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.