December 4, 2020

Don Whitney and The Recovery of Reformation Spirituality

donw.jpgAvoiding A Theology To Kill Your Devotional Life

I wrote about devotional resources that have proven meaningful to me in “An iMonkish Quiet Time.”

Don Whitney is an unusual person. Not to meet or hear him, but unusual in what he’s doing with his life. Whitney is a Founder’s Movement Calvinist, who has built a superb and respected ministry in the area of spiritual direction/formation and teaching classical spiritual disciplines. Dr. Whitney has authored books like Spiritual Disciplines In The Christian Life, Spiritual Disciplines In The Church and Simplify Your Spiritual Life.

I said that Whitney was unusual, and I genuinely mean that. Whitney’s Reformed Baptist tradition is not famous for its emphasis on the devotional life. Looking over Whitney’s books and seeing sections on meditation, fasting, journaling, silence and solitude, one might be tempted to go looking for endorsements from Richard Foster, but Whitney is firmly rooted in the Puritan devotional tradition, not in the contemporary evangelical, Quaker or Anabaptist variety. Watchblogs fisking back covers for suspicious endorsements can relax.

What is unusual about Whitney is that his grasp of reformation Christianity energizes his interest in the devotional disciplines. In a time when emerging church advocates are talking about recovering a strong emphasis on spiritual direction and devotion, and critics of the emerging church are ridiculing its interest in spirituality, Whitney has been out there for two decades, harvesting a rich devotional legacy from a spiritual tradition that has often wrestled with a contradictory approach to the whole subject of personal devotion, all without rancor or arrogance towards others with similar interests.

It would not be hard to go among reformed writers and find much suspicion of many traditional devotional practices. Luther and the other reformers rejected many abuses within Roman Catholicism that were tied to Christian devotion. Monastic spirituality, fasting, silence, spiritual direction, retreats, The Christian year, Lent, etc…all this and more has been largely unwelcome within most reformation appreciating churches. That suspicion continues in the ministry of many reformerd teachers and preachers whose understanding of the devotional disciplines seems like a bare cupboard compared to the rich heritage of Christian spirituality.

Where an emphasis on the devotional life has not been entirely unwelcome, it has been held at arm’s length and often demeaned. While it is not particularly hard to find reformed resources on fasting or devotional prayer (and some Puritan devotions are very popular,) it is also not hard to find considerable warning against introspection, legalism, subjectivism and pursuit of spiritual experience at the expense of pastoral teaching. Churches that emphasize family devotions have often been unsure of the value of much Christian spiritual formation that predates the evangelical movement.

Voices advocating a strong devotional emphasis stand out in reformed circles. They stand out because the theological emphasis of most reformation Christianity is on Christ and the work of Christ; the Bible; the Doctrines of Grace and issues of ecclesiology. The formative scene for Christian spirituality in the reformed tradition is the meeting house, with the congregation hearing the teaching of scripture by the minister. Even the word “spirituality” is likely to be avoided.

If honesty were to take hold of many of us, we could tell the tale of how our enthusiastic embrace of Calvinism put our devotional life on the downgrade…IF we do not restrict that devotional life to listening to preaching and reading Reformed books. In fact, there is more than one Calvinist who spent more than a few moments wondering “Why pray (or anything else) at all?”

Without intentionally promoting it, many reformed Christians have a kind of pessimism about the devotional life, built on certain assumptions.

1) There is nothing good is us and we should avoid subjective, introspective experiences.

2) Spiritual disciplines such as Lenten fasting or guided meditation are dangerous concessions to a Roman Catholic approach to the Christian Life.

3) The objective proclamation of the Gospel, and the growing intellectual understanding of the Bible, are the primary means of spiritual growth, and others may detract from a full-devotion to the importance of preaching.

4) Too much of an emphasis on certain kinds of prayer can go astray into challenges to God’s sovereignty, new age spirituality or empty ritual.

5) Too much emphasis on the devotional life becomes legalistic, works righteousness emphasizing pietism.

Of course, any of these assumptions can be rightly and correctly placed within the Christian life. There is no need to reject the devotional life in any form when it is rightly related to the Gospel. Godliness is not synonymous with works righteousness, though there is no doubt that there is a possibility of departing from a complete satisfaction in and dependence on Christ in any personal discipline. Don Whitney’s ministry makes this plain, and deserves to be heeded.

What should also be heeded is the rather obvious evidence that theologically big-brained, one-dimensionally intellectually oriented Christians are often not spiritual well-formed, and advanced appreciations of doctrine do not negate the place or need of the devotional life. Reformed Christians often are doing- and not doing- spiritual disciplines based on what they are seeing in the broader Christian world. There are errors and fads to be avoided. There is also a rich heritage to be appreciated and appropriated.

It’s possible to run too far away from the spiritual formation of classic Christianity. Dallas Willard is increasingly criticized in reformed circles as an “emergent” type to be avoided, yet Willard’s call to return to serious, Jesus-centered, Biblical spiritual formation has been going on long before them emerging church became news. Willard’s powerfully accurate critique of undiscipled Christians is not “out in left field.” It is dead center with what is wrong with many of us.

Consider recommending and using good personal devotional materials. Bring Whitney’s material and ministry to your church. Find those who are feeling “starved” in this area and arrange to have a course or seminar to encourage a healthy devotional life. Honestly ask if you have developed a theology of pessimism in regard to personal spiritual disciplines and the devotional life.


  1. Amen. I am so thankful for Dr. Whitney.

    I brought him into a former church of mine to introduce his book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.

    He launched 6 small groups with that message.

    You know the phrase, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” In his books he teaches Christians how to feed themselves and grow.

  2. Don Whitney just spoke at our church, wow! He has just finished fighting colon cancer and is living proof of the grace of God. Thank you for this article and for imonk. I have been reading for quite some time, but this is the first time I have piped in.