In a previous post, I tinkered with the idea that God’s mission was much more than a rescue mission either to save human souls or to restore the earth. Rather, God’s mission began far before the Fall. In fact, mission is part of who God is. As such, God’s mission finds its natural and initial expression in the first verse of the Bible, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This verse not only describes what God did, but more importantly, who God is.
So God’s mission is the ongoing growth of a good creation, nurtured by creatures of such honor and distinction that they are said to reflect God’s invisible image into that world. This mission is carried forward by God’s reign, a reign that he always chooses to be mediated upon the earth through human beings.
Of course, as humans choose to pursue their own rebellion, God’s mission takes on a rescuing and restorative component. But it is still the same mission — to move his good creation forward through his authority and reign mediated by human stewards.
The two interconnected concepts of image-bearing and delegated authority as part of God’s mission flow naturally to the topic of spiritual formation into Christ’s likeness.
Jesus was the proper image of God, the true icon of God (Col 1:15). And he was God’s human agent of authority upon the earth (Matt 28:18). In Christ, God’s image and authority are being restored to us. We are being restored into the image of God, but more specifically, the image of Christ who is the true and proper image of God (Col 3:9-10). And as Jesus has been given all authority in heaven and earth, we are learning to “reign in life” (Rom 5:17), anticipating the eschatological establishment of God’s kingdom through true and proper human stewardship when we will “reign for ever and ever.” (Rev 22:5)
In this light, spiritual formation is by grace unlearning dehumanizing patterns and relearning truly humanizing patterns of being and living toward God, ourselves and others (Titus 2:11-14). It is the restoration of our humanity as icons of God. As we are restored first inwardly and then outwardly into the image of Christ, we increasingly take up our proper stewardship upon the earth, a stewardship that mediates God’s reign.
I have heard it said, “Spiritual formation into Christ’s likeness is mission.” On a simple level I would agree with this point. However, more must be said. Paul states in Colossians that God was pleased to have his fullness dwell in and through Christ with a very specific goal in mind (Col 1:19-20). That goal was the reconciling and harmonizing of heaven and earth. This is God’s mission. God is not just rescuing humanity and creation, but harmonizing and aligning all things in heaven and earth (cf Eph 1:10). Or to articulate it more in Jesus’ words, God’s name is being hallowed, God’s kingdom is coming and God’s will is being accomplished on earth as it is in heaven.
This cannot happen without spiritual formation into Christ’s likeness. Neither an individual nor a local church can participate in God’s mission without seriously participating in spiritual formation. Jesus sends us as the Father sent him. This requires us to learn from Jesus how to be like him.
Romans 8:22-30 clearly unpacks this idea. As creation longs for its redemption and liberation, it begins to happen as we are conformed into Christ’s likeness. And Christ’s likeness is specifically becoming people who can stand in the place of the world’s pain, groaning in harmony with both creation’s longing for liberation and the Spirit’s longing to liberate. Living, working, praying and groaning in the place of the world’s pain is part of forming the cruciform likeness of Christ in us. This is both our participation in God’s mission and in the process of spiritual formation.
Truly as we become more and more like Christ from the inside-out, heaven and earth do merge in and through our lives. But we must always keep in mind that our formation into Christ’s likeness is for the sake of the world. As we train in his grace and experience his transformation, we become in actuality God’s temple, the place where God dwells and thus the place where heaven and earth come together. But again, this is toward a greater and grander goal than our own transformation. We become the embodiment of Christ, continuing his incarnation, in order that through our being, our living, our speaking, and our doing, we may implement the reconciliation of heaven and earth that he began, anticipating the finale when God’s presence and love flood and overflow upon the earth.