October 25, 2020

Spiritual Formation: Clarifications

By Chaplain Mike

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).

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.

3. 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.

4. 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. Beautifully said. I appreciated especially the part about our most sacred moments being private.

  2. “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” 1 Corinthians 9:25-27 ESV

    Hey, if spiritual discipline was good enough for brother Paul, it’s good enough for me!

  3. “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.”

    Thanks for that, Chaplain Mike.

  4. You said: “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.”

    I think it would be more accurate to say that our deeds are never adequate to merit the gifts and calling of God.

    But as for gaining favor, the Bible teaches repeatedly that good deeds merit favor for those already in covenant relationship with God (by grace). You probably did not mean to deny this, but I am clarifying a point much misunderstood. The prayer of a righteous man avails much, says James. Cornelius’ almsgiving arose before God and led to an extraordinary gift to him, says Acts 10:4. Those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality receive eternal life, Paul tells us in Romans 2:7.

    • I’ll let the bible scholars weigh in on this, but I think your quibble is with the word “favor”. Sometimes it’s used to mean “blessed”, so in that sense, yes, there is a blessing, a showering of GOD’s pleasure when righteousness is practiced. I think Chap Mike was using it in the sense of “getting on GOD’s good side” or “getting GOD to be for us”. In that sense, no, it’s the finished work of the cross plus nothing. I’m sticking my early A.M. nose in to this, I’ll let Chap Mike and others clean this up.

      Great posts, Chap Mike; I’d love to use these as a Sunday school lesson with generous attribution, of course. The whole topic puts sanctification in terms that
      1) actually lead to something real
      2)keep us out of legalism and bondage
      3)can be understood within the greater context of life and discipleship

      great stuff

      • I agree with your take on this, Greg. I have been preaching through Haggai the last few weeks, and it is very clear from this book (and other places) that their is a type of “blessing” that is tied to our obedience. But, as you point out, there is also a “favor” from God that has nothing to do with our performance. It is on such fine distinctions that good, practical theology hinges.

    • I think we need to be careful speaking of God using monarchal or feudalistic terms. It has really been the tendency in the Western church particularly to speak of “merit” and “favor” and relate them back to a feudalistic system. In a feudalistic system, a servant brings honor to the king (or nobleman) by the things he does. There is undoubtedly some of this dynamic at play in Scripture, but I think the metaphor can be taken too far, especially when it comes to speaking about receiving favor or blessing in exchange for our good works. The rabbis spoke of favor or merit more in terms of a mechanism that was built into the universe. If I am generous with what I have, I will receive blessing back. It’s not the same type of thing as a monarch bestowing gifts.

      I guess the way I separate the two is that gifts (or really payments) based on merit come with strings attached. God’s favor and blessing is given completely without condition. There are some universal laws at play that He set up, but really the notion of grace is based outside of those. I think if we forget that, it’s very easy to start to think we are actually earning something by what we’re doing.

      Richard Foster kind of talks about this when he mentions the difference between the profit motive and the prophet motive. The profit motive is based on self-interest. The prophet motive is simply base on obedience.

  5. BTW, enjoying the series. Didn’t mean to give the impression my only thoughts about what you are writing are critical. You bless us with your musings.

    • Well said concerning God’s favor. Even those of us within covenant relationship with Christ can and should “merit” his favor in grace-led obedience, not in a salvific way but in a practical way. Paul himself said that it was his ambition to always be pleasing to Christ (2 Cor.5:9). The classic disciplines can be a means to cultivate such an abiding relationship.

  6. I work as a church musician in a presbyterian church. Church work and church culture have left me quite empty in many ways. I can perform my duties to the congregation, and they can be very well done, effective, edifying, but personally I can walk away on sunday afternoons and just be completely empty.

    Thank you for this post. I need to hear this over and over and over again….that I practice to play the game and not the other way around…and that practice of spiritual discipline is what equips me for my life, so that i don’t walk away empty and self-absorbed. Seriously, thank you.


    • Yes, that is exactly why I quit being a musician in church! You feed, but you aren’t fed in turn.

    • One aspect of Chap’s post I like a lot, and it seems obvious but isn’t: the game is our life IN ITS ENTIRETY….not our church life, not our ministry, not one aspect of our life (marriage, work, small groups, whatever) but our whole (or not so whole) life. Spiritual formation has ambitions to make us whole, mature, united to Christ in the details of life human beings. This is not an “extra” anything.

      Christ in us…..the hope of glory.

  7. IMO the evident confusion and even suspicion on the part of so many Christians of “effort” in our life in Christ is symptomatic of how utterly undisciplined a Church that we are. May God help us find balance.

    • And imagine having that conversation of how “free in Christ” we are to shed any and all discipline with our brothers and sisters from other ages. Yes, that would be a great topic over tea with Jonathan Edwards, John Bunyan, and Wilberforce. I’m sure they’d pat our little heads and say “There, there, just stand firm and don’t be talked into any unnecessary activity , brother….”

      When you scoff at history, any and all history, this is what you get.


      • I agree. A sad ignorance of the Scriptures, history, as well as a dangerous over-reaction to legalism has led us into such lethargy.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        When you scoff at history, any and all history, this is what you get.

        Just look at the Baby Boomers for a secular example.

        “Nine out of ten New Ideas are really Old Mistakes. But to a generation who didn’t exist the last time those mistakes were made and followed through, they appear as Fresh New Ideas.” — G.K.Chesterton (from memory)

        Or the current crop of iconoclasts within Islam, systematically destroying evidence of their own faith’s historical trace (including any surviving structure or artifact associated with Mohammed) in the name of “stamping out idolatry”. What their sons will harvest is an Islam with NO connection to history or reality, just another self-contained isolated Mythology with no connection to the real world.

    • I spent a couple of years very focused on daily prayer/meditation, lectio divina and the Jesus Prayer. It was very difficult. I would even have to set a timer so that I would pray for 15 minutes, say, without looking at the clock. It was hard, but I will say I have never felt so in tune with God and I think I was also a kinder more loving friend, husband and father.

      I need to get back to it, but the room I used is next door to my teenager’s and she now has loud things going on any time she’s in the house. Excuses is what I am making.

  8. This is definitely one of my favorite series on here so far. This is an area that I have been struggling with, gaining wisdom in, and pursuing over the past several months, both in my personal life and in my ministry work.

  9. Straightforward clarifications. All Biblically based, IMO. Good stuff.

  10. “The fight is not for the disciplines, but the disciplines are for the fight”

  11. Training, not trying, is the method.

    • Well Said!

      The most recent popular example of why Spiritual Formation is important is the (incredibly overused) story of the Miracle on the Hudson. But we can use many, many more examples.

      The point is that, like in our careers, sports, leisure activities, etc., we develop habits of the mind and body. Then, when required, these habits essentially cause us to act without requiring thoughts and planning.

      Spiritual Formation is the same. We train our minds to act at all times with an acknowledgment of God. Then, when called upon, this concentration on God acts as a type of “second nature;” we react without having to think or plan.

      Spend time in prayer on a regular basis, and when you encounter a difficult time, prayer comes naturally.

      Study the Scriptures regularly and commit them to your heart and mind, and when you need help or support or reassurance, your mind will return to the Scriptures.

      Spiritual Formation is training ourselves to live in God, not buying, earning, or even asking God into ourselves.

  12. Thanks for this post, Chaplain Mike. I’m going to give it a few reads and try to take it all to heart.

  13. Thanks so much for this CM. Up until a year ago(we are now “in the wilderness”) we attended a baptisty non-denom where the main method of spiritual formation was listening to the Sunday morning lecture. This has given me a lot to think about as I consider my personal life and as we search for another body to fellowship with.

  14. Another great, deep, thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Chaplain Mike. Continuing Michael Spencer’s legacy of Jesus-shaped spirituality, indeed!!! May God bless you for your wonderful teaching.

  15. I love this post. I feel this often as I walk in public. I have the love and peace of God in my heart and soul, and the looks of judgment I tune in to on occasion bounce right off me. On the days I happen to notice those things, I find it so easy to catch their eye and relay the love of Christ through me to them. It is sometimes a lovely sight to behold as I see the gentle tug of the Spirit at work and I receive a genuine smile when only seconds ago it was anything but lovely and genuine. The works of the Spirit are like gentle flowing streams through me….always moving, clearing the way. It’s as though I walk through the day with a secret….one I hope I get to tell someone about that day. I have the peace of God in my life, and I want that for everyone.

  16. Awesome clarification, thank you. You helped me see some self-righteousness that I needed to be shown. Also answered some of my questions on understanding and explaining the assurance of salvation. God is gracious and thank you for listening to him!

  17. Excellent series of posts!

    This discussion about the importance of spiritual disciplines reminded me of a quote from Jared Wilson’s excellent blog:

    “Christ is my righteousness. Christ is my holiness. Therefore, becoming holy is not primarily a matter of pursuing holiness but primarily a matter of pursuing Christ. Rather, becoming holy is a matter of receiving his pursuit of me. And any righteousness I pursue that doesn’t have Jesus in the crosshairs of my effort — or, again rather, having myself in the crosshairs of his effort — is self-righteousness.”

    As you said, spiritual disciplines aren’t anti-grace at all. They seem to be a means of grace to position ourselves to receive God’s pursuit of us.


  18. I’m loving this series of posts – it is helping me greatly with my current journey.

    I’m finding this particular post incredibly discouraging, though. Not that there’s anything wrong with it – far from it – I think this post was crucial to the discussion. My disappointment is that the culture of evangelicalism has become such that this post is even necessary. We have become so immersed in a consumer culture where bigger is better, where the mega-church is held up as the ideal, and a pastor’s success is measured in nickels & noses, that there seems to be little room for spiritual formation.

    Looking forward to the rest of the series, and to everyone’s comments.

    • It might be that pastors are worried that if you are quietly listening for the wee still voice of God you are not listening to them interpret scripture for you.

      There is also the fear that spiritual development will pull you away from the Bible. For example, I’ve seen what must have been a 50,000 word proof that all prayer must involve talking TO God; being silent (with centering prayer, for example) is not only un-Biblical but out-and-out dangerous because it goes beyond the Bible.

      • Good call, actually. I recently had a pastor tell a couple of us that we were “educated beyond our obedience,” as if acting on anything we didn’t learn from him was unscriptural. 😉

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          That pastor sounds like a control freak.

          • Perhaps – to a degree at least. I think, though, it was more a matter of having two people who no longer buy into the whole evangelical shtick challenging his entire life’s work. The whole experience provided interesting insights into how “The Establishment” will attempt to defend itself from “revolutionaries.”

  19. Chaplain Mike,

    Having been a novice in a french catholic monastery for 2 years I know the value of spiritual formation. I am not your typical silent prayer for hours type of guy and I still don’t pray like that a lot: but after that experience I’ve quietened down and God never seems far.
    Also, through the practice of Lectio Divina, I was taught to read the bible (yes in a catholic monastery of all places…) and that is what I mostly do for a spiritual discipline: studying and pondering the Word.


    P.S.: In a former post I was mistaken it was a classic IMonk post and thought you had written it… my apologies I am reading some of the archives now and it will probably not happen again.
    As in the days of IMonk my sympathies are with you and this wonderful website.

  20. Mike, this series has been pretty in-depth. Are you trying to work your way out of your day job?

    I’m going to have to print all of these out and take them and sit down with a cup of coffee.

  21. Chaplain Mike, I know I sound like a broken record but I think this a more concise summary of what I have said in prior posts and does not fall within the 4 clarifications you posted in the reading.

    “God does not need our worship, praise, or service. Be we do need His service, His presence, and His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. Whatever praise we give to God, whatever honor is due His name, is our response to God’s service to us. . . . And as Christians respond to the Word and Sacraments [God’s service and gifts to us] they respond in Christ, that is, their songs of praise, their prayers, and their confession of faith are not their own, but they are from the Christ who is in them, responding back to the Father through Him.” (Just, Heaven on Earth, pp. 17, 23.)

    The source of our “spirituality” (word/sacrament) is different than the effect our spiritually (disciplines, loving neighbor). I have found that when I make the disciplines the source I have confused myself and placed myself back into the drivers seat and “focusing in on my naval and self,” Paraphrased Luther.

    • Rob, I don’t think I am “making the disciplines the source.” The very first principle I mentioned was that of grace. In the final analysis it’s his work from beginning to end. That does not eliminate our efforts from the equation. I think you would agree that to benefit from the word and sacraments I have to make an effort to be there and receive them. Spiritual disciplines are nothing more than ways of “being there” to receive God’s benefits.

  22. I appreciate the simple, honest approach to one of the great struggles of serious-minded believers. Your words encourage and affirm this daughter of the King today.