Introduction to Spiritual Formation


“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)

The Bible assumes it to be self-evident that we can know God intimately. On almost every page of Holy Writ we meet a God who affects us and is affected by us.  The Old Testament reveals Him speaking, pleading, loving, working and manifesting Himself to His people.  He walks with Adam and Eve in the garden, eats with Abraham by his tent, and argues with Moses on the mountaintop.  The gospels give us a front row seat as the eternal Son wraps the garments of human flesh about him, steps onto the stage of life and interacts in loving relationship with those he meets.

The Early Church Fathers, and later the Reformers, taught that Christian spirituality involves a deepening trust and developing friendship with God for all Christians.  More specifically, they taught that true spirituality is an ever-growing, experientially dynamic relationship with our Trinitarian God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–through the agency of the His Word and the indwelling of His Spirit, in order that we may be formed into the character or likeness of Christ (personal holiness).

Moving towards a Process

John Wesley, more so than any other Reformer, took an explicitly systematic approach to spiritual formation.  The class meetings and the careful application of the spiritual disciplines, as a means of grace, preserved the fruit of the Wesleyan Revival and for a hundred years afterwards turned Methodists converts into stalwart saints.   This vision for spiritual formation was highly effective because it defined Christianity itself as a way of life and not just a creed or doctrine.  Wesley believed that a transformed heart ultimately resulted in a transformed life (holiness or Christlikeness), so much so, that he begins his account of “Genuine Christianity” by describing it in terms of a heart shaped or formed by the Spirit.

We Live From the Heart

Dallas Willard, whose spiritual formation emphasis was influenced by Wesley, says correctly that “we live from the heart” (Prov. 4:23).   The Bible says that the “heart” is the metaphorical center of our life and it is in our hearts that we are called to be made new when we come to God.  This “spiritual center” has been defiled by sin, developed by the experiences of life and formed by the choices that we have lived through or made in our past.   This is what it means to be formed. Out of this formation we see the world; interpret reality; make our choices; and break forth in action.  Put simply, “out of the abundance of the heart  . . .” all life flows.  Based on this reality, Willard says that the greatest need of collective humanity is the “renovation of the heart”!  It has been formed by a world away from God.  It is defiled and damaged by sin. Hence it must be regenerated and renovated so that out of a transformed heart we can live a transformed life.  The process that we go through to make all of this happen is called Spiritual Formation.  Dallas Willard defines this process like this: Spiritual formation is the Spirit-driven, organized process that God uses to form our inner being in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.

Robert Mulholland states it succinctly when he says that spiritual formation is “the process of being conformed to Christ for the sake of others.”  If this formation to the inner life is successful, then the outer life of the Christian becomes a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus. Thus the goal of all true spiritual formation is obedience or conformity to Christ that flows from an inner transformation of the heart.  This level of spiritual maturity allows us to exercise an easy relaxed obedience to all that God asks or requires.  It also enables us to effortlessly do what Christ would do when in our situation.

Spiritual formation is the Spirit-driven, organized process that God uses to form our inner being in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.

It is important to note that the goal of spiritual formation is not “external” manifestations of Christlikeness.  If this becomes the goal, defeat and deadly legalism are certain to follow.  We will become judgmental, critical and performance oriented.  The goal of spiritual formation is to renovate the heart and form the character of the inner man, so much so, that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are at the center of the deep habit-structures of one’s life.  This is far more than merely altering ones personality to fit ones presumed ideas of Christlikeness. Spiritual formation goes beyond the mere external personality of a man or woman and seeks to transform the heart so thoroughly that one is able to “love the Lord our God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our strength and with all our mind; and love our neighbor as ourselves.” This alone prepares us to effectively live and labor in the kingdom of God (Eph. 1:3-4; I Peter 2:9; Rom. 8:29).

Understanding the Big Picture

This kind of spiritual formation is a process that includes both pivotal and incremental change.   A lost man can be saved in the miracle of a moment, but transforming that same man into a mature disciple of Christ takes years of disciplined commitment to time honor processes.      However, the “big picture” of spiritual formation has three significant components: First, one must pursue God with the intent of knowing Him personally and correctly.  As we know God rightly, we can learn what it is that He expects from our lives.  Second, one must be willing to see himself – to see both the defilement and the damage that sin has wrought in his life. Third, one must be willing to encounter the Holy Spirit.  It is the Holy Spirit that enables one to become all that God desires one to be.  He alone has the power to cancel our past sin, cleanse our hearts, conquer our problems and change the person we are presently into the person that God’s says we can be.  Interspersed through these three big-picture steps are the application of the spiritual disciplines.

The Goal

I believe the ultimate goal of spiritual formation is to create a community of “called out” ones; who have been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit; who enjoy a life of victory over sin and circumstance; and who loved God supremely and one another selflessly; so that this community may become a “touch point between heaven and earth, where the healing of the cross and the power of the resurrection can save the lost and grow the saved into the fullness of human beings in Christ”.  This is the church as she ought to be.  This is the kingdom of God on earth!

Michael Avery
Michael Avery
Dr. Michael R. Avery is the President of Deeper Life Ministries and was named Chancellor of God’s Bible School & College in 2017 after serving as its President for 22 years.