June 4, 2020

Another Look: Spiritual Formation — Some Clarifications


For many Protestants, discussion of the “spiritual disciplines” raises a number of questions. In particular, we have questions about the relationship between God’s grace and human actions in the process of spiritual formation.

Today, I’d like to make a few things clear.

1. When we talk about growing through practicing spiritual disciplines, we are not discussing doing anything that affects our acceptance with God. It is those who receive Jesus, who believe in his name, that God gives the power to become his children (John 1:12). We are saved by grace through faith, and this salvation does not arise from our works, but is pure gift from God. We have nothing to boast about — it is Christ’s work that saves us, not ours. No amount of praying, fasting, attending services, studying the Bible, almsgiving, or performing any other act of piety can win God’s favor or gain us release from our sins. “By his doing you are in Christ Jesus” (1Cor 1:30).

To reintroduce our musical metaphor from yesterday: spiritual formation is not about securing a place in the orchestra — that is by appointment of the conductor. It is, however, about learning to play the music together.

2. Nor is this discussion about the assurance of our relationship with Christ. Michael Spencer summarized the way he counsels those who struggle with being sure of their salvation like this:

Christians are sinners. That’s who Christ died to save. That’s what the Holy Spirit convicts us about. We’re sinners throughout life, and because the Spirit is in us, we are unhappy about our sin. Instead of doubting our salvation, which is what the Devil wants us to do, we need to continue to believe the promise of God that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us of all unrighteousness for Jesus sake. We trust Christ for forgiveness of what we do wrong, but also for the gift of His righteousness so we know we are accepted by God for Christ’s sake, and not because we lived up to our intentions or promises to Him. Remember that only Christians struggle with the issue of assurance, and that is because the Holy Spirit in us constantly brings us into to the light of the Father’s love and the grace of Jesus Christ. Accept what Christ has done for you and apart from you. Meditate on the promises in the Gospel: they are yours and are always all true for you. Read about Jesus’ tender love for sinful people. Rest in the finished work and gracious righteousness of Christ. If you go through a time of being unsure, expect your assurance to return as you focus on Christ, and not on yourself.

– On Faith’s Crumbling Edge

You can’t work your way into feeling more sure of God’s love for you. That is not at all what practicing spiritual disciplines is about. You may indeed have many wonderful experiences of intimacy with God as you seek him in prayer or through some other spiritual practice. You may not. Regardless, God loves you with an everlasting love in Christ, and nothing can separate you from his love. Gaining a deeper assurance is about focusing on God’s hold on you in Christ, not about you working to get a stronger hold on him.

metropolis_063. Practicing spiritual disciplines is not about becoming part of a spiritual elite. Anything we do in the spiritual life is capable of being corrupted by self-righteousness. We decide that growing in our faith is important, so we pursue a path of deeper discipleship. We learn, we develop a more ordered life, we feel closer to God, we feel a deeper sense of meaning and significance in our lives. We look around and suddenly see our brothers and sisters in a new light. Many of them just don’t seem serious about growing in Christ. As far as we can tell, they don’t know their Bibles very well, they don’t talk about answered prayers, they rarely give testimony to God at work in their lives. We start, subtly at first, to feel that we are in a different category. We’re playing the game; they are second-stringers, consigned to the bench.

I think Jesus had a word for this attitude: hogwash. (Folks, that’s a dirty word to our Jewish friends)

Our Lord made it clear that self-righteousness is the great enemy of genuine faith, and you can read any number of his teachings and parables to verify this. First of all, most of us don’t know our neighbors well enough to pass any kind of judgment on them, particularly about their relationship with God. They may have a hidden life with him that is rich and deep. I direct your attention to Exhibit A— the Pharisee and the publican.

Furthermore, he instructed us in no uncertain terms about how we should go about practicing the disciplines of the spiritual life: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:1). When we begin to take undue pride in our piety and start comparing ourselves with others, it becomes tempting to advertise that we are moving toward the head of the pack. We start slipping comments into conversations about what we’ve been learning in our quiet times. We take every opportunity to give testimony. In the prayer circle, we pray longest and with the most fervency. We dominate discussion in Bible class. Everyone knows what books we’re reading and how we’re serving the Lord.

This scenario grows out of a common misunderstanding of the spiritual life. For years, I assumed that the practice of spiritual disciplines is “the Christian life.” It’s not. The Christian life is not Bible study, prayer, solitude, silence, fasting, giving, and so on. These are ways we walk with Jesus in secret so that we can live life differently with Jesus in the course of ordinary life. The Christian life is life lived Christianly. It is not some special, different variety of life. It is life. It is getting out of bed in the morning, relating to my wife and children, doing my work, living among my neighbors, responding to strangers, enjoying recreation, gathering at the table with loved ones and guests, taking care of household chores, celebrating special occasions, engaging in community activities, and being involved in the church family. Vocation.

Spiritual disciplines equip us to live this life. They are like hidden aquifers far below the surface of the ground that continually, silently, imperceptibly replenish the land above. They are not meant to be seen. They are private encounters with God that we should be shy about revealing. We don’t need to talk about them. Our brethren don’t need our “testimonies” about them. This is a benefit of the confessional, which several traditions emphasize. We confess our sins privately to a wise pastor who is bound to confidentiality. We hear the word of forgiveness and receive private guidance and resources for making spiritual progress. We close the door and move on.

Of course, there are also corporate disciplines that we share with others. These are akin to special family times together, and they shape our lives with one another in the church. But outsiders don’t need to hear about them all the time. The oldest cliché in the book is the one about boring our friends to tears by forcing them to sit through our vacation slides. Resist the temptation. And how often do you hear sports teams bragging about what happened in practice? They don’t! Nobody wants to hear details about how each drill went today, and how I really nailed those leg lifts! They want to see the team perform in the game. That’s what counts.

metro14. By commending the practice of spiritual disciplines, we are not simply saying, “Try harder.” Nothing could be further from the truth. No one is saying that spiritual growth is up to me, and it is my efforts that ultimately make the difference. If I just get more serious, more committed, and do more, I’ll be a better Christian. Nonsense.

He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons. (Mark 3:13-14)

Spiritual formation is about having a private life with Jesus that prepares me for living my daily life in the world. Through spiritual disciplines, I learn to rest in Christ, open my heart to receive his gifts, depend more on his grace, confess my sins and find forgiveness and inner freedom, overcome my persistent habits of self-reliance, and tune out the siren calls of world, flesh, and devil.

Of course, this does require some active involvement on my part. But effort does not equal “works” (in the negative sense of merit-earning deeds). To gain anything worthwhile in life, human beings must give effort. This is as true in spiritual matters as it is in the earthly realm. The Twelve followed Jesus! They attached themselves to him. They became learners, disciples, apprentices. They walked with him, lived with him, ate and drank with him, watched him at work, listened to him teach, asked him questions, received his rebukes, and went out on missions Jesus assigned them. They entered a life with Jesus so that they could be with him, and then he sent them into the affairs of life, promising his continuing presence and empowerment as they lived and served throughout the world.

* * *

In his grace, God has made human beings to grow in a certain way, and has provided means by which his children can grow in Christ. Accepting them and using them rightly is the farthest thing from works-righteousness or dependence on mere human effort to get closer to God.


  1. Chaplain Mike:

    Your discussion in number 1 sets up a false dichotomy between works and faith/grace, and argues succinctly one of the places where Protestants have chosen to fix a separation from Catholics that is not supported by the “whole” of scripture.

    We can go round and round on this one, lobbing text citation wads at one another for days, but Catholics believe men and women still retain a degree of responsibility – albeit given by grace – to choose God and the good, or to reject God’s love and grace. To choose requires an action, and thus a work; enabled through the work of the Holy Spirit. Faith and works must go hand-in-hand; not one acting without the other to effect the relationship with the believer. The result of that choice can be the beginning of a relationship whose degree of richness is evidenced by an on-going process of sanctification that is planted, grown, and nurtured by the practices of spiritual formation you have so well described.

    God gives the actor in your example the choice to join the orchestra or not. The conductor has issued the invitation and, by grace, has secured the seat for eternity if the player wants it. If the person would rather choose something else, that freedom is there.

    • I don’t think we really disagree. First of all the Catholic tradition gives a lot more place to grace than you state. Secondly, I never denied human freedom and responsibility.

      Wow. So far in this series I’ve been taking it on the nose from both Lutherans and Catholics! I must be saying something right.

      • Same vocabulary. Different definitions.

        Catholics define “grace” differently.

        For them, it’s God’s help to do what we ought do. For us it’s unmerited favor.

        Very different and leads to wholly different understandings of how the Christian faith is lived out.

        There (almost everywhere), you are handed (told) the list of what you should, ought, and must be doing. And here (traditional Lutheran understanding) we say, “You are free in Christ. Do what you want to do.”

        • That is not exactly traditional Lutheran understanding. I would put it this way: You are free in Christ to love your neighbor. Our freedom is not wholly undefined.

          • We are truly free. To do. Or not.

            As the late Gerhard Forde said, “Now that you don’t have to do anything…what will you do?”

          • As Luther said, “The good you do won’t save you. And the evil you do won’t condemn you.”

            That’s freedom.

            • Steve, this is where you are misunderstanding, and if you would read the post carefully you would see that. This is is not in any way about what saves or condemns us. It’s not about climbing the ladder or becoming more acceptable to God in any way. It is about learning to live in the new reality Christ has created for us and in which we walk with him — which is the realm of the Spirit, the realm of love.

          • Chaplain Mike,

            The only problem I have with that, Mike, is when folks lay it out for you.

            The Spirit creates faith and is in charge of our Christian growth. When we start to believe we can control this process or contribute to it with certain programs or plans, then we turn the focus inward.

            Christian growth, I would say, is forgetting about yourself. Living freely…and outward.

            In any case, we are never going to be a better Christian than we were the moment we were baptized.

            Dying and rising. Repentance and forgiveness. That is the shape of the Christian life.

            I know what you are shooting for, Mike, and I do believe that we ought help the believer in their Christian walk by providing comfort and encouragement. But we never ought give the impression that people can become better ( Christians) and ascend up the ladder to greater and higher levels of spirituality. That opens the door to all kinds of trouble.


            • As long as you always keep that last paragraph in mind, we’re on the same page. Luther and Lutheran tradition is as much about love as it is about faith.

          • Yes, Mike.

            But you can’t teach love. It is inspired.

            And Lutheran tradition is also about freedom. Something that is sorely lacking in a great many churches these days.

            Why did Christ die for us? “For freedom, Christ has set us free.”

            Thanks, friend.

            I’m finished. The last word is yours.

          • “But you can’t teach love. It is inspired.”

            Sorry to butt in. Steve, I know you said you’re finished, but I’m not sure what you mean here. What is the difference between teaching and inspiring? IOW, if a parent models love to a child by how he/she treats his/her spouse, is this inspiration or teaching (or both)?

      • Marc B.,

        Law (what we should, ought, and must be doing) can bring about a desired result.

        But only grace can change a heart. So the motive is important.

        Love can be inspired by who and what the other person is, or needs (inspired). But real love cannot be taught, or legislated.

        That is why when they approached the judgement seat and told Jesus that they did this, that, and the other thing in Jesus’ name…Jesus said depart from me…I never knew you.

        But then He told those who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the prisoners that they did all those things to Him. They had no recollection of doing those things for God. And Jesus said to them, “when you do it to the least of these you have done it to Me.”

        They did not have ‘doing’ to be a better Christian, or to ascend to a higher level of goodness on their brain. They just saw a need and filled it. Without any ulterior motive.

        We have to be very careful when laying out programs for people to increase their spirituality and that promise to bring them growth in their Christian life.


        Thanks, Marc.

        • Robert F says

          So, in order to be recognized by Christ, we have to have no ulterior motives? Now, that’s a level of sanctity that I know I can’t rise to; and what about you, Steve, are you there? Do you have no ulterior motives for your good deeds, or bad deeds for that matter?

  2. I don’t know much about “spiritual formation,” but it sounds a lot like New Age. Most of it is probably harmless, but it doesn’t feel right adding all this pomp and frippery on top of the gospel. It’s like decorating a Baptist church with a bunch of gaudy statues. First thing you know, we’ll see mid-range preachers and book authors billing themselves as “spiritual directors” or “facilitators,” or “life coaches,” or whatever they call gurus in this tradition. There’ll be workshops and DVD’s amplified with “spiritual” background music…just no.

    • Yeah, because that’s exactly the kind if thing we promote at Internet Monk.

      Really? C’mon give us a little credit here.

    • I’d encourage you to read some of Dallas Willard, maybe The Divine Conspiracy, or Renovation of the Heart, or at least enough of it to take an informed position. Anything good can take a weird, or imbalanced, twist. When I think of spiritual formation, and the spiritual disciplines, nothing is further from the truth than “pomp and frippery”. Give it a chance.

    • Yes, we all know encouraging people to develop a deep prayer life, spend time reading their Bible, and be deliberate about spending time with God is like totally out there… I never knew my grandparents were New Age gurus until now. My eyes have been opened!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        “New Age” defined as “anything outside the four walls of OUR church” or “anything other than OUR Perfectly-Parsed Theology/Perfect Pure Ideology.”

      • Is that all spiritual formation consists of? Or does it involve obedience to a superior / a deliberate program of prayer etc.? If, so, who are these superiors, and what is this program? If not, then how does it differ from normal church activities–say, an extra Wednesday night prayer meeting?

        • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

          The difference is the intention and intentionality in spiritual formation, as far as I can tell. I see spiritual formation is kind of like going to the gym with a set routine rather than going just to go. Sure, you can have some flexibility in your routine, but to really see results, you have a plan, work with it, adapt as needed, etc, etc. Aimlessness at the gym won’t give you the same kind of results. Nor will spiritual aimlessness.

          As far as obedience to a superior or a deliberate program… well, it can, but it doesn’t have to. The “deliberate program” could be more or less flexible. And often, there’s some experimenting to see what really works for you (again, like going to the gym). You can have a “spiritual director” (er. personal trainer), but it’s not necessary. It can all be a little subjective and certainly vary based on your tradition and local context.

          My main “program” these days is pretty traditional Anglican stuff:

          1) Daily Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer according to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

          2) Eucharist with the community on Sundays major Holy Days

          3) Light fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, and the addition of the penitential General Litany to Morning Prayer on those days.

          4) Additional Prayer and Readings on the other Feast Days in the 1928 BCP (these all commemorate major events in Jesus’ life or the lives of the Apostles, Evangelists and other major NT personas

          5) Certain regular acts of charity and “sacrificial giving.”

          Honestly, I’m not yet at a point where I’m totally consistent on any of these things other than #2 and #5, but those have been since-childhood disciplines for me. Often, I’ll chant the services for #1 to add some extra fun. #1 also includes a monthly Psalms cycle and a yearly bible reading cycle.

          • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

            I should point out, that the reason I do this has nothing to do with God’s favor or lack thereof. I never feel guilty if I slip or skip. There’s no guilt there to be felt! It’s not a sin for me to miss such things. However, I do find that if I skip too often, I feel a little “doughy” and sluggish spiritually. Again, similar to how I feel physically if I don’t get enough exercise or if I’m eating too much junk food (i.e. the way I *usually* feel physically lol).

          • Isaac (or possibly Obed) says

            Ack… More qualifications. The “program” or routine above is just a framework. It’s certainly not a try-hard-and-get-holy sort of things. But such structure really helps me. I don’t do well off of a routine. I need the structure and framework because of my own human frailty and weakness. I see these traditions (and they really are all rooted in the oldest of Western Christian traditional disciplines) as a gift from God to make life a bit more incarnational or sacramental. Sometimes, I REALLY meet with Jesus during these times. Other times it feels like I’m just talking to the ceiling and I just have to have faith that He’s still listening. But even in those just-have-faith-that-He’s-there times, the discipline helps seed that faith; I wouldn’t have to deal with that aspect of the faith had the disciplines not been there to make it necessary. For my money, that’s a good thing.

          • . Aimlessness at the gym won’t give you the same kind of results. Nor will spiritual aimlessness.

            Very good comparison. I think it is this very intentionality that scares some people , and does not seem like “freedom” enough. Our own ideas of “freedom” are actually excuses to not put up with a program of any kind. Solid post, Isaac.

    • Catherine says

      There are probably a number of Baptist churches out there which might be better off for a little statuary. And a few icons.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        They already have an icon and more — the guy behind the pulpit.

        Without decoration, sacraments, or sacramental, all the focus is on the stage and the pulpit and the guy doing the preaching, without anything else to distract. Pastor/Dictators like Mahaney and Driscoll (the latter beamed onto giant video-screens in his not-a-denomination franchises) are an obvious end result.

  3. This is a wonderful post, Chaplain Mike. Thank you.

  4. The mountain top experience is not a discipline. It is a moment – a wonderful moment. As American Protestant Christians, we’ve been conditioned to from conference to conference picking out lint from our belly buttons. “Living the Walk.” “Acquire the Fire.” “How Should We Then Live.” “Knowing God.” (Two of those titles have been at my church in the last six months.) We nod furiously, take notes, commit to more of God, and two weeks later feel guilty. We don’t tell anyone we feel guilty because it would mean that we really didn’t mean it when we went forward and “yielded” to the Spirit or Jesus at the end of the event’s worship service.

    The rub is that you did mean it, but the infrastructure to help you maintain the promise isn’t built into the experience.

    Spiritual Formation not some way to acquire favor with God; it is not some cult-like “discipler” process; it is not some way of earning salvation; it is not some hope that we become “better people.” It is a discipline that is aided often by someone for whom you have respect encouraging you to keep on walking the promise you made to God in the mountain top experience or the depths of difficulty or somewhere in between.

    I so enjoyed this post because Spiritual Formation isn’t the end in its self. It is skill set development. Chaplain Mike thanks for spending time reminding me of that truth.

    Spiritual Formation takes a very long term approach being the city on the Hill whose light is bright. The long term approach to being the illuminating light that shines everywhere illuminating creation so that men and women see our good actions and Glorify our Father in Heaven.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Shouldn’t that be “As American Christians, we’ve been conditioned to float from conference to conference picking out lint from our belly-buttons”?

      Like Deadheads floating from concert to concert, fanboy high to fanboy high.

      Note again how “Christian” without any adjectives means only that particular brand of Christian.

      • Thanks for the lost word.

        I see your point. I am relatively familiar with a wide swath of “flavors” in protestant Christianity and their proclivity to attend conferences. However, I am not as familiar with Orthodox or Roman and didn’t want to make statements without knowledge. But they don’t seems in need of as many conferences (maybe it is the emphasis on vocation and spiritual discipline)

        I do think we are conditioned. I’m a curriculum writer and am asked to write “children’s conferences” and VBS material all the time. Often there is lots of discussion with the church leadership before hand because I like asking children to wonder why and not give them answers or provide them with ways to “correct” someone who doesn’t believe the Earth was created in a literal six days. (Yes, that was directed at 5 to 9 year-olds in a major VBS curriculum last year).

        The conditioning starts early and runs right on to the grave. Sigh.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          The conditioning starts early and runs right on to the grave. Sigh.

          “Give me your children while they’re young and I will make them Mine. You will pass away, but they will remain Mine.” — A.Hitler

          • That was Hitler? I thought it was the Jesuits.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            A.H. might have swiped it. Or both could have come up with it independently. I DO know the SS was partially patterned after the Jesuits, sort of a special “holy order” within the NSDAP. (Cults(TM) don’t need to be based on a religion per se.)

  5. Thanks for this. ‘Grace’-fully thought out. Reminds me why I love being a Lutheran.

  6. Metropolis. Still timely after all these years.

    Good post, CM.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Stills from Metropolis!

    Should include a video link to the entire scene — or at least a still from near the end where the Great Machine turns into Moloch demanding human sacrifice.

  8. Scott Fisher says

    I have found these posts very helpful, especially as our pastoral team is seeking to more effectively provide guidance for means of spiritual growth. You are doing an excellent job of striking the right balance between self effort and a form of quietism which does not apply any human energy. I have just started reading “Divine Conspiracy” by Willard and can definitely “hear” him in what you are saying. Thanks for the posts!

  9. Thanks Mike for this post…. hope that it will be fodder for God’s people to consider their relationship with Him, and evaluate some things that He may want them to more closely examine. Blessings!