Preachers tend to have subjects they keep going back to over and over. The subject that has grown in importance in my mind over the past few years is Spiritual Formation, which is the transformation of ordinary Christians into the image and nature of Christ.
This is probably the most neglected subject in the church. I do not exaggerate this. People get saved at church, but they don’t get changed. Spiritual formation is a discussion of how that change happens.
That change starts when we receive the Jesus as our Lord and Savior. God plants the Holy Spirit in them like a seed into the ground. That seed grows in us, transforming our earthly nature, until it produces Jesus’ nature in us. Just as the seed of a corn plant or potato plant takes water, soil and sunlight and transforms it into a vegetable, the Spirit transforms our human nature into something resembling Christ’s nature. The seed of the Spirit starts out very small in us, but it grows big. Jesus compares it to a mustard seed, which is the smallest of seeds, but grows into the biggest of shrubs. He compares it to yeast, which is a microscopic organism that can transform a mountain of dough. All it takes is a small seed, nurtured and allowed to grow and we will be formed into Christ’s image.
But there is no guarantee that even if we have the Spirit of Christ in us, that we will grow to Spiritual maturity. There are many sincere Christians who never get transformed into much more than worldly Christians. Those who do grow into Christian maturity do not all grow in the same way or to the same degree of Christlikeness. Some don’t grow at all. Others grow little. Some grow, but only very slowly.
Salvation is an all-or-nothing process. You don’t grow into being justified by Christ. You either are saved from hell or you are not. If you have faith in Jesus, you are saved, and you will be saved. But growth into Christ is not so simple. Some people who are saved don’t change much at all. In this metaphor, Jesus gives us a picture of what this growth looks like. Some people find that their spiritual growth has been choked out by the negative forces that are still at work in them, even though they have received the world. We talked about these three forces last week—the world, the flesh, and the Devil.
Sometimes, God’s word falls on hard, stony ground and no growth occurs at all. It’s like seed that falls on the roadside. This rocky soil is our hard and unyielding flesh—that is our habits, attitudes, and addictions. The Word of God falls on us, but our own stubborn hearts will not give it a place to grow.
Once we get a habit, attitude, or addiction, we hold on to it and defend it. The hardness of our habits gives no place to God’s Word.
If you’ve ever lived in the county, you know that plants don’t grow on dirt roads. Roads are hard, because the dirt been beaten down. Somebody took a steamroller to the dirt and squeezed out the spaces between the particles until nothing, not seed or even water can penetrate. People can be the same way. Something happens to us that is hard and traumatic, so we respond by getting harder. We become set in our ways.
It’s not always a steamroller. Sometimes we get hard through many footsteps over time going along the same road, until nothing new can grow there. When we get beaten down by old habits, we may hear what God can do for us and through us, but we cannot believe it. Our flesh builds up callouses when it is under pressure. When our hearts are calloused, nothing can penetrate that, either, so the seed of Christ cannot be formed there.
When we get this way, then God plows us. Hardship, suffering, and confusion is the plow he uses, and the Devil is often driving the plow. Once our stony old ways are broken up, then God can plant new seed in us. But we don’t have to experience suffering for that to happen. If we stay tender before the Lord, and listen to His word, we will break up the hard places and receive Him in to change our lives.
Our soil may not be hard all at once. Jesus also talks about rocky soil. We listen to God, but we only have a few soft spots. Since we can’t be fully grown, we stop growing. The growth of Christ inside us is stunted. We may grow a little like Jesus but are not ready to surrender out whole selves. We don’t like to admit our problems and mistakes. We hate repentance and would rather justify our sins than confess them. Because we do not fully surrender ourselves, Christ cannot be fully formed within.
Jesus describes something else that stymies our growth--weedy lives. This is when we allow other seeds to grow in us, along with the seed of Christ.
Faith in Christ is not the only seed that wants to transform us. The Enemy plants other seeds in us.
Consumerism is one of those seeds. This is the seed that wants to turn us into mindless, greedy consumers. Commercials on television are not just designed to sell you a product, but to make you into a particular kind of people—people who must have things to be happy. A consumer is a person who believes that having the right clothes, using the right deodorant, or spending lots of money on food, cars, and houses is what life is all about. There’s a popular bumper sticker which says, “He who dies with the most toys wins.” That’s the motto for the consumer. Commercials are not just selling stuff, but transforming your spirit into a consumer spirit. They are forming you into the wrong kind of spiritual being. If that seed takes root, then there is no room for the seed of Christ.
Political power is another kind of seed. It doesn’t want us to be people, but cogs in a political machine. We aren’t human beings, but liberals, conservatives, progressives, nationalists, and so forth. This seed wants you to become the kind of person who thinks that if the right political party is in office, then we’ll have peace and security as well as happiness and joy. Your Christlikeness had nothing to do with who is in the White House now. The political seed produces partisans who mistake the worldly power for the power of Christ.
Social favor is another seed the devil plants in us. It’s the desire to please and be pleased by others. It’s the seed that transforms us into mindless conformists. The social seed teaches us that happiness lies in being part of our group, our race, or our family. Social conformists think that the way to get rid of problems is to uproot anyone around us who is different. It is the seed that says being like other people will make us happy. How can the seed of Christ thrive when all our enthusiasm and effort seem to go into making ourselves into the image of our favorite celebrity, and fitting in with the crowd?
Jesus describes a third danger to the seed inside us. It can be stolen from us before it takes root. Jesus says the birds will steal it away.
The birds in this story represent the Satan and those who follow him. These are the spiritual forces and people who profit from us not following God. They steal the seed from the hearts of our people.
There are leaders outside and inside the church that do not want people to grow. They fight even the concept of being formed into Christ’s image. They would rather keep Christians immature and dependent on themselves so that they can continue to feed off them.
I believe much of the church has the wrong mission. That mission is to make people into those who serve the church. Their goal is to get workers and tithers who will support the church, fill the pews and to improve the finances. There is nothing wrong with that—in fact it’s good for the institutional church. The problem is that our motivations for doing it are not as pure as we think. Ministers and church leaders are judged by how large their churches are, by how big their salaries and their church budgets are, and how much their churches contribute to the work of the denominations. But God doesn’t judge churches that way.
Christians do not exist to build churches—churches exist to build Christians. When people are growing into the image of Jesus then the work of Jesus is done in the world. The local church is the only institution in the world created for this purpose. Everything else we do, from church growth, social action, and evangelism is the byproduct of successfully building people into the image of Jesus.
At the end of this parable, Jesus discloses the product of growing into Christ’s image. When spiritual growth reaches its full fruition, then it yields a huge harvest—thirty-fold, sixty-fold, even a hundred-fold.
Much of what we enjoy in Western Christian culture is merely the byproduct of Christians who sought to imitate the image of Jesus living out our faith. Christian scientists like Isaac Newton, Tyco Brahe, George Washington Carver, and Francis Collins have borne great fruit in science. Christian social reformers produced the anti-slavery movement, the prison reform movement, women’s suffrage movement, the labor movement, and democracy itself. Christian evangelists like Billy Graham and D. L. Moody won millions to Christ, not just because they preach the Cross, but because they lived publicly like Christians. The difference between Billy Graham and the crooked televangelists who have brought disgrace to the church was his Christlike character, words and behavior. We may do great things for God, build great ministries in Jesus’ name, but if we don’t act like Jesus, we may hear Jesus say to us in the end, “I never knew you, and you never knew me.” But if we plant a single flower or raise a single child in a way that Jesus would, for the sake of being like Him, He will say “great is your reward in heaven.” It’s not the size of our ministry that matters, but it is the quality of Christ in us.
Building people into the image of God is the greatest mission we can ever have in life, and the only mission that can last in eternity.
If you want to follow Jesus, then break up your heart and allow him in. Weed you hearts of the other images that compete for your time and effort, and hide the seed of the Word deep inside, so that it can grow. Then Christ will do the rest.