What Is Spiritual Formation

How would God Himself answer, with just one word, the question “what is spiritual formation? ” His response, no doubt, would be “conformation. ” “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29). Thus, it is His revealed will that His children become more like His dear Son, Jesus Christ, daily. This “conformation” is brought about in cooperation with the Holy Spirit.

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God, through the Apostle Paul, has revealed that as one beholds the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ they “are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). Therefore the process of “conformation” is brought about by the activity of “spiritual formation” through the superintendency of the Holy Spirit. At times the activity of “spiritual formation” is narrowly defined as only a disciplined life of prayer. But it is this author’s conviction that it truly requires more than just a regimented prayer life.

Thus, the type of “spiritual formation” that leads to true “conformation,” that is to the image of Jesus Christ, is more than one dimensional. It should be considered a three dimensional discipline. A life that includes spending time with God in prayer as well as in His Word to the end of experiencing ultimate rest in His presence. Even though the very idea of “spiritual formation” suggests a realm that is distinct from the physical. There is a similarity between the means of developing physically and developing spiritually.

As our physical development requires exercise, nourishment and rest, like wise our spiritual development requires the same. As the physical life needs the proper exercise to grow so does one’s spiritual life. In I Timothy the Apostle Paul exhorts young Timothy to exercise himself unto godliness. “For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8). Thus in the activity of “spiritual formation” as one comes to God in prayer they are “exercising” their faith in Him.

Prayer is a dimension of that spiritual discipline that leads to godliness. As one engages in the exercise of godliness they will, no doubt, develop an appetite for spiritual nourishment as well. The Word of God is the food needed for spiritual nourishment and growth. Jesus Himself stressed the spiritual nutritional value of the Word when He stated that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Therefore the Apostle Peter encourages the believer to “desire the sincere milk of the word, that they may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).

This spiritual growth and exercise requires rest to be truly effective in the activity of “spiritual formation. ” Likewise as the physical life requires adequate amounts of rest so does the spiritual. And Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, has given a guarantee better than any mattress company when He stated “come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Coming unto Jesus is not only the key to spiritual rest but to the overall success of the activity of “spiritual formation. ” “Spiritual Formation” is not an inactive pursuit but a cooperative activity with God.

The child of God needs to rely upon Him to do His part as they do theirs. Therefore spiritual formation is that inner work of the Holy Spirit that leads to the “conformation” of the believer into the image of Christ. Therefore the believer comes to God in an exercise of their faith with an appetite to be nourished by His Word, resting in Him, “until Christ be formed” in them (Gal. 4:19). The believers “conformation” does not end here upon this earth, but will be made complete when they share in Christ’s glory at His appearing.

The Apostle John reveals this truth in 1 John 3:2 when he states, “beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is. ” But since there is such a potential for significant growth, today, in the process of “spiritual formation” this discipline should be approached with an insatiable desire. As the more one grows spirituality, the more one becomes like the Son of God and the more one will manifest Him with in the society he or she lives making a great impact for His glory.

But it is this author’s experience that there is often great difficulty in the “coming” especially as one engages in the activity of full time vocational ministry. It becomes very easy to make an exodus from the Acts 6:4 biblical model of pastoral ministry as he pursues tasks that have little to no biblical basis or value. All to often sufficient time is not given to the activity of true “spiritual formation” to the end of truly fulfilling the biblical mandate of being given to “prayer and to the ministry of the word. Many develop a spiritual illness which frequently leads to weakness in the pulpit. 4 In his book, Spiritual Life, John Westerhoff writes the prescription for pastoral wellness. He states that we as pastors need to regularly “disengage from our human relationships and enter into a conscious state of total dependence on God. ”

Westerhoff continues that “without single-minded attention to God, we will rarely hear anything worth repeating, catch a vision worth asking others to gaze upon, or have anything worth mounting a pulpit to proclaim. But how often has the pastor found himself, before he mounts the pulpit, giving single minded attention and time to such contemporaries as Swindoll and Stanley, fully depending on their writings. Or the theologian with Calvin and Luther. Or even those simply pursuing the discipline of “spiritual formation” depending on the likes of Westerhoff and Foster, but not God Himself. Therefore never honestly engaging in the activity of “spiritual formation” or ever experiencing true “conformation” into the image of Christ.

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