October 25, 2020

Spiritual Formation: What Is It?

Spiritual Formation.

First of all, I don’t like the term. It is too “spiritual” for me. We’re talking about personal formation, about becoming a more gracious, loving, virtuous human being; the person God created me to be. It is not about developing some part of me that is “spiritual,” it’s about me becoming more mature. It is not about developing some part of life or some special version called the “Christian” life. No, it takes place in the midst of life, ordinary everyday human life.

Second, I appreciate the term. Correctly understood, it reminds me of a few important concepts. (1) It is “formation” — a process of organic development. “Growth” is another good word in this regard. At its core, it is not about something manufactured or constructed, it’s about life, evoking images of human or agricultural development. (2) It is “spiritual” in the sense that it happens because the Spirit of God vivifies and indwells his children, enabling and energizing our development into the family likeness. Perhaps “Spirit-led formation” says it more clearly.

Of course, here at Internet Monk, we want to emphasize, thirdly, that this formation is “Jesus-shaped.” Michael Spencer would say that it is designed to help us live lives “that Jesus would recognize as being like him, about him, and formed around him, not religion.” Growth happens through walking with Jesus, living with Jesus, eating and drinking with Jesus, watching Jesus work, listening to Jesus teach, asking questions of Jesus, fulfilling the callings Jesus assigns us, and living the life with God that Jesus showed us and makes possible for us.

Fourth, it should be said that spiritual formation is about the development of a people, not just individuals. God designed it so that babies would be born into families. The growth and development of human beings is meant to happen within a community of love, support, and mutual service in which all members, at different stages of life, are being nurtured into greater health and well being, becoming wiser and more loving. In terms of spiritual growth, God has provided his church, the family of God, and the plan is the same. It’s not just that the church is one of many helpful options for individual formation. The family relationships of the congregation are part and parcel of the organic process of bringing individuals and the entire household to maturity and usefulness.

Now, what are some of the key aspects of spiritual formation?

1. Grace. In a recent post, I noted how we take so much for granted about life. We humans think we are independent, that we steer events and make things happen by our efforts. Yes, we have the capacity to make choices, and yes, we can effect some level of change on occasion. However, the sooner we realize that every moment of our life hangs on billions of other elements falling into place just so, and that behind those elements is the hand of Providence by which everything coheres, the sooner we will recognize our true place in the universe. Of course, our thoughts, words, actions, and attitudes do matter; and if we don’t cooperate with the unseen Hand, we may find ourselves broken against his laws of life. Bottom line, however, life is a gift.

We were likewise born into this new life by God’s gracious initiative and intervention, and we live and grow by grace alone. It is the continuing work of the Gospel in our lives that furthers our development.

And now, just as you accepted Christ Jesus as your Lord, you must continue to follow him. Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:6-7, NLT).

In other words, God works in sanctification the same way he works in justification — by grace through faith in Christ. A big part of spiritual formation is learning to receive God’s gifts afresh each day.

2. Word and Sacrament. The Reformers emphasized that God’s grace comes to us through means that God himself ordained. Primary among these are the Word of God (the message of Christ, especially as read and heard from the Bible) and the Sacraments (Baptism, by which we die and rise again to new life, and its counterpart of confession and repentance in the daily life of the baptized; and Communion, by which we are nourished in our salvation by Christ’s presence in the bread and wine). Gathering with God’s family for worship is not simply an obligation we must fulfill, it is one of the primary means God ordained for our spiritual formation. I like to think of it as “Sunday Dinner” for God’s family. It’s that special, memorable meal of the week when we gather around the table and do what families do.

3. Vocation. Genuine spiritual formation hinges on the truth that all of life is sacred, even sacramental. The various “callings” God has given us in the world — family, career, neighborhood, citizenship, etc. — are ways God works in and through us to know him and make him known. Embracing our vocations and delighting in the One who disguises himself in them to extend his grace, truth, and love to others makes every day a fertile context in which healthy spiritual formation can take place.

4. A Conversational Relationship with God. In the midst of life, we “practice the presence of God” by listening and speaking to him in every circumstance. Spiritual formation happens through a life of contemplation. In the midst of our daily activities, we ponder and meditate on God’s words and works. We talk to him in prayer. We listen, we question, we complain. We give thanks, make requests, and express our doubts. We study, analyze, and consider how to apply his teachings. We walk or sit silently with him and enjoy his presence. For a believer the veil between this world and the “heavenly places” is thin and there is constant interaction between the two realms.

5. Spiritual “Training.” What part do the “disciplines” play in spiritual formation? As many teachers, particularly Dallas Willard, have reminded us, spiritual disciplines are to life what practicing one’s scales is to playing a piano piece in concert. Practice is not performance. No one will pay the high cost of a ticket in order to hear a musician run through her scales! They want to hear the music! In the same way, spiritual disciplines are “hidden” training exercises that we are to leave in our practice room when we emerge to play the concert of living each day. Some speak of “spiritual disciplines” as though they should be the focus of a Christian’s life, but the fact is that they are not of life’s essence. Rather, they should be viewed as habit-building training exercises, sadly necessary because of our continuing weakness, in order that we might “put to death the deeds of the body” (Rom 8:13) and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 13:14).

Those who excel in music, sports, business, and other vocations usually have teachers, coaches, or mentors who design appropriate training exercises to help them overcome weaknesses and excel even more in areas of strength. In the same way, pastors have traditionally engaged in ministries of “spiritual direction” to help their congregants grow in Christ.

In summary…

True spiritual formation involves a person who has been born anew by grace through faith in Christ being formed into a person who is coming to know God, not just about God, in the context of God’s family. Who is being formed into a life of love. A life of wisdom. A life of kindness. A life of generosity. A life of virtue. A life of contemplation. A life of service to others, especially the poor. A life of ultimate optimism, and thus, joy.

This process is “spiritual” because it is initiated and sustained by the gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life. The process is “formation” because it involves life growing and developing into maturity and fruitfulness. This process might better be termed “personal formation” because it is about becoming a mature human being, one who exhibits the image of God in the context of daily living and relationships.

By faith in Christ I walk with God,
With Heav’n, my journey’s end, in view;
Supported by His staff and rod,
My road is safe and pleasant too.

I travel through a desert wide
Where many round me blindly stray;
But He vouchsafes to be my Guide,
And will not let me miss my way.

Though snares and dangers throng my path,
And earth and hell my course withstand;
I triumph over all by faith,
Guarded by His almighty hand.

The wilderness affords no food,
But God for my support prepares;
Provides me every needful good,
And frees my soul from wants and cares.

With Him sweet converse I maintain,
Great as He is I dare be free;
I tell Him all my grief and pain,
And He reveals His love to me.

Some cordial from His Word He brings,
Whene’er my feeble spirit faints;
At once my soul revives and sings,
And yields no more to sad complaints.

I pity all that worldlings talk
Of pleasures that will quickly end;
Be this my choice, O Lord, to walk
With Thee, my Guide, my Guard, my Friend.

– John Newton, Olney Hymns (1779)


  1. Mike,

    I hope you don’t see this as an advertisement or an issue of ‘trolling’ but things just got very personal on the internet for me. It is funny that it takes something like this to make me understand that a community exists in my life that is entirely electronic – however it is, real.

    May I be excused by having this link displayed :


    Many thanks and blessings

    • Please email me and tell me more personally. Blessings.

    • After looking over your site, I am not sure that you would make a particularly enlightened minister. For example, your dismissal of Catholicism as superstitious suggests that you have a rather narrow view of Christianity (hence the name of your blog, “The Narrow Way”). Perhaps you have found a seminary which shares your prejudices, in which case little good can come of your studying there. Just possibly, if it is one of the better ones, they will expand your mind some, but you have to be open to this. Since you have apparently only been a Christian for two years, going to seminary seems very sudden, so do be open to the possibility that this is not right for you. Well, food for thought, and good luck to you and your family either way.

      • Thanks Frank.

        The RCC teachings are so contrary to Scripture that it is unfathomable that one could not see that they preach a different gospel to that of Christ and the apostles – of which is deemed anathema in Galatians 1.

        Reading your comment reminds me that to stand boldly on the word of God comes with much opposition. I am not intending here to sound like a staunch “defender of the faith” but I must share ths….

        Thank you for your obersevation that I have only been saved a little while [ I have been saved almost 4 years now, not 2] and that going to seminary “seems a little sudden”.

        Thankfully luck does not exist.

        • I am praying for your discipleship & growth. you remind me of myself when I was your age. Be afraid, Be very afraid! 😀 Life seems so simple when your in your early twenties. I hope your keeping a log of your blogging you will enjoy them in decades to come.

        • Christopher Lake says


          Before you began commenting regularly on this blog, I was one of the most (and one of the only, hehe!) convinced, serious Reformed Baptists here. Brother, from your comments here, I have learned your basic thoughts on the Catholic Church. They are what mine used to be. I plead with you– whether or not you are able to go to seminary, get to truly know the writings of the earliest Christians, outside of the Bible itself. Some of these men knew and were discipled by the apostles who walked with, and learned from, Jesus Himself. Today, they are known as the early Church Fathers (as in 1st-5th centuries).

          Reading their writings has been more illuminating to my reading and understanding of the Bible than even my previously beloved Reformed authors were. I’m not saying that reading the Fathers will convince you to go in the direction that I did. However, they may help you in seeing that Catholic theology is not so “unBiblical” as you now think.

          • Hi Christopher,

            Thanks for your comment –

            I ahve always made the distinction bewteen the Catholic Church [ of which Christians are members of i.e many of the early Church fathers ] and the ROMAN Catholic Church.

            …..which is apostate.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            Yet another one still fighting the Reformation Wars.

            Like those two Christian factions in that episode of James Michener’s The Source. Bickering theology, mutual anathemas and denunciations of Heretic! and Apostate! — until one day Islam rides up out of the Arabian Peninsula and rolls over both of them.

    • Matthew,

      I, too, feel that this is a real community. For me, I was convinced fully, after a hot Sunday afternoon game in Cincinnati

    • I’m praying for you, Matthew. Don’t hurry your decision, and make sure that it’s truly God’s and not merely yours. A friend once coached me on a few indicators for whether a desire is the will of God:
      1. Is it persistent?
      2. Is it biblical?
      3. Is it under the advice of godly people?

      (It goes without saying not to hand-pick the parts of the Bible or the godly people…)

      And don’t be too harsh on the Catholics. We all have our inconsistencies, and I don’t think God is done with them yet.

      • Thanks Ted – I would covet your prayers that the Lord would make a way for my family and I.

        Thanks for those questions – I like them, its a good benchmark.

        The answer is yes, yes and yes 🙂

        • The yeses are a good start. All three are necessary, but they may not be sufficient for a final answer. But when you’ll know, you’ll know. God’ll tell you one way or the other.

          Is this clear? Or am I confusing things?

    • For what it’s worth, four years of full time ministry has at least taught me this:
      If you can live with doing something else you should. Or at least be open to bi-vocational ministry.

  2. Excellent post. I have nothing to add or other comments to include. (Of course, it may be because it’s 1:25 am and I have insomnia) I will be chewing over your words for a while.

  3. “Of course, here at Internet Monk, we want to emphasize, thirdly, that this formation is “Jesus-shaped.” Michael Spencer would say that it is designed to help us live lives “that Jesus would recognize as being like him, about him, and formed around him, not religion.” Growth happens through walking with Jesus, living with Jesus, eating and drinking with Jesus, watching Jesus work, listening to Jesus teach, asking questions of Jesus, fulfilling the callings Jesus assigns us, and living the life with God that Jesus showed us and makes possible for us.”

    This made me think of how we as Christians are a lot of the time if not all of the time missing the mark, as they say, when it comes to our faith.

    How many Christians do you know that go to church? Probably a lot if not most.
    And of those Christians who go to church, how many pray for others regularly the way Jesus would?
    And of those Christians with a rich prayer life, how many feed the hungry, spend time with those who are lonely, and help those who are hurting?

    For most of us we probably don’t know any Christians, to include ourselves, or very few who made it through all of those questions. Why not?

    Today’s Christians follow pastors of churches who need to have a certain number of followers in attendance, need to make X amount of dollars per service, need X amount of book sales, need X amount of coffee and pastry sales at the church cafe, need X amount of viewers on TV, need X amount of listeners per podcast, need X amount of mp3 sermon downloads, need there praise and worship team to sell X amount of cd’s. Etc. The list could probably go on.

    Out of everything just mentioned, how much of it do you think Jesus cared about during His ministry, and how much of it do you think He cares about now from those in ministry. (Perhaps instead of pastors selling DVD’s and books, they should sell there possessions and give to the poor.)

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that we might want to stop following a pastor and start following Jesus!
    (As Christians we need to check ourselves spiritually before we wreck ourselves eternally!)

    • “I guess what I’m trying to say is that we might want to stop following a pastor and start following Jesus!”

      Amen, Josh. Amen.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Christian Monist just went through that the hard way. As of last night, he officially left his Evangelical church for a trek through his Post-Evangelical Wilderness to a nearby Presbyterian one. Upon hearing he was leaving, his old pastor came over for dinner (the first time since he joined that church years ago) and the fight was on.

  4. The only quibble–and it is a quibble–I have with “spiritual formation” as a descriptive phrase is the ambiguity about what (or who) it’s centered on. For me, “making disciples” has always connoted what Ps. 23:3 says: “He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” There is a benefit and a process but in service to something outside of ourselves. And it’s definitely not a semantic distinction only.

    • Dave, I think this is a quibble—an unnecessary quibble. One might say the same thing about the word “salvation.”

    • You’d have to explain more fully before I could be sure what you are saying, but this reminds me of the emphasis some put on saying “in Jesus name…..” after every prayer. Somebody said, the glory of GOD is man fully alive. If we want to be fully alive, so as to bring glory to GOD, I dont’ think GOD has to hear certain words out loud, or a “THIS IS FOR GOD”S GLORY” clarification on every effort to sanctification. God knows HE’s dealing with humans.


      • God sure don’t need to hear the magic words. That would be superstition. It’s like saying that the actions or words we decide upon influence or effect the decision God is going to make. Isn’t that what pagan religions are after?
        However, that does not make the words unnecessary. Sometimes WE are the ones who need to hear them, to be reminded of important truths which do not naturally stick to the front of our minds.
        Otherwise using that argument can be used to negate absolutely every aspect of religious life after conversion including reading the bible at all. Goin to heaven anyway, right? God don’t need your reading help. But YOU are the one who needs it. It’s not like you can be truly Christian and not religious! Jesus was a first century Jew for pete’s sake!
        “The Glory of God is man fully alive” sounds like a Piperism. God can glorify Himself just fine without ever having created man. We’re not that integral to the process. Being a part of it is our privilege.

        • well, God certainly COULD have glorified HIMSELF any number of ways, but HE has decided to hitch HIS wagon to us…….insane as that sounds, and as we are HIS bride, I’d say HE has a vested interest in seeing us glorified (made like HIM). If you are married to someone, I’d say they’ve become “integral to the process”. That’s GOD’s decision, not mine…..I’d never have gone there…..

          and yes, words have quite a bit of power; I was just pointing out that GOD looks at the heart, the intention of making GOD the focus (which can use some words now and again, agreed) iswhat HE is after. If I’m aiming at Christ like love to describe and characterize me, I’m making the second of the commandments my goal…..this doesn’t have to mean that I’ve forgotten the 1st.


  5. “The family relationships of the congregation are part and parcel of the organic process of bringing individuals and the entire household to maturity and usefulness.”

    One of the most difficult points in my life was when I finally realized it was time to give up on finding relationships within a particular congregation. In today’s world, I don’t see how to do that, with everyone staring forward at a pastor and musicians.

    I had to walk away from that world, and find relationships in the catholic world. In this sense, I mean catholic in terms of finding other friendships within the global church, regardless of congregation, who would have lunch and talk about spiritual development.

  6. Todd Erickson says

    Peter Rollins was speaking at Mars Hill recently about this very idea…for too many Christians, knowledge has not been married to the physical, and so they beleive a whole raft of things about what is Good and True, but their lives do not reflect these things…so where we might say we believe in charity and mercy, people’s lives say that they believe in getting ahead, and surviving as individuals, and in other people “getting what’s coming to them.”

    Rollins goes on to say that the whole purpose of Christianity as a religion is to bring our beliefs (our spiritual life) into coherence with our material, actual, objective life, so that they are the same thing. To whatever degree they are different, our Faith is a lie.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      …for too many Christians, knowledge has not been married to the physical, and so they beleive a whole raft of things about what is Good and True, but their lives do not reflect these things…

      Christian Monist often covers this idea and its dark side on his blog. He credits it to contamination from Platonic Dualism (dividing the spiritual and physical) from the Greek side of early Christianity. (As opposed to the more holistic/monisitc Jewish concepts.)

  7. I’m trying to write in English.
    Excellent blog, I’m trying to read it.
    I wonder if I can put a link on my blog, or Latin America.
    And if you can you leave me your opinion.
    Be very blessed. Thanks


  8. Great post and series. Thank you. For me this is an area that has been neglected for some time within the evangelical movement and flow. Why? I’m not sure of all the reasons – maybe too RC sounding for some. The latest posting from David Fitch also references this. I have nothing of merit to add except an idea that I have been working through on my blog, mainly due to several discussions with a dear pastor friend, I gather that implicit in all of your points is to come to the table with a deep sense of humility and humbleness – I’m moving toward an idea that this sense must be a threshold position when coming to discipleship. I would love to see that made much more explicit as seems to me the NA church in particular seems to have forgotten .

  9. C.M., A good overview of the spiritual journey in Christ. There’s always more to be added, flushed out, etc. but one of the “offenses’ of the Gospel that comes in the ongoing following of Jesus is that it is not “brain surgery” or the need for “higher” or “deeper” knowledge. I think if we sought to live out the rhythms of the above, daily in devotion to Christ and one another, we’d be living in beatitude.

  10. “Spiritual formation happens through a life of contemplation. In the midst of our daily activities, we ponder and meditate on God’s words and works”
    This has been very important to me. I stuggle w/ this sometimes because I tend to “force prayer” instead of just simply listening. This discipline of contemplation is sorely missing in evangelism. Usally Evangelism’s idea of Spiritual Formation is going to seminars or going to hear speakers & testamonies.
    Contemplation is also very important to me when dealing w/ scripture. w/o contemplation we can become too dogmatic & rightious but Contemplating Jesus’ & his work on the cross while reading scripture has brought me to a new light.
    spiritual formation is not just learning, reading, speaking & service — I think most importantly it is listening. peace

  11. I am a sinner, a receiver and Christ is the redeamer, the giver, the doer.

    My spiritual growth has been in recognizing the distinction and not confusing the two.

    • Agree fully. Would you agree, Rob, that we are not passive or inactive in the process?

      • Good question Chaplain Mike.

        If I define/believe spiritual formation is the growing realization (a better word would be absolute to the core conviction) that I am only righteous because of Christ than this growth is entirely passive/received and reinforced through the holy spirit with word/sacrament.

        The only active part is moving forward in love for others.

        A practical example would be having an extreme impatience with a certain person. This leads me to disregard their hurts and needs, pointing out my sinful nature because my needs outweigh their needs. Through the pastoral duties of word (proclaiming the gospel and absolution) and sacrament I am forced to see that my status of dead to alive is only through the cross and a pure gift. For this I am profoundly thankful and move forward in love. Regarding “spirituality” we are either dead or alive in Christ, a situation not made better in any by an method or system. However growing in love of others is certainly a progressive thing but it is not spirituality. In a small way I may be showing my cards (a theology of the cross versus theology of glory, Lutheran distinctives).

        • Sooo, growing in love, and “spirituality” are separate and distinct things ?? I’m also a little curious about the phrase “the only active part is moving forward in love for others..” doesn’t that describe an awful lot ?? And aren’t the the spiritual disciplines, if rightly understood and practiced, joined at the hip with love, which is our goal ??

          Ok….enough with the questions…. good morning Rob B.


          • Greg-
            This is my experience: I set-up an entire stage of band equipment/projector/computers for our church (2hrs) and run the slides on the computer during service for the last 4 years (our LCMS Lutheran church plant is currently in a school), have lead a small group for 2 years, travel to Juarez Mexico (yes during the violence) where we build a house and do a free medical clinic where the gospel is proclaimed, volunteer in a church based medical clinic for the poor every month, pray, and have my quiet time with the Word every day. Over the past 4 years, this “spiritual journey or disciplines” has shown me one thing. I am still a sinner and have not grown one bit. I won’t speculate if this has expanded Christs kingdom but I still in my heart sin. From this I have come to find that these spiritual disciplines PALE in comparison to receiving the gospel proclaimed by my pastor every week, receiving the true body and blood of Christ given to me for the forgiveness of my sins, and hearing our pastor proclaim that in I am forgiven because of Christs righteousness, not mine. I will continue to do all these things that people call “spiritual” but I have come to rely on the means that Christ has chosen to sustain me (word and sacrament) as my spiritual nuturing/growth. My biggest (99.9%) spiritual growth has been realizing that in Baptism He made me his child, the proclaimed Gospel made me dead and now alive, and his true body and blood (with communion) where given to me for the forgiveness of sins. Is it really this simple? In my experience it has been. All Christs gifts for me a sinner.

          • Rob B: judging by your post, I’d say love and truth have kissed each other in your life….what a woderful testimony to GOD”s work in a jar of clay. I would commend your path to others, BOTH/AND, and not EITHER/OR. A life of grace absorbing hearing of the gospel, daily, and faith filled activity as a result. Sounds Jesus-like to me. I think the two inevitably blurr. (and should)

          • You’re very encouraging in love, thanks Greg.

      • Maybe a better analogy would be the sacraments. Many people call this a work because it is something we do but is it not really a gift to be received? In the same way I call hearing the gospel and receiving the sacrament, not works to be pursued, improved upon or over but these are pure gifts to be received. So if these are the ways for us to be “spiritual” or grow in Christ, it is entirely passive.

        I believe that people remove the “means of grace” in the sacraments and therefore look to other sources. It took 2 years of hearing my pastor preach this for me to see it. Before this I was looking for spiritual growth in many books, methods etc. When I found that hearing the word and receiving his gifts, although mundane and without the personal glory our sinful natures seek, was the way that God builds/sustains I felt much more settled.

  12. John Simpson says

    Bravo Chaplain Mike. The first paragraph was maybe the best. Righton bro.

  13. Willard wisely notes that EVERYONE is going thru some kind of ‘formation’. It is inevitable and unstopable. We are all changing , ever so slowly, into someone a little different. The question is: TOWARD WHAT ?? Or , for the christian TOWARED WHOM ?? So it’s not as if some decide to this , and some don’t. No, some are heading toward a specific goal of christlikeness, some toward some version of churchianity. Some toward “Sons of Anarchy”……and on and on. This is not remotely like gnosticism: it’s actually a natural and supernatural process.