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Christian Education Journal: Research on Educational Ministry
2018, Voi. 15(2) 243-261 © The Author(s) 2018
Reprints and permission: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav
Christian Education as Discipleship Formation
DOI: 10.1 177/0739891318778859 journals.sagepub.com/home/cej
®SAGE William F. Cox Jr Regent University, VA, USA
Robert A. Peck The Samuel School, Harrisburg, PA, USA
Abstract To be true to its name-sake, the academic focus of Christian education should be in service to discipleship, not vice versa. Only discipleship formation equips for the eternal transcendent issue of life. Christian discipleship expectations for home, church, and school settings are elaborated under seven biblical mandates: Dominion Mandate, populate the earth, self-governance, the First Greatest Commandment, the two parts of the Second Greatest Commandment (love self and love others), and the Great Commission.
Keywords discipleship, Christian, education, Bible
Introduction Christian discipleship is a major, all-encompassing theme of the Bible – Old and New Testaments alike. Pivotally articulated in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18- 20 ), it addresses all dimensions of life, is deeply grounded in teaching and mentor- ing, and applies to practically all age levels. Its content includes but is not limited to expectations such as comprehensive Bible knowledge, witnessing strategies, inter- personal relationships, apologetic skills, logical reasoning, world/life-view integra- tion, parenting, teaching, personal integrity, spiritual warfare, faith-learning integration, stewardship of creation, sustained allegiance, miracles, and so on. In effect, the formation of Christian disciples is essentially about equipping for the
Corresponding author: William F. Cox Jr., Regent University, 1000 Regent University Dr, Virginia Beach, VA 23464, USA. Email: [email protected]
Christian Education Journal: Research on Educational Ministry 15(2)244
highest order citizenship both on earth and in heaven, namely the kingdom of God (Matt. 13:11; Eph. 2:19; 1 Pet. 2:9). To compartmentalize discipleship as a subset of academics and/or minimize it is to short-change preparation for and thus participa- tion in this singular citizenship of inestimable value.
Equipping for discipleship’s 360 degree, 24/7 biblically-based lifestyle fully applies across the generations within the major formative institutions of home, church, and school (Graustein & Schultz, 1995). Regarding the home, the Bible calls parents to raise their children as unto the Lord (e.g., Deut. 6; Eph. 6:4; Ps. 78) and to disciple one another (Eph. 5:22-32). The church, whether in group venues (cf. Jn 7:15; Lk. 2:46) or individual mentoring (1 Tim. 1:18), carries its share of discipleship responsibilities. Christian education institutions, the third of what has been called the three-legged stool of Christian education, carry their responsibilities as part of the Church even if in non-ecclesiastical settings. Christian teacher and lexicographer Noah Webster captured the weightiness of discipleship equipping with his analogous observation that “The Education of youth, an employment of more consequence than making laws and preaching the gospel, because it lays the foundation on which both law and gospel rest for success” (Webster, 1828, cited in Slater, 1967, p. 12). Undoubtedly, Webster was claiming that education which lays such a foundation is more about forming the person than about teaching for only temporal competence.
Discipleship Minimized Comprehensive discipleship expectations notwithstanding, Christians in the United States are apparently rather deficient exemplars of discipleship fidelity. For exam- pie, a high percentage of youth leave the church once away from home (Ham & Beemer, 2009), sharing the Gospel is typically an intimidating effort for most Christians (Reid, 2017), two-thirds of the U.S. Christians surveyed by the Pew Research Center say many religions can lead to eternal life, and most of them say some non-Christian religions can lead to life everlasting (2015), pornography has a significant grip on pastors (CBN News, 2016), and biblical literacy among Chris- tians is low (Mohler, 2016).
Discipleship scholar Dallas Willard (1998) pointedly addressed this plight with the observation that few Christians have intentionally made the decision to live like Jesus (p. 297). Most, he claims, think no further about their Christianity than that it is “fire insurance” against going to hell (p. 37). And of the contemporary Christian, he says, “he or she has no compelling sense that understanding of and conformity with the clear teachings of Christ is of any vital importance to [their] life and certainly not in any way essential… Such obedience is regarded as out of the question or impossible” (1998, front cover). Similarly, Willard (2006) claims, “I know of no current denomination or local congregation that has a concrete plan and practice for teaching people to do ‘all things whatsoever I have commanded you’” (pp. 72-73).
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The prevalence of this orientation by Christians is referenced by Hull’s (2006) synonymous terms “two-tier Christianity” and “non-discipleship Christianity” (p. 41).
Quite possibly, a causative factor for the low discipleship status of Christians relates to the fact that approximately 80 percent of children from U.S. Christian homes attend public schools (Newman, 2017) where biblically based discipleship equipping is forbidden yet where discipleship in the oppositional life-view of humanism reigns (Cox, 2013; Cox, 2014a). Even when Christian schools are con- sidered as potentially valuable, administrators report that the predominant question of parents is whether their children will be equipped by that school to enter a reputable college. In other words, Christian discipleship is apparently low on the list of parental aspirations for their children (which doesn’t speak well of parents’ own discipleship maturity!). In turn, out of financial necessity, academically related priorities in Christian schools tend to prevail over discipleship related priorities.
Encouragement regarding the contribution of Christian schools toward disciple- ship comes from Simmons (2012/2013), former president of the Association of Christian Schools International. He believes that “everything that the school does should be within the context of discipleship to Jesus Christ” (p. 1). Even so, there is a lack of published research on the practice of and outcomes from discipleship in Christian schools (Alarid, 2015; Allotta, 2013) and likewise regarding the interest of school leadership in that activity (Frye, 2017).
This matter of discipleship is especially crucial for children for at least the following three reasons (cf. Matt. 18:3, 19:14). (1) Bible text and the educational receptivity of humans reveal that learners are most impressionable and teachable in the early years of life (cf. Lk. 1:41-44; Moll, 2014; Tough, 2012; Vemy, 1981; 2 Tim. 3:15). (2) From a biblical and Jewish historical perspective, children were prepared beforehand for the teen years’ onset of adulthood (cf. Barclay, 1959; Lk. 2:42-44; Isa. 7:15). (3) The likelihood of becoming a Christian is highest during the school age years, diminishing significantly thereafter (Bama, 2017; Culbertson, 2015).
Discipleship and/or Education At creation, God’s first expectation of Adam and Eve to produce others in their, and thus in His image (Genesis 28b), marked the beginning of Christian discipleship. Subsequently, because of the sin-contamination of human nature and environmental orderliness, intentional academic equipping necessarily became an integral part of discipleship. In New Testament times, the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20) in effect links discipleship activities to Dominion Mandate, related competencies (e.g., literacy). For instance, how to teach, read and understand God’s Word are among the methods for and outcomes of discipleship formation.
Historically, a predominant rationale for Christian schools has been that bibli- cally infused academics will lead to developing the qualities of Christ in students. A reasonable assumption: biblical accounts of discipleship equipping essentially occur
Christian Education Journal: Research on Educational Ministry 15(2)246
within academically related content such as enumeration (e.g., Matt. 15:32-38, 16:9- 10), logical reasoning (e.g., Mk 3:25), construction of buildings (e.g., Jn 6:48), and reading and writing (e.g., Jn 10:26). Exemplifying that perspective, great scientists (e.g., Einstein, Faraday, Galileo, Newton) professed the desire to study creation for the very purpose of understanding the mind of Christ (Dao, 2009). Accordingly, it is rather typical for Christian schools to advertise that they are “Christ-centered”. Paradoxically, the exponential increase in contemporary understandings of the mys- teries of the universe through research, inventions, science, and technology has generally not been accompanied by a connected, public acknowledgment of com- mensúrate understandings of God’s mind. Instead, the contemporary culture is increasingly departing from even believing in the God of creation (Ham & Beemer, 2009; Hetland, 2011 ; McDowell, 2006), at the same time that the scientific potential for “understanding” God’s mind is increasing and thus where his reputation should be spreading. Over time, however, this interdependence of discipleship and equip- ping for temporal dominion-taking has significantly blurred their relative impor- tance. Clarifying this interdependency is what this article is about.
Elaborating further, an Internet search on the phrase “discipleship education” reflects a bifurcation of discipleship and education even though from a biblical perspective they are not separate entities. It is not as if discipleship programs don’t exist. As the search revealed, there are a number of discipleship programs at the university (e.g., Biola University, Liberty University, Regent University) and insti- tute (e.g., C.S. Lewis Institute, Navigators, Youth with a Mission) levels. But it is relatively rare that Christian education for adults organically incorporates disciple- ship within academic and professional programs much less makes discipleship the guiding conceptual framework.
Throughout this article, the case is made that discipleship formation should be the foundational focus of Christian education. In support of that perspective, the article closes with a detailed description of the educational implications of biblically based discipleship expectations, categorized within seven high-order “mandates” from God.
Rationale for Discipleship Education Arguably, intellectually focused activities regarding knowing and understanding the Scriptures (Jn 5:39-40) are not the prime biblically recommended way toward knowing God and being His disciple. Indeed, knowledge about God that results from academic/intellectual attainments is qualitatively different from personally and experientially knowing Him. Biographical accounts such as of the wisest human who ever lived – Solomon (1 Kings 4:13); the person likely first to be filled with the Holy Spirit – Bezalel (Exod. 31:3); more recently the humble slave turned great scientist – George Washington Carver (Federer, 2002); and most recently the famed neurosur- geon – Ben Carson (Carson & Murphy, 1990) suggest that relationship with God may even precede rather than follow intellectual attainments resulting from the
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search for God. Augustine’s quote – “believe so that you may understand” (Nash, 1994, p. 88) – nicely captures this orientation.
Relationship with Academics
True, the Dominion Mandate established at creation (Gen. 1:26, 28) “legitimizes” the academic aspects of education for understanding and thus governing creation (i.e., the non-human environment). But that is not the same thing as saying that academics for temporal dominion-taking axiomatically results in a better under- standing of and a personal relationship with God. In fact, there is little evidence from Christian schools, homes or churches to support the belief that intellectually motivated understandings about God’s creation enable, intentionally and eviden- tially, a closer relationship with Him. The general lack of evidence regarding the union of competencies derived from earth-focused schooling (i.e., Dominion Man- date related academics) and student Christ-likeness (i.e., disciple formation) opens the question of what is being done in existing Christian education institutions (i.e., home, school, and church) to develop that fully-orbed interconnectivity.
Obviously, the frequently expressed claim of Christian education institutions that they are “Christ-centered” needs clarification. It might mean, for instance, that Christ taught the same kind of subjects typically taught in such academically oriented institutions. Evidently not the case, perhaps the phrase about being Christ-centered is instead saying that the discipleship teachings Jesus was regularly promoting is exactly what these contemporary educational institutions are likewise doing. This is not likely the case either since there is very little evidence that Christian educational institutions that fly the banner of being Christ-centered even conceptualize their endeavors in a superordinate discipleship paradigm. In either case, the expression “Christ-centered education” is strained since Jesus did not come primarily for, nor promote, nor die for academics, labor saving inventions, scientific/ technological advances, and other similar naturalistic endeavors. The beneficial aspects of Christian education notwithstanding, academics are not promoted in the Bible as the recommended route to discipleship formation as expected by Jesus.
Clarifying further, Christian education institutions err when they biblically justify their academics on words in the New Testament such as mind, understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. In context (context being a prime biblical hermeneutic), these words relate more to moral, relational, and life-style matters rather than to intellectual equipping. For example, interpreting the renewing of the mind passage in Rom. 12:2 as biblical support for the academic aspect of Christian education, as some Christian educators do, is problematic. In context, examples of the renewed mind in subsequent verses 3 through 8 focus on Christian living rather than on essentially intellectual endeavors. Additionally, in this same context, the emphasis on “mind” in the New Testament (NKJV) often refers to intrapersonal matters such as a sound mind (Mk 5:15), inclination and purpose (Rom. 8:17), and deep thought (Matt. 22:37). Similarly, the word “know” often refers to interpersonal matters such
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as knowing Jesus (e.g., Eph. 1:17, 18, NKJV), and experiencing His attributes of power and the fellowship of His sufferings (Phil. 3:10). Quite possibly the mis- construal of the meaning of these words is related to the argued misconstrual about discipleship in Christian education. That is, learning about and knowing how to manage the natural, temporal creation of God apparently is rarely if ever taught in the Bible as the essence of Christian discipleship.
Discipleship Priority in Christian Education
The word Christian in the New Testament (Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Pet. 4:16) means follower of Christ, i.e. “little Christs.” In effect, these expressions signify that Christians are to demonstrate the nature of their elder brother Jesus who himself demonstrates the nature of Father God (Jn 10:30, 14:9). Accordingly, Christian education is about far more than just academics; it is ultimately about discipleship!
The inherent connection between education and discipleship is made very clear by Jesus’ command to His disciples (Matt. 28:18-20, NKJV): “Go therefore and make disciples, teaching them…” (emphasis added). They were to do what He did (Jn 14:12, 15:16, 17:18). Reiterating the main point of this article, important as academics are in Christian education, the more important focus, both temporally and eternally, has to be discipleship formation. And this age-unlimited expectation is incumbent upon all three formative institutions of home, church, and school.
The following seven biblical orientations address the relative priority valuing of discipleship formation rather than academics as the foundational basis of Christian education. First and foremost, as expressed in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18), Jesus commanded discipleship. Second, an obvious ultimate source in the Old Tes- tament for understanding the natural and human environment was not primarily humans but God Himself (cf. 2 Chron. 1:12). Third, when Jesus met temporal needs it was, at least in the recorded accounts, most often not by way of the natural but by the supernatural (e.g., catching fish – Jn 21:6, making bread – Mk 6:41-44, produc- ing wine – Jn 2:9, healing physical afflictions – Lk. 17:19, and freeing from demonic torment – Mk 4:16). Fourth, important and as necessary as they are, temporally oriented academic accomplishments are in fact transitory since they will be destroyed, this final time by fire (Gen. 7:21-23; 2 Pet. 3:7, 10-13). Fifth, since the full liberation of creation from the bondage of decay will happen only when the sons of God are revealed (Rom. 8:19-23), the Dominion Mandate, even with all the benefits of academic success, takes a lower place than identity focused discipleship. Sixth, by virtue of carrying His name, Christian education should have His own pre- eminent high order focus regarding “making” disciples for Kingdom living (cf. Matt. 6:10). Seventh, Christian education is misguided without a focus on Christian dis- cipleship qualities such as cooperating with the Holy Spirit, intimacy with Jesus, and unconditionally loving others. In fact, without evidence of these qualities, excellence of academics, since attainable also by non-Christians, does not qualify as the high water mark of Christian discipleship.
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One more issue needs to be discussed, however, prior to directly addressing the content of discipleship education. This issue helps contextualize the crucial nature of inter- and intra-relationships. In fact, this issue undergirds the very essence of dis- cipleship formation.
The strong emphasis on teaching and educating in the Bible would seemingly be accompanied by some clear how-to-educate type prescriptions. However, while the Bible gives numerous admonitions about the necessity of biblically infused educa- tion (e.g., Deut. 4:9, 6:7; Eph. 6:4; Ps. 78:1-7), it gives no explicit educational methodology regarding how to carry out those highly consequential admonitions. For instance, there are few if any guidelines in the Bible regarding how to differ- entiate the teaching of various kinds of content, age levels of learners, learning and teaching styles, or environmental settings – all of which are posited by educators as necessary elements in educational prescriptions (Murray, 1989). This biblical absence of prescriptive methodology seems to be a serious omission in light of the fact that the nature of education people receive will likely affect their entire lives, if not also their eternal destiny.
Not a God who leaves His people without essential guidance, the reality is that He has very amply provided the understandings for quality educational methods. Point- ing us in that direction are various accounts (e.g., Collins & Tamarkin, 1982; Comer, 2004; Cox, 2014b; Omish, 1998) documenting that the most important understand- ing about education is that it is a relationship-embedded endeavor. As Yale univer- sity professor Comer (2004) repeatedly declared, the reason for his huge success as an educator is captured in three words – “relationship, relationship, relationship” (p. xiii). And as celebrated inner-city educator Collins (Collins & Tamarkin, 1982) similarly explained regarding her success in teaching disadvantaged children: “The one thing all children finally wanted was the chance to be accepted for themselves, to feel some self-worth. Once they felt it, children became addicted to learning, and they had the desire to leam forever” (p. 92). Relationally based authentication is key!
Specifically, relational love is highly efficacious regarding the impact and mean- ingfulness of educational activities (Cox, 2014b). Conversely, the absence or oppo- site of loving relationships is invariably deleterious to all human endeavors including education (cf. Prov. 15:1, 18:21, 25:11, 25:15). Commensurately, the Bible gives very clear directives regarding human relationships. For instance, by virtue of being created in the image and likeness of Him who is love, a highly significant quality of human nature is that humans are created to love, to desire love ( 1 Jn 4:8,16), and to be nurtured by love both administered and received. As a case in point, it wasn’t until the disciples were healed by Jesus of their relationally based hard-heartedness that they could then leam what He was teaching them (cf. Mk 6:52, 7:18, 8:17). Plainly stated, relationship is the central aspect of education. Paraphras- ing Bible text, the gaining of temporal wisdom and learning the secrets of creation
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(both obviously connected to education), as well as operating in the power of biblically based faith and speaking in the tongue of angels (connecting uniquely to Christian education) all amount to very little – in fact “nothing” in God’s economy without relational love (1 Cor. 13:1-13).
So far, three major issues have been discussed. One, even though directly com- manded by Jesus, discipleship development (in the United States) seems to be minimally valued. Next, the two formal Christian institutions of Church and Chris- tian education, separately or jointly, give little evidence of intentional discipleship formation. Three, love-based, interpersonal relationship seems to be the unacknow- ledged but powerful key element for discipleship integrity. Mindful of the discipleship-relevant principle (cf. Prov. 18:21) regarding the power of the tongue (and quill and keyboard), the remainder of this article is devoted to speaking posi- tivity into the matter of Christian discipleship.
Focus Points for Re-conceptualizing Discipleship Education
Context and Task
Before the fall of mankind, Adam and Eve lived within the context of right relation- ships (i.e., with God, self, others, and nature – Gen. 1:31). Within that context, a major task given to them by God was to steward the non-human environment – often called the Dominion Mandate (Gen. 1:26, 28). The word “task” is appropriate since work (“till” – Strong’s OT 5647, i.e. to work or dress – Gen. 2:5 KJV) needed to be done to the ground (and metaphorically to all of life) and needed the assistance of a helper (“help meet” – Strong’s OT 5828, i.e. help – Gen. 2:18 KJV). It can be argued that doing the Dominion Mandate task of naming the animals was effectually in service to the larger relationship issue of aloneness (Gen. 2:18-24). Important as it was to manage the earth for God, being created in His image by Him suggests a higher-dimensioned, interpersonal relationship purpose for humanity. Specifically, the first command (Gen. 1:28) given to Adam and Eve was supremely relational. (The hermeneutical principle of “first mention” tells us this first ordering is very important – Hartill, 1960.) Regarding the importance of relationship, this first man- date originated out of relationship, promoted conjugal/familial relationship, and multiplied relationship via population expansion. Far more important than managing the non-human environment, God wanted that all the earth would increasingly be populated by humans who live in a “very good” (cf. Gen 1:31, NKJV; 2 Pet. 3:9) relationship with Him and secondarily with all image bearers.
However, after the Fall, the context and the task were severely altered – in a sense reversed. Adam and Eve’s (and humanity’s) primary task was no longer dominion- taking but instead restoration of the various dimensions of relationship that were lost at the Fall, particularly with God but also with self and others (cf. the three parts of the Two Greatest Commandments). And the context was no longer the enjoyment of intra- and interpersonal relationships but instead engagement in Dominion Mandate
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activities over a deteriorating natural environment. Given the first-order purpose of effecting the still relevant pre-Fail priority of a family-of-God populous, adminis- tration of the Dominion Mandate thus became the medium or occupying activity within which God-family enhancements occur (cf. Lk. 19:13). This “reversal” per- spective is signaled by the fact that Jesus came for relationship restoration – not primarily for easing the sometimes extremely arduous task (both practically and metaphorically) of “tilling” the cursed soil. Figuratively expressed, Dominion Man- date related activities are akin to being the occupying activity or “transportation” that carries individuals to the larger valued purpose or “destination” of family of God restoration. This re-ordered context and task continues until Jesus returns.
Doing and Being
No matter how excellently accomplished, doing the Dominion Mandate of softening the hard ground of earth does not guarantee a softening of the hard heart of sin- riddled mankind. Likewise, doing the far more important interpersonal relationship focused expectations in the Bible (e.g., Ten Commandments, Beatitudes) misses the point if they are not addressed as a function of being in relationship with God. Humanity’s ongoing inherent inability to be in right relationship with God indicates that, as Job lamented (Job 9:33,16:20-21, 19:25-26), a divine Redeemer-Mediator is needed.
Moreover, Jesus came primarily to reveal the nature of the Father (Jn 14:9). Being singularly self-validating (“I AM WHO I AM” – Exod. 3:14, NKJV), all others created in His image are absolutely needful of having their veritable beings valí- dated/authenticated by Him. Christian living is therefore more about being with Jesus than about doing for Jesus. Yes, Jesus came to do the will of the Father (Matt. 6:10, 26:39) but that doing was centered in the more important matter of being interconnected with the Father through the Holy Spirit. In fact, the destruction of the works of Satan (1 Jn 3:8) was not God’s primary “assignment” for Jesus; it was instead that all humanity have the opportunity of being in right relationship with the Holy Trinity (Jn 3:16).
The doing that pleases God is being intimate with Him – that is after all the heart of the Father. Doing then is embedded within being in that right relationship. Jesus, in fact, enabled the possibility of that relationship status for all people – no exception! The ultimate purpose of God for all people is that they be like His Son (Rom. 13), in whose image humanity was originally created. Life is ultimately all about son-ship development – both personally and relationally. This is to say that interpersonal relationships that authenticate the fullness of one’s divinely intended identity and destiny (Cooke, 2016) are the context, the means, and the essence of life. The phrase, “I am becoming who I am” succinctly captures this perspective. Thus, Christian/discipleship education should be about the business of reinforcing the God-created, Jesus-validated identity of each student and equipping them for their temporal and eternal destiny.
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Doing from being. Consider Paul. Initially living from a works oriented religiousness, Paul was the most fervent Pharisee of his time (Phil. 3:4-6). At that point in time, his doing was not motivated from being in relationship with Jesus but from a legalistic, rule-keeping, obligatory duty-to-God belief system. Thus, his perfectionistic attainments within that rigid system counted as nothing regarding his relationship with God.
The implication for Christian discipleship education is that it should focus the student’s affections on God (as enraptured lovers reciprocally do) rather than pri- marily on lifeless academics. The ongoing temptation, however, is to direct the minds of students (and parents, pastors, and teachers) into doing supposed God- validated, intellectual accomplishments. Paul, after conversion, sets the example for Christian education by aligning his zealousness with the Holy Spirit. From his changed “being”, his doing likewise positively changed regarding how he lived his life (Phil. 3:7-9).
All of this is to say that doing, as often interpreted in Christian education as accomplishing the Dominion Mandate and living by biblical rules, does not neces- sarily equate to discipleship formation. This is crucial since intimacy with God is His prime desire for all humans (Jn 15:4). And by virtue of being in an intimate rela- tionship with God, the Holy Spirit can align the heart of a person to desire to accomplish (i.e., do) based on a sincere love for God. As seen initially with Peter’s initial, legalistically based resistance to God (Acts 10:9-16), external assistance may be necessary to motivate Christians to release strongholds and to be free of bon- dages. As also with Peter, being a Christian does not always mean that what one does results from a loving heart for God but can be the result of a legalistic duty-bound motivation even after being Spirit-filled (cf. Gal. 2:11-14).
Whereas “being” fully in God authenticates the very nature of a person, both concepts of being and doing are necessary for understanding Christian/discipleship education. Doing as unto the Lord can feasibly become internalized thereby result- ing in being progressively transformed into God’s image (cf. Phil. 2:12). Ultimately, all that is done for God should flow out of love for Him as opposed to legalistic duty, compulsion, or obligation. To love someone means wanting to accompany or always be with that person. And accompaniment with God naturally happens when doing His will His way because His expectations literally reflect His own character and nature. This is especially important in the equipping process in Christian education for becoming mor
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