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What Is Spiritual Formation and Is It Biblical?
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By David Sheldon

Last Updated: September 01, 2021

Spiritual formation has become prominent within evangelicalism. Books on spiritual formation are being embraced and used in teaching lessons. Courses are being offered at evangelical seminaries on spiritual formation. You may have even heard that you should be applying spiritual formation to your Christian life and walk.

So, what exactly is spiritual formation? Is it biblical?

Our goal in this article is to know what Scripture states regarding spiritual formation – in light of what is commonly heard and readily accepted. As we do this, we need to remember that the use of “spiritual” language does not make something Scriptural. The “angel of light” deceptively introduces false concepts with biblical wording. It might seem like real spiritual growth, like a blessing – at the time. But, in reality, it can be very dangerous to true spiritual growth.

Spiritual Formation

Spiritual formation – also referred to as spiritual disciplines, spiritual techniques, or contemplative spirituality/prayer – can be loosely defined as “practices or techniques that assist in one’s spiritual growth.” These practices can be implemented on an individual basis or in group settings such as corporate worship.

So, what are these spiritual practices specifically and what is their intended purpose? Are they biblical? Do they really aid in spiritual growth? And what is the underlying theology of spiritual formation? We will navigate through these questions in this article.

We will also look at a few popular spiritual formation teachers, such as the late Henri Nouwen, who wrote the following:

“Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God.” Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, pg. 51.

Does that sound like the same thing recorded in John’s gospel? “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.’” John 14:6 NASB (emphasis added).

Salvation in Christ vs. Enter the Journey

Scripture makes no mistake about the fact that God has blessed believers with every spiritual blessing in Christ!

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,” Ephesians 1:3 NASB

In Christ, salvation has been provided from heaven to man. We learn, in studying Scripture, what God has given to us in the person of Christ and His finished work!

“Simon Peter, a bond-servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, To those who have received a faith of the same kind as ours, by the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ: Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, for His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. Through these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world on account of lust.” 2 Peter 1:1-4 NASB

God has already supplied believers with everything we need in Christ in terms of spiritual blessings! We can grow in the true knowledge of Him as we comprehend His great promises to us found in Scripture within “the gospel concerning His Son” (Romans 1:1-6). We can grow because we have been set apart into the objective truth of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. We have been called unto salvation by the Lord Jesus Christ as well as unto the Lord Jesus Christ.

Is this the same thing spiritual formation teaches? Let’s look at another quote by Henri Nouwen to see.

“It is not going to be easy to listen to God’s call…But you know that God speaks to you through your inner voice and that you will find joy and peace only if you follow it.” Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, p. 89

As seen in this quote, the “call” in spiritual formation is that of an internal quest. This quest or journey is based on certain internalized techniques – in this case, listening to your inner voice. These techniques supposedly bring some human benefit, such as joy or peace (as Nouwen says).So, instead of taking a look at the Biblical concept of how the Christian has joy and peace, there is a devised internal quest based on some technique. Instead of the call unto salvation in Christ, the spiritual formation call is to constantly enter and embrace that journey. Instead of being set apart into the objective truth of Scripture (John 17:17) – one is set apart to certain internalized techniques (like unknown voices). Instead of a call of dying to sin and co-crucifixion with Christ unto a new life, it is a reshaping and rethinking of how one can “grow” by adding spiritual exercises onto their life for their betterment.

Although there may be spiritual lingo in spiritual formation, it nevertheless displaces the real Biblical call to repent and trust Jesus Christ – with a mystical journey.

Spiritual Formation

The Way vs. Way Show-er

Quite often, the first and primary way that you will know you are hearing the teaching of spiritual formation is this: Jesus is viewed as a “way show-er” rather than The Way; He “opens” the door to the kingdom of God instead of being the actual door into the kingdom.

The Bible does not describe Christ as a “door-opener” or a “way show-er” – please keep that truth in mind. Remember Jesus’ very words which we already mentioned above:

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” John 14:6 NASB (emphasis added)

If Christ was merely a “door-opener” or “way show-er, who has to do the work for their salvation? YOU. And who then becomes the central figure? That’s right – YOU.

Spiritual formation may have an appearance of godliness, but it has a re-centered theology focused, not on Christ, but on self. There is a supposed truer identity to find and benefits to be had based upon – you and your spiritual techniques.

Scripture says we are to have our minds transformed according to the truths of the Word. We are to know the Scripture and the full supply that we have in Christ Jesus in the blessings of Ephesians 1:3 (quoted above).

The teachings of spiritual formation should not be taken lightly. It displaces the Lord Jesus Christ of the Scripture – and therefore, it is deadly!

Spiritual Formation vs. Sanctification

Perhaps you have thought spiritual formation is like biblical sanctification. Actually, there is a huge difference between the two.The term “sanctification” is found throughout the New Testament in many of Paul’s writings. For example, 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 says, “But it is due to Him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written: “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”Sanctification is first and foremost based in the redemptive work of Christ – His death, burial, and resurrection – on behalf of His own people. A person is “set-apart” or sanctified once and for all, by the will of God, because of the finished work of Christ on Calvary. Yet they are continually being sanctified by the Spirit unto a believing, knowing and obeying of our Lord and Savior! The following text of Scripture points this out clearly:

“By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are (being) sanctified.” Hebrews 10:10-14 NASB

Yes, there is a “formation” of a new life that is spoken of in the Bible. It is first and foremost centered in knowing the Lord Jesus Christ revealed in Scripture, and then following Him in obedience. It is a (spiritual) discipline “unto godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7).Basically, sanctification is based in the objective Word of God whereas spiritual formation is based in the subjective, intuitive, mystical inner self.

Here are a couple of good quotes by author and pastor John MacArthur and his staff at Grace To You on their explanation of the difference between sanctification and spiritual formation. Links to the complete, brief articles are included.

        1.

What Is Spiritual Formation and Why Does It Matter?

        by GTY Staff

 

        Excerpt: “On one hand, there are the time-tested, practical Christian disciplines we’re all familiar with—things like personal and corporate Bible study, worship, prayer, discipleship, and service.

 

        On the other hand, many of the leading voices in the spiritual formation movement stress the need for more intuitive interpretations of spirituality. They encourage believers to incorporate a wide variety of extrabiblical spiritual practices, such as contemplative prayer, silence, meditation, creative expression, and yoga. In fact, some of the most popular methods of spiritual formation have been lifted from Catholicism, new age mysticism, or other religions and rebranded with biblical-sounding terminology.

 

        But any kind of subjective spirituality that draws your focus away from the Lord and His truth can have disastrous results, derailing your spiritual growth and cutting you off from God’s plan for your sanctification.”

2. The Steps of Biblical Sanctification? by John MacArthur
Excerpt: “But you won’t truly love God’s Word if it’s not already shaping the way you live. And it can’t shape the way you live if you don’t know it. That’s why any methods or patterns for spiritual growth that don’t start with the study of God’s truth cannot lead you to true sanctification.”

Spiritual Formation Fathers: Foster, Willard, Nouwen

The fact is that unbiblical spiritual formation teachings invaded our evangelical seminaries back in the late 70’s and 80’s. One of its lead figures is the Quaker, Richard Foster. He wrote Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth in 1978 (see Book Review) which was widely read by church leaders and future church leaders at the time.

On the heels of Foster, was the invasion of spiritual formation into many churches via the teachings of Dallas Willard. He wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives in 1999 with a cover endorsement by Richard Foster. His roots in mystical thought and Catholic spiritual formations can be assured when you take a look at his website. He takes you to people like George Fox, Madame Guyon, Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis de Sales, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Foster who are all Catholics/Mystics, as well as others. Although he throws a few orthodox writers into the mix, that shouldn’t deter us from realizing what he really teaches.

And then there is the most visibly current teacher, Henry Nouwen, who we have already quoted. Let’s put his quotes in context, from his final book/journal, Sabbatical Journey. Nouwen references a certain group of people he had observed who (accurately) believe that everyone should be converted to Jesus. He said these people seemed very deep, intense and radical in their belief in Jesus. But then he writes:

“Still…I felt somewhat uncomfortable, even though this belief was present in my own upbringing. My conviction as a young man was that there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church and that it was my task to bring all ‘nonbelievers’ into the one true church. But much has happened to me over the years. My own psychological training, my exposure to people from the most different religious backgrounds, the Second Vatican Council, the new theology of mission, and my life in L’Arche have all deepened and broadened my views on Jesus’ saving work. Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God. (emphasis added)” (Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, pg. 51)

Without a doubt, this teaching by Nouwen is the unbiblical belief called inclusivism (which you can read more about in What are the Different Views of Mankind’s Eternal Destiny & Do They Line Up with the Bible?).

On his page titled “Trust the Inner Voice” Henri Nouwen states the following:

“Do you really want to be converted? Are you willing to be transformed? Or do you keep clutching your old ways of life….You have to trust the inner voice that shows the way……You know that inner voice…..You turn to it often…..But after you have heard with clarity what you are asked to do, you start raising questions,….and lose touch with the God in you….Only by attending constantly to the inner voice can you be converted to a new life of freedom and joy.” The Inner Voice of Love, by Henri Nouwen, Doubleday, 1996, p. 6

Take careful note: Nouwen teaches that real conversion means listening to an inner voice! This is the mystical bedrock of spiritual formation teachings. His writings will quite often use biblical words, but seldom quote Scripture or help one understand any actual teaching from Scripture. A few more brief quotes from the book will confirm exactly what he teaches:

“You have to trust that there is another place, to which your spiritual guides want to lead you and where you can be safe.” p. 14

“You see that you are called to go toward solitude, prayer, hiddenness, and great simplicity.” p. 16

“It is far from easy to keep living where God is. Therefore, God gives you people who help to hold you in that place and call you back to it every time you wander off. Your spiritual guides keep reminding you of where your deepest desire is being fulfilled. You know where that is, but you distrust your own knowledge.” p. 25

“You must trust the depth of God’s presence in you and live from there. This is the way to keep moving toward full incarnation.” p. 52

“It is not going to be easy to listen to God’s call…But you know that God speaks to you through your inner voice and that you will find joy and peace only if you follow it.” p. 89

Based upon Nouwen’s teachings in Sabbatical Journey and The Inner Voice of Love, simply put, he is clearly and dangerously unbiblical. And yet there is this seminary course in an evangelical university where Nouwen is lauded:

      Bethel Seminary 2020-2021 Academic Catalog –
      SP 652 • Christian Spiritual Life: Henri Nouwen 1.5-3 Credits

      A study of major themes in the thought of Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), one of the most influential Christian spiritual writers of our generation. The emphasis is on primary sources, set in the framework of his life and development, and complemented by reflections from the instructor, who served as a teaching fellow with Nouwen during the author’s Harvard years (1983-1985). The goal is for this experience to provide critical insights and personal values that illuminate and encourage our lives as beloved and faithful children of the Lord.

So, ask yourself, will this course with Nouwen’s teachings actually help “illuminate and encourage” someone’s Christian life as the course description says? Unfortunately, there are probably similar courses in many seminaries, including evangelical ones, throughout the world.

Evidence in Worship

In 2011, I came across an article in a Christian university magazine about their chapel services. It is a good example of what happens when spiritual formation and its lingo are incorporated into a worship setting. I would like to draw your attention to a few quotes from the article. As you read them, take notice of what, or rather who, the focus is.

“…chapel is a vital catalyst for students’ spiritual transformation.”

“…pursuing a kingdom vision of worship, which guides our intentionality in being artistically and linguistically inclusive in crafting our worship experiences.”
“…creates worship experiences…”
“To create an atmosphere that will steward a kingdom vision.”

“To continue to help all students go deeper…and incorporate lighting, staging, video, and creative arts into chapel services. Whatever an individual’s preference or learning style, ‘We want people to say, Wow, I really saw God’…Some people ‘hear’ God speak through the message, and others through dance, worship, or images.” (i.e. The point here is to “experience” God in new ways.)

“In whatever format, at whatever campus, the goal of chapel is always the same: Spiritual Transformation.”

Did you notice the emphasis on the student? Read them again. It is all about how chapel can cater to what the students’ experience in worship. But where in Scripture does it state that worship (in this case chapel) is to be an experience or entertainment? Shouldn’t the goal of chapel be to worship God as He is and as He requires?

You see, what spiritual transformation does is it really begins to focus the mind/heart on the inward self. The most important thing in true corporate worship is the object of our worship – the true and living God as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. God is pleased when He is worshiped in accordance with His Word. Mind you, we should have passion for God. But that follows the illumination of God from the Bible. Otherwise, it is not true passion for God!

Based on what is stated in the article, any question of how God is to be worshipped has become secondary. Instead, the human-centered event is based in the preferences of people. Images, sounds, videos, and dancing are the main concentration – intended to help one “hear” and “see” God. Is this “encounter with God” brought through rational thinking – that is, the truth of God as He is revealed in His Word? Or is it through feelings and impressions via some beautiful song, a pretty picture, a talented guitarist, or a stimulating video? Is it primarily to provide a “spiritual atmosphere”?

Let’s look at another quote from the article:

“After the dynamic student-led worship, a pastor or other speaker offers an inspiring or thought-provoking message, the focal point of each chapel service.” (emphasis added)

Ask yourself: Is a “thought-provoking message” the same thing as “the authoritative and straightforward preaching of the Word of God?” In other words, is the Word given and received as authoritative, or is it an “offer”?

In actuality, this emphasis on the inward life has become sense and experience-based through the introduction of means that are in addition to the “hearing” of the Word. This type of worship is not only seen in this university chapel – it has exploded in many “evangelical” churches.

Luther and the Counterfeit Spiritualities of Rome

Martin Luther, as the foundational leader of the Reformation, confronted Rome’s false gospel AND renounced her false ways, simultaneously. This is clearly seen as you read the 95 Theses, as well as this quote from Luther:

“Idolatry is all manner of seeming holiness and worshipping, let these counterfeit spiritualities shine outwardly as glorious and fair as they may; in a word, all manner of devotion in those that we would serve God without Christ the Mediator, his Word and command. In popedom it was held a work of the greatest sanctity for the monks to sit in their cells and meditate of God, [solitude] and of his wonderful works; to be kindled with zeal, kneeling on their knees, praying, and having their imaginary contemplations of celestial objects [meditation], with such supposed devotion, that they wept for joy.
In these their conceits, they banished all desires and thoughts of women, and what else is temporal and evanescent. They seemed to meditate only of God, and of his wonderful works.
Yet all these seeming holy actions of devotion, which the wit and wisdom of man holds to be angelical sanctity, are nothing else but works of the flesh. All manner of religion, where people serve God without his Word and command, is simply idolatry, and the more holy and spiritual such a religion seems, the more hurtful and venomous it is; for it leads people away from the faith of Christ, and makes them rely and depend upon their own strength, works, and righteousness.” (Quote found here)

As usual, Luther didn’t mince words. He was saying that apart from the teaching of the actual truths of the Word of God, all religious acts, as holy and devoted as they may seem, are deadly! Rome’s false worship and false ways were on his radar as well as Rome’s false gospel and unbiblical view of justification. As a Catholic monk, he had observed (and at one time practiced) what they taught and did, which was immersed in “spiritual formations”. He then realized it was not Biblical, and gave Rome his judgment based on the Word of God.

The growing modern-day infatuation and implementation with spiritual formation as if it is true biblical sanctification and actual worship would receive Luther’s same direct criticism.

As Luther said, counterfeit spiritualities are outwardly glorious, but they are without Christ the Mediator. They come by human hands, apart from the sole agency of God’s Word/Spirit, which is how Jesus now operates as Mediator for His people from His exalted position as Lord.

Conclusion & Related Links

Spiritual formation, as defined by the false teachers mentioned in this article, is a deceptive pathway being taken by both the unsaved and even the saved. Where contemporary spiritual formation is central, you can be assured there is a false spirituality taking place.

The groundwork of spiritual formation teachings is laid in certain modern-day practices like contemplative prayer, breath prayers, entering the silence, lectio divina, meditation on the “inward christ”, creative expression, creative imagination, and, yes, even yoga techniques.

Spiritual formation teachings and practices need to be repented of in order for true spiritual growth to happen in the church. The reality of the Spiritual Formation Movement is that it is largely based in the mysticism of a number of the desert fathers of the early centuries of Christendom. It has continued on through the many centuries of teachings within Catholicism, along with other teachings found in more recent groups like the Quakers or expressed in the teachings/encouragements of a number of individuals which are too numerous to mention. Those who are not saved need to hear the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Those already saved need to be in the Word to understand all that they already have in their union to Jesus Christ in the gospel. They are called to believe Him and obey Him according to Scripture.

Related Material:
What Did Henri Nouwen Really Believe? By Ray Yungen

Review: Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth By David Sheldon

The Dangers of Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Disciplines: A Critique of Dallas Willard and The Spirit of the Disciplines By Bob DeWaay

The Vineyard Movement Grabs Hold of Contemplative Spirituality Lighthouse Trails

Panentheism! What is that? By Orrel Steinkamp

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