“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
Clearly the most important resource for spiritual formation is the Word of God. It is an essential source for defining the character and content of all true spiritual formation, while at the same time, it is the intrusive “action of the presence, purpose and power of God in the midst of our lives.” The authors of Holy Scripture knew this and were rightly convinced that God moved them to write what they did for the spiritual benefit and gradual transformation of their readers. And it will be in the process of our reading, studying and meditating upon scripture that the Holy Spirit will “teach, rebuke, correct and train” (2 Tim. 3:16) us so that we become the kinds of persons God intends us to become — persons who bear the image of Christ. Just as an infant is nurtured, educated, trained, disciplined and guided from infancy to full maturity, even so the Word of God is profitable for the purpose of growing us into the kind of Christian that is “complete” and “equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17).
As powerful a change agent as the inspired Word is, it will, for the most part, be our approach to the Bible that will largely determine the measure and speed of our being transformed into the person God wants us to be. I mean by this, that the Bible has to be approached with an openness to encounter God by means of the Holy Spirit’s aid. Hungry, seeking hearts have been ushered into the presence, power and purpose of God while reading the Bible because they read with the intention of meeting God in the text! Such an experience left them not only refreshed but equipped with truth and insight for life. While others found Bible reading a dead lifeless exercise because their approach was simply an academic exercise of trying to find some new nugget of truth to add to their store of knowledge about the Bible.
Reading for Formation versus Information
There is no doubt that the Bible is an amazing book of information – important information! It gives us knowledge about many things that are crucial to sound doctrine and basic Christian living. The pursuit of such knowledge is a noble pursuit and never to be minimized. Nevertheless, the Bible is not simply a textbook that is to be studied solely for what one might learn. It is the divinely inspired, living Word of God. And the ultimate goal of study for Christians as Christians must be to encounter the living God as he has revealed Himself in Christ aided by the personal presence of the Holy Spirit. The Bible must speak to our heart as well as to our head. It must engage our spirit, emotions and will as well as our mind. Only as the Word of God touches our deepest self, through the power of the Holy Spirit, can it bring powerful, dynamic, spiritual formation in Christ.
There is nothing aloof, cold or distant about Scripture. It is powerfully personal and deeply intrusive. It will always probe us at the points of our unlikeness to Christ. The Hebrew writer tells us that the, “the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). When we read the Bible for formation rather than just information, we are humbly opening up ourselves to God, through the Word and Spirit, to put a “finger” on those things in our lives that are inconsistent with His will for our wholeness and holiness. The touch of His finger on some area of sin or brokenness; or the touch of His finger on some closed door in our heart is not to simply point out our flaws or educate us about what needs to be changed, but rather He touches us with His finger in order to let us know that there is a hand attached that offers us the nurture into wholeness that we need at that point. This concern for our wellbeing is the essential nature of God’s knock upon the closed door of our lives. The knocks come at those points where God is shut out of our lives; and we are imprisoned within, imprisoned by some bondage that does not allow us to be free in God’s love and in God’s will for our wholeness and holiness. Reading scripture for spiritual formation will leave no part of our life untouched by the good hand of a loving God.
Formed From the Inside Out — Not the Outside In
True spiritual formation seeks to transform the inside – the heart – the character of my inner man. This is always the focus of Scripture. The Bible teaches us that “we live from the heart” (Prov. 4:23) and it is in our hearts that we are called to be made new when we come to God. Real transformation must start there first. Yet, for a variety of reasons, we find it easier to engage in the outside work of doing, rather than allowing the Word and Spirit to sanctify us through and through bringing about real and lasting change. Matthew 23:25-28 is a great example of confusing the outer appearance of doing with the inner reality of being. The Pharisees somehow confused the idea that doing guaranteed the quality of being — the quality that God wants. This flaw of thinking often follows those who only read the Bible from the standpoint of information — or as in this passage from a standpoint of do’s and don’ts. List making is easy. But follow up obedience to a structure imposed from without will not be so easy when the heart has not been transformed and formed by the Word and Spirit. Ultimately all doing, both good and bad, flows from our being. The Word of God seeks to shape our inner being so that doing the things God wants us to do become second nature. This is where the Holy Spirit will focus His work of sanctification. This is always the goal of scriptural formation (John 17:17).
Partnering with the Word and Spirit
There are those (particularly five-point Calvinists) who demean spiritual formation as a false view of the sanctification process and lump all such activity in the rubbish bin of works righteousness. Such a view, no matter how well-intentioned, is simply contrary to Scripture. David said in Psalm 63:8, “My soul followeth hard after thee . . .” The kind of spiritual formation that helps us to know God intimately and transforms us into the image of Christ does not just occur automatically without any human cooperation. Rather, it is a partnership of human effort and Divine grace. Paul described it like this: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13). “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (I Cor. 15:10). These passages of scripture clearly show a partnership of human engagement guided and enabled by Divine grace. Spiritual formation is never merely a matter of unaided human willpower taking over the sanctification process — a process that is clearly accomplished through the Word and Spirit (John 17:17; I Thess. 4:8 and 5:23). Rather, it is rooted in the deep work of God in our hearts, arousing hunger, creating the desire to know Him and motivating us to seek change in our lives. The impulse to pursue God originates with Him, but the outworking of that impulse is our following hard after Him. The Word of God is a powerful change agent. But it can only produce change if we read it!
This is true to our Wesleyan heritage. Wesley never created a method of Bible study but he personally observed the ancient Christian practice of “sacred reading” (lectio divina) and he offered some general guidelines in the preface to his Old Testament Notes for how one might approach scripture with the goal of spiritual formation in mind. I have updated the language to make it easier to understand his intent.
Wesley’s Guidelines for Reading the Scriptures
- Set apart a time each day, morning and evening if possible, to read the Scriptures. The inference here is that we make it a habit to dedicate the best possible time of our day to the unhindered reading of the Bible.
- At each time, read a chapter out of the Old and one out of the New Testament. If this is not possible then focus on a single chapter or a part of a chapter. I believe Wesley is indicating that we should have an orderly, systematic means of working through the Bible and that we should do so with relatively small units of scripture.
- Read with a focus to know the whole will of God and a firm commitment to do His will as it is revealed to you. The Word of God should both enlighten and change us.
- As you read, look for any connection, clarification, and explanation you might find between the fundamental doctrines of original sin, justification by faith, the new birth, inward and outward holiness. Wesley is saying that the Bible is not a collection of isolated pieces. We are dealing with one great body of truth that reveals God’s redemptive purposes, His active presence in our lives and His power to change us into the kind of persons He wants us to be.
- We should pray before, during and after our time of Bible reading because scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit that gave it. Prayer should accompany our reading of the scriptures. We should pray to be opened up at the deepest levels of our being and pray for the Holy Spirit to make the Living Word of God a transforming means of grace to us.
- We should frequently pause as we read and examine ourselves by what we read both inwardly in our hearts and outwardly in our lives. And whatever light we receive, we should promptly obey it by its immediate application in our lives. Quiet reflection and self-examination that is: prompted by the Word of God, enabled by the Holy Spirit, and carried out in the context of grace can result in great spiritual blessing if we walk in the light of what has been revealed to us.
John Wesley wrote in the preface to his standard sermons the following words that encapsulate the passion of what I have endeavored to say in this article.
I am a creature of a day, passing through life as an arrow through the air. I am a spirit come from God, and returning to God: just hovering over the great gulf; till, a few moments hence, I am no more seen; I drop into an unchangeable eternity! I want to know one thing the way to heaven; how to land safe on that happy shore. God Himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end He came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O give me that book! At any price, give me the book of God! I have it: here is knowledge enough for me.
The only thing more to the point than Wesley’s words are the powerful words prayed by Jesus for every future disciple: “Sanctify them through thy truth, thy Word is truth” (John 17:17).