “IDS Group”. There are no more than 5 in a group and the group meet weekly to study the word of God and to share and to support each other. Topics studied (in a facilitated manner – taking turns to facilitate) are under headings of “Getting Started”, “Basics (of Discipleship)”, “Character of a Disciple”, Relating to God”, “Relating to Men” and “Relating to your Call”. These can be found in www.vdrc.org (Virtual Discipleship Resource Center).

I find an organized study like this useful because there is order and progressive topical guidance. It is also not a “syllabus-based” study. My group took almost 18 months (once a week) to finish this at a pace that all can keep to.

Of course vdrc.org is not the only source of such discipleship disciplines, but the point is that it is not only accountability groups and partners; there must also be a basis to anchor. And such material is based on the word of God. Nevertheless, no matter how good guided discussion materials may be, it is incumbent upon any disciple to really search the word of God. There is therefore no substitute for the Gospel in the Bible.


The Gospel Gap

Proper understanding and appreciation of the Bible present two key issues. One is the issue of how well we really know our Bible. And if the answer is affirmative, then the second issue is “How well do we “live” the Gospel”? Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp wrote a book entitled “How People Change”[13]. The book begins with a chapter headed “The Gospel Gap”. It talks about someone who is biblically very literate, theologically very sound and also has an extensive library of top notch biblical commentaries. But the man, Phil is his name, did not live a life that reflected this wealth of Scriptural information. And it is exactly that – Phil had head knowledge. There was no “gospel” in his married life although there was no public spat. They seemed a model “church” couple. Phil had people who looked up to him and he taught theology class and led bible studies. The authors suggest that the Apostle Peter best explains this gospel gap

3His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

5For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. 8For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed from his past sins.’

2 Peter 1:3-9 NIV

A rather long passage to quote, but in these words, we see the gap. God has called us and given us everything we need for life. Here I read “life” as gong beyond an earthly life. Through what He has made known to us, we know Him (and Hebrews 1 tells us that today God speaks through His Word). Verse 5-7 emphasizes a “step-by-step” process in appropriating the knowledge of Him into our lives and producing the godly life that we should produce. Verse 9 points out that people who do not have the attributes given in verses 5-7 are incapable, in their spiritual blindness, of living a fruitful life by the Spirit. He has forgotten the meaning of the Cross of Jesus Christ.

So what is this spiritual blindness? The authors state this[14]

‘Our sight is dimmed by the tyranny of the urgent, by the siren call of success, by the seductive beauty of physical things, by our inability to admit our own problems, and by the casual relationships within the body of Christ that we mistakenly call fellowship’

By this, they mean that our “fellowship” falls well short of the ‘koinonia’ in the gospel – the very core of spiritual formation communities. And so we play church, we have calendars of activities and we generally do the things we do to assuage our “holier-than-thou” righteousness. We take pride in attending church on Sundays, of giving out of our excesses. Remember the poor widow in Luke 21:2? – Jesus said she gave everything she had to live on.


We are not home yet

We fail to appreciate the gravity of our sin. Our normal attitude is “sin is what other people commit”. We think of the “good” things we do in life and we rest complacently in our “achievements”. The Apostle Paul says he considers all his achievements rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:7-11) and the Hebrew word for “knowing” really means “knowing someone” as opposed to “knowing of someone” or “knowing about someone”. Here is a hero of the faith who is a “Hebrew of Hebrews”, a Pharisee trained under Gamaliel and faultless in his legalistic righteousness; yet he considers his entire life a loss. The Prophet Isaiah wrote ‘All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6 NIV).

It is emphatically not just our external acts of transgression; it is also our “good” acts that fall short of God’s glory. Our sinful nature has done that. Our journey to SFC’s will not be complete until we realize that the change that is needed is internal to start with. Our Lord started His earthly ministry in humble beginnings and so we must return to that state of humility. Any community can only be formed by like-minded people and SFC’s can only be formed by right-minded people.

What we have learned about our God must translate into our right living. It is not by words that we will bring about change and SFC’s. People must see the ‘shalom’ of God in us if we are to attract them to SFC’s. Michael Hart, in his book “The 100” listing the 100 most influential people in history ranks Jesus Christ at number three after the prophet Mohammed and Sir Isaac Newton because the people who profess discipleship in Christ do not reflect Christ-like behavior in their lives. The centrality of the Gospel is Jesus Christ and if we do not internalize that in our lives, we do not have any foundation to form spiritual communities.

Never has the saying been truer – ‘It begins with me’.





 BIBLIOGRAPHY  \l 1033 Andrews, Alan. The Kingdom Life. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2010.

Chan, Francis. Forgotten God. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2009.

Grudem, Wayne. Bible Doctrine - Essential teachings of the Christian faith. Nottingham: IVP, 1999.

Lane & Tripp, Timothy S. & Paul David. How People Change. Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2006.

Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. London: HarperCollins, 1952.

Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.



[1] (Chan 2009, pg 30)

[2] (Grudem 1999, pg 188-190)

[3] (Grudem 1999, pg 191)

[4] (Andrews, The Kingdom Life 2010, pg 47)

[5] (Andrews, The Kingdom Life 2010, pg 48)

[6] (Andrews, The Kingdom Life 2010, pg 61)

[7] (Andrews, The Kingdom Life 2010, pg 66-67)

[8] (Andrews, The Kingdom Life 2010, pg 80-81)

[9] (Andrews, The Kingdom Life 2010, pg 85)

[10] (Willard, The Spirit is Willing: The Body as a Tool for Spiritual Growth in The Great Omission 1994, pg 225)

[11] (Andrews, The Kingdom Life 2010, pg 109-110)

[12] (Lewis 1952, pg 103)

[13] (Lane & Tripp 2006)

[14] (Lane & Tripp 2006, pg 4)





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