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Paul's View of Spiritual Formation, Part 4




Today, we continue our conversation about the concepts and practices of spiritual formation. In Part 4, we take a closer look at what the Apostle Paul has to say on the subject. Rabbi Shaul (the Apostle Paul) wrote the majority of what is now called the New Testament. His writings shaped the early Church and how they lived as followers of the Messiah Yeshua and continue to impact believers today.


What did Paul think about the idea of spiritual formation? Was it something that only the elite were to do or was it for everyday followers like you and me? You might be surprised!


 

Pauline Theology of Spiritual Formation


Paul’s corpus contains the earliest teachings for the NT community. They help us understand the first-century church’s beliefs, traditions, and theology. As it relates to spiritual formation, we will address three specific parts of Paul’s theology: 1) His understanding of the ecclesia expressed as both the body of Christ and the temple of God, 2) the role of suffering and resurrection power in formation, and 3) Paul’s expectation of metamorphóō “transformation” in the individual life of the believer.


The Body of Christ

As stated above, Paul’s ecclesiology does not separate personal salvation from NT community. It would seem from Paul’s letters that adopting NT faith is synonymous with joining a NT community. All of the apostle's letters were addressed to either NT communities or leaders of NT communities.


Thompson says that Paul was not satisfied with defining the ekklesia as simply “the people of God.”[1] Paul uses the image of the body to show how individual believers are interconnected and how each member contributes to the growth of others (1 Corinthians 12:12–27). A thumb by itself is useless without the rest of the body. The members of the body of Christ “are not collections of individuals who have joined together for a common cause but rather the people ‘in Christ’ and in the body of Christ.”[2]


Mary and Stephen Lowe use the image of a forest to explain how the members of the Body of Christ minister to one another. We only see the trees above the ground, and they appear to be separate, but underneath is “a vast underground interlocking fungal and root network that connects all of the trees together. Through these vast, hidden networks, the trees share nutrients, exchange carbon, and provide life-giving water to each other in a highly mutualistic interchange.”[3] When believers come together in worship, there is not only vertical interaction but horizontal as well. Most see the passage about all suffering or rejoicing when one suffers or rejoices (1 Cor 12:26) as a choice by the body to identify with the one. But based on the analogy that the Lowes put forth, it is more organic. If one smashes his thumb with a hammer, the whole body suffers involuntarily because the thumb is connected to the rest of the body.


The Temple of God

Paul also uses another metaphor familiar to his Jewish readers: the Temple of God. Former pagans also understood the idea of sacred space. Paul says God’s dwelling place is no longer a physical structure but the people of God. It is also the body of the individual believer.


In Corinth, factions were causing division (1 Cor 1:11–13, 3:3–5). Paul explains that the people of God, “you [plural],” are akin to the temple of God, meaning sacred space where “God’s Spirit dwells” (1 Cor 3:16). Those who cause divisions are not destroying a mere club, but the very the temple of God, which is holy (v. 17). For Jews, the desecration of the Temple is a memorable theme. It was roughly two hundred years before that the King Antiochus Epiphanes looted and desecrated the temple (1 Macc 1:21–24; 2 Macc 5:15–21). Furthermore, the Jewish believers in Corinth would make the connection with God’s desire for a dwelling place among men (Exod 25:8, Lev 26:11)[4]. Now, the people of God are his dwelling place.


Paul uses this imagery in confronting sexual immorality. But this time, he addresses the individual believer using again the metaphor of the temple as a sacred space. A believer's physical body is a dwelling place for the Spirit of God (1 Cor 6:19). “The introduction of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit reflects a change of focus that is consistent with the topic of sexuality in the immediate context.”[5] The apostle seeks to instill the fear of the Lord in those who would be tempted to commit sexual immorality. Who would dare take a prostitute into God's temple (1 Cor. 6:15b)?


Death and Resurrection in Formation

For Paul, suffering is an avenue to intimacy with Jesus. “Transformation as the participation in the suffering of Jesus is a familiar theme in Paul’s letters.”[6] From his first days as a follower of Messiah, he was told “how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (1 Acts 9:16). Many years later, he would confess that he longs to “share his sufferings, becoming like him in this death” (Phil 3:10), as this is a key to “knowing Christ” (v. 8). Paul uses a chiasm in Philippians, to demonstrate the need for both death and resurrection and spiritual formation. “The first elements are the power of his resurrection (v. 10) and attaining the resurrection from the dead (v. 11). The second elements are fellowship of sharing in sufferings (v. 10) and becoming like him in his death (v. 10).”[7]


In 2 Corinthians, Paul defends his apostleship, and right at the center of those things that validate him is his suffering, which “are nothing less than the sufferings of Christ.”[8] These specific sufferings are endured in our efforts to reach the lost. In this way, “We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body” (2 Cor 4:10–11). Notice that when Paul speaks of suffering, he also speaks of “life.” We saw this in Philippian chiasm above. He tells Timothy, “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him” (1 Tim 2:12 KJV). In Romans, Paul states that if we suffer with Jesus, we will be glorified with him (Rom 8:17b).


Paul understands that the physical body can only endure so much trauma. He refers to our bodies as fragile “jars of clay” that contain a spiritual “treasure” to show that the surpassing power belongs to God, and not to us.” (2 Cor 4:5). In Romans, he encourages them that present suffering cannot be compared “with the glory that is to be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). In his Corinthian defense, he confesses that the body is growing weak, remembering that the suffering, when compared to the glory that is coming, is merely a “light momentary affliction” (2 or 4:17). The mature believer, as he grows closer to physical death, is looking to the unseen world, which is eternal (2 Cor. 4:18). Despite the suffering and persecution, Paul says that they are not crushed, in despair, or destroyed (2 Cor. 4:8-9).


Make no mistake, Paul’s suffering was real. Like us, he did not always have this daily perspective of the glory to be revealed. Mark Chironna writes:

[Paul] opens the letter by describing in some detail the spiritual and psychological impact of his suffering. He says he was “burdened beyond measure,” beyond his limits, so that he actually “despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8 NKJV). Thus, later in the letter, when he says he is “perplexed, but not despairing,” it seems clear, at least to me, that he has experienced some sort of release from the worst of the trouble. Somehow, amid his suffering, he gained insight into his perplexity and learned how to handle it.[9]


Taken together, Paul’s understanding is that as we suffer with him, the power of God is released for salvation. As the body grows weaker, the glory glows brighter. He believes that all that he suffers for the gospel’s sake (2 Cor 11:23–29) not only validates him as an apostle but is the key to resurrection power in gospel preaching.


Transformation

Paul expects that those who enter NT baptism will be empowered to live a new life. (Rom 6:1-4). Baptism could be compared to what we call “The Sinner’s Prayer” today. Paul does not envision a baptism separate from the salvation experience. Peter expects Jews who want to find “forgiveness of your sins” to “be baptized” on the spot, “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). Hans Conzelmann agrees that “Baptism and receiving the Spirit (at salvation) belong together.”[10] Water immersion “vividly depicts the suddenness of the change from the old to the new humanity.”[11] As we shared above, this transformation is a massive change in character akin to metamorphosis.


Paul is burdened to see Messiah morphōthē, “formed” in believers (Gal 4:19). We are to be metamorphousthe, “transformed,” by renewing our mind with God’s word (Rom 12:2). God’s will is for us to be symmorphous, “conformed,” to Jesus’ image (Rom 8:28). As we behold Jesus, we are metamorphoumetha, “transformed” (1 Cor 3:18). Thompson writes, “The presence of forms of morph- in four of the undisputed letters (also Philippians) indicates the importance of transformation in the theology of Paul.”[12] This transformation results in people who “have been crucified with Messiah” (Gal 2:20). They walk in God’s Spirit and do not give in to carnal desires (Gal 5:16). The new life is characterized by what Paul refers to as the fruit of the Spirit, character traits dominated by love, humility, and discipline (Gal 5:22–23).


In conclusion, Stephen Lowe says, “[A]t the heart of Paul's understanding of spiritual formation is what theologians refer to as our union with Christ that leads to our being conformed to Christ as the final destination of the spiritual formation process.”[13] We looked at three ways Paul believed this takes place: In the NT Congregation, through suffering for Jesus, which leads to resurrection power, and by yielding to the Holy Spirit to allow our character to produce the spiritual fruit listed in Galatians 5:22–23. We should increasingly become more like Jesus in character and action as we behold him.



 

[1] James W. Thompson, The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 51.

[2] Ibid., 20.

[3] Mary and Stephen Lowe, About Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age: Spiritual Growth through Online Education (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 137-139.

[4] Thompson, The Church According to Paul, 67.

[5] Ibid., 68.

[6] Ibid., 112.

[7] Richard R. Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), 135.

[8] Thompson, The Church According to Paul, 113.

[9] Mark Chironna, On the Edge of Hope (Minneapolis, MI: Chosen Books, 2022) 104, Kindle.         

[10] Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, ed. Eldon Jay Epp and Christopher R. Matthews, trans. James Limburg, A. Thomas Kraabel, and Donald H. Juel, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 22.

[11] Thompson, The Church According to Paul, 118.

[12] Ibid., 104.

[13] Stephen Lowe, “Pauline Theology of Spiritual Formation,” Liberty University, February 6, 2024, 00:34, https://canvas.liberty.edu/courses/581417/pages/watch-pauline-theology-of-spiritual-formation?module_item_id=61391324.

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