Conversatio Divina

Spiritual Formation in Christ is for the Whole Life and the Whole Person

Dallas Willard

A contribution to the book

For All the Saints

When the letter of invitation from Dean George and Professor McGrath came, I was happy to see that the conference was supposed “to emphasize the coinherence of theological and spiritual vitality.”

That is a lovely term: coinherence.  The idea it conveys is that theological integrity and spiritual vitality are to be properties of the same thing, the individual life. That’s what coinherence means.  When you have a lump of sugar to drop into your coffee (if you do that sort of thing), square, white, and sweet are properties that “coinhere” in the same thing, the lump of sugar.

In the case of theological integrity and spiritual vitality, I think the idea is that you really can’t have the one without the other. Anyone who has the one must have the other. Can we accept that meaning? If we do, then we are in real trouble with our current practices. For today the most common circumstance is that we find them, or what is claimed to be them, in separation from each other.

I try to address some of the issues that I think are most important here, and I have eight points to cover.

Jesus said, “I will show you what he is like who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice. He is like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it because it was well built” (Luke 6:47-48). And Jesus said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say? (Luke 6:46) Again he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:18-19). I hope you will agree with me that he didn’t just mean getting them thoroughly wet as we say the words “over them,” but rather that “baptizing them in the name” refers to surrounding them, immersing them in the reality of the Trinitarian community. And then we are to “teach them to do everything that I have commanded you.” That would be a natural next step, completing the process Jesus assigned to his people. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and bear against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matt 7:24-25).

Would a person be excused if they took these words to mean that Jesus intends obedience for us? The missing note in evangelical life today is not in the first instance spirituality but rather obedience. We have generated a variety of religion to which obedience is not regarded as essential.

I do not understand how anyone can look ingenuously at the contents of the Scripture and say the Jesus intends anything else for us but obedience. So my first point is simply, “Life in Christ has to do with obedience to his teaching.” If we do not start there, forget about any distinctively Christian spirituality. Such obedience is expressed in the great words as well as the small words—the great words , “Love the Lord your God with all your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27); the little words, “Bless those that curse you, “ “Go the second mile,” and so forth.

Now, you may think you will not explicitly encounter the big words in ordinary life, and they are a bit more elusive. But you certainly will run into the small words. Even if you only do such a thing as drive an automobile in our society, you will find people who curse you, and you will be given the challenge of blessing them. “And if anyone give even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (Matt. 10:42)—and so forth. These are some of the “small” words of Christ.

Being alive in Christ is a spiritual matter (see John 3). So life in Christ essentially involves spirituality. When you survey the scene on the Internet, you almost want to run from what shows up when you put “spirituality” after the “www.”  It’s unbelievable! And of course, with “Christian spirituality,” so called, one also finds there, and in life generally, a weird, weird world. But we have to remember that, all this notwithstanding, God is spirit, and God is looking for those who will worship God in spirit and in truth. I believe that means people who, in the core of their being, beyond all “appearance” in the physical world by means of their body, want to stand clear and right before God. They are people who wholly devote their innermost being—the heart, will, or human spirit—to doing so.

God is looking for such people. Occasionally, God might find someone who was not perfectly guided doctrinally or practically but was looking for God and trying to worship God in spirit and truth. God might just communicate with such a person and enliven his or her spirit with God’s Spirit. God might lead them onward toward himself, whereas there isn’t much hope for one who is not seeking to worship God in spirit and in truth. Paul says in Philippians 3:3, “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh.” That means we put confidence in the spiritual: our spirit together with God’s Spirit (Romans 8 and 2 Corinthians 4 and 5).

“The flesh” most often shows up in the Scripture not in association with cigarettes and whiskey and wild, wild women but with religious activities. When Paul in Philippians 3:4 says, “I have more [reasons to put confidence in the flesh],” he proceeds to give us a list of religious credentials that is quite over-whelming. When, to the Corinthians, Paul talks about carnal Christians, he is referring to people who are disputing about who is the best speaker and leader in the church. This is a sobering thought when you consider what is routinely done among us today. The flesh stands, basically, for the natural—the spiritually unassisted—abilities of human beings. It is possible in our religious activities to depend entirely on the flesh in this sense.

I beg you to study Romans 8:1 carefully: “Therefore, there is not no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, [who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit,] because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.” I say to you very soberly that this is not a passage about the forgiveness of sins. Indeed, I should just state at this point that we have a serious problem within our usual evangelical hermeneutic of reading passages that are not about forgiveness of sins as if they were, when they are really about new life (that is, foundational “spirituality”) in Christ.

One of the most famous of these passages is John 3. This is not a forgiveness passage. It is about life from above. It is about spiritual life. It is about life in the Spirit and about those who are born of the Spirit. When you come to the end of that great passage in Romans 8:1-14 you find “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” As you study that passage you will realize, I think, that Paul is referring to a power that enters our life, a spiritual power that comes with regeneration. This power is of course, God, and all the instrumentalities at God’s disposal, from the Holy Spirit, to the resurrected Christ in his kingdom, to the power of the written Word, to the angelic ambassadors, to other individuals who are heirs of salvation, and to the spiritual life and treasures that are in the body of Christ, visible as well as triumphant.

What then is spirit? Spirit is unbodily, personal reality and power.  In the way you might expect from someone who spends most of his time in philosophy, I’m going to try to use words very carefully, and one of the things I find most distressing in the current scene is that many of us have no concept of spirit at all. As a result, God becomes, for many Christians, little more than an oblong blur.  We have people today in “Christian” settings who believe in Jesus but not in God.  They do not have a clear enough idea of God to form a belief about him. And much of their problem derives from their lack of understanding of the spiritual type of being.

Biblically, God is, paradigmatically, unbodily personal power. Everything that is bodily—the physical universe, in whole and in part—comes from God and depends on God. Spirit can enter into and be with body (as is the case with the human spirit), but it is not from body, even in the human case. It does not derive from the physical.

Spirit is personal, not impersonal. None of that “the force be with you” stuff is relevant here. This is one of the major things we have to understand in today’s context. Of course, the personal nature of spirit is seen at its highest and clearest in the Trinitarian nature of God. The Puritans saw God as a sweet society. What personality is, is finally understandable only in the light of the Trinitarian nature of God. God is Spirit. God is personal reality and power—the power that works by thought and choice and evaluation—not a blind force that can be manipulated if you can only find the correct technique.

What you see when the veil is drawn back on the many “spiritualities” of our day is that they are so many versions of idolatry. They are nothing but human attempts to use human means to achieve identity and power for the individual. Idolatry is marked by the will to use God for our purposes. So many of our “spiritualities” today, including many that go under the name of “Christian,” are really forms of idolatry.

I was leading a retreat at a Catholic retreat center some time ago, and one of the staff came around to make an announcement that included the line “Father so-and-so will be holding sessions on Zen spirituality at such-and-such a time. Father so-and-so is famous for reintroducing Buddhist meditation into Catholic theology.” Reintroducing? Many people today in the broad fields of “spirituality” actually think that Zen spirituality was seen in Jesus and, unfortunately, lost until recently, when some have “reintroduced” it. Zen spirituality is one form of idolatry of the human self.

Spirituality as now generally understood usually refers to a human dimension, not to the power of God. Sometimes it even refers to the power of demons and the power of the devil, because he, too, is a spiritual being, as explained above.

“A spirituality,” as that term has now come to be used, simply refers to a way of conducting religious life. A spirituality may, then, be no more than an exercise of human abilities. So now we have Quaker spirituality, Franciscan spirituality, Benedictine spirituality, and even Baptist spirituality.

It is true that there are different ways of “doing” religion. There is a way Catholics do it, Baptists do it, Hindus do it, and so forth. A few years ago, I got on the plane in Chicago to go to Louisville and everyone on that plane looked like a Baptist to me. There is an outward form of being Baptist. Now, I can’t actually state how Baptists look—I can’t say what it is. But I can recognize it because I’ve been in the middle of it all my life.

That is why I find a special thrill in standing under the picture of Lottie Moon in the dome of Beeson Divinity Chapel. She has been a part of my life since I was a child; the yearly missions offering, teaching about Lottie Moon’s life, and so on. I’m so glad to see her standing up there by all these other guys. She’s great. It’s a thrill to be a part of what she’s part of. All of this relates to the fact that, as Paul says to the Corinthians, “We have this treasure in jars of clay” (2 Cor. 4:7). You cannot avoid having a vessel or jar of clay. You have a Baptist vessel, and you have a Benedictine vessel, and a Quaker vessel, and so forth.

The problem comes when we mistake the vessel for the treasure, for the treasure is the life and power of Jesus Christ.  We have to have a form of life, a vessel, a “spirituality” if you wish. None of us is given to be an entirely spiritual being now. Being body, and therefore social, is a part of us. I will eternally be the son of my parents.  I will always be the son of Albert and Mamie Willard.  And I will always be the person who was brought up in the First Baptist Church of Buffalo, Missouri, and the First Baptist Church of Willow Springs, Missouri, and Shiloh Baptist Church in Rover, Missouri. I thank God for all that. But to make that “spirituality” my life—that’s the point at which I may begin to think that being a good Baptist is more important than being a good Christian, than being obedient with my whole person to Jesus Christ. At that point I am back in flesh and have become spiritually off-balance.

Substitute for “Baptist” anything you want. It doesn’t make much difference. It is all the same if “a spirituality” is just a way of conducting the religious life. The problem is that conducting the religious life can become an entirely cultural kind of thing, and we can idolize our religious culture. There are many, many ways of doing this. It is so important for us to remember that a culture can capture us and shut off our access to the supernatural spirituality of the kingdom of God explained in John 3 and Romans 8, for example.

I’m sorry to say this, but too much of what we call Christian is not a manifestation of the supernatural life of God in our souls. Too much of what we call Christian is really just human.  The church of Jesus Christ is not necessarily present when there is a correct administration of the sacrament and faithful preaching of the Word of God. The church of God is present where people gather together in the power of the resurrected life of Jesus Christ. It is possible to have the administration of the sacraments and the preaching of the Word of God and have it simply be a human exercise. The misunderstanding of the church in this respect is one of the things that creates a primary problem for the integration of theology and spirituality. A bad theology will kill any prospects of a spirituality that comes from life in Christ.

The first of my eight points was that life in Christ, and therefore biblical spirituality, has to do with obedience to Christ. My second point was that life in Christ is a matter of the “spirit.” My third point was that spiritual life is a matter of living our lives from the reality of God. My fourth point is that Christian spirituality is supernatural because obedience to Christ is supernatural and cannot be accomplished except in the power of a “life from above.”

The will to obey is the engine that pulls the train of spirituality in Christ. But “spirituality” in many Christian circles has simply become another dimension of Christian consumerism. We have generated a body of people who consume Christian services and think that that is Christian faith.  Consumption of Christian services replaces obedience to Christ. And spirituality is one more thing to consume. I go to many, many conferences and talk about these things, and so often I see these people who are just consuming more Christian services.

But we must talk about spirituality, and this naturally leads us to talk also about spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are activities in our power in which we engage to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort. The singing of hymns, for example, is a major spiritual discipline. I refer not just to singing them in church but to singing them throughout our daily life. Now, we need to say, under this fourth point—that Christian spirituality is supernatural and focused on obedience to Christ—that when we come to sing our hymns, we must keep our mind and will alive to what we are singing. Only so  will the outcome be supernatural.

I love that old hymn “Draw Me Nearer, Nearer, Nearer Precious Lord, to the Cross Where Thou Hast Died.” But what does that mean, to be drawn nearer to the cross of Jesus? What does that mean in practice? Does that just mean a warmer heart now and then, or does it mean living in step with the Jesus of the cross and resurrection? I think it means the latter. I think it means union in action. Union in action with the triune God is Christian spirituality. That is where the life is drawing its substance from God. Draw me nearer! Or “Grow in grace.” What does that mean? It does not mean get more forgiveness. I return to that point in a moment.

The fifth point concerns spiritual formation. “Spiritual formation” refers to the process of shaping our spirit and giving it a definite character. It means the formation of our spirit in conformity with the Spirit of Christ. Of course it involves the Holy Spirit in action, but the focus of spiritual formation is the formation of our spirit. (Forgive me if I am wrong, but I equate spirit, will, and heart in the human being.) Spiritual formation in Christ is the process whereby the inmost being of the individual (the heart, will, or spirit) takes on the quality or character of Jesus himself. That’s what spiritual formation is, and we need to say something about why there has been such a buzz around this terminology in recent years.

Spiritual formation is not a new topic in the church at large, but it is a new topic in evangelical circles. I think the reason is that we have come into a time of obvious needs for something new and deeper. Discipleship is a term that has pretty well lost its meaning because of the way it has been misused. Discipleship on the theological right has come to mean preparation for soul winning, under the direction of parachurch efforts that had “discipleship” farmed out to them because the local church really wasn’t doing it. On the left, discipleship has come to mean some form of social activity or social service: from serving in soup lines, to political protest, to whatever. The term discipleship has currently been ruined so far as any solid biblical content is concerned.

Another thing that has led to the interest in spiritual formation is the breakdown of the significance of denominational differences. It is rare that you find anyone today who thinks that his or her denominational identity ensures very much in the way of Christian substance.  Some might still believe it does, but those will be pretty narrow circles. Sociologically, we have lost the significance of denominational membership. Most people who are confessing Christians, evangelicals, or not, drift from one kind of church to another and simply look to the local congregation and its leadership as a basis of choosing their church, not to denomination—or certainly not to it alone. Most younger people, especially, have no idea of what the differences in denominations amount to. Recently the daughter of an acquaintance asked him, “Which chain do we belong to?”

I would be quite interested to know, for example, how many Baptist churches now, as they did in my youth, insist, when you take membership in them, that you move your membership to another Baptist church when you move to another location.

With the breakdown of the denominational language and association, in any case, there is a need for a new language, and “spiritual formation” has stepped into that void to express the essence and depth of our commitment to Christ. It is, indeed, an interdenominational or nondenominational language. But the main thing that it tries to do is refer us to the need for inward transformation, and it is now statistically and anecdotally common to find that Christians generally do not differ significantly from non-Christians in our culture. Now, some Christians do. If you survey correctly, you will find that there is a group of Christians how do differ radically from non-Christians, but that kind of commitment is, even among Christians themselves, understood to be a kind of spiritual option or luxury. So my fifth point is: spiritual formation is the process whereby the inmost being of the individual takes on the quality or character of Jesus himself.

Now, my sixth point is that such a process is not a matter of the human spirit or heart only. We must be careful how we talk about the person and its several parts. Rather, spiritual formation is a whole life process dealing with change in every essential part of the person. We don’t work just on our spirit but on everything that makes up our personality.

Spiritual formation does not aim at controlling action. This is an absolutely crucial point, and one that distinguishes spiritual formation in Christ from what is done in most twelve-step groups. If, in spiritual formation, you focus on action alone, you will fall into the deadliest of legalisms and you will kill other souls and die yourself. You will get a social conformity. That has happened over and over again in the past, ad it is where the various “spiritualties” past and present begin to exact a dreadful price—focusing on the outward activities and the actions, not on the inward person not on “the spirit.” God is looking for those who worship God in truth and in spirit We cannot fake before God. We should remember that God looks on the heart, humans look on the outward appearance. To focus on action alone is to fall into Pharisaism of the worst kind and to kill the soul.

So spiritual formation is a holistic process, and to help us grasp this point I am going to suggest you create your own visual aid. If you would draw a circle about the size of a half dollar on a piece of paper, and write in it the words spirit, heart, and will.  And then around that another circle, and label it “mind,” including thought and feeling. The third circle is “body.” The fourth circle is “social relations.” Your final circle is your soul. So you have spirit (will), mind (thoughts and feelings), body, social relations, and soul.

If you want to divide the whole person up in other ways, be my guest. The point I need to make is: spiritual formation is a matter of all aspects of the self. It is not a matter of just the spirit of heart, or even of the soul. Now, the spirit, heart, or will is the executive center of the self. It is where action ultimately comes from, and it is very important. But it does not operate in isolation from the mind, from the body, from the social relationships, and from the soul. It operates in dependence on them. If we are going to do spiritual formation, we have to work on all those aspects.

One of the greatest temptations that we face as evangelicals, including the “charismatic” stream of the church, is the idea that the personality and the heart are going to be transformed by some sort of lightning strike of the Spirit. You can call it revival or whatever you want. There is gong to be this great boom and then suddenly you will be transformed in every aspect of your being. No need for a process; it will all be accomplished passively and immediately.

But now consider. When the people of Israel came into the promised land, the first city they approached was Jericho, and the walls of Jericho, we know, fell down flat. Tell me, how many more walls of cities fell down flat in the conquest of the promised land? What did the Israelites have to do with the rest of those cities? They had to take them, didn’t they? And we are today lulled into a false passivity by our basic teachings about the nature of salvation and the work of God in our souls. We like to quote verses like  “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), which is absolutely true. But we forget that if you do nothing, it will be without God. And this, while not a Scripture verse, is also absolutely true.

We today are very uneasy about human activity, and we have words such as synergism, which in some theological circles is a dirty word. But when we go that route, we will be at a loss before the call if discipleship, or the call, in Paul’s language, to put off the old person and put on the new.  What we must understand is that spiritual formation is a process that involves the transformation of the whole person, and that the whole person must be active with Christ in the work of spiritual formation.  Spiritual formation into Christ-likeness is not going to happen to us unless we act. I’ll return to that in just a moment as I conclude with my eighth point, which tries to deal with a few troublesome issues.

Now, my seventh point consists in illustrating how the transformation of these various aspects of the human self affects our powers at large. Think a moment about thought. Thought is a sub dimension of the mind. Now, if we are going to be spiritually transformed, we have to have transformation of our thought life. Remember that Paul said in Romans 1:28: “They did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God.” Frankly, what that means is they could not stand to think about God and about who God is. If you are on the throne of your life, you won’t want to think about God, because God is, after all, God, and there will not be room for God and anybody else on the throne of your life. And when human beings put God out of their knowledge, as Paul said, God gave them up to themselves.

God is not pushy—for now, in any case. God is not going to overwhelm you if you don’t want God. God gives you the power to put the divine self out of your mind. And even if you want God you have to seek God. I realize that there is a sense in which God is already seeking you, and I am not trying to dispose of that; but we misunderstand what is our part and what is God’s part. God is ready to act. God is acting.  We are not waiting on God, and, if it doesn’t hurt your theology too badly, God is waiting on us to respond. And you know we have a problem here.  As I often point out, today we are not only saved by grace; we are paralyzed by it.  We will preach to you for an hour that you can do nothing to be saved, and then sing to you for forty-give minutes trying to get you to do something to be saved. We really have a problem with activity and passivity in our theology.

We have to think about working with God on the contents of or minds. David says in Psalm 16, “I have set the Lord always before me.” What do we say to David? Synergism! Works! “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Psalm 16:8). Here is our action at the heart of that great messianic psalm.

How, then, shall we set the Lord always before us? Bible memorization is absolutely fundamental to spiritual formation. If I had to—and of course, I don’t have to—choose among all the disciplines of the spiritual life and take only one, I would choose Bible memorization. I would not be a pastor of a church that did not have a program of Bible memorization in it, because Bible memorization is a fundamental way of filling our minds with what they need. “Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth” (Josh. 1:8). That is where we need it! In our mouths. How did it get in your mouth? Memorization. I often point out to people how much trouble they would have stayed out of if they had been muttering Scripture. You meditate in it day and night. What does that mean?  Keep it, and therefore God, before our minds all the time. Can anyone really imagine that he or she has anything better to keep before the mind? “That you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Josh. 1:8).

I often tell people I can give them one verse that is worthy more than any college education, and it is Joshua 1:8. It will guarantee them the life they only dream to be possible. How does it work? Well, I often use phrases from the Twenty-third Psalm, for example. On a given day I will renew constantly in my mind the words “He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Or on a particularly difficult day I may use “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”

Much more could be said about the effects of transforming the arena of our thought life, but the transformation of our feelings is also important. Many people live their lives filled with anxiety or anger or contempt. They fill their lives with resentment. They willingly fill their lies with lust. Our culture constantly excites us to lust. Not just for sex, fur of course sex remains one of the most powerful strings to pull to get attention and action, and we constantly have solicitation going on in this arena.

But you have to change all that in spiritual formation. After all, it is not the law of gravity. You have to change your feelings. (Of course, with God’s help.) If Joseph had filled his mind with thoughts of romance or sexual indulgence with Mrs. Potiphar, she would have got him and not just his coat.

When you hear another story about a man or woman who has, as we say, “fallen,” I hope you will realize that the sad thing is not just that the person fell but what has been in the person’s mind all along—possibly for many years or even all of his or her life. That is where the work must be done for spiritual formation. It is not just “action control.” That is the error of the Pharisee.

But think for a moment of spiritual formation in the arena of social relationships. Think of the person who has, by the grace of God, cultivated in his or her relationships to others the life of the servant. Everywhere that person is, and all he or she does, that person performs as a servant.

Remember that Jesus said, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27).  And he also said, “The one that is greatest among you is the one who is servant of all.” By the way, it is dreadful to see this recommended as only another technique for succeeding in leadership. Jesus was not giving techniques for successful leadership. He was telling us who the great person is. He or she is the one who is servant of all. Being a servant shifts one’s relationship to everyone.  What do you think that would do to sexual temptation, if you think of yourself as a servant? What do you think that would do to covetousness? What do you think that would do to the feeling of resentment because you haven’t got what you think you deserve? I’ll tell you. It will lift the burden.

How many of our own personal affairs, as well as our ministerial and teaching efforts, are directed toward spiritual transformation in this holistic sense?

To drive the point home, I often put this challenge: I do not know of a denomination or local church in existence that has as its goal to teach its people to do everything Jesus said. I’m not talking about a whim or a wish, but a plan. I ask you sincerely, is this on your agenda?  To teach disciples surrounded in the triune reality to do everything Jesus said? If that is your goal, you will certainly find a way to bring theological integrity and spiritual vitality together. But as you do so, you will find both your theology and your spirituality refreshingly and strongly modified.

Now, my eighth and final point is just some issues that always come up. And the first is grace and works. Isn’t this “spiritual formation” stuff really just another term for “works”? Aren’t we just talking about works? Yes, we’re talking about works, if you mean “Am I going to have to do something?” You cannot be a pew potato and simultaneously engage in spiritual formation in Christ’s likeness. You have to take your whole life into discipleship to Jesus Christ, if that’s what you mean by works. But, in contrast, nothing works like genuine faith or trust in God.

Much of our problem is not, as is often said, that we have failed to get what is in our head down in our heart. Much of what hinders us is that we have had a lot of mistaken theology in our head and it has got down into our heart. It is controlling our inner dynamics so that they cannot, without the aid of the Word and the Spirit, pull one another straight.

May I  just give you this word? “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone. Many people don’t know this, and that is one major result of the cutting down of the gospel to a theory of justification that has happened in our time. I have head leading evangelical spokesman say that grace has only to do with guilt. Many people today understand justification as the only essential result of the gospel, and the gospel they preach is—and you will hear this said over and over by the leading presenters of evangelical faith—that your sins can be forgiven. That’s it!

By contrast, I make bold to say, the gospel of the entire New Testament is that you can have new life now in the kingdom of God if you will trust Jesus Christ. Not just something he did, or something he said, but trust the whole person of Christ in everything he touches—which is, everything. “There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5). And if you would really like to be into consuming grace, just lead a holy life. The true saint burns grace like a 747 burns fuel on takeoff. Become the kind of person who routinely does what Jesus did and said.   You will consume much more grace by leading a holy life than you will by sinning, because every holy act you do will have to be upheld by the grace of God. And that “upholding” is totally the unmerited favor of God in action.  It is the life of regeneration and resurrection—and justification, which is absolutely vital, for our sins have to be forgiven. But justification is not something separable from regeneration, which normally moves into sanctification and glorification.

If you preach a gospel that has only to do with the forgiveness of sins, however, you will be as we are today: stuck in a position where you have faith over here and obedience and abundance over there, and no way to get from here to there, because the necessary bridge is discipleship. If there is anything we should know by now, it is that a gospel of justification alone does not generate disciples. Discipleship is a life of learning from Jesus Christ how to live in the kingdom of God now as he did. If you want to be a person of grace, then live a holy life of discipleship, because the only way you can do that is on a steady diet of grace.  Works of the kingdom lives from grace.

The second issue is perfectionism. People quickly become worried about this when you get really serious about spiritual formation, and with some good reason, no doubt. But most of us would not have to worry about perfection for a few minutes, at least.  Still I know many people in evangelical circles who are more stirred up over perfectionism than they are about people continuing in sin. Now, just or the record, as far as I know, we are all going to have room for improvement as long as we live.

I love this quote from St. Augustine:

If anyone supposes that with man, living, as he still does in this mortal life, it may be possible for him to dispel and clear off every obscurity induced by corporeal and carnal fancies, and to obtain to the serenest light of immutable truth, and to cleave constantly and unswervingly to this with a mind wholly estranged from the course of this present life, that man understands neither what he asks nor who he is that is putting such a supposition . . .If ever the soul is helped to reach beyond the cloud by which all of the earth is covered (cf. Ecclus. Xxiv, 6), that is to say, beyond this carnal darkness with which the whole terrestrial life is covered, it is simply as if he were touched with a swift coruscation, only to sink back into his natural infirmity, the desire surviving by which he may again be raised to the heights, but his purity being insufficient to establish him there. The more, however, anyone can do this, the greater is he, while the less he can do so the less is he.

No matter how far we progress, there will always be in us a subdued, glowing coal of possibility that, if blown by the right wind, will burst into a flame of iniquity. But that doesn’t have to happen. And as for people who plead for continuing in sin, I must as them: “Are you planning on it?” Sometimes it sounds like they are.

So my third issue is, we cannot have a gospel dealing only with sin. We have to have a gospel that leads us to new life in Christ, and then spirituality can be presented as a natural development of such new life. But if we divide between justification and regeneration in such a way that the gospel is only “Believe Jesus died for your sins and you will go to heaven when you die,” we are stuck with a theology that is inherently resistant to a vital spirituality. Now, please don’t misunderstand me; that statement is strictly true. But we have come to accept “Believe Jesus died for your sins” in such a way that does not involve “Believe Jesus in everything.” The gospel is new life through faith in Jesus Christ. And if you don’t preach that, then there will be no possibility of a spirituality that is theologically sound or a theology that is spiritually vital.

Finally, let us remember the inescapabilty of serious process over time. We cannot continue to hope that lightning is going to strike us, and out of this we will come glowing with spirituality. This approach is common among “charismatic” writers. I don’t like that language, for I don’t really think there is such a thing as a noncharismatic Christian—but that’s a different story. Some have critiqued the Charismatic movement as neither very ill nor very well, And, if I may say so, that is true of the Evangelical movement generally. The prescription offered for the malady is new spiritual fire. This renewed fire, we are told, will transform the individual, the church, and the society.

It is the essence of futility to talk this way. And you can translate these words out of the Charismatic movement and into the Evangelical. Generally expressed, baptism in the Spirit, spiritual experiences, high acts of worship, and other experiences of worship do not transform character. They just don’t do it. I am one who has had glorious experiences, and who owes much to them.  They have a special role in the spiritual life. I don’t talk about the ones I have had, because I think they are between me and the Lord, and in any case they are to be known by their effects. They have meant a lot to me, but they have not transformed my character.

Now, you or others must be the judges of how far my transformed character goes, if that is of any interest at all; but from my own point of view, I can tell you that the transformation of character comes through learning how to act in concert with Jesus Christ. Character is formed through action, and it is transformed through action, including carefully planned and grace-sustained disciplines. And to enter the path of obedience to Jesus Christ—intending to obey him, and intending to learn whatever I have to learn in order to obey him—is the true path of spiritual formation or transformation.

We should expect many profound, key moments. I don’t want to miss a one of them. I love them, and sometimes when I get to the end of the Lord’s Prayer, having had a wonderful session in it—you can spend hours in it and submerge yourself in it—I don’t want to say, “Amen,” I want to say, “Whoopee!” Thanks be to God!” Thine is the kingdom! Thine is the power! Thine is the glory! Forever! “Amen” is just a little too mild.

I hope your life is full of “Whoopee!” moments. We should all have them, but they will not transform us. What transforms us is the will to obey Jesus Christ from a life that is one with his resurrected reality day by day, learning obedience by inward transformation.

Paul understood this well. We close with his words to the Colossians: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).

What’s the next move? Does anyone know? It is “put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, he wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways in the life your once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge n the image of its Creator” (Col. 3:5-10).

What an incredible sweeping change of mind is this, in which “there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian [the Scythian was the utter bottom of the human barrel in Paul’s world], slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, [“put on bowels”—guts, hearts, “innards” (as we say in Missouri)—of] “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience . . . and over all these virtues put on love [agape], which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God” (Col 3:11-16). And then comes that great seventeenth verse—which solidly drives home the point of our talk, the whole-life nature of our spiritual formation in Christ—“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thank to God the Father through him.”


Dallas Willard. “Spiritual Formation in Christ Is for the Whole Life and Whole Person.” In For All the Saints: Evangelical Theology and Christian Spirituality, edited by Timothy George and Alister McGrath, 39-53. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003.