What is Christian spiritual formation?

Spiritual formation is the process of forming or growing the spiritual self. The "spiritual formation movement" refers to the heightened interest in spiritual formation. Because all people have spirits, spiritual formation happens in all people. However, Christian spiritual formation is something a little more specific; it is about becoming more like Christ. Leaders in Christian spiritual formation include Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Larry Crabb.

The spiritual formation movement has become somewhat controversial in Christian circles. Some say that Christian spiritual formation borders on New Age-ism or works-based salvation. They argue that our relationship with God is not about experience or effort, but about truth. Others believe that the Church has been negligent in obeying the word of Christ. Salvation is by grace, and we use that as an excuse not to engage in any traditional religious practices. Because we cannot earn salvation, we have abdicated completely our responsibility to grow spiritually. We think we are saved through belief alone, and we fail to translate that belief into action. Of course, there is also a balanced perspective – one that affirms salvation by grace through faith, the importance of truth, and the importance of obedience. Many term this type of spiritual formation, "spiritual transformation."

Biblical spiritual formation is about actively engaging with God and following His commands. Paul told Timothy to train himself to be godly (1 Timothy 4:7). Biblical spiritual formation is a training program, an intentional effort to be godly, not in our own strength but through the power of Christ (John 15:5).

Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV) says, "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Theologian Dallas Willard calls verse 20 ("teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you") the "great omission from the great commission." At times Christians seem more interested in salvation for the afterlife than in salvation to an abundant life in Christ now (John 10:10). We tend to focus on justification more than sanctification. We seem to miss the fact that we are to be disciples. This lack is what Christian spiritual formation attempts to address.

The intent of Christian spiritual formation is to facilitate the Holy Spirit's inward transformation of our hearts, which is reflected through our outward behaviors. In essence, we cooperate with God's work by obeying His commands. The acts of Christian spiritual formation are meant to draw us closer to God. They are methods we use to "put off [the] old" and prepare our hearts for God to "put on the new" (Ephesians 4:20-24). As we make efforts to obey the directives God has given us, we begin to know Him more. God's commands are for our good, and they reflect His character. Thus, when we follow them, we know God more fully and we find more satisfaction in life.

Specific practices of Christian spiritual formation include disciplines such as prayer, meditating on Scripture, worship, study, silence, and service. Some also engage in spiritual direction, or receiving spiritual counsel or mentorship. The methods used are modeled after the practices and behaviors of Christ and those of the early church.

Spiritual formation has become a topic of interest for many in our society – Christian and secular alike. It seems that many are unsatisfied and seek a deeper spirituality. Some address this lack through manufactured spiritual experiences or working to become good in themselves. This is not biblical. We know that satisfaction only comes from Christ. He has called us to Himself, and apart from Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). However, when we trust in Him, we are made alive (Ephesians 2:5). And we are given instructions about how to obey Him. We do not simply accept Jesus in order to gain heaven. We accept Him in order to experience fullness of life and to shine for His glory. Spiritual formation happens after salvation; it is not a path to salvation.

Second Peter 1:3-9 sums up biblical spiritual formation: "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins."

Christian spiritual formation is essentially the process of sanctification. God does the work, but we must also be disciplined to obey Him. He does the transformation, and we exert our effort to become more like Him. As the Holy Spirit renews us (2 Corinthians 4:16; 2 Corinthians 5:17), we work to allow Him freedom in our lives and to obey the commands we have received. He creates the new life, and we intentionally live it (Colossians 3:1-10).

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