The Spiritual Formation Movement has rocked the church. Ancient disciplines, most often practiced within the monastic movement in the early centuries of Christianity, have been dusted off, repacked, and resubmitted to believers as the means for obtaining spiritual growth. There is increasing discussion about fasting, journaling, pilgrimage, simplicity, solitude, silence, contemplative prayer, and spiritual direction in Christian literature. What can be learned from this renewed interest in spiritual formation and what are the dangers? The last eight editions of “Think on These Things” have been written to interact with the history, teachings and dangers of the Spiritual Formation Movement. I want to now turn from the disciplines practiced in modern spiritual formation to the biblical alternative to spiritual formation, as described in the earlier articles. We will examine the means, or disciplines if you choose, which the Word of God clearly identifies as ways God has designed for His people to be transformed into Christ-likeness and to experience intimacy with Him.
As has been documented in the previous articles, the modern spiritual formation movement is a reintroduction of ancient extra-biblical practices created and developed by members of the early church. These practices, often called disciplines, promised to enable the users to grow closer to the Lord, experience divine communion and “hear” the voice of God. While these disciplines did not emerge directly from Scripture, many had a loose connection which enabled the originators to claim a biblical base for their practices. Other disciplines have no scriptural foundation at all. They appear via supposed visions, dreams and revelations from God. As time moved on, these disciplines multiplied and became acceptable within certain segments of Christianity.
Practiced and defined increasingly by hermits, monks and those within monastic living, such disciplines became associated with “holy” men and women – the spiritual elite. While the average church member was vaguely aware of some of these supposed marks of holiness, most were ignorant of how such things worked. Super-holiness was for the clergy; few others had the time or inclination for spiritual formation. Thus, spiritual disciplines stayed primarily within the narrow boundaries of monasteries and spiritual retreat centers for centuries. There were apparently some attempts to broaden their appeal and use, as is evidenced by a little 14th century book of questionable authorship called The Cloud of Unknowing. But it would not be until the 1970s that the spiritual disciplines would break free of their obscurity and become exposed to a wider audience. When this took place, the disciplines moved quickly from their Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox roots to infiltrate Protestant and evangelical circles as well. To many evangelicals it was as if the lights had come on. Suddenly a whole spiritual world had been revealed to those hungry for something fresh, something real, something personal that they were not experiencing with God. For such people the Spiritual Formation Movement hit the spot. As taught by Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, and promoted by ministries such as Foster’s Renovaré and Youth Specialties, spiritual formation gradually became a major voice within evangelicalism. Today the Spiritual Formation Movement not only continues its rapid growth but has become readily accepted as a means of discipleship. Most Bible colleges and seminaries now have spiritual formation departments and offer related degrees. Rare is that evangelical author who does not quote from the Christian mystics and/or recommend some of these ancient practices as fresh means of spiritual growth.
And for many the disciplines seem to work. Testimonies can be multiplied by adherents as to their renewed passion for God, their experience of divine intimacy, and their spiritual development. But as always, pragmatism, testimonies and experience cannot set the pace in our search for truth; only the Word of God can be our authoritative guide. With this in mind, it was vital that we take the spiritual formation movement through the grid of Scripture to determine its place in the life of the follower of Jesus Christ. We have discovered that these disciplines, as defined and practiced within the movement, mostly lack biblical support. They are the ideas of men and women, not the doctrines of God. As such they should be abandoned and the believer needs to turn with conviction to the true disciplines given to us by the Lord Himself. The Spiritual Formation Movement, which we have now studied in detail over the last several months, claims to offer an almost unlimited number of spiritual disciplines that will aid in forming Christian character. While some of these have a bit of basis in Scripture, others have none and even those which seem to be drawn at least in part from the Bible go beyond the Word in either their actual practice or what they promise or both.
It is important to affirm that the word “discipline” is a good one and found in Scripture (e.g. Col 2:5). The issue is not whether discipline is helpful or even necessary for spiritual development – it is, for self-control is one facet of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:23). Nor do we wish to deny that there are specific disciplines that aid in progressive sanctification. At issue is which disciplines have actually been given to believers as a means of discipleship. It is my assumption that any means that the Lord has ordained for our use in the process of our spiritual growth would be identified in the Scriptures. If the Bible is God’s complete, authoritative revelation to us today, and if it is designed to make us “adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17), then we should have every confidence that the inspired text would include, with clarity, the instruments by which God would have us grow. We do not need to reach beyond the written Word to attempt to find practices for spiritual development and intimacy with the Lord. The Lord is desirous that we know these things and has made no effort to hide them from us. It is not necessary for monks or hermits or other spiritual leaders from the past (or present) to unearth some secret formulas designed to teach us spiritual formation. All that we need to know is found with certainty in God’s divine revelation, the Scriptures.
When we turn to the Word of God to discover the Lord’s clear teaching on discipleship what do we find? First, admittedly the Bible is a big book with many layers of wonderful truths about God, ourselves, our world, our future and more, waiting to be explored. It is a multi-faceted revelation from God that reveals the wonders of Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures and wisdom of God” (Col 2:3). This leads to perhaps the primary distinction between the Spiritual Formation Movement and biblical discipleship. Both camps would claimColossians 2:3 for themselves, and both would agree that it is in Christ that all the treasures and wisdom of God is hidden. The divide comes largely in the arena of revelation. The believer is promised divine power which will grant “us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him [Christ] who called us by his own glory and excellence” (2 Pet 1:3). The question is, where is such knowledge of Christ found? Is it found in the Holy Scriptures, or in extra-biblical revelations and dreams, or both? As I argued in an earlier article, I believe that the only inspired revelation from God for our times is the Bible. All other claims to revelations, however sincere or well-intended, lack the authority of Scripture. In addition, all other doctrines, methodologies, philosophies, traditions, and spiritual practices that do not emerge directly from the Word of God are at best suggestions and opinions. But when understood as having divine sanction, these things fall under the condemnation of Jesus who warned the Pharisees that their traditions actually invalidate the Word of God (Mark 7:13). Similarly, Paul warned the Colossians, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col 2:8). The Spiritual Formation Movement, as I have tried to demonstrate previously, has violated these principles and is “teaching as doctrines the precepts of men” (Mark 7:7).
If so, it is time we turn our attention to what is actually found in the inspired text pertaining to spiritual formation, or the term I prefer and often used in Scripture: discipleship. First, it should be stated up front that any effort on our part to produce Christ-like character is totally dependent upon the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Paul prayed for the Ephesians that “the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe” (Eph 1:18-19). Later he continues, “That He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man…” (Eph 3:16). Then in Philippians, immediately after telling these believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” he follows up with, “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). There is no growth in godliness without the power of the Holy Spirit.
With this as a foundation, what are the means chosen and revealed by God, and energized by the power of the Holy Spirit, that the Lord has determined to use in our sanctification? If we are, through the power of the Holy Spirit, to work out our salvation, how exactly are we to do so? While there are without doubt many details we could look at, I believe the Scriptures specifically identify four means, or disciplines, needed for spiritual growth. These can be summed up in the description given of the activities of the first church in Acts 2:42, 43a, “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe…” These verses give us in a nutshell four essentials for spiritual development. We will examine each of these essentials, devoting one article to each. We will begin with prayer, followed by the essential study of the Word of God, then fellowship and finally the centrality of Jesus Christ in our lives. These are the four essentials that I believe the Lord specifically affirms as means of spiritual formation.
Views on Sanctification
Before we take a concise look at prayer it would be worth our time to discuss briefly some of the views of sanctification that have held sway within evangelicalism. The word “sanctification” comes from the Greekhogios. Hogios, and its many derivatives, is translated in the Bible as “sanctified,” “sanctify,” “sanctification,” “holy,” “saint” and so forth. The basic meaning of this word group is “to be set apart.” In a purely secular sense, I could have a particular chair or cup that only I use and that chair or cup would be sanctified, set apart for my use only. Used in a spiritual context the word group speaks of being set apart for God, or for a holy purpose. The term is used in three tenses in Scripture, leading to three nuances of meaning. First, there is positional sanctification in which believers are redeemed from sin and set apart as the people of God (1 Cor 6:11). This is the believer’s standing in God – it is who they are and it does not speak directly to how they live. At the moment of salvation we are set free from the penalty of sin and join the family of God. Sanctification has an ultimate stage which takes place at the moment of the believer’s death or the return of Christ (1 John 3:1-3). At that point we are set free from the presence of indwelling sin and are presented holy and blameless before the Father (Eph 5:26-27). A final way in which the word is used speaks of progressive sanctification in which the child of God grows more and more in his walk with God (Rom 6:19; 1 Peter 1:16). It has been said that in positional sanctification the believer is set free from the penalty of sin; in progressive sanctification he is being progressively set free from the power of sin; in ultimate sanctification he is separated from the presence of sin. It is progressive sanctification which takes up the bulk of New Testament teachings as the Holy Spirit-inspired writers instruct disciples of Christ how to experientially live out their position in Christ while they wait for their ultimate holiness in the presence of the Lord. It is this subject of progressive sanctification, or how the believer matures in Christ, that we now turn our attention. There have been a number of models held by various evangelical groups. They include:
- Christian Perfectionism: Held by some in the Holiness, Pentecostal and Wesleyan camps, the idea is that at some point of crisis, whether a second work of grace or a second or even third baptism of the Holy Spirit, the sin nature can be eradicated and the believer can reach the point of sinlessness in this life.
- Higher Life : Sometimes called Victorious Life, this view popularized by the Keswick Movement beginning in the mid-1800s also teaches a point of crisis in which the believer “lets go and lets God.” At that moment the Christian realizes that he is to play a passive role in his spiritual development and rely upon God to do all that is necessary for sanctification.
- Dedication : Formulated by Lewis Sperry Chafer in his book He that is Spiritual, it is argued that Christian growth comes as a result of being filled, or controlled, by the Holy Spirit. Through the power of the Holy Spirit the believer is enabled to obey the Lord and thus make significant progress in his spiritual walk. Chafer made a distinction between a Christian who is saved by grace and one who, at a moment of crisis, dedicates, or rededicates, his life to the Lord and is filled with the Spirit. Prior to this experience of dedication the believer will grow very little in the things of the Lord, but following the dedication the believer will mature in Christ-likeness.
- Spiritual Formation : Through his use of ancient spiritual disciplines Christ is formed in the life of the believer. The ultimate goal of spiritual formation is a crisis event in which Christ is experienced in an inexplicable mystical experience.
- Reformed : All who are justified will grow in sanctification. Of the major views presented here this is the only one that does not teach some form of crisis experience as necessary for sanctification. Growth in the Lord, while uneven, will continue throughout the lifetime of the one who has been truly regenerated. If, in time, there is no evidence of spiritual development in the professing believer, the most likely reason is that he was not truly born again.
As can be seen solid Christians may differ to some degree concerning how progressive sanctification takes place, but all would agree on the primary biblical means producing growth that we will cover over the next four articles. Let’s begin with prayer.
The Necessity of Prayer
Few would doubt the importance of prayer in the life of a believer and several passages of Scripture directly affirm prayer’s role in our spiritual development. Hebrews 4:14-16, for example, informs us that “we do not have a great high priest (Christ) who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” In the Old Testament the High Priest of Israel served as mediator between the people and God. Only he could go into the presence of God in the Holy of Holies, and then only once per year on the Day of Atonement. There he would offer a blood sacrifice for the sins of the people. But even such sacrifices could not completely atone for sin because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). What the animal sacrifices could not do Christ did in His once-for-all sacrifice for our sins (Heb 10:9-18). As a result the door is now open for those cleansed by the blood of Christ to “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace” (Heb 4:16a). At such times we are assured that we will “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16b).
The Lord has determined that the means by which He meets our need(s) is prayer. For instance, if our need is to deal with anxiety we are told not only to cease being anxious, but “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving [to] let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6), which will lead to the peace of God.
In the context of sickness, James points us to prayer, not just our own but that of others, particularly the elders of the church (James 5:13-18). The word for “sick” in James 5:14 is asteneho meaning “to be weak, feeble, to be without strength, powerless,” according to Strong’s Concordance. It is found 36 times in the New Testament, and its meaning is dependent upon the context. The word for “sick” in James 5:15 is a different word ( kamnonta) which is found only two other times in the New Testament (Heb 12:3 and Rev 2:3), where the meaning is clearly “weary.” James does not seem to have in mind physical illness as much as spiritual and emotional weariness. When the child of God is facing times of spiritual exhaustion and weariness he or she should turn to prayer—not just personal, private prayer, but to the prayers of others as well. James 5:16reads, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man [which] can accomplish much.” It is prayer that we need in such times.
First Timothy 2:1-2 calls God’s people to pray for all people, particularly those in authority “so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity.” Prayer is vital for living godly lives. In verse eight, corporate public prayer is in view when Paul writes, “Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.” Again, both private and public prayers are important in true discipleship of individuals and the church.
Romans 8:26-29 is speaking in the direct context of discipleship, that is, being “conformed to the image of His Son” (v. 29). The text begins with a warning that “we do not know how to pray as we should,” and therefore the Holy Spirit “helps our weakness…, interceding for us with groanings too deep for words.” Note carefully that we are not being told that the Holy Spirit prays for us, giving us “groanings” that are equivalent to Him speaking through us. Rather He intercedes for us, that is, He is taking our prayers, as feeble and misplaced as they might sometimes be, and interceding on our behalf in such a way that the petition coming before the Father is in accordance with His will and purpose (vv. 27-28). These Spirit-interceded prayers are now used to conform those the Father has predestined, and called, and justified, and glorified, to the image of Jesus Christ (vv. 29-30). This is true spiritual formation or, better, transformation, and our prayers as translated by the Holy Spirit are at the center of such spiritual change.
We can be certain then that prayer is a God-ordained means by which the people of God are molded into His image. However, there is one more matter we need to concern ourselves with, especially in light of one of the key disciplines within the Spiritual Formation Movement – contemplative prayer. In a previous article contemplative prayer was defined as a form of praying in which the mind is by-passed. The goal of such praying is not cognitive, rational, or intellectual presentation of our petitions, confession or worship to God, but a mystical approach in an attempt to experience an inexplicable moment of ecstasy with God. Such ecstasy is supposed to lead us to a deep but incomprehensible union with the Lord. But is contemplative prayer the kind of prayer prescribed, modeled and taught in Scripture? Not at all. Let’s take a look.
What is Biblical Prayer?
The Bible is filled with prayers. The book of Psalms alone, being the prayer and song book of Old Testament Israel, provides us with over 100 prayers which serve as models for our own prayer life. The prayers of hundreds of individuals are recorded for us to study, examine, and be edified by. In addition we are given instructions on how to pray. The Scriptures do not leave us without adequate information on the subject of prayer. As a matter of fact, the most difficult task is to narrow down all that is written on and about prayer and select a few representative texts to enlighten our prayer lives. For this study we will choose just four such passages.
Matthew 6:9-13 is often called the Lord’s Prayer. In the middle of Jesus’ best known sermon, “The Sermon on the Mount,” He provides clear instructions to His disciples on how He wanted them to pray. At a later time, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and the Lord offers virtually the same guidelines (Luke 11:1-4). What is important for our purposes is to note that Jesus called for clear, intellectual praying that involved a person’s cognitive thinking. We are to offer praise to God, urge the coming of His kingdom to earth, seek our daily needs, ask for forgiveness of sins, and pray for protection from temptation. There is no hint, in this greatest of instructional prayers, of extra-sensory experiences in which the mind is passive.
The prayers found in the epistles are wonderful models of biblical praying as well. As Paul prayed for the various churches we get an excellent understanding of what intercessory prayer looks like. Ephesians contains two of these prayers, the first in 1:15-23. Here we find Paul deeply desirous for the spiritual enhancement of the believers in this first century church. He wants their spiritual eyes opened so that they would “know of the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe” (1:18b-19a). All of this, Paul informs them, is “in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which he brought about in Christ…” (1:19b-20a). He goes on to highlight the person and greatness of both the Father and the Son. Here is no mantra being repeated time and again leading to some form of intellectual and emotional purgation. Rather we hear firm and powerful requests that Paul continuously makes on the Ephesians’ behalf (1:16).
Later in the same epistle the apostle adds some additional requests in a subsequent prayer (3:14-21). In this prayer he asks that these believers would be strengthened with power through the Holy Spirit, that Christ might dwell in their hearts by faith, that they might be rooted and grounded in love and comprehend all that the Lord has for them, including his surpassing love of Christ, leading to all the fullness of God. He closes with a great chorus of praise to the Lord Himself (3:20-21). Once again there is no ambiguity in this prayer. There is praise to God and petitions for the believers.
In Philippians 4:6-9, Paul teaches the first century believers (and us) how to pray, especially in the context of disharmony among believers (4:2-5) and the need for God’s peace in life’s circumstances (4:6). We are told to pray about everything and to do so with supplication. That is, we are to make our requests known to God (v. 6b). As a result we should experience God’s peace, a peace beyond our comprehension. In each of these cases, and they could be multiplied many times over, the prayer originates from our minds. They are rational, intellectual prayers. But at the same time they are not devoid of emotion or experience.
One cannot read these prayers without recognizing that they arise from the passionate heart of a man deeply devoted to and in love with the Lord. They are not mindless prayers filled with techniques on how to have a subjective experience. What we are seeing is an important distinction between biblical praying and practices taught in Scripture and contemplative praying as practiced and taught by ancient monks, hermits and promoters of the Spiritual Formation Movement today. Prayer is absolutely essential for spiritual growth. But it must be prayer that is taught and shaped by the Scriptures rather than ancient and modern mystics.