Dialogue with a seminary student about trends in spiritual formation:
- As you think about the rise of interest among evangelicals in spiritual formation over the past twenty years, what do you think has contributed to such an interest? In other words, why is “spiritual formation” a catchword among evangelicals?
- During the past two decades, who would you consider some of the key influences in spiritual formation?
- What differences, if any, do you see between a popular evangelical understanding of spiritual formation and what biblical spiritual formation is really about?
- Who or what is happening in the sphere of spiritual formation that causes you great concern for the church and gives you great hope for the church?
- What is your definition of spiritual formation?
- What kind of effects (positive and/or negative) has Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and/or Streams of Living Water had on Evangelicalism?
I’m especially pleased by your question because in recent years I’ve come to believe that, even though I followed no plan to make them so when I began writing, the books comprise a good orderly curriculum for discipleship.
We want believers to have assurance of their salvation and to have a clear understanding of the Gospel, so How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian? would be first. Then, to establish them in growth patterns in their personal relationship with the Lord, we get them into Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Next, to enfold them into life within the body of Christ, we guide them into Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church. After this they may be ready for a spiritual checkup, and so we point them to Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health. And for those who have reached a place where their lives feel overloaded to the point where even their spirituality seems like just another thing to do, Simplify Your Spiritual Life is the book.
Of course, while this may be a logical sequence, it is not mandatory. Many who have been faithful Christians for years may need the message of How Can I Be Sure I’m a Christian? And certainly we hope to have believers active in a local church from the very beginning, and not wait until we can expose them to Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church. In fact, I’m writing with the presumption that my books would be taught in connection with a local church.
P.S. I’ve written several other books since this question was asked. In light of that, I would insert Praying the Bible between Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church and Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health.
How important is this question? This is not an abstract question about theology, it is a down-to-earth issue for both evangelism and ministry. It is at the heart of one of the great plagues of evangelicalism-the unconverted church member. This question is at the root of the “Lordship Salvation” controversy as well as the so-called “Carnal Christian” conundrum, two intensely practical pastoral issues. Moreover, this matter relates directly to Christian parents who long for the conversion of their children. To phrase the question another way, can a person go to Heaven who doesn’t live like a dedicated Christian? If not, and we say that Christian living is necessary for salvation, aren’t we contradicting the Bible’s teaching on salvation by grace and not by works?
What is sanctification? According to question 38 of The Baptist Catechism, “Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace (2 Thess. 2:13), whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God (Eph. 4:23, 24), and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness (Rom. 6:4, 6).” (This is identical to the Westminster Shorter Catechism question 35.) Regeneration is the new birth, sanctification is the growth that necessarily results from it. Justification is God’s declaration that a believing sinner is righteous because of the merits of Christ imputed to him. Sanctification is the believer leaving the courtroom where God has once and for all time declared him righteous, and immediately beginning the process whereby God’s Spirit enables him to increasingly conform to Christ’s righteousness, both inwardly and outwardly. Jonathan Edwards said of the Christian’s inevitable desire for sanctification, “‘Tis as much the nature of one that is spiritually new born, to thirst after growth in holiness, as ’tis the nature of a newborn babe, to thirst after the mother’s breast.”* The process is progressive, but is never completed in this life. Sanctification is ultimately fulfilled in glorification.
In one sense we may say that sanctification has nothing to do with regeneration or justification, and yet it has everything to do with demonstrating that one has experienced them. (Notice statements similar to “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because . . .” in the letter of 1 John.) Sanctification alone doesn’t save, but there is no salvation without it. As Paul told the Thessalonian believers, “. . . God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.” (2 Thess. 2:13). The experience of salvation begins with regeneration and justification, continues with sanctification, and is fulfilled in glorification. All who are regenerated and justified are being sanctified. All who are being sanctified will eventually be glorified. While we may distinguish between regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification, we must not separate them. In other words, the person who truly experiences one will experience them all (and in the order listed.)
So the old theological shorthand that “we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved” applies here. Sanctification isn’t included in the “we have been saved” part of salvation, but it is synonymous with the “we are being saved” part. And without sanctification, there is no “we will be saved.” For as Heb. 12:14 teaches, “Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord.”
How do I “Pursue . . . the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord”? Unlike regeneration, there is much Spirit-filled human effort involved in sanctification. On the one hand, “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). “On the other hand,” we’re commanded in 1 Tim. 4:7, “discipline yourself for the purposes of godliness.” God uses means of grace to sanctify us, chief of which are the personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. In the personal realm, these include intake of God’s Word, prayer, private worship, fasting, silence and solitude, etc. These are balanced by disciplines we practice with the church: public worship, hearing God’s Word preached, observance of the ordinances, corporate prayer, fellowship, etc. And all along, our confidence is not in ourselves, but in God. As Paul put it, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6).
Additional Reading: Biblical-Galatians; 1 John Theological-Jonathan Edwards, “Religious Affections” Practical-Jerry Bridges, “The Discipline of Grace”
*Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, Perry Miller, gen. ed., Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), page 366.
In specific, see the chapter on Journaling in my Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, or the chapters on keeping a journal in Simplify Your Spiritual Life. If you don’t have either of those books, the general answer is “Your way is the right way.” There is no such thing as “official” journaling. Whatever is edifying and helpful to you (provided it does not contradict the general principles of Scripture) is the way to do it. This also implies that your method may change from time to time.
We should never take for granted that anyone—much less someone who has only recently made a profession of faith—is clear on the Gospel. That’s why I explain and review the Gospel in every session with a new believer until I am sure that he thoroughly understands the message of salvation.
As the convert’s grasp of the Gospel strengthens, I begin to help him develop the verbal testimony of his salvation, making sure that the Gospel is the centerpiece of his story. But this is far more than just a time to refine the wording; it’s also an occasion to disciple through explaining why some things should be said, omitted, or modified.
Next, I want to help this young Christian become grounded in the pursuit of Christ through Scripture and prayer. I will guide him both in reading the Bible and in meditating on it. Along with this I will teach him how to pray through a passage of Scripture, especially from the Psalms.
From the outset of this process, I want to ensure that the new believer is planted in a healthy, loving, Bible-preaching church. Early on we talk about the Bible’s teaching on baptism and church membership. I also want him to experience the benefits of the teaching ministry of the church and to introduce him to solid Christian literature.
There’s much to follow close on the heels of these things, but these are a good start for the Christian’s endlessly fascinating journey to Heaven.
There is no single text in the Bible which provides a concise answer to this important question. And while a number of beneficial elements to the devotional life are possible, what elements are essential?
I am writing with the presupposition that God knows how He wants to be worshiped better than we know. Moreover, I believe that He has not left us to grope in the dark on this issue, but that He has revealed in Scripture how He wants us to worship Him. In other words, God’s Word should regulate our worship. Put another way, we should worship only in ways whereby God has expressed His approval by command, example, or principle in Scripture. And this is true whether that worship is experienced in the church, in the family, or in private.
Based upon this, the essentials of the Christian’s devotional life become clearer. There are some worship activities, of course, such as the preaching and our participation in the ordinances, that are congregational by nature. But three elements of biblical worship—reading and meditating on Scripture, praying, and singing praise—can be practiced whether one is worshiping God alone, with the family, or with a crowd.
With each of these three elements, there is a great deal of freedom and flexibility in terms of form, duration, and other aspects of the devotional experience. For instance, one may pray while sitting, kneeling, or walking. The entire event may occur in only a matter of minutes or be enjoyed for hours.
Probably every Christian experiences relatively dry seasons in his or her devotional life. Don’t conclude in the dry times that one of these biblical elements isn’t for you. Talking to a wise, more mature Christian may help. But don’t doubt that the Lord knows—and has revealed in Scripture—the most God-glorifying and soul-refreshing ways to experience Him.
We may be comparing apples and oranges here. The practice of “prayer walking,” as I understand it, is going on-location to walk in or around an area and pray for it, often aiming at particular targets in that geographical locale. What I wrote about is merely walking while I’m having my daily or a special prayer time. The former is always about a specific situation or location, while the latter relates to one’s “general” prayer life. The former is deliberately done at a specific location, while the latter is done wherever one happens to be—at home, at work, while traveling, on vacation, etc. The former is a one-time event or temporary practice, while the latter is an ongoing practice.
We have been trying to meet one on one with the guys in the Bible study for discipleship and I have been trying to follow your article “What aspects of the Christian life should someone discipling young Christians emphasize first (what aspects are foundational)?” I want to help a guy form a verbal testimony, but this is something that I need to work on myself also. In your article you said “As the convert’s grasp of the Gospel strengthens, I begin to help him develop the verbal testimony of his salvation, making sure that the Gospel is the centerpiece of his story. But this is far more than just a time to refine the wording; it’s also an occasion to disciple through explaining why some things should be said, omitted, or modified.” I was wondering if you have written any more on this already, or if you could give me some tips on how to form a verbal testimony and what and why some things should be left out or modified.
I advise people working on their testimony to spend approximately 10% of the time on their life as it was before they came to Christ and the event(s) that preceded their conversion, then 80% on how they came to Christ, and 10% on the changes in their hearts and minds and life since. In the 80% time, I want them to spend most of that time on the Gospel itself, and conclude that section with something about the fact that they prayed, asked God to forgive them, etc. I ask them to envision themselves giving this testimony to people who will never enter a church, or never otherwise hear the Gospel. In other words, could people be saved by hearing this testimony?
There are those who teach that you must trust Christ and in certain rituals. Some of the people in these churches are saved—not because they believe what their church teaches, but in spite of it—because in reality they are trusting in Christ alone for their righteousness and not putting any confidence in their own righteous deeds to make them acceptable to God.
In the same way, there are some in the [group you are asking about] who are saved, not because they are trusting in Christ and their obedient work of baptism, but because they are looking to Christ alone to make them right with God.
As a Baptist, I can attest that there are people in Baptist churches who, though they are taught otherwise, are trusting in Christ plus their response at the end of a service, or in their baptism, or church attendance, or good life. At funerals you will hear them say, “If anyone is going to Heaven, he/she is, because he/she lived such a good life.” And they’ll say this despite decades of giving the right answer in Sunday School when asked if people are saved by grace or by works.
Whenever salvation is couched in terms of “Christ plus ____,” it doesn’t matter what’s in the blank, for eventually that becomes the emphasis because that’s a work that we do. And then our confidence lies in the fact that we have done “it,” whatever “it” is. Even though it may be taught that Christ’s work is 99.9% of that equation, the emphasis will be on the .1% that’s in our power, and that results in relying upon our obedience in a righteous work. But the Bible says that our righteousnesses (i.e., our individual acts of righteousness, such as obedience to baptism) are as filthy rags in God’s sight, at least in terms of impressing Him that He should let us into Heaven. We should do acts of righteousness (such as be baptized after we believe), and there is a sense God is pleased with our acts of righteousness, for He certainly does not want us to disobey and do acts of unrighteousness. But these acts of righteousness do not cause God to open the door of Heaven for us.
So in one sense, salvation is by works—but not yours! Jesus earned Heaven. He fully kept the Law and never broke the Law. His righteous life on earth earned eternal life in Heaven with God. He’s the only One who ever earned Heaven. And our entrance into Heaven is secured by being united with Him by faith. We believe “into” [and not just “in”] Christ, and thus are given credit for having lived His righteous life. On the Cross, He got credit for having lived my life, which is why He received the wrath of God (that I deserved).
The bottom line is that it’s all about union with Christ. Are we united with Him by faith, or are we united with Him by a work, such as baptism? Baptism is a symbol of that faith in Christ’s righteousness—an important symbol—but a symbol nonetheless. If anyone believes their baptism establishes part of their righteousness with God, then they are believing in another Gospel, a Gospel that has had something besides Christ’s righteousness added to it.
So you are asking me something that you’ve probably known the answer to all along. You are really asking that if someone is sincere, will they go to Heaven, even if they are sincerely wrong. If someone has been taught that trusting in Christ plus participating in a ritual or biblical practice will save them, and they sincerely believe this, then they are trusting in a false Gospel. Even though it is closer to the true Gospel in many ways than, say, Islam or Buddhism, it is still not the true Gospel. It is a “Christ plus ____” Gospel.
But again, there are some in many groups who, despite what they are taught and maybe even what they express, are really trusting in Christ alone for salvation. Ultimately we don’t know their hearts, and we let God sort that out. But we must affirm that only the true Gospel saves, and anyone who trusts in a false Gospel—however sincere—is not saved. I think it’s time for you to come to terms with this: What is the Gospel? What does the Bible say is the only message that saves?
As you think about the rise of interest among evangelicals in spirituals formation over the past twenty years, what do you think has contributed to such an interest? In other words, why is “spiritual formation” a catchword among evangelicals?
There is an unprecedented interest in “spirituality” in the culture as a whole. A number of books on spirituality have been at the top of the bestseller lists in the last decade. The rise of curiosity about angels, near-death experiences, psychics, etc., is further evidence. I read a survey where even a majority of atheists consider themselves “spiritual” people. Much of the reason for this interest is due to people getting more and more of the material prosperity they’ve always sought, and finding that it doesn’t satisfy. The cost of this prosperity has also included a surge in the stress and complexity of life, and these pressures have caused increasing numbers of people to look for spiritual solutions.
Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Henri Nouwen, Jerry Bridges, Henry Blackaby, John Piper, Beth Moore, Kay Arthur, Gary Thomas, Ken Boa, David Mathis, and a few other names that escape me at the moment. I certainly do not endorse the teachings or the models set forth by all these dedicated folks. Indeed, I would not recommend the writings of some of them. But to answer your specific question, I do think they are among the most influential voices regarding the spiritual practices and development of Christians in the past twenty years, even if the influence of some of them has not always been positive.
That will depend upon one’s definition of the “popular evangelical understanding of spiritual formation.” I think that evangelicals understand spiritual formation to deal almost exclusively with the personal spiritual disciplines to the exclusion of the congregational spiritual disciplines, that is, with the disciplines one practices alone as opposed to the ones practiced with the church. Jesus does not call us to practice our spirituality in isolation. We are not called to be evangelical monks. Our Christlikeness is measured not only in terms of our vertical relationship, but also in terms of the horizontal (see 1 John 1:3).
The popular evangelical understanding (given that it is focused almost entirely on the personal spiritual disciplines) is probably limited in most cases to Bible reading and prayer, but many evangelicals do understand that there are other forms of Bible intake than just reading, and they are also aware of many other Biblical disciplines than just these two.
My greatest concerns in the sphere of spiritual formation today are (1) with the influence of mysticism upon evangelical spirituality (for more on my concerns, see the paper I delivered at the Evangelical Theological Society on “The Boundaries of Evangelical Spirituality” on the “Articles” page of my website, www.BiblicalSpirituality.org, and my chapter in “The Compromised Church,” which can also be accessed on the website), and (2) with the influence of pop/secular spirituality, that is, the spirituality contained in the non-biblical, New Age, and otherwise non-Christian books of the type that are endorsed on Oprah, etc., and (3) with the tendency to think of spiritual formation apart from the influence of and relationships within the local church.
The most hopeful signs in relation to spiritual formation that I see are (1) the widespread interest in “spirituality” that I mentioned earlier, even that which is wrongly motivated, for such interest is an open door to introduce the truth of the Gospel to unbelievers (Spurgeon said if he were buying a farm, he’d rather buy one that grew weeds than one that grew nothing at all) as well as to teach the truth of Biblical spirituality to believers; (2) the widespread interest in “simplifying,” which also presents similar opportunities, and (3) the increasing numbers of seminary graduates (and my knowledge is limited chiefly to SBC seminaries) who are committed to a biblically-driven ministry, which includes a biblically-driven spirituality.
Spiritual formation is the biblical process of being conformed inwardly and outwardly to the character of Christ (1 Tim. 4:7b).
Foster’s book has been the most influential book on spiritual formation in the last fifty years. I read it within the first few weeks after it came out and he was the first to help me think of certain Christian practices as “spiritual disciplines.” The topics of the chapters in my Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life are very similar to the topics of his chapters.
But I hope my readers see my writings, and especially Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, as a more historic evangelical approach to spirituality than Foster. Indeed, that’s the reason many pastors, as well as many of those in the 40+ seminaries, Bible colleges, etc., give me as the reason why they chose my book as a textbook instead of Foster.