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."

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To be holy, then, is to be human in Christ, to find in him our life's purpose and direction, and through union with him to become what we were designed to be from the very beginning, before sin took its toll. In Christ, our minds are invigorated. Spiritual lungs that were brittle and hardened inhale the Spirit's fire and begin pumping life—wholeness, holiness—into us. Gradually our inner compass swings to its true north as we transition away from a self-centered life to a Christ-centered life. Our union with Christ is like a homecoming in which everything is perfectly prepared: The door opens, the lights come on, the table is set with food and drink, and fresh, clean clothing is laid out on the bed. We eat, we drink, we rest, we dress, and into the future we go.

Four Hallmarks of Holiness

Union with Christ empowers a lifelong transformation toward spiritual maturity. Smith identifies four key markers in this process: the renewal of our minds and hearts through the cultivation of biblical wisdom; the discernment of our life's meaning and the particular vocation to which Christ is calling us; the knowledge of God's love for us and the call to love God and neighbor; and the consistent manifestation of deep-seated joy. To elaborate on each point:

First, a holy person is a wise person who possesses "a heart and mind informed by the truth, largely through the witness of the Scriptures." Wisdom, as Smith describes it, is a healthy, well-developed moral intelligence. We especially see the evidence of it in how we spend our money, use our words, behave sexually, and willingly suffer with Christ in the midst of the present evil age.

Second, a holy person is someone who possesses "clarity about his or her calling—with the courage and humility and capacity to fulfill this vocation." To be holy is to learn to "live in time," to be gracefully empowered to say at the end of our days, "I have completed the work that was given to me." Vocational holiness, then, is much more than finding the job God has for us. It is moving courageously, faithfully, hopefully, and joyfully into the life God offers us in our gift of years. "We let go of envy and resentment and embrace the life that has been given to us," free of our sinful tendency toward self-deception and self-illusion, of "either thinking too highly of ourselves or discounting ourselves."

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Third, a holy person "knows how to love others in Christ as Christ has loved us." Smith describes love as much more than simply being nice. Rather, love is an "invitation to social holiness. . . . It is never a stretch to speak of holiness and love in the same breath. . . . What is too often lacking is an appreciation of the deep substance of love; both its close relationship with the law and how it is fundamentally a matter of service."

And finally, Smith identifies holy people as those who are skilled at living in a "fragmented world" with a "deep and resilient joy." With Christ as their "emotional center," they can endure all the storms of life without surrendering to despair.

In other words, the mark of authentic holiness—not its caricature-driven counterfeit—is "emotional resilience, an emotional maturity that is perhaps most evident in a deep and abiding joy." Even the reality of our own mortality nourishes our joy, rather than diminishing it. For "we truly learn to live in joy only as we learn to face our mortality and then allow that awareness to speak to us about the preciousness of life, of this day and of this moment. We can savor life by allowing this awareness to transform each moment, each day, into an opportunity to live fully."

Smith's thoughts draw me, once again, to the metaphor of a mature oak tree. Its DNA has fully replicated. Its roots have gone down deep. It stands tall and strong, soaking in the sun. Its bark may have withered and some branches may have cracked, but its sap is strong and its leaves are healthy.

So, too, Smith helps us understand that the mature Christian is one whose root system has drunk deeply from the life Christ offers. In Called to Be Saints, readers can gaze upon a genuine human being--ever more thoroughly rinsed from sin's contamination--whose mind and heart have been shaped by the wonder and glory of the image of the invisible God, Christ himself. Christ's holy image-bearer has been both created and re-created, and the result is joy.

Christopher A. Hall, a CT editorial board member, is distinguished professor of theology and director of academic spiritual formation at Eastern University.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity
Our Rating
4 Stars - Excellent
Book Title
Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity
IVP Academic
Release Date
December 5, 2013
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