* Editorial Note: Dr. Ken Van Vliet is the Co-Lead Mentor of the Doctor of Ministry in Leadership & Spiritual Formation program at Portland Seminary. Ken works in partnership with Dr. MaryKate Morse, professor of spiritual formation, and a longtime Leading Voice with Missio Alliance. I literally graduated from this program last week, and recommend it deeply, without reservation! A version of this piece appears on Portland Seminary’s website as well. ~CK
I just googled ‘spiritual formation.’ (A bit of advice: Don’t do it. You will never get out of the rabbit hole.) The following is lifted from one of the top replies to my inquiry. “The spiritual formation movement is very popular today. It is, however, in many ways a move away from the truth of God’s Word to a mystical form of Christianity, and it has infiltrated, to some degree, nearly all evangelical denominations.”1
It is no wonder so many evangelicals struggle with the idea of spiritual formation. If it doesn’t line up with the Bible, it doesn’t line up with us. That is core to what it means to be evangelical. Yet, as a pastor whose church has been swimming in the spiritual formation stream for more than fifteen years, I am still caught off guard by the frequency of the question. “Is spiritual formation biblical?” Of course it is! Unfortunately, I have found, that answer isn’t enough. So I thought it was time I give the question the energy it deserves.
Spiritual formation is deeply biblical. Beginning with the dust of the ground in Genesis 2:7 and ending with a new heaven and earth in Revelation 21:1-5, the Bible is an intricate story of God’s formational work.
Our understanding of spiritual formation has its origin in Genesis 12:1-3, where God set apart the nation of Israel to be formed into a kind of people who were to reflect God to the world, and in so doing, point the world back to God.2 Much as God does today, dynamic experiences like the exodus, wilderness wanderings, and the possession of the Promised Land shaped Israel’s understanding of God’s character. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-20) and the rest of the Law served as a guide to mold the Israelites into the kind of people who could carry out God’s plan to bless the world through them and point the world back to God. In terms of spiritual formation, the Law and the Ten Commandments functioned as the first Rule of Life. Spiritual formation is deeply biblical. Beginning with the dust of the ground in Genesis 2:7 and ending with a new heaven and earth in Revelation 21:1-5, the Bible is an intricate story of God’s formational work. Click To Tweet
The Old Testament’s account of Israel also reveals the need for Spiritual Formation. Scripture makes it clear that in and of themselves, the Israelites were unable to reflect the goodness of God to the world. Their inability to do so brought dishonor and dismissal (Romans 2:24, Isaiah 52:5, Ezekiel 36:20-22) rather than renown to God’s reputation. The prophet Jeremiah revealed the core reason for Israel’s failure. Their hearts were disoriented. So disoriented (Jeremiah 17:9) in fact, that through the prophet Ezekiel, God revealed the only solution was to ‘give them new hearts and a new spirit’ (Ezekiel 26:36). Spiritual formation is the never-ending process of living into the fullness of your salvation. No one ever ‘arrives.’(1/3). Click To Tweet
Now enter Jesus. He too spoke clearly and often about humanity’s problem. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that it was the heart that most needed attention (Matthew 5:21-22, 27-28 and countless more). He summarized the law with a call to love God and others from the heart (Matthew 22:37-40). He even admonished the Pharisees to “first clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:26). Jesus knew humanity’s heart was so disoriented that it could only be transformed by the same power that would one day resurrect him from the dead (Romans 8:11). That power was and still is, the Holy Spirit, who frees us to be wholly integrated witnesses (Acts 1:8) to the love and grace of God made known in and through Jesus Christ. Spiritual formation is empowered by the Holy Spirit who lives in you. It requires your effort and the work of the Spirit who lives in you. (2/3). Click To Tweet
The Apostle Paul also notes the central work of the Holy Spirit in spiritual formation. In 2 Corinthians 3:18 he wrote, “And we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” This Spirit-driven transformation process would eventually allow Paul to make the bold claim that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, and the life I live in the body, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). For Paul, this transformation was not only for the ‘super spiritual’, but for all followers of Jesus. “He is the one we proclaim,” Paul wrote, “admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ” (Colossians 1:28). This maturity came through a paradoxical partnership where Paul strenuously contended with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in him (Colossians 1:29). Paul gave 100% of his energy towards Christ-likeness, and the Holy Spirit did the same.
This is the same formational partnership Paul calls Christ-followers to today. “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13). Here Paul reinforces three biblical tenets of spiritual formation that are necessary for a healthy formation process.
- Spiritual formation is the never-ending process of living into the fullness of your salvation. No one ever ‘arrives.’
- Spiritual formation is empowered by the Holy Spirit who lives in you. It requires your effort and the work of the Spirit who lives in you.
- Spiritual formation’s goal is for you to carry out the same good purpose God initiated through Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3: to be formed into a kind of people who are to reflect God to the world, and in so doing, point the world back to God.
This is what the world has always needed, and still needs today. This is what God has always intended, and still intends today. As such this, above all other things, is worth giving our lives to.
May it be so. Spiritual formation’s goal is for you to carry out the same good purpose God initiated through Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3: to be formed into a kind of people who are to reflect God to the world, pointing the world back to God. (3/3). Click To Tweet
Dr. Ken Van Vliet is the senior pastor at Monte Vista Chapel in Turlock, California. He grew up on a ranch in central California, and began ministry as a pastor to young adults. He has been the senior pastor at MVC for the past 25 years. Ken notably guided his church from a complementarian to egalitarian position on women in leadership, while also navigating a church culture shift from a large church event community to a spiritual formation community. He is also a Lead Mentor with Dr. MaryKate Morse in the Doctor of Ministry in Leadership & Spiritual Formation program at Portland Seminary in Oregon.
2 This reflects a common definition of spiritual formation, namely: “Christian spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ for the glory of God and for the sake of others.” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).