The theology of Spiritual Formation sounds great on paper, but it is focused on the wrong target.
Spiritual formation is “an intentional Christian practice with the goal of developing spiritual maturity that leads to Christ-likeness.” The central claim of “spiritual formation” is the belief that — in cooperation with the Holy Spirit — I can transform myself from a position of lesser spirituality to a position of greater spirituality through “spiritual disciplines” like bible reading, fasting, confession, meditation, acts of service, sabbath rest, etc.
Progress toward greater spirituality is measured by what can be seen (for example, how well I maintain the routines of sabbath, bible reading, confession; how loving my actions are toward others; how much I experience greater joy and contentment; how well I serve and sacrifice, etc.) which means success is measured by outward righteous behavior.
But is outward righteous behavior the right target? Certainly, greater obedience is a worthy target. Given a choice between doing right and doing wrong, I should always strive to do right. But does Scripture define the goal of spiritual maturity as increased outward righteous actions?
No, Scripture defines spiritual maturity as strong, saving faith, not greater obedience. By saving faith I mean a strong, irreversible belief in the truth of the gospel and an unshakeable hope in its promises. While stronger faith may result in more obedience, the goal is mature faith, not perfect obedience.
Jesus says the goal is belief
Consider John 6. After the feeding of the 5000, a large crowd follows Jesus seeking more miracles.
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom He has sent.” – John 6:26-29
The burning question in John 6:28 is precisely the question of spiritual formation: “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” In other words, what must a believer do to be a good Christian? I believe, what do I do next?
Notice Jesus doesn’t provide a list of spiritual practices or behavior that needs improving. Rather he says if you want to do the work of God in this life, simply believe.
Paul’s goal is mature faith
Consider the Apostle Paul’s prayers in Ephesians. Paul’s prayers reveal that what he thinks is most important for his readers and what he beseeches God to give them is strong, mature faith.
In Ephesians 1, after explaining the incredible blessings God has given us in Christ (1:1-14), Paul prays that his readers would fully understand these blessings. Notice the emphasis on wisdom, knowledge and mature belief in the gospel.
For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. – Ephesians 1:15-23
Paul prays that the “eyes of their heart would be enlightened” so that they would know 3 things: the hope of his calling; the riches of the glory of his inheritance; and the surpassing greatness of his power. All three phrases point to the same thing: a fully-formed, unshakeable trust in the promises of the gospel. In other words, mature saving faith.
Paul closes the first section of the book by again praying for spiritual maturity and full understanding of the love of Christ.
For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith–that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. – Ephesians 3:14-19
It’s interesting that he prays this prayer for folks who are already believers. Since all believers already have “Christ dwelling in their hearts through faith” — that happens at conversion — why pray for it? Why indeed, unless the Christian life is a progressive journey toward maturity? Paul defines maturity in this prayer as fully comprehending the gospel. In other words, saving faith.
Just a few verses later as he’s describing how the body of Christ works, Paul again claims the goal is faith and knowledge.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ – Ephesians 4:11-13
What are we all suppose to obtain? Faith and knowledge. Paul describes spiritual maturity as firmly trusting and believing the promises of the gospel and fully comprehending its implications.
John says the goal is faith
The Apostle John echoes this same idea.
For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? — 1 John 5:4-5
Left to ourselves, we would be trapped in our sin. But there is a way to overcome sin (“to overcome the world”). The path to change is not through spiritual disciplines; it is through faith in Jesus Christ. You overcome sin by persevering in the faith and believing in the salvation offered by Jesus Christ. Who is the one who has overcome the world? The one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.
The goal of spiritual maturity is not greater success at outward righteous behavior. The goal of spiritual maturity is a strong, unshakeable faith.
Next: Do spiritual disciplines seek the right kind of change?
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Series: Spiritual Formation: A Critical Look
Usual Disclaimer: I am heavily indebted to other thinkers and teachers. These posts are my attempt to clarify my own thinking, reading and research. I hope to either learn why I’m wrong or articulate why the theology of spiritual formation is flawed. I am NOT questioning the sincerity, faith or motivations of advocates of spiritual formation. As with any controversial topic, my goal is: 1) to know what I believe and why and 2) to understand the other side well enough to know why it fails to persuade.