Over the past 35 years or so, evangelical interest in the classical spiritual disciplines has grown exponentially, thanks to the groundbreaking work of writers like Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Henri Nouwen. We increasingly understand, as Nouwen expressed it, that the spiritual life "involves human effort," a disciplined embrace of such concrete means of grace as prayer, silence, worship, simplicity, and service to others.
Gordon T. Smith, president and professor of systematic theology at Ambrose University College in Calgary, Alberta, applauds these developments within a tradition that, in its early years, had focused largely on evangelism and conversion. But what, he asks, is the underlying purpose of the spiritual disciplines? Why pray, worship, fast, or lead a simple life? In Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity (IVP Academic), Smith offers an answer: We do these things to grow as believers, to become ever more holy.
Cultivating Our Union
Holiness is a loaded term, one with a checkered reputation. "Holy" people are often portrayed in film and books as mean, angry, self-righteous, hypocritical, screamingly judgmental, perfectionistic, emotionally stunted, and lifeless. Few of us would want to spend an evening with such people. And false holiness is especially unattractive (even though, in our honest moments, we know we often behave like the very people who drive us crazy).
Yet all of us have, at one time or another, encountered holiness with an attractive, loving face. For me, Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi, Billy Graham, Pope Francis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Mother Teresa come to mind. Most of us have been blessed with Christlike relatives, friends, and acquaintances whose holiness we long to imitate. Seeing their example, we yearn for something similar, for a harmony and integrity in our lives, a kind of loving genuineness that weaves our words and actions into a seamless garment.
In Christ, we find the fundamental pattern and strength for becoming ever holier. Genuinely holy people, as Smith portrays them, remind me of trees in which the DNA of Christ has been fully replicated through the power of the Spirit. The transformation of an acorn into a mature oak tree—or, to shift the metaphor, of a fallen sinner into a restored image bearer—is a wondrous, grace-filled process founded upon our union with Christ.
"I will speak of how the whole of the Christian life is found 'in Christ,'" writes Smith. "I will stress that this vision assumes a dynamic participation in the life of the ascended Christ, in real time. . . . We participate in the life of Jesus—literally, not metaphorically. . . . the extraordinary vision into which we are called is that we would be drawn into the very life of Christ and thereby into the life of God." In summary, Smith defines spiritual formation as "the cultivation of this union with Christ...."More at the link.