The journey in Christ is all about transformation. At least five stages of transformation are implied in the New Testament. If we follow where this leads, we might expect to experience changes in direction, self-worth, identity, power, and perception.
And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. ~2 Corinthians 3:18
As we see, Paul suggests we are being transformed into the very image of Christ with ever-increasing glory. How exciting! How scary.
The Greek word for transformation is metamorphóō. It’s the root of our English word metamorphosis. Out of curiosity, I looked up the definition of metamorphosis. It’s quite revealing. Metamorphosis is a process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.
From this definition, I intuit that the Christian journey moves us toward a more mature state in a process that’s likely to occur in stages. Here are some of the stages identified in the New Testament.
Stage 1: Repentance
The Hebrew word for repentance is teshuvah. Teshuvah is an about face, a complete change of direction. One minute we’re pursuing one way of life. The next we’re pursuing another. Specifically, teshuvah means turning away form our self-serving ventures to focus our love and energy into God’s kingdom. There are a lot of reasons why we might do this.
Sometimes we just get fed up. Things didn’t work out as planned. There’s no real peace or joy in our life. Maybe a relationship ended. We might lose our job. An addiction runs its course. We’re just stressed out. And so forth.
Repentance also happens when things are going well. Maybe we just start to wonder, Is there something more I could be doing with my life? How can I help?
At the moment of repentance, our heart changes. This is what the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, implies–a change of heart and mind. This can be quite sudden and dramatic, but most of us are kind slow learners. We have to keep learning the same lessons over and over again. As a result, we may find ourselves repenting many times, which is okay. God is very patient with us.
Stage 2: Justification
Justification is when God pardons us as an act of grace. Another word for this is redemption. Redemption makes everything right again. Amazingly, every time we turn back to God, we’re given a clean slate. All is forgiven because God is merciful.
If we could really understand this, we wouldn’t try so hard to prove ourselves all the time. Our guilt, shame, and fear–all that binds us–would be instantly removed. The past would be left where it belongs. In the past!
Ironically, while justification is all about what God does for us, we also do a lot of growing at this stage. I especially struggle. As a perfectionist it’s hard for me to believe that my sense of self-worth isn’t based on demonstrating how good I am. I have to remind myself of something very important. My identity is now in Christ. It’s not about me! There’s nothing I need to prove.
Stage 3: Rebirth
Being born again is about finding this new identity in Christ. We’re not just forgiven; we’ve been incorporated into a much larger body. We become, as Peter put it, partakers of the divine nature. This can be quite a dramatic shift for us. As we begin to take on our new identity in Christ, we naturally feel better about who we are. We may even wake up to a new sense of purpose.
This can also be a difficult transition. Self-interest is consumed in the resurrected Christ. It’s hard to even know what that means. It’s a big leap of faith, trusting that new life always follows death. Still, as we begin to find our place in the body of Christ, we will be guided by God’s holy presence. A deeper relationship with God develops as a result.
Stage 4: Communion
In Christ, we willfully discern the voice of God who, incidentally, has been speaking to us all along. Our awareness of the power of the Holy Spirit acting in and through us seals our salvation. As we begin to understand the gifts God has given us, our ministry expands outward. We’re finally in a position to help others develop and grow.
Unfortunately (and I know I’m guilty of this), we often begin before we’re ready. We can end up pushing our agenda and beliefs on others rather than acting out of genuine love. This is a real turn off. People don’t usually want to be told what to think and believe. They want to understand how their life might flow more smoothly and how their pain can be decreased. They’re simply looking for guidance along the way.
So it’s important to spend a lot of time in deep communion with God. This is how the love of Christ develops in us.
Stage 5: Salvation
Salvation, in one sense, is all these stages put together. It’s also that moment when we finally receive the gift of eternal life. This may sound like a strange thing to say but receiving the gift of eternal life can and should happen before we die. That’s why Paul always speaks about it in the present tense.
Here’s what I mean. When we are saved, something amazing happens. The world literally changes before our eyes. Jesus called it having eyes to see. Many of us experience this awakening after prolonged periods of silent communion with God. A vivid display of divine love and light opens up to us.
Of course, we catch glimpses of this all the time. We just don’t know it. Maybe we see a flower properly. Perhaps a glimmer of light on the ocean catches our eye. Like Jesus, we sense that the kingdom is at hand. It has always been right here.
We will continue having the experience Jesus called entering the kingdom from now into all of eternity and that is our saving grace.
The five stages of transformation presented here seem to flow quite naturally.
First, we turn toward God, and there’s a dramatic shift in the way we think and feel. We come to understand we are both forgiven and deeply loved. So we feel better about ourselves as a new sense of identity emerges. Realizing we are a part of the larger body of Christ, we discern God’s presence in and around us. We hear God’s voice as we enter the eternal kingdom. This process is what Christians generally refer to as liberation or salvation.
It all sounds rather orderly so I want to be clear in saying that spiritual growth is not orderly. Fortunately for us, this isn’t a problem. There’s no shame in repeating steps or even in finding ourselves back at the beginning. It just means God is taking us deeper into the truth. And that’s a good thing! It’s the nature of the journey.