Conversatio Divina

Understanding How God Changes Lives

A Conversation with Steve Porter, Rebecca DeYoung, and John Ortberg

Steve Porter, Rebecca DeYoung, & John Ortberg

Dallas Willard writes “Understanding is the basis of care. What you would take care of you must first understand.”Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 27. The central aim of Westmont College’s Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture is to help establish Christian spiritual formation as a domain of publicly available knowledge. We want the reality of Christian formation to be more readily understood and turned to as the most reliable information on living life well. We desire to help persons accurately understand spiritual and moral formation so that they will step out on that understanding and adequately care for their lives.

To talk through these important issues, Steve Porter, the executive director of the Martin Institute, asked Rebecca DeYoung and John Ortberg who are both Martin Institute Senior Fellows to have a conversation about the role of understanding and knowledge in Christian spiritual and moral formation.

Steve:   Rebecca and John, thanks for joining me in this conversation. You both have spent a lot of time in a variety of contexts trying to help persons come to a deeper understanding, engagement, and experience with Christian formation. Why would you say coming to have an adequate understanding of spiritual life—discipleship to Jesus—is important?


Rebecca:   Thanks for inviting me, Steve. I think each of those elements of formation—deeper understanding, engagement, and experience—is interconnected and integrated with the others. Jesus didn’t just say, “Follow me, he also expected us to listen to and learn from his teaching. It makes sense to think he expected the two to fit together and be mutually reinforcing.

Experiences can serve as a light-bulb moment for understanding, while learning a new storyline can illuminate an experience we’re having and categorizing or conceptualizing something with new vocabulary can make a different way of engaging possible.

As an intentional move to step back and reflect, understanding can illuminate, identify, articulate, acknowledge, narrate, and reframe the everyday rhythms of our lives. Charles Taylor has argued that reflective articulacy can empower, re-enliven, and strengthen what is already implicit in practice. Dallas Willard rightly advocated for more intentionality in this area.


John:   That’s right. Dallas used to observe that the most important New Testament synonym for salvation is simply the word, “life.” The reason understanding is important for spiritual life is because it is important for all of life. Human beings are the kind of creatures who need to learn how to live, and as Victor Frankl and others have written, we need a why to live even more than we need a how. The need to understand transcends religion; it’s simply human.

Of course, it is vital to understand Jesus, in particular, because, at least as far as I can tell, there simply has not been another stream of wisdom about how to live that surpasses that of Jesus. It’s always the case that we are losing and regaining wisdom about this. In our day there has been a resurgence of wisdom about how life-change can happen (at least as such wisdom has been needed in that part of the church in which I grew up), so these are critical days to try to absorb and deepen and spread such knowledge as much as we’re able.


Steve:   “Absorb, deepen, and spread” knowledge. Those are helpful words that suggest knowledge is active; it’s something we encounter and take into our lives. Rebecca, you said that understanding can “illuminate, identify, articulate, acknowledge, narrate, and reframe the everyday rhythms of our lives.” This doesn’t sound like book learning as much as lived wisdom. It seems that we still live in a time when words like knowledge, reason, understanding, truth, and so on can seem part of the problem rather than helpful in growth. We all know that someone can have a lot of Bible knowledge and correct theology but remain deeply flawed and immature. How do we prioritize teaching, learning, and understanding truth about life with God without ending up with a Christianity from the neck up, so to speak?


John:   It’s an important point. We all know folks who might have ten times more Biblical knowledge than the average person, but is not ten times more loving or ten times more joyful. Paul’s wisdom on this—“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up”1 Corinthians 8:1, NRSV. Scripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition. Copyright © 2021 National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.—remains hard to improve on. Particularly in parts of the Protestant tradition, there has often been an assumption that the way to create spiritual maturity is just to pour more knowledge into people.

Interestingly, one of the main critiques of developmental models like those associated with Kohlberg or FowlerLawrence Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Judgment Development and James Fowler’s Theory of Faith Development. is that the higher stages are more marked by the ability to articulate moral reasoning than they are moral or spiritual goodness itself.

This is perhaps especially a problem for those of us who are teachers. We’re tempted to think our job is simply to declare correct spiritual information in a compelling way. We vastly overestimate the power of information alone.

We could perhaps start by emphasizing that spiritual maturity is characterized most essentially by love, rather than (for instance) time spent in Bible study or the ability to reproduce doctrine. Are we regularly producing people that are growing increasingly loving, joyful, and peaceful?

Then, if we have clarity on the goal, we are led into the right questions about method. A key reality we work with is that the vast majority of our thinking and acting runs on habit. So, if we want to transform the “neck-down” part of us, a large portion of spiritual growth will involve transformation at the habit level. A helpful expression I ran into a long time ago is: “The will is transformed by experience, not information.”Dallas Willard, Living in Christ’s Presence: Final Words on Heaven and the Kingdom (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), 56.


Rebecca:   I think it can also be helpful to begin by expanding our view of what knowledge is: for example, knowledge that something is true or knowledge of something or knowing someone; it can name both a disinterested grasp of publicly accessible information or a personalized experiential know-how or acquaintance with a person. First, we’d have to figure out what we usually mean by knowledge or theology or truth. How we are using those terms (now) might be part of the “neck-up” problem. We might reframe by asking what it means to know Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.See John 14:6. He was teaching in the rabbinic tradition, not writing textbooks, after all.

I sometimes ask my students this question: “Who is the wisest person you know?” It’s a question that helps us see that the knowing we need for formation requires personal acquaintance and embodied role models; knowing is itself a social and relational activity. Wisdom and love are related. Dallas reminds us that Jesus gave us a master class in wisdom. How would it make sense to be in love with Christ or want to live like him without also knowing him better and caring about what he thought and taught?

As a philosopher, I would also ask why questions. Why do we think knowledge is important? What is it for? Why would God care about what or how I (we) think?

Why are the creeds crafted by the Council of Nicaea important for my own faithfulness? Why did Christians found both universities and contemplative religious orders


Steve:   I love those questions, Rebecca, in part because they ask us to consider the way in which knowledge and understanding have been important parts of the Christian tradition long before the modern period of human history. I’ve been influenced by a historical argument from the church historian, Richard Lovelace. Lovelace argues that the historical development of Protestantism has predisposed theology and church life to lose sight of the central importance of spiritual formation. He calls this “the sanctification gap”—a gap in knowledge, teaching, understanding, and practice of Christian spiritual and moral formation. Do you see evidence of the sanctification gap in Protestantism? In what ways are we still dealing with a neglect or superficial treatment of this topic?


John:   I’m a practitioner and not a church historian or sociologist so I don’t have any specialized expertise here. But from my vantagepoint, the short answer is yes, we are still dealing with a sanctification gap. This has probably always been the case—when have people felt the church is producing a disproportionate number of outrageously loving people? But different traditions likely create different challenges in this regard, and I think that’s the case with my own tribe.

I grew up in a tradition that tended to view Catholic spirituality as “works righteousness,” and therefore be suspicious that language like “spiritual disciplines” were sneaky ways to talk about acquiring merit. Also, theological concerns about human pride sometimes led to an inability to understand or clarify why human actions are involved in sanctification.

We often preached a “gospel” that failed to produce disciples. It was more of “the announcement of the minimal entrance requirements” for getting into heaven when you die than the gospel of the availability of the Kingdom through Jesus.

Along with that, we lacked what might be called a “theory of change” (as opposed, for example, to AA, which has a very robust and empirically informed theory). Our spiritual quiver was limited mostly to two arrows—Bible study and prayer—without deep understanding of how such activities are used by God to transform embodied human life.

We expected people to avoid scandal and attend church and affirm right doctrine. We did not expect people to be radiantly transformed into loving, joyful, generous people. We’d have been surprised if it happened.


Rebecca:   This reminds me of the story N. T. Wright tells in After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.Nicholas Thomas Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: HarperOne, 2010). Someone gets saved, but then finds himself confused. Is he done? (until he gets to heaven, where there is…also nothing to do?) He keeps going back to church and thanking Jesus for “saving his soul.” But he keeps wondering, saved—for what?

I grew up in a justification-centric moment of Christian history, shaped by Reformation solas. Sola Christi(“Christ alone”) meant depending on the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ and sola gratia (“grace alone”) meant that any goodness or growth was due to the Spirit’s work, not ours. Moreover, sola Scriptura(“Scripture alone”) prompted emphasis on the Ten Commandments, rather than cultivating virtues and vices. My writing on how to grow in Christlike virtue is my own way of plugging the sanctification gap in the stories I inherited. I don’t deny what I learned; I just needed a bigger story.

We don’t need to be wary of intentionally cooperating with the Spirit’s transforming work, as the “effort, not earning” distinction makes clear. Protestants have always had their own list of spiritual disciplines (Bible study and prayer, tithing, and gathering for worship), but didn’t call them that, given concerns about “works-righteousness.” Of course sanctification and the idea that Christ-following is a way of life fits within Protestantism (in my own tradition, that way of life is the grateful response of joining God’s already-inbreaking kingdom work of renewal). Still, theologically, if you stake your identity on “grace alone,” it can seem dangerous to emphasize human agency and intentional practices of growth in the Christian life. I should say that my Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends would not agree with the Protestant clean line between justification and sanctification, of course. To save (sozo) is also to heal.

But at this moment in history, spiritual formation—now understood as discipleship or sanctification—is making a huge comeback in Protestant circles. That’s a welcome rebalancing. However, I think we have new reasons to be alert to the dangers the Reformation was responding to, but now with respect to American culture. American national identity is built on a work-hard, make-your-own-success, self-help story. Likewise, social science (positive psychology, behavioral economics) is now studying and recommending all kinds of spiritual practices (gratitude journals, mindfulness and meditation, etc.) as if this were a purely human self-improvement project, produced by atomic habits, life-hacks, and nudges. This is a new version of the problem that Protestantism was trying to correct, now in a naturalistic or humanistic framework.

So we need to make room for sanctification (per Lovelace), and identify it as essential spiritual formation (per Willard), but we also need to keep these new humanistic and naturalistic dangers in mind.


Steve:   This is so helpful. Our understanding of spiritual formation is shaped by the historical and social contexts in which we live. It sounds like Protestantism is recovering in some ways from the sanctification gap, but as you rightly point out, Rebecca, there are new contaminants in the cultural air we breathe and in the historical waters we swim in. Lovelace makes the point that “there is always a conspiracy against spiritual power in the church on the part of the world, the flesh, and the Devil.”Richard Lovelace, “The Sanctification Gap,” Theology Today, Vol. 29(4):7 (January 1, 1973), 363–370, accessed April 4, 2024, The world (social context), the flesh (our habituated self-reliance), and the Devil (spiritual warfare) conspire so that we avoid denying ourselves and taking up our cross in discipleship to Jesus. How do you see these factors at work in our time?


Rebecca:   I would offer two answers. The first is a combination of insights from Dallas Willard and Alasdair MacIntyre. Transformative spiritual practice, as it becomes formalized in communal structures, encounters institutionalizing forces. Vibrant human social practices need stabilizing institutional forms and structures. But over time those institutions and their programming can suffocate the practices that gave rise to them, especially if they become excessively rigid, or consumed with external goods like finances and maintaining power. (You might notice the same dynamics in politics.)

Second, spiritual formation is cruciform. You can know what a Christlike life is intellectually (i.e., you’ve read the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters) and believe that the Bible is true, but not want to submit yourself practically. (I’m reminded of Augustine’s prayer, “Lord, give me chastity, but not yet.”) It requires a kind of suffering, either the tolerance of discomfort, the dying away of the old self, or persecution and loss. Our culture habituates us full time into desiring comfort and convenience. So most of us are (as Kate Bowler puts it) implicitly still holding out for something closer to the prosperity gospel of health, wealth, and Jesus making us #blessed. At least that’s a perennial temptation.


Steve:   I heard it said recently that the new American Dream is to be as comfortable as possible as often as possible as easily as possible. It is no longer part of the American Dream that you have to work hard or pursue happiness. We just want as much comfort as we can get without any discomfort in getting it.

Willard often referenced the social theorist Max Picard’s book titled The Flight from God.Max Picard, The Flight from God, new edition, Marianne Kuschnitsky and J. M. Cameraon, trans., Brendab Sweetman and Matthew Del Nevo, ed. (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2015). The basic premise was your point, Rebecca, about the human distaste for cruciformity. Like Peter, we are happy to confess Jesus as Lord, but the moment he starts predicting that his way involves suffering, death, and resurrection, we want to get off the bus. Or get Jesus off our bus. Picard thought we then build culture and institutions, mostly unintentionally, that insulate us— or buffer us to use Charles Taylor’s language—from the call to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. The spiritual writer Frederica Mathewes-Green once said, “Everyone wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.”Frederica Mathewes-Green, The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer That Tunes the Heart to God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2009), 90.


John:   I’ll just add one observation and then one possible contributing factor to what you both have said. The observation is that spiritual formation in one sense is actually not rocket science. We’re all aware that transformation must be the work of God and not a DIY job. We all know that (unlike some other forms of “training” like weight-lifting or piano-playing) it must begin with and ever spring from a deep surrender of the will to God and the good. Beyond that, the elements of any truly effective spiritual community involve much the same features: solitude, fellowship, self-examination, confession, immersion in Scripture, service, generosity, celebration, and so on. These are all widely known. But having them practiced with sufficient intensity is another matter.

So, a possible contributing factor is, paradoxically, the success of “Christianity.” In Jesus’s day, “the Way” was quite simple—just follow him around. After the resurrection, another “Way” had to be found, and was famously described in Acts 2:42 (ESVScripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.): “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This was a way of life radically different from other ways. People knew if they were following it or not. But after a few centuries, the majority of people in the Roman empire affirmed Christianity; and there was no longer a clearly robust ‘way of life’ to follow. So, Anthony and others began to go into the desert to seek such a way.

This pattern recurs over and over. Very often it’s people in distressed circumstances who find a way of life that is dramatically different, and therefore practiced with intensity. We often find this, for instance, in prisons, in places where the church is persecuted, or in great poverty. A slightly different example is with addiction, where the Twelve Steps and other facets are “helped” by the desperate realization of life-or-death urgency. Most of us who are pastors in the West have a hard time facilitating that kind of clarity and intensity. It comes with crisis. Can it come without crisis?


Steve:   The clarity and intensity that comes when the crisis hits, puts us in our place. The crisis pulls the rug from under our feet, the wind is no longer in our sails, and the mast is broken! In these moments, as Father Greg Boyle says, we are invited to be “returned to ourselves.” But, as one of my friends puts it, it is hard to “stay down.” It is difficult to stay in that place of surrender, dependence, need, and receptive openness. It reminds me of what C. S. Lewis wrote in his reflections on how tribulations can bring us to surrender.

God has had me for but forty-eight hours and then only by dint of taking everything else away from me. Let Him but sheathe that sword for a moment and I behave like a puppy when the hated bath is over—I shake myself as dry as I can and race off to reacquire my comfortable dirtiness, if not in the nearest manure heap, at least in the nearest flower bed. And that is why tribulations cannot cease until God either sees us remade or sees that our remaking is now hopeless.C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 107.

It strikes me that this point about suffering—the role of crisis—is one of the points that needs to be rightly understood. Otherwise, we will misunderstand suffering and be confused and spiritually devastated by it.

Another misunderstanding that Willard thought made transformation challenging was that the typical presentations of the “gospel” in twentieth-century American Protestantism were narrowly focused on either the good news of forgiveness of sins (the gospel on the right) or the good news of deliverance for the oppressed (the gospel on the left). He juxtaposed those two prevalent presentations of the gospel with what Jesus calls the “gospel of the kingdom” (Matt 24:14). Dallas maintained that the good news of the availability of the reign of God through discipleship to Jesus as Lord provided a throughline, so to speak, from initial conversion into daily life and on into eternity. In Dallas’s words, “Eternal life begins now.” Forgiveness of sins and deliverance from injustice, yes, but at the heart of the gospel is new life in the kingdom of God. Do you find that these or other reductionistic visions of Christian salvation remain prevalent today? Do we still have a narrow vision of the gospel that disconnects conversion from transformation?


Rebecca:   Yes, I appreciate and agree with Dallas’s point. Another way to put it that is probably even more prevalent now than then is this: Christianity is either a completely personal and emotional commitment that can be contained neatly in your private life, or Christianity is reduced to external political mobilization, either of the social justice warrior left or the Christian nationalist right (for example).

My tradition emphasizes that our commitment to Christ and his Lordship should pervade every inch of life, from the personal to the political and back again. Our calling is to participate in whatever else we do in kingdom-transformed ways, while we live in between the “now” of Christ’s resurrection and the “not-yet” of the new creation. That’s another through-line. They need to be connected: our boldness has to be anchored in surrender and trust.

The danger is to go out triumphantly establishing your own kingdom before you have been cruciformly transformed, before your heart is deeply centered on Jesus. The opposite danger is to blindly conform to the culture Monday through Friday and keep your personal devotions and worship (“Jesus in your heart”) entirely compartmentalized from the rest of your life because you have your eternal destiny set and that’s all Jesus asks of you.


John:   I agree. Often the problem is not what we don’t know, it’s what we think we know but are misguided about. So “salvation” becomes “in the heaven-bound category.” “Trusting Jesus” becomes “affirming the arrangement he made so they have to let me into heaven when I die”; then it becomes possible for people to think they have “trusted Jesus” when they don’t actually trust him with any part of their real life.

Dallas’s question about whether the gospel we preach has the natural result of making disciples is wonderfully helpful. But speaking as a preacher, our homiletical habits are also in the process of long formation, and we need lots more examples of “salvation messages” that go beyond the forgiveness of sins/entrance into heaven and cast the vision for life-in-the-kingdom with concreteness and the ability to call forth decision.

This is reflected in the reality that in most churches people could quickly answer the question, “Are you a Christian?” but would often be fuzzy if asked, “Are you a disciple of Jesus?” In the New Testament church, it was the opposite. What’s needed most is not simply a more articulate or catchy definition of disciple, although that helps. What’s needed most are communities of disciples that have a concrete, non-legalistic, transformational way of life that people can clearly tell if they are following or not. Again, I think AA is a helpful example here. At the end of AA meetings, participants will often say together: “Keep coming back . . . it works if you work it.” (The little phrase “it works” they historically got from the book of James). In most of our churches, we’re not able to make that same claim quite so confidently.


Steve:   This is all really helpful and insightful. Thank you. I want to ask a question about your book, Rebecca,Glittering Vices that is related to themes in this conversation. In your book, you often make the point that having clear conceptualizations of the vices and identifying the different manifestations of vice is important for spiritual and moral formation. Can you give an example of how understanding the ancient and medieval framework of capital vices can help in spiritual growth?


Rebecca:   The vices tradition has been illuminating and life-changing for me personally. Reading the way that others have framed and articulated things can be like encountering a mentor who asks a question (or tells you a story or gives you a new word or definition) that suddenly makes what was previously only implicit or invisible in your life start blinking like a neon sign that you can’t unsee. I think this is what Jesus did for the people he encountered. He took the question, “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29) and redefined the contours of that word against our default assumptions by telling a challenging story about a Samaritan (Luke 29:25–37).

The desert Christians were also preoccupied with things—like vainglory or sloth—that have now fallen out of our vocabulary or become such default ways of life that we need a new or jarring prompt to bring them to our attention. Once you’ve learned what vainglory is, you’ll never look at social media the same way again.

Every other headline these days is about attention and distraction, but it turns out that you can’t just blame your smartphone. Christians in the desert centuries ago were already describing our desire for attention and social approval. I think their recommended remedies also have staying power, and are badly needed today: practices like silence and solitude.


John:   Glittering Vices is one of those wonderful books I have had a long time and return to often. One example from Rebecca’s book is as she talks about sloth (“the noonday demon”Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung Glittering Vices (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2020), 24.). We often think of it as laziness or a poor work ethic, and many in our culture feel so over-committed and overworked we think we’re free of it. But if we understand it more clearly as it has been in earlier eras—the refusal or failure to do what needs to be done when and how it needs doing—we start to see how this vice is perfectly compatible with workaholism.

Part of why Rebecca’s book is so helpful is that we live in a therapeutic age where moral and spiritual language is increasingly thinned out. The word sin is mostly found on dessert menus. Nobody calls the vice squad to deal with racism or narcissists. We don’t cease to be concerned with, “who’s a good person?” but language like “a – – hole” now carries the sting that the word sinner used to have. The realities of the human condition remain. But we need help to be able to name them with moral and spiritual gravity in contemporary culture. Rebecca’s book and the language of vice and virtue helps with this.


Steve:   Speaking of the way that language, concepts, ideas, metaphors can help us see and experience our spiritual lives in helpful ways, I find myself thinking of the upcoming Martin Institute Christian Formation Workshop at Westmont College that both of you are participating (and yes, this is a commercial. See the link below for more information on the workshop). In fact, Rebecca, you have co-organized this workshop with me. Our theme is the crisis of Christian immaturity. We are bringing together biblical scholars, theologians, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and thought leaders within the spiritual formation movement to help diagnose the barriers to Christian maturation. What would each of you say are some of the barriers to making progress in Christlikeness? Why don’t we see more conformity to Christ in our own lives and the lives of those around us?


John:   I don’t think I could top Dallas’s little acronym of VIM—Vision, Intention, Method—as a framework to mention barriers.

Vision provides the energy for spiritual growth. It is always getting distorted, which is why much of Jesus’s teaching is devoted to re-clarifying the vision of life in the Kingdom of God. The sign of effective vision is unforced desire (which is why Jesus often uses getting rich as an analogy for the Kingdom!). A compelling desire will involve both a negative side (here is the waste or even horror my life could become apart from God and grace), as well as a positive side (we are the children of God, and what “we shall be” has not yet been seen!See 1 John 3:2.). If a church does not clarify the vision, but hammers away at intention and method, it experiences legalism.

Intention requires the call for clear decision and commitment. People are not likely to become disciples by accident. Where a church experiences vision and method but there’s no intention or decision, people experience drift.

Method, or means, are the particular practices or disciplines that we pursue for transformation, along with certain relationships and certain experiences (particularly suffering, also work, cross-cultural experiences, movements of the Holy Spirit, and so on.) Where a church casts compelling vision and calls for intention but does not provide wise, doable, concrete methods, people experience frustration.


Steve:   Those are actionable points to hold onto. I need to double down to help remember what you’ve said, John. An emphasis on intention and means without vision of the goodness of life in the kingdom yields legalism; an emphasis on vision and method without the call to form the intention to live that way yields drift; and an emphasis on vision and intention without wise, practical, concrete means yields frustration. Again, this is an example of knowledge of the reliable process of change. Without it, we are liable to misdiagnose legalism, drift, and frustration in our own lives and churches.


John:   One other thought here about diagnosing our lack of growth. We need to do the best we can to assess our progress—spiritual formation should be empirically verifiable, as Dallas used to say. It should lead to more generosity and fewer divorces, more servanthood and less exclusion, more love and less hate. And at the same time, we are never in a position to be the ultimate judges on this. Which churches and ministries have been most effective may look considerably different to God than to us. We never stop trying or asking for his help. But ultimately God will know best when it might be time to give a particular group or ministry or culture or community a strong dose of “sanctification effectiveness,” and that’s never entirely in our hands—which is undoubtedly a good thing, though I often find it frustrating.


Rebecca:   I would say that the main barrier to Christian maturity is that people have not personally encountered Jesus Christ. They know about him, but don’t know him. So they don’t know the difference it makes to have that experience. That’s partly a cultural problem—there is almost no space in our lives for meaningful face-to-face relationship. And it’s partly a Christianity problem—we don’t understand it and don’t teach people to expect it. Only transformed people can transform people.

Also, it’s hard. Old habits have to be broken, the old self needs to die—which means suffering. We’d have to prioritize formation, and put Jesus first. That’s a big ask and most Christians either have no clue or don’t feel comfortable making those changes, even incrementally.

I’m a bit chagrined to be such a slower learner myself, honestly. Given all the beautiful friends and witnesses God has put in my life, the suffering he has brought me through, and the ways he’s revealed himself to me in love, you’d think I’d be further along than I am. I think my biggest takeaway is to keep coming back to what I know places me in his presence, where I will keep growing. When I observe my own slowness, that helps increase my patience with others who are also moving slowly along the path toward Christlikeness, or who maybe aren’t sure they want to move forward at all.


Steve:    That’s so helpful, Rebecca. It is so important to keep Jesus’s teaching about logs in our own eyes while pointing out specks in others firmly in mind when working in this area.See Matthew 7:1–5. I hope the sort of self-awareness and humility you are displaying will pervade the upcoming workshop. We are not talking about those immature Christians “out there,” it is the lingering and sometimes increasing immaturity in our hearts.

At the workshop, we are bringing scholars from various disciplines (e.g., theology, philosophy, psychology, etc.) into conversation with pastors and spiritual formation ministry leaders in an attempt to connect scholarship to the church and connect pastoral realities to the academy. Why do we need Christian scholarship on these questions?


Rebecca:   In the course of our conversation in this interview, we’ve brought in helpful insights from history, theology, philosophy, and things we’ve learned from novels, neuroscience, social theory, and the study of Scripture (I know just enough Greek to ask translation questions!). If no one studied those things, we would lack all the light they can shed on Christian living. The body of Christ needs good eyes and a good mind, as well as a good heart and good hands.


John:   Amen. We need access to reality, because reality is what we’re dealing with. And dealing with reality requires knowledge of reality. And coming to know reality in any given sphere of existence is the particular charge of scholarship, whether the scholars in that field would express it so or not. Human beings are eternal creatures. The formation of the human character or spirit is the most important process going on in the universe; the birth and death of galaxies pale in comparison. There is no area of human or non-human existence that merits the best thinking and training more.

Mark Noll famously wrote that “the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994), 3. This diminishes our knowledge, opens us up to error, leads us down misguided paths of practice and preaching, and robs us of the ability to interact with and influence the cultural gatekeepers of our day.

My own training was in clinical psychology. This is a field where working hard to assess human change as accurately as possible has been going on rigorously for decades. Scales have been developed and tested, interventions have been attempted and measured with the rigors of double-blind studies in peer-reviewed journals. Since all truth is God’s truth, we can expect to find a good amount of it here. Churches also seek “interventions” that will be used to produce change. Why would we not learn from the best people in the field of psychology to try to study at least as honestly as our social science counterparts whether or not we’re actually making a (positive) difference?

In the New Testament, Jesus adds to the great commandment of Deuteronomy 6:5 the additional charge that we are to love God with all our mind.See Matthew 22:37; Mark 12:30; and Luke 10:27. To gather the best thoughts of the best minds in the best guilds in the fields of study that matter most is part of what we owe to God and the church.


Steve:   Thanks to you both for having this conversation. I am reminded of St. Paul’s words concerning Jesus Christ, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col 1:28–29, ESV). I feel like I heard some warnings and some teachings grounded in wisdom that will help us and others mature in Christ. And I have also sensed Christ’s energy at work through both of you. Thanks for that, and thanks be to God!


For more information on the Martin Institute Christian Formation Workshop, please see here.