Formed in the Image / Conformed to the Image

In a previous post I referred to Spiritual Formation as the process of being conformed to the image of Christ. I think that this language is appropriate and useful but probably needs a little more attention.

I have had people respond that they don’t see the scriptural validity of this view because Genesis claims that we are created in the image of God and thus any claim to be more fully formed takes away from the power of God. What I appreciate most about their concern is both the acknowledgement of God as the great Creator – the one about whom Paul says “He is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:25) – and also the desire to avoid complicating our lives with pointless pursuits and human endeavors.

However, when I refer to being formed in or conformed to the image of Christ I am not speaking of our created being described in Genesis. Rather I call attention to the identity and character of our person which has been greatly affected by the presence of sin – both the sin in the world and the sin in our own lives.

In Colossians 3:12-17, Paul also says,

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

No one who has attempted this type of life can say that it is a simple matter which comes naturally because we are created in the image of God. In fact Paul himself says that there is a battle taking place in regards to this life;

“So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God-through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:21-25)

My favorite part of that passage in Romans is found in the statement, “Who will rescue me…? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Christ is not only the rescuer but the perfect model of what the rescued will look like eventually. My life then is found in the balance between recognizing my total dependence on the rescuer and a journey toward the perfection of Christ. Though I don’t think I’ll be able to fully trust in Jesus or fully become like him in this life, my task is to continue in both.

One of the questions we should be asking in our personal lives as well as in everything we do in the Church is “what kind of person are we forming/seeking to form with this?” It is then an incredibly oversimplified and impossibly complex answer to say “someone who looks like Jesus.”

To be conformed to the image of Christ is not a simple matter of listing attributes (the list itself grows with us as we get to know the person of Jesus) but rather like an apprenticeship, it entails learning those aspects of identity and action which escape words. We’re not talking about simple moral principles. The image of Christ refers to the minute idiosyncrasies that can only be recognized by intimate travel companions. This happens in community, it happens over time, and it happens by the grace of God.


Posted on July 13, 2005, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Malaysian Debster

    Man, you’re definitely not kidding about your theological blog, huh? Heh…It’s nice to see you around though. Just wanted to drop by and say ‘hi’. Debbie V.

  2. Thanks Deb! If you ever want to come over to the dark side and become a fellow-nerd…you know you’re welcome!

  3. Brett,

    Three things (two off topic, one on topic):

    1. Haven’t talked to you in a while… We need to do lunch and debrief our summers before the school bum rush hits us…

    2. Where did you get the picture of the kid in front of Jesus? Is it one of your kids? Can I use the image?

    3. In reading your blog article, some things begin to swirl in my head about “form”, as in formation, conformed, etc.

    First, “form” has been a big word in Christian Theology from its inception (indeed, since Plato in 500 BC) until we began to give up on beliefs in universals in the late middle ages and the reformation. Now we do not talk about “forms” as much because we tend to take it for granted that there cannot be forms or archetypes which exist as the metaphysical basis for reality as we know it. To put it another way, we have given up faith in universals and only believe in particulars these days. Yet, for the great theologians before the rise of nominalism in the 1300’s, knowing something’s “form” (i.e. universal nature and purpose) was essential to knowing what it was. Then came Nominalism, which is in part, a belief that universals are not real entities, but merely names- nomina- that we give to general sets of traits. Nominalism is just one of a scad of deconstructive philosophies and theologies throughout the centuries that deny the unity and purpose of the universe in big and small ways.

    So, in talking about form, we come to a big divide in worldview. Do you believe that there are universal forms and purposes for every created thing, or are we just a bunch of particulars, existing in the chaos of our world, trying to make the best sense we can out of it? Did He who is form and purpose, the Incarnate Logos, create us with form and purpose? If so, what is that form, that purpose, that logos, for which our lives are made? The Fathers of the Eastern Church maintain that we are created “logikos” (as rational, purposive creatures) to reflect the “Logos” (our Creator who is Reason and Purpose).

    So, our entire life as children of God can be seen to revolve around our “formation”.

    First, we are FORMED: we are given an imprint of the Logos on our very selves. We are made with cognition, affection, and volition, that we may think and feel and act… just as He does. We are given self-reflective consciences, that we may stand outside ourselves and our world, transcending them and connecting to Him who is transcendent. We are formed for the purpose of eternal loving union with Him who is eternal Love: Father, Son, and Spirit.

    Then, we are DEFORMED: We have been given the most triumphant and tragic gift that can be given to anyone, anywhere. We can actually refuse our Creator. We can bite the hand that feeds us. We can cut ourselves off from our own source of Love, Purpose, and Being. We can destroy what the Almighty God has created: we can destroy, deface, and deform ourselves. And this we do, with gleeful abandon, imagining that either (a) we are the source of our own form, our own Logos, or that (b) there is no form or Logos at all, and thus we can give up on it all and live for whatever pleasures us. In the words of Padme in the latest Star Wars movie: “So this is how liberty dies – with thunderous applause.” With thunderous applause we deform ourselves, deny our maker, and spiral into nothingness and misery.

    Then, we are REFORMED: We see our evil. We see Christ is the only way out. We repent, receive Christ, and are Baptised back into His life, death, and resurrection (cf. Rom 6). We are re-formed into the image of Him who descended that we may ascend (cf. Irenaeus). He was formed as a human, that we may be reformed into children of God. He became one of us, so that we might become one with Him. The Divine was made man that man might be made divine (cf. Athanasius). This repentance, this turning around, this descent-ascent, this burial-and-raising, this immersion into Christ is what reformation is.

    Then, we are CONFORMED: This leads us to the long process of being con-formed, or with-formed, to Christ. Like a sculptor, we trace the forms and shapes of the Original statue (that of the Incarnate Logos) and try to re-make it in our own block of granite, so that we are con-formed to the Original. We get one side done, only to rotate the statue and find that there are still huge chunks and imperfections that need to be conformed to the Original. It is a life-long process. A life-long sculpting to make ourselves like our Logos. Yet, the paradox runs deeper… for as we are conformed to Christ, we begin to realize that we are not the sculptor after all. He is. We merely offer ourselves to His skilled hands. It has felt that we were sculpting ourselves for so long, but the whole time it was Him. Or was it us? Or was it Him? Are we passive stone being hewn into, and conformed to, the image of our Creator? Or are we active participants in our own completion? I think the wisest answer is yes. The answer to both is yes.

    The means for all of this is INFORMATION: Information is such a funny word to us. We tend to think of it as bits of data floating around us, which we catch and put together in the puzzle of our minds, trying to make some sense of it. And, if you do not believe in the concept of form, of logos, then that is all information is: bits of data. Random. Meaningless until rendered meaningful by humans, who are the meaning makers.

    But, if you believe in form, in Logos, in the purposive nature of the universe, you come to see information as a trail of clues leading to union with Him who is Purpose. We may not see the pattern and purpose of information for years, or lifetimes, or centuries… but at some point all pieces of data, all this “information” will make sense, and find meaning in Him who is Meaning-Incarnate.

    You see, the purpose of data, of information, is to in-form, or form-within, the image of Christ within us. Many of us are fond of saying “All truth is God’s truth”. Well, all true information is given by God to form Christ IN us, to conform us to Him who is the Form, and who formed us in His image.

    But here’s the trick about information: you can’t MAKE people use it. You can’t force people to allow information to trans-form them into Christ’s image. Trans-formation is a mystery, whereby the will of the Form works with the will of the person being formed. It is a free acceptance of in-formation. All we can do, as agents of transformation, is offer the information that God has given us to all who will receive it, in hope that they will reform, and allow themselves to be conformed to the image of Christ, that they may be transformed creatures showing forth the glory God.

    We inform people, that a deformed generation may be reformed by Christ, transformed in Christ, and conformed to Christ. All of this so that we may attain the original purpose for which we were formed: to Love the Lord above all and share His Love with every creature formed in His image.

  4. Nate,
    I’m so glad whenever I see that you’ve left a response to a post. Great thoughts. Your words are right on…I don’t even have anything to add right now. I’m going to think on this some more – this may be a more important conversation than we realize. But for now suffice it to say, yes, I believe that there are indeed forms and purposes in the universe, and I’m glad for it. Otherwise there would be little hope for me to ascertain holiness from profanity…if the two could even be said to exist.

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