The Gospel of the Kingdom and Spiritual Formation

Dallas Willard

A contribution to the book The Kingdom Life

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Table of contents

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There is a deep longing among Christians and non-Christians alike for the personal purity and power to live as our hearts tell us we should. What we need is a deeper insight into our practical relationship with God in redemption. We need an understanding that can guide us into constant interaction with the Kingdom of God as a real part of our daily lives.
—Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines

 

To enter into the fullness of human life as God intended it — and thus become the kind of persons we would expect from looking at Jesus and His teachings—requires us to live our lives in the kingdom of God.1 Constant and whole-life interaction with the kingdom of God is the spiritual atmosphere of steady progression in Christlikeness. The new Birth—the birth “from above”—is precisely birth into the kingdom of God (see John 3:5). The apostle Paul described it as being “rescued . . . from the domain of darkness, and transferred . . . to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13, NASB).

That is the beginning of new life in Christ. At that point we are in the kingdom. It has claimed us, but it is not yet in much of what we are. That is where spiritual growth or formation comes in. Jesus therefore directed us continually to seek the kingdom—which can be thought of as God in action, more than anything else—and to seek the kind of rightness or goodness characteristic of that kingdom. at is, we are called to intensely look for it everywhere. en, Jesus said, everything else that we need will be provided (see Matthew 6:33).

You will notice that the emphasis here is upon what we are to do. Like many other key passages in the New Testament, we are called to well- informed action in the process of our own spiritual growth. The agencies of the kingdom—especially of the Word and of the Holy Spirit—are also essential. But we can trust them to do their part. What we must attend to is our part. The chapters that follow are designed to help us do that. They help us understand the relationship between living in the kingdom of God and spiritual formation. They help us understand what Christian spiritual formation is and how it develops. What is the nature of the changes involved, and what brings them about? In this first chapter, I want to pay special attention to several points about the kingdom of God that we must get right in order for spiritual transformation toward full Christlikeness to progress as it should.

Let us begin by noting that if we do not preach the gospel of the kingdom of God as Jesus did but preach some other gospel—of which there now are several—we cannot truly progress in the formation of character into Christlikeness. That is because the message preached will have no essential connection with constant spiritual growth. We need to announce (preach), teach, and manifest the good news that Jesus Himself announced. That good news is of the availability of life now in the kingdom of God by placing our confidence in Jesus as the Lord of all (see Matthew 4:17,23; 9:35; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:43; Romans 10:9-10; 14:17). Unfortunately, this is not the gospel generally given out by Christians today, and that is one reason why spiritual transformation into Christlikeness is not the routine or normal course of Christian life.

Here is an actual statement about what it means to trust Christ, by one of the most well-known evangelical ministers of our day:

When you trusted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, here is what you did. You placed your trust in Jesus’ death at Calvary, who bore your sin and your iniquity and your wickedness and your vileness on the cross, and as a result God punished Him for your sinfulness and made it possible for you to be forgiven because He is your substitute.

That is all. This very fine and influential Christian minister then proceeded to try to elaborate his view of atonement and of what it means to trust Jesus Christ into an account of our identification with Christ that would include a transformation into actual Christlikeness. But the facts of Christian living today simply do not bear out the connection he wished to make. Transformation through identification with Christ is not forthcoming for any but a vanishingly small percentage of those who have “placed their trust in Jesus’ death at Calvary.” Or else we must say that they did not actually so place their trust—an alternative that almost no one would be prepared to take.

What Is the Kingdom of God?

The deeper cause of the obvious fact that transformation into Christlikeness is not the routine or normal course of Christian life is our failure to understand what the kingdom of God is and what it is like to live in it. If we are to seek it in all we do, what exactly are we seeking for? What would it be like to find it in what is around us and in all we are doing? In order to answer these questions we have to return to the source of the idea of the kingdom of God, which is the historical experience of the Jewish people, recorded in the Old Testament. What the kingdom of God is stands out most strongly and clearly in the Psalms.

Psalm 145:8-13 gives us some helpful perspective:

The Lord is gracious and merciful;
Slow to anger and great in loving kindness.
The Lord is good to all,
And His mercies are over all His works.
All Your works shall give thanks to You, O Lord,
And Your godly ones shall bless You.
They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom
And talk of Your power;
To make known to the sons of men Your mighty acts
And the glory of the majesty of Your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
And Your dominion endures throughout all generations. (NASB)

The basic teaching about God in the old Testament is His dominion over all creation forever and His immediate presence to all who call upon Him. Of course, this is a vast subject that had to be worked out in detail through a slow historical process, and there were many misunderstandings that had to be resolved. But at least within the covenant community of Israel, the idea arose that God’s knowledge and power are immediately available to those who call upon Him. The theological doctrines of the omnipresence and omniscience of God translate into real life—a reality you see constantly throughout the Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament. Consider that marvelous verse, 2 Chronicles 16:9: “The eyes of the lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth to show Himself strong in behalf of those whose hearts are blameless toward Him” (AMP). There you have both omniscience and omnipresence.

We also see this in the Twenty-third Psalm: “The lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (verse 1, NASB). Psalm 23 is a kingdom psalm; it’s about what life is like in the kingdom of God. But the reality of the kingdom of God is His presence to all—to everyone and everything on earth immersed in His loving care. We can think of many wonderful verses, such as Psalm 55:22: “Cast your burden upon the lord and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken” (NASB). Peter picked this up in 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” Psalm 34:15 says that “the eyes of the lord are toward the righteous and His ears are open to their cry” (NASB). In Psalm 73:28 we read, “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all Your works” (NASB).

A God of Active Care

At the center of biblical teaching, then, is the idea of an all-loving and all-powerful God who is in action, for us and with us. He is not passive. He is not distant. He is not indifferent. “He will not allow your foot to slip; He who keeps you will not slumber” (Psalm 121:3, NASB). All of these teachings are about the nature of a God who is in action. If you compare the pagan classical thought of Aristotle, Lucretius, and others, you will find variants of God in which He is aloof or He doesn’t care or He can’t act because He’s limited. It is characteristic of the biblical teaching about God to fly in the face of such views—no doubt because of the experiences of God’s ancient people—and to portray an active God who is not only at work in the universe but is always moving toward those who are open to receive Him.

Now the Jews had many problems in coming to understand all of this. When we look at their history not as a series of accidents but as planned out by God—from the exodus to the wilderness wandering to the period of the judges to the assumption of the monarchy (which God said He didn’t want in the first place) to all of the difficulties that the kings went through and the nation experienced and then finally to the exile—we get a sense of their great discovery (especially in the exile from Jerusalem) that God is still God no matter what happens to you, and that wherever you are, God rules from the heavens. The idea of a “God of heaven” emerges in Daniel, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. You get from those Scriptures the notion of the “kingdom of the heavens,” and after a few centuries, the fruit of this idea is harvested in the gospel of Matthew. Matthew used that phrase—“the kingdom of the heavens”—over and over to express the fact of the direct, immediate availability of God to those who call upon Him and especially, of course, to His covenant people. It is the favored way in Matthew of expressing the message of Jesus — the good news.

The idea that God is God of the “heavens”—that is, of the surrounding atmosphere—is a primary part of the revelation of Jehovah to His select people, from Abraham on. The texts of Genesis and following make this clear. For example, even those who from afar knew of Israel’s experience with God understood this. Rahab told the spies sent into Jericho how she and her people had heard of them and how “our hearts melted and no courage remained in any man any longer because of you; for the lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Joshua 2:11, NASB). What God had done in Egypt and in the wilderness was widely known. In the final song of Moses he said, “ There is none like the God of Jeshurun, who rides the heavens to your help, and through the skies in His majesty. The eternal God is a dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:26-27, NASB). That was a vital part of God’s revelation: not just to Israel but to the whole world. But it took the harrowing events of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile to bring to the Jews an understanding that God was not bound to a special place (Jerusalem, cp. John 4:21) and that He was still present and in action where there were no visible manifestations in the surrounding heavens. That is the lesson of the interbiblical period, which ripens in meaning until it comes out of the mouth of John the baptizer.

Think About Your Thinking

Now, a problem arises in how to move our understanding of the kingdom of God beyond the covenant people and deal with the kind of ethnocentricity that comes from being publically marked out as God’s special people on earth. Being chosen by God is a huge burden to carry. One reason the world is chronically angry with the Jewish people is that they are God’s chosen people. They are the chosen people, and they stand in the midst of the earth as a chosen people. Those not chosen have trouble getting over that fact. They resent it and resent the Jews. But God’s intention with Israel always lay beyond Israel, for He said, “It is too small a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make You a light of the nations so that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6, NASB). This calling lies in God’s word to Abraham: “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3, NASB). Israel is not for the sake of Israel, but for the sake of the world, as today the church is not for the church, but for the world.

We must come back to this outward movement of the kingdom of the heavens, but for now we must be clear that Jesus emerged into world history from among this chosen people of God. He didn’t come to the Greeks or to the Egyptians. He came to a people that had been prepared by their experience to understand what the kingdom of the heavens and the kingdom of God are all about. As we have seen, if you read the Psalms with an eye to the kingdom, you’ll see they invariably are testimonies to the nature and reality of the kingdom. They are excerpts from the lives of people who loved that kingdom, though often in misguided ways. At the center of the Psalms, you see the beauty of kingdom life. Jesus came after a period of time when all this had been slowly developing. The interbiblical period plays a crucial role in driving home the message that there is always a kingdom of the heavens, even in the absence of a place and a political kingdom through which it rules.

There is a kingdom of the heavens, a present governance by God, and understanding of it had matured to a high point (with still a ways to go) when John the baptizer came to speak in Matthew 3. His message was “repent” (verse 2, NASB). One can hardly say that word today because of misunderstandings and false images. When we hear the word, we are apt to think of some man walking back and forth on the sidewalk with a placard that reads, “ The end is near.” But biblical repentance is a very important and instructive concept, and we cannot let it go. I like to translate metanoeite this way: “ Think about how you have been thinking.” or “Get a thought about your thoughts, a thought beyond your thoughts.” Think in the light of the fact of God’s immediate presence and availability through Christ, so that you can now live in the kingdom of the heavens. Psalm 23 can be your daily existence. And that is open to everyone. “Whosoever will may come.” reconsider your way of thinking about your life—your plans, your fears, your hopes—in the light of that.

Opening the Doors of the Kingdom

The great change that Jesus brought in His person and His gospel was the openness of the kingdom to everyone, and first of all to those who were the rejected, the unacceptable, within Israel. That is the heart of His gospel. Jesus was bringing the kingdom of God to those whom the authorities—the religious leaders, scribes, and Pharisees—thought were hopeless and should be shut out. And so on page after page of the Gospels, we find Jesus sitting down with publicans and sinners, fellow- shipping with them, and offending the authorities (see Luke 15:1-2).

With the doors of the kingdom wide open, the gospel of the kingdom of God came as a power into the world and began to do what Daniel said was going to happen. You will remember that in Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a great idol or statue. At its top was a golden head (Babylon) and at the bottom clay and iron for the feet and toes (the Roman Empire). And then, all of a sudden, a stone cut “without hands” struck the idol (verse 34, NASB). It smashed the idol, became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth. It was a kingdom that would “endure forever” (verse 44, NASB). That stone, Daniel told the king, was the kingdom of God. “ The God of heaven will set up a kingdom” (verse 44, NASB). That was the vision of the kingdom of God that came to Daniel even in exile. There the Israelites had begun to understand the true nature of the kingdom of God — “cut out without hands” (verse 34, NASB). It is independent of all human government or arrangement.

Seek First the Kingdom

As we have noted, the kingdom of God is just God in action. Theological books like to use the word reign for it and that is fitting, but reign doesn’t mean very much to ordinary people. Rule might be a substitute, but it is more informative to say that the kingdom is God in action. The kingdom of God is where what God wants done is done. In order to achieve that, He doesn’t always have to be micromanaging it. Consider, for example, the laws of God—the order He has established in reality and in human life. They too are what God wants done. They are a power that, especially in the natural world, accomplishes what God wants. And the moral law—that also is what He wants done. To seek the kingdom of God is to seek to know and conform to the laws that God has established for nature and for human living.

For this reason, we must take seriously verses like Joshua 1:8: “This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success” (NASB). When you line up with the laws of God, you are lining up with what God Himself is doing. The laws of God express the character of God in His kingdom. When Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33, KJV), we might ask, “How do you do that?” One way is to find and follow the laws of God. We need plenty of help to follow those laws, and the help is actually available. God’s laws were never imposed without the supply of His grace for us to follow them.

Notice that there are many instrumentalities of the kingdom of God. There is God Himself. There are the Son of God and the Spirit of God. There is the Word of God. There are the people of God. There are God’s acts in history. All that is a part of the kingdom of God. But what is the central reality of the kingdom of God? Once again, the kingdom of God is God in action. That’s why the kingdom of God has been around forever and will always exist, because God has always been and will always be acting. Some people wonder what God was doing before He created the world—as if He didn’t have anything to do. I often get asked that question on college campuses. I always reply, “He was enjoying themselves.” People seem to think that the physical universe dwarfs God. But no. We don’t have a big physical universe with a little God sitting around here and there. We have a physical universe that fits on the little finger of a great big God who has been here always and will be here forever.

Our God Reigns

But this great God has to deal with the problem of the mediation of His presence to free persons whom He has made and who have nevertheless adopted a posture of hostility and rejection toward Him. His response to that situation is, roughly, human history, with Christ at the center. When Jesus came, He announced the availability of God’s kingdom and made it present in a gentle way. It was not, strictly speaking, a new message, but it had some new implications. Most of us are familiar with the praise song that says: “Our God reigns.” That’s from Isaiah 52:7, the same passage that contains the phrase, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the gospel of peace” (PAR). And what is the gospel of peace? Our God reigns. Of course, in that verse Zion is looking for deliverance and the reigning of God. But God has something much larger in mind—humanity and the physical cosmos. This expansiveness comes out in many wonderful passages from the prophet Isaiah, who had a great vision of the kingdom of God. Though this passage from Isaiah 52 says, “Say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’” (verse 7), it applies far beyond Zion. We here today aren’t Zion. We are something more. The call to Zion was not just to be a light upon Zion but also upon the whole world, even the whole universe.

So, we see the breaking out within Israel of the gospel of the kingdom. But when Jesus said in Matthew 4:17 and elsewhere, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (NASB), He was announcing the availability of the kingdom of God beyond all existing assumptions. Paul called this worldwide availability a “mystery which has been hidden from the past ages” (Colossians 1:26, NASB). And this hiddenness was necessary because the kingdom of God had been committed, in a special way, to the people of Israel. Others did not share in it prior to Jesus’ announcement. The people of Israel had been appointed to be what you might call the “street address” of the kingdom of God on earth. God was always beyond Israel, of course, but they had a special calling, and anyone who wanted to find God could find Him through coming to Israel. God intended to bring the kingdom to earth through the people of Israel. And He did just that!

Blessed Are the Poor? What's Going On Here?

The great change that came with Jesus—the “good news,” according to Him—had to do with its availability. It first reached out to those within Israel who were ordinarily understood not to be blessed. You see this constantly in the gospel stories, and it is systematically driven home in the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5 and Luke 6) and in the Woe Bes (see Luke 6). There we see the great kingdom inversion of who is blessed and who is not. And that inversion is always tied to the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are poor,” Luke 6:20 says, “for yours is the kingdom of God” (NASB). This is a proclamation of the gospel as well as a teaching about what the kingdom of God is like. It doesn’t tell anyone to become poor in order to be blessed. It doesn’t suggest that there is anything especially good about poverty. “Blessed are you who weep” (verse 21, NASB) doesn’t tell anyone to go and weep. The Beatitudes just announce and explain, “You over here who are (on the human scale) normally thought not to be blessed are blessed anyway as you live in the kingdom of God—in spite of all humanly deplorable conditions.” The gospel of Jesus is the good news of the availability of the kingdom of God to everyone—to Romans, to people who are unclean because of disease, to the poor who are thought to be cursed.

This remarkable shift in the availability of life in the kingdom is driven home by the poignant scene from Matthew 11 where John the baptizer, who first began to preach Jesus’ message of kingdom availability (see Matthew 3:2), is in prison facing death. He is there coming to grips with the fact that what the availability of the kingdom meant is not what he thought. He sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are You really the One? I thought You were, but things aren’t looking so good for this kingdom.” Jesus returned a message. And if we look at that message, we see it is precisely a message of the availability of the kingdom of God to people who were not thought to be included. Jesus’ answer is, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear” (Matthew 11:4-5, NASB). What is that? That’s the power of God available to needy people, those of no qualifications. It is God in action. Jesus added, “ The poor have the gospel preached to them” (verse 5, NASB). But it was a kingdom that John the baptizer never understood. And that’s why Jesus, continuing His discussion of John, said, “Truly I say to you, among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (verse 11, NASB).

People of Violence

Jesus gave the poor some good news for a change. That was indeed a great sign of the kingdom, perhaps even greater than healings and other miracles, certainly greater than a government takeover by the Jewish people. But it really hit the Israelites hard in their theology. You may recall Jesus’ discussion about riches and poverty after the incident with the rich young ruler. It’s crucial to understand that discussion correctly because it is integral to the major change that emerges in Matthew 11:12 (see also Luke 16:16.). Listen to this: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” (NASB). This is not what some liberation theologians took it to mean. It’s not talking about taking up arms and reversing the cultural standards, exalting and empowering the poor over the rich. It is talking about something you see on every page of the Gospels — namely, access to the kingdom of God by people who do not do what is proper, who do not stand on proprieties dealing with the kingdom, especially the Jewish proprieties.

It is talking about a little leper who came to Jesus (see Matthew 8:1-4). Lepers were not supposed to be coming to people. But no doubt, he had heard Jesus speak and watched Him heal. Finally, the leper got up his nerve, came to Jesus, and said, “Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean” (verse 2, NASB). And Jesus said what? “I am willing” (verse 3, NASB). The kingdom reached out in Jesus, who not only spoke to that man but also touched him. And if you understand what that would mean to a leper and what it would mean to those standing around watching Jesus, you begin to get the idea of what violence is in this verse. Violence means you don’t stand on the proprieties, whatever they may be. You just come to Jesus, and He brings the kingdom of God to bear on you whether you are unclean by disease or by being a Gentile. He brings it to bear on anyone, whether the person is a tax collector, a woman of the street, a Roman centurion, or whatever. Those are the people of violence. They didn’t take the proper path to relationship with God; they just came to Jesus as they were.

You must update that for our world because we have our proprieties too. And they routinely stand in people’s minds as barriers to life in the kingdom. Always, if you watch, you will see Jesus breaking through those proprieties and doing something that people within their proprieties—the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees—don’t understand. Matthew 21:43 emphasizes the abrupt departure that is occurring around Jesus. There were some harsh encounters between Him and the people in charge (or who thought they were in charge). Jesus said, “ The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing the fruit of it” (NASB). Jesus was announcing the great movement to come right after His death. Jesus had developed a small group of people who could carry the kingdom to the ends of the earth. They bore the kingdom in themselves (see Luke 10:9,11) to the rest of the world. And it was not just the word about the kingdom that they brought, but the reality of the kingdom itself. “The kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20, NASB). However, what set Jesus against the religious leaders of His time was that they did not adopt this non-Jewish, worldwide missional emphasis of the kingdom. They thought only of themselves and their positions. In Matthew 23:13, Jesus spoke about Israel’s spiritual leaders who had shut up the kingdom of heaven: “You do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in” (NASB).

Caught Up In God's Life

The words of Jesus in Matthew 5:20 illumine the condition of those leaders: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (NASB). Jesus was not talking here about “going to heaven” after death, about who will get in and who won’t. He was talking about a present relationship, about entering into a real life now—a life with God in the present, this God who is in action spreading His kingdom among humanity. Jesus was saying that if you stay at the level of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will not interactively engage the yeast like spread of the rule of God. Your life will be limited to what you think is proper and to what you can accomplish by your own powers. And that is not very much.

Jesus now stands in the midst of the world. The King is saying, “Whosoever will may come.” There is no preexisting condition that eliminates you from this policy. None. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got leprosy or AIDS, whether of the soul or of the body. It doesn’t matter what your race or your gender is or your economic condition. You can come. You’re rich? You can come, too. But you’re going to need more than your riches. They are not your blessing. You’re poor? You can come, too. And you’ll have everything you need. Your life becomes caught up in God’s life, and that makes your life an eternal life. As Jesus said in John 17:3, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (NASB). That is eternal life—an active relationship with Jesus, eternal living.

Paul and the Kingdom

Let’s look now at the kingdom of God in the apostle Paul’s thinking as he moved out into the Gentile world. It is often thought that Paul preached a different gospel than Jesus did. But we have already noted how, in Colossians 1:13, Paul spoke of our being “transferred,” in the birth from above, out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of the Son of God’s love. Kingdom language is Paul’s language. And Paul’s gospel is centered on spiritual formation, just as Jesus’ was. If you grow into doing what Paul said, you will take the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount at a walk.

Colossians 1:9-12 contains a profound prayer for what Paul longed to see in the lives of the Colossians:

That you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience; joyously giving thanks to the father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (NASB)

This, of course, is nothing but the result of spiritual formation or growth in grace. It lay at the heart of Paul’s intentions, for himself and for those he taught.

This prayer is based upon the reality of Christ the king:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. For it was the father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things in earth or things in heaven. (Colossians 1:15-20, NASB)

Once you get Paul’s meaning, it enables you to see the scope of God’s plan, and after these words about who Jesus really is in the cosmos, there comes the glory of our lives now in Christ: “If you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3, NASB). This and the following verses are pure spiritual-formation verses. But notice how being risen with Christ beyond death is the assumption of it all. This is the kingdom as it expresses itself in Christ and, above all, in the resurrection. Remember what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:17: “If Christ has not been raised . . . you are still in your sins” (NASB). Well, what about the Cross? The Cross must never be presented without resurrection. We must have both Cross and resurrection, or we do not have a kingdom or the Christ of the kingdom, and then we will also have a mistaken view of salvation—one that does not relate to the present spiritual life of the believer, which is to be precisely a resurrection life. Spiritual formation or continual growth in grace is not part of such salvation.

Resurrection Life

To truly engage in the spiritual life, then, we have to get past a view of atonement in which all that matters in salvation is Jesus taking the punishment for our sins. The problem with such a reductionistic view is that once salvation is taken care of and heaven after death is assured, that is the end of it—period. It’s all done for us, and it’s all over and done with. So, what are we going to do now? What about discipleship? Not required, and not even natural to the “saved” condition. “Saved” in the reductionist view just means my sins are forgiven. Let me assure you, lest you misunderstand me, it certainly means that. It certainly means your sins are forgiven, but remember that the basic act of salvation from God’s point of view is the impartation of life. It is regeneration. And that life imparted is resurrection life, an ongoing, developing reality.

So, let’s go back to Colossians 3:1-4:

If you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above [there’s that word again—above], where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth. For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory. (NASB)

Glorious! The theme of who we are becoming appears over and over in the new Testament. Remember what John said in his first letter:

See how great a love the father has bestowed on us, that we would be called children of God; and such we are. . . . Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1 John 3:1-3, NASB)

That great theme—that we are becoming like Christ—makes plain the glorious life we are entering into now. We are purifying ourselves as He is pure—a precise description of spiritual formation.

Thus the apostle Peter wrote, “According to His great mercy [God] has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3, NASB). If we don’t get the vision for this kind of life as salvation, spiritual formation will appear as something odd and basically irrelevant— which is precisely how it does appear to most professed Christians today—because spiritual formation is precisely formation in this life and of this life from above. The gospel of the kingdom opens us to progressive transformation in this life.

The World, the Flesh and the Devil

Though spiritual formation is a natural part of salvation in Christ, correctly understood, we would make a mistake if we thought there was no battle involved in our transformation. Ephesians 2 gives us a full picture of what’s at stake. And it’s not a very encouraging picture, to tell the truth. It starts off, “You were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world” (verses 1-2, NASB). There you find the first member of the trinity of evil: the world. Then we read, “. . . according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (verse 2, NASB). There is the second member: the Devil. Then, “Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest” (verse 3, NASB). That’s number three: the flesh. If you’ve ever wondered where that expression comes from—“the world, the flesh, and the devil”—here is Paul’s statement.

So, you’ve got all these factors working against you: the world, the flesh, and the devil. What are they? You have the social and historical organization of evil in the midst of which you must live: that’s the world. You have the personal spiritual power behind that: the one who is the prince of this world, the one who in a certain manner governs it. He came to Jesus in the great struggle before His crucifixion. Jesus said at the end of John 14, “I will not speak much more with you, for the ruler of the world is coming” (verse 30, NASB, emphasis added). The world is one of the elements that is generally missing in our understanding of the whole story of redemption and spiritual formation. And then there is the flesh. The flesh is primarily to be identified with the natural desires of human beings, and the flesh within the human being wars with the human spirit. The human spirit is the will, and the will, if not totally enslaved by desire, is always contemplating alternatives, seeking what is best. But desire does not contemplate alternatives. It says things like, “I’ve just got to have a doughnut.” No, you don’t have to have a doughnut. But your desire for a doughnut says, “Forget about your blood sugar. Forget about your weight. Forget about the fact that you’re addicted to this junk. You want a doughnut!” That’s the flesh speaking.

Paul said in Galatians 5 that the flesh wars against the spirit, and the spirit wars against the flesh. That’s the natural condition because flesh gives rise to desire, and desire has the power to obsess you. Again, desire does not contemplate alternatives. It simply says, “I want that!” And if you sign over your will to desire, then you will become an addict. An addict is a person who has basically resigned his spirit and his will to a desire. He has said, “Yes, I must have this!” Whereas actually he doesn’t have to have it. There are some things you have to have, but they are very few and often we don’t pay very much attention to them. Spiritual formation is a matter of ordering desires and putting them in their place with reference to what is good under God.

Powers, Ideas, and Images

The apostle Paul warned us that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12, NASB). These higher-level powers and forces are spiritual agencies that primarily work within the idea systems of our culture.

Idea systems are commonly held assumptions about reality. They are patterns of thinking and interpretation, historically developed and socially shared. Examples of ideas are freedom, education, happiness, the American dream, science, progress, death, home, the feminine or masculine, religion, church, democracy, fairness, justice, family, evolution, God, and the secular. Ideas such as these are so pervasive and essential to how we approach life that we often do not even know they are there or understand how they work. Our particular idea system is a cultural artifact, growing up with us from earliest childhood out of the teachings, expectations, and observable behaviors of family and community. These idea systems can be manipulated by evil forces; they are, in fact, evil’s main tool for dominating humanity.

By contrast, we who have been rescued “from the power of darkness and transferred . . . into the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13, NRSV) are to “let this mind be in [us], which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5, KJV). This is an essential way of describing the substance, the underlying reality, of Christian spiritual formation. We are, in Paul’s familiar language, transformed precisely by the “renewing of [our] mind” (Romans 12:2, NASB).

Closely associated with these idea systems are images that occupy our minds. Images are always concrete and specific, as opposed to the abstractness of ideas, and they are heavily laden with feeling. They frequently have a powerful emotional and sensuous linkage to governing idea systems. For example, hair (long, short, skinhead, green, orange, or purple), body piercings, tattoos, flags (and their desecration), and clothing styles have provided powerful images and symbols for conflicting idea systems. These images are often adopted by one generation, ethnic group, or locale to set itself off from another.

Of course, Jesus understood the great significance of images. He carefully selected an image that brilliantly conveys Himself and His message: the Cross. The Cross represents the lostness of man as well as the sacrifice of God and the abandonment to God that brings redemption. No doubt it is the all-time most powerful image and symbol of human history. Need we say He knew what He was doing in selecting it? He is the master of images. For their own benefit, His followers need to keep the image of the Cross vividly present in their minds. In fact, learning to keep the Cross constantly in mind is a major factor in spiritual growth and maturity.

Ideas and images are the primary focus of Satan’s efforts to defeat God’s purposes for humankind. They form the primary arena of the battle of spiritual formation. When we are subject to Satan’s chosen ideas and images, he can take a holiday. When he undertook to draw Eve away from God, he did not hit her with a stick, but with an idea. It was with the idea that God could not be trusted and that she must act on her own to secure her own well-being.

The Idea Behind All Temptation

Here is the basic idea behind all temptation: God is presented to our minds as depriving us of what is good (or at least of what we want) by His commands, so we think we must take matters into our own hands. This image of God leads to our pushing Him out of our thoughts and putting ourselves on the throne of the universe. We can see that the single most important thing in our minds is our idea of God. The process of spiritual formation in Christ is one of progressively replacing our destructive images and ideas with the images and ideas that filled the mind of Jesus Himself. We thereby come increasingly to see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4, NRSV).

An illustration of the great difference of outlook in the Christ-formed mind is found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. There he contrasted the way of earth, or the flesh, with the way of the new person. The human way is one of anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and lying (see Colossians 3:8-9). Think for a moment how true this is to human life. But Paul said, “Lie no more, since you have stripped o the old self and its characteristic behavior and put on the new self, which sees things as they really are in God’s view” (verses 9-10, PAR). In that view, the usual human distinctions (between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free person, and so on) do not matter in how we relate to people, because Christ is (or can be) in all alike (see verses 10-11).

What is more unlike humans than to treat all kinds of people with equal truth and love? Imagine the difference it would make as you go through just one day. In a significant manner, the antidiscrimination of which we now hear so much is a profound truth of kingdom living. The ideas and images that govern unredeemed humanity make it impossible, except in highly selective circumstances and in very recent societies strongly influenced by Jesus and His followers. Paul knew we can only escape being conformed to a fallen humanity by receiving the mind of Christ Himself (see 1 Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5). Spiritual formation in Christ moves toward a total interchange of our ideas and images for His.

How is this to come about? This question is answered when we see how grace and human initiative work together to break the power of the toxic system of ideas and images that makes us dead to God. After God has implanted new life from above in us by word and Spirit, we can begin to take initiative in progressively retaking the whole of our thought lives for God’s kingdom. That is a major part of what it means to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33, NASB). God’s grace will accompany us every step of the way, but it will never permit us to be merely passive in our spiritual formation in Christ.

The Work of Grace

The context of the battle of spiritual formation is resurrection grace. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)” (Ephesians 2:4-5, NASB). The context of our struggle is grace. What makes us alive? Grace. What is grace? Grace is God acting in our lives to accomplish what we can’t accomplish on our own. is it unmerited favor? Of course it is. But if that’s all we know about grace, we still have problems. I have heard distinguished Christian speakers say, “Grace is only for guilt.” A candid search of the Scriptures would never teach you that. Grace is also for life. That’s why you can grow in grace without growing in guilt. Grace is for life. We would still have needed grace if we had never sinned. You will understand that once you realize that grace is God acting in your life to accomplish what you can’t accomplish on your own. We find the kingdom as we experience this action with us in life. We were created by grace for grace.

Spiritual Formation Requires Our Initiative

God’s plan allows for a kingdom of darkness to exist. Paul indicated in Colossians 1:13 that we were in “the domain of darkness” before being brought into “the kingdom of His beloved Son” (NASB). We were dead in the kingdom of darkness—not alive to God. This means that our basic nature was not working. We had to have the birth from above to reestablish contact with the kingdom of light. After that we have choices about how we move within that kingdom of light. This is crucial to the details of spiritual formation, because this transformation is not a passive process. It is a process in which we continue to make choices and our character develops, and sometimes the experience is hard.

St. Anthony, when he went into the desert, had some horrendous nights in which Satan approached him in all kinds of visible and auditory forms. He held on and resisted and would not give in. Finally, Jesus came to him. (I’ll leave you to figure out what this means. I’m inclined to be pretty literal about it.) The first question St. Anthony asked Jesus was, “Why didn’t You come sooner?” And Jesus replied, “I wanted to see how you would do.”2 Now, actually, that is a biblical theme. God did it with Abraham (see Genesis 22:12) and with the Israelites in the wilderness (see Deuteronomy 8:2), for example. Jesus did this with the disciples (see Mark 6:37,48-51). You can be sure He will do it with you and me. It is indispensable to our growth in grace.

This throws light upon the course of our own spiritual development. God will make the darkness praise Him, but we often don’t experience that at the moment. We’re in a world in which people make choices, and they often make wrong choices. And there is an enemy of God who fought with God and couldn’t win. So now he focuses on one of God’s major projects: humanity—namely, you and me. We struggle on in a world of darkness, and some of that darkness is in us. We are in the process of spiritual formation, which a disciple of Jesus goes through to progressively remove the darkness within us and around us. Remember how much is made of light and children of light in the Scriptures. It is our destiny to be children of light and live fully in the light. Consider this statement from Ephesians 5:8-9: “You were formerly darkness, but now you are light in the lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth)” (NASB). We know what importance the apostle John gave to light in his writings and how crucial for him light was in spiritual formation. To move out of darkness, we need to move out of places where we hide and away from activities we do not want to be known for.

Satan Is Under God's Control

The kingdom of God allows space for a lot of things that God wouldn’t have preferred. He permitted—as I’ve already mentioned—the monarchy in Israel. That’s an illustration of something God did not want but He permitted. And in that sense, it was with His approval. But He said to Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me” (1 Samuel 8:7, NASB). That is one of the most instructive verses in the Bible for understanding what the kingdom of God is like—what God blesses and what God permits and uses may radically differ. What are the things in my life that God permits but does not want? That is one of the most important questions to keep before us in spiritual formation. Does God actually approve of everything He permits? I think the answer is obviously no, He doesn’t. But everything God permits, can He use it? Yes, He certainly can, and He will for those who continually seek the kingdom.

The Life of Faith

As we live in the experience of the new life from above, we begin to see regeneration in a different light. We understand, for example, from 1 Corinthians 12:3 that no man can call Jesus lord except by the Holy Spirit. There are problems with metaphors, but in a similar way birth is not something that I do. Birth is something that is done to me, and the birth from above is entrance into a new realm. Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. If I can paraphrase what’s going on there, I believe that God looked at Abraham’s faith, which no doubt was dependent on God as well as on Abraham (Abraham at least had to be willing), and said, “I would rather have this trust in Me than perfect obedience. I would rather have the confidence that this man has in Me than some kind of legal conformity.” And we must recall that the confidence in question had no fancy theological garments on it. Abraham’s confidence was that God would give him a male heir. That’s the faith that God looked at and accepted as righteousness. That’s the life of faith. That’s counting on God for life. That’s the kind of faith—Abraham’s kind—that Paul spoke of in Romans 4. This awakening of faith—which, by the way, need not be just a moment but can also be a process—is, in fact, regeneration. In regeneration and the impartation of new life, forgiveness is one essential part of the grace of God moving toward us.

The Gospel in the Early Church

Let me now call attention to how the gospel looked in the early church. One of the best places to do this is with Philip in Acts 8:12: “But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike” (NASB). Now, wait a moment. Here is something new. Philip was preaching the good news about “the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus.” What’s that? The gospel is about the name of Jesus? Actually, when you begin to study this in the New Testament, you find that there are a lot of different ways of putting the gospel. Here we see the relationship of the disciple to Christ and His kingdom through “the name of Jesus.” The very name of Jesus is “good news.” One finds the kingdom of God by acting with the name of Jesus (see John 14:13-14).

Now, think about this: If you have a Christ without a kingdom, you don’t have a Christ. And if you have a kingdom without Christ, you don’t have a kingdom of God. You have to keep those two together. How they came together for Jesus’ early disciples and their disciples is made plain by the book of Acts. Jesus put a face on the kingdom of God. But the phrase “the kingdom of God” went wild in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I don’t just mean in a theological context but in the political as well. The great threat, especially among the more liberal-leaning branches of the church and of Western society, is to forget about Jesus. Then you will have a kingdom of man parading itself as the kingdom of God. But we can’t really forget about Him. He won’t go off the page. Consider John 12:32: “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (NASB). You can’t get rid of that. Pull that out and history disappears. Jesus and His teachings are the focus of the Western world. We are in a tragic experiment with regard to Jesus in our culture in America today. We’re trying to put something in the place of Jesus: the empty shell we call secularism.

Still, here is the gospel: the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus. What is the name of Jesus? It is access to the kingdom of God. Jesus taught His disciples how to act in His name. It is in His name that we overcome the darkness and its prince.

Spiritual Formation for Disciples of Jesus

If we were to move carefully through the book of Acts, we would see that the kingdom of God stays right there, from beginning all the way to the end. It shows up in wonderful passages, like Paul’s parting from the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. And when we come to the end of Acts, we have “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the lord Jesus Christ with all openness, unhindered” (Acts 28:31, NASB). That’s the last verse of the book of Acts. This passage is about Paul in Rome, and, symbolically at least, this is the fulfillment of Matthew 21:43 where “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it” (NASB).

In the light of all this, what is spiritual formation? Spiritual formation is the training process that occurs for those who are disciples of Jesus. Spiritual formation and discipleship are all about development of the life in the kingdom of God that comes to us through the risen Christ. As a disciple of Jesus, I am living with Him, learning to live in the kingdom of God as He lived in the kingdom of God. Spiritual formation is taking the explicit statements of Jesus and learning how to live this way. Jesus did tell us, did He not, that we should make disciples, submerging them in Trinitarian reality? Baptizing them in the Trinitarian name doesn’t just mean saying the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit” over them while you get them wet. The name in biblical understanding is reality, and to baptize them is to submerge them in the Trinitarian reality. We must understand the relevance of the Trinity to the gospel! The gospel is about life with the Trinity.

Entering the Kingdom

Perhaps now we have a deeper understanding of Matthew 5:20. Jesus said, “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees [and you can insert here your own particular variety of goodness], you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (NASB). Now when you read the statements about entering the kingdom of heaven, perhaps you will think in this way: Maybe they are not talking about going to heaven after I die. Maybe this is a reference to this life. There you have it. But if you are living in the kingdom of heaven—living it in a moment-to-moment experience — you can forget any concerns you may have for what happens after this life. They will be taken care of.

We have, then, moved beyond the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees. That means we’ve stopped thinking in terms of what we do or don’t do and started thinking about who we are. Our identity and nature are provided by a life that is given to us in the kingdom of God. Spiritual formation shines all through the Sermon on the Mount. How do I manage not to be an angry, contemptuous person? That’s spiritual formation. The scribe or Pharisee will say, “I didn’t kill anybody.” or “I didn’t commit adultery.” But the issue is: What kind of person am I? Can I come to the place where I love people so much — for example, I love the women I see, meet, and deal with so much—that I would not use them to excite my lusting or in any other way? Because the real issue is: How do you think about people? It is not: did I have sex with somebody or did I kill somebody? Instead, it is: How do I actually think about people? Where do they stand in my heart and mind? That is where spiritual formation really takes hold. It’s not about external proprieties or improprieties but about the development of the inner person in Christlikeness.

The Gospel of the Kingdom and Spiritual Formation

The gospel of the kingdom is the availability of life from above through reliance upon Jesus, the Living one, the Master of the Universe. Those who receive this gospel, throwing themselves upon the mercy of the risen Christ, live in God’s action—which is grace moving in them. in John 1:12 we read, “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right [or the authority, if you wish (the Greek is exousia)] to become children of God” (NASB). John continued, “. . . even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh [natural abilities] nor of the will of man, but of God” (verses 12-13, NASB).

That impartation of kingdom life is the open door to spiritual formation. But today we often bring people into the church on a nondiscipleship basis and without natural entry into a life of spiritual formation. Then, if we try to bring up the subject, they are thinking bait and switch because what they were told coming in the door had nothing to do with this new idea. Many—most, I find—just turn off or get mad or get going. They were perhaps asked something like, “Don’t you feel a need for Jesus?” And they would be fools not to, wouldn’t they? But what exactly is the need they feel? Unless you understand the gospel as I’ve explained it here, on the basis of the New Testament, that “need” may be any one of many different things, perhaps not even a need for forgiveness. But the authentic gospel of Jesus says, “I offer you life, but you have to give up yours. Yes, that life you think you’re in charge of—the one you complain so much about—you have to give it up.” Our task then is to present Jesus in such a way that people are ready to seize Him as their constant companion, Lord, teacher, mediator. We must present Him not just as the person who died on the cross, but also as the person who lives beyond the cross. He is the one who comes to reconcile us to God so we can begin a new life in God’s close company, with an unending destiny in His cosmic future— call that heaven.

In presenting this gospel we have to remember that the mind of the flesh is hostile to God. Human beings, right down to their muscles and bones, do not like God. That is something only a new life can redeem them from. It can bring them out of the grip of sin and the world, the flesh, and the Devil and replace their hostility to God with agape love—again, down to their muscles and bones. We do not simply wait for that new life to act in people. Through the Word, the Spirit, our own lives, and the lives of the church, we bring fruit and faith and repentance to their minds and their hearts. Spiritual formation and discipleship then become natural responses to the gift of life in the kingdom of God through faith in Jesus Christ. The kingdom of God becomes the texture and the energy of our spiritual formation in Christ.

For Reflection and Discussion

  1. In your own experience, why would you say that an understanding of the gospel of the kingdom is foundational to formation into the image of Jesus?
  2. How would you characterize the gospel of the kingdom as opposed to a gospel directed primarily at assuring the afterlife?
  3. Reflect on the current model(s) of ministry that you are using or engaged in. How central is the gospel of the kingdom of God to its ethos and manner of ministry?
  4. Given the values of the kingdom of God, what would a formational ministry based on this do differently? Do the same? What part of the gospel of the kingdom represents the most radical challenge for your ministry and the people involved?

For Further Reading

Bright, John. The Kingdom of God: The Biblical Concept and Its Meaning for the Church. Louisville, KY: Abingdon, 1957. (Bright takes a later turn toward theological liberalism, but it is still the best book on the biblical elements of the kingdom.)

Lloyd-Jones, Martyn, and Christopher Catherwood. The Kingdom of God. Chicago: Crossway, 1992.

Wakabayashi, Allen Mitsuo. Kingdom Come: How Jesus Wants to Change the World. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2003.

Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: HarperOne, 1998.

Footnotes
  1. Thanks to Don Simpson for his encouragement and assistance in writing this chapter.
  2. Thomas Gerard Weinandy, Athanasius: A Theological Introduction (Farnham, Surrey, U.K.: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 130-131.
Dallas Willard. “The Gospel of the Kingdom and Spiritual Formation.” In The Kingdom Life, edited by Alan Andrews, 27-57. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2010.