The outcome or ultimate goal of spiritual formation is described in Scripture in a variety of general ways: “righteousness” (Matt 5:20; Eph 4:24), doing the Father’s will (Matt 7:22; 12:50; 1 John 2:17), transformed into Christ’s image (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18) / God’s image and likeness (Eph 4:24; Col 3:10), holiness (Eph 4:24; 1 Pet 1:15), godliness (1 Tim 2:2; 4:8), obedience (1 Pet 1:14), etc. Other words or phrases are used to describe the outcome of spiritual formation more specifically: “fruit” (Rom 7:4; Gal 5:22), “works” (Jas 2:14–26), “a new life” (Rom 6:4), “no longer . . . slaves to sin” (Rom 6:6), to “live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6), etc.
The ‘umbrella’ word used to describe what all the above terms and phrases are driving at is love (Rom 13:8; 1 Cor 13:13; Gal 5:6, 14; Jas 2:8; 1 Pet 4:8; John 13:34–35; 15:12; 1 John 3:14, 16; 4:7–11). The reason love is the umbrella word used to describe the Spiritually formed life is because every one of God’s commands is an expression of love (Rom 13:9). For it is love that sums up the Law and the Prophets (Matt 7:12; 22:36–40; Rom 13:8–10). Love, in other words, is the defining mark of a Christian. However, love is not something that we define. Love has been prescribed for us: it is seen in Jesus laying down his life on the cross for us (Rom 5:6–8; John 3:16; 15:13; 1 John 4:10). Hence, to love others, in the way that the Bible thinks about love, is to love as Jesus loved (e.g., John 13:34; 15:12; Eph 5:2, 25).
None of the descriptions in the above two paragraphs can be achieved by merely keeping more laws or commands, regardless of how diligently or sincerely. Real spiritual formation is not only outward and cannot even be summed up as mere obedience, even committed obedience. Obedience is certainly a way to describe the spiritually formed life, but outward obedience without inward change is nothing more than Pharisaic formation (see, e.g., Matt 15:8; 23:25). Neither should we think that the above paragraphs describe a sinless state. Spiritual formation is a journey, hence the reason the Christian life is often described as a “walk” (e.g., Eph 4:1). Furthermore, one can be holy/righteous/obedient/bear fruit, etc. without being ‘sinless.’ This is clear from something like the Sermon on the Mount, which essentially describes the surpassing righteous life while at the same time acknowledging the need for forgiveness of sins (Matt 6:12).
Because spiritual formation is not limited to outward change, no amount of motivation and willpower can produce it. One may as well try and push a camel through the eye of a needle (Matt 19:24). The two necessary ingredients—if I can call them “ingredients”—for spiritual formation are faith and the Spirit. The Spirit is essential because spiritual formation is ultimately supernatural and not only beyond our mere human abilities but beyond our inclinations. Furthermore, because spiritual formation is also internal, the Spirit is the only one who is able to go to work in the deepest parts of our being (see Eph 3:16). Faith (in Christ) is necessary because the Spirit only works through faith (e.g., Gal 3:1–5). This is best seen in Galatians 5, where faith in Christ produces love (Gal 5:6), but the Spirit also produces love (Gal 5:22). Hence, the righteous will live by faith (Rom 1:17), but it is the Spirit that enables one to live a righteous life (Rom 8:4). Faith produces obedience (Rom 1:5; 16:16; 1 Thess 1:3; Jas 2:14–26) but so too does the Spirit (Rom 7:6; 1 Pet 1:2). Both faith and the Spirit are necessary (Gal 5:5).
To explain this further, the basic principle behind spiritual formation is that we become like what we worship, or in the words of Psalm 115:8, we become like what we have faith in. (Thus, genuine faith and worship cannot be separated). This is true of those who have faith in idols (e.g., Ps 135:18; Isa 44:9; Jer 2:5), but equally true when talking about Christian spiritual formation. For example, faith in Christ who “loved” us by dying for us (Gal 2:20) produces “love” for others (Gal 5:6). The principle is best summarised in 2 Corinthians 3:18 where those who behold “the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.” But notice how this happens: through “the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18). Such was Moses’ experience who upon seeing the glory of the LORD, “worshipped” (Ex 34:8) and was subsequently transformed (34:29–35). Isaiah, likewise, saw the LORD—described as Jesus’ “glory” in John 12:41—and was transformed (Isa 6). Thus, when we finally see Christ face to face “we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). In summary, then, worship of Christ/seeing Christ/faith in Christ leads to transformation. And because one can only worship/see/have faith through the Spirit, transformation, or spiritual formation is ultimately something that is God’s doing. But it is only God’s doing in the sense that he is forming himself in us and working to transform every part of us, so that as Paul says, we might “be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19).
The dynamic at work here, briefly, is that our hearts influence our conduct, attitudes and how we live (e.g., Matt 15:18–19), but it is “treasure” that influences our hearts (Matt 6:21). Treasure is simply that which we worship or trust in; treasure engages our affections! Hence, it is treasure and not law that moves the heart, and it is the heart that determines how we live. The point is that it is not enough to simply fix or deal with the heart, one must focus the heart on the right treasure, which is Christ and his rule (e.g., Matt 13:44). This explains why the apostle Paul, for example, resolved to “boast” in and “preach” nothing “except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2; see also Gal 6:14). For in the cross is power to save and transform (1 Cor 1:18—2:5). In the cross, we see the glory of Christ (John 7:39; 12:16, 23; 17:1, etc.), which among other things means that in the cross we see the full heart and character of the Father revealed in his Son (John 1:14, 18). In short, we are put in contact with treasure / that which we can trust in and worship.
This gets to the heart of what Paul means by walking by the Spirit. The Spirit’s goal is to glorify Christ (John 15:26; 16:14), and it is only through trusting and treasuring Christ that we have any hope of resisting the desires of the flesh (Rom 8:13; Gal 5:16) in a way that brings glory to God (see also 1 Pet 2:11–12).
To put this another way, everyone will experience transformation, but the transformation we will experience will be determined by what we treasure/worship/trust in. This process then will happen regardless. This helps explain why spiritual formation is not passive. The person who treasures money or career does not sit idly by waiting for money or their career to change their life. The same is true for those who treasure Christ and the life he offers (see, e.g., Matt 6:33). We do not become transformed people through some kind of divine osmosis.
Hence, while God’s “divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through” knowing Christ (2 Pet 1:3), we are also to “make every effort” (2 Pet 1:5, 10; 3:14). And yet making every effort, as defined by Peter here, is not and cannot be the kind of effort that produces outstanding outward obedience, but with no or little change in the heart. The rich young ruler serves as a good example. By all accounts, he was a man characterized by effort in his approach toward God’s commandments. However, his effort was powerless to move his heart when asked by Jesus to sell his possessions and give to the poor (Matt 19:16–22). The kind of effort that Peter is talking about is the effort required to trust in God’s “very great and precious promises,” for it is through these promises that we “participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). Since promises are received by faith, making every effort is to trust that one has been “cleansed from their past sins” (2 Pet 1:9)—that is, to grow in grace (2 Pet 1:18)—to trust in the sure and reliable Word of God (2 Pet 1:16–21; 3:2), to be vigilant about those that would seek to distort God’s Word and his promises and trust the warnings against those who don’t (2 Pet 2; 3:3–7, 16–17), and to patiently rely in the future restoration of the new heavens and new earth (2 Pet 3:8–15).
Effort must be driven by faith; otherwise it is powerless. And “everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). Faith produced effort will be Spirit or divine produced effort (see, e.g., Phil 2:12–13). For example, if we become like what we trust in or worship, this means that those who trust in idols will lack the ability to speak, see, hear, smell, feel, etc. since that is what idols are like (Ps 115:4–8). In other words, those who trust in idols will lack the ability to ‘experience’ God. One way to illustrate how this works in spiritual formation is from Hebrews 12:14: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness, no one will see the Lord.” “Every effort to live in peace”—defined here as “holiness”—is driven by the desire to “see the Lord,” whether that being seeing the Lord in eternity (1 John 3:2) or now (Eph 1:18). I, therefore, make every effort to live in peace, trusting that my eyes will be opened further to God. Or Matthew 5:8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” Again, the effort required to be pure in heart is driven by the desire to want to see God. I, therefore, make every effort to be pure in heart, trusting that my eyes will be opened further to God. In this way, a number of things from above come together:
- Faith/trust produces transformation.
- We increasingly “participate in the divine nature” “through” God’s “very great and precious promises.”
- Treasure influences the heart, which in turn affects our actions and attitudes.
- Worship leads to transformation.
When this is understood, the role of spiritual disciplines (e.g., prayer, reading God’s word, etc.) is understood as various means of serving us in the spiritual formation process. They serve us in the same way that a phone or cutlery might serve us: they put us in contact with the person on the other end of the phone or with the food on our plate. They are not an end in themselves, and neither do they necessarily define a spiritually formed person. Clouds are necessary for rain, but the presence of clouds does not mean rain. Similarly, spiritual disciplines are essential as we seek to know Christ, but their presence in our lives by no means indicate a (healthy) knowledge of Christ. The Pharisees being a case in point.
Life, of course, is not as neat and tidy as the above suggests. Tests are always coming at us, in the form of trials and temptations, to test our faith (Jas 1:2–4; 1 Pet 1:6–7). They may either rule us, in which case, escape, pleasure and comfort become more of a treasure than clinging to Christ (Luke 8:13–14). Or they may serve us, in which case, clinging to Christ becomes more of a treasure than escaping, pleasure or comfort offers (Rom 5:3–5; Jas 1:2–4). The reality is that “now we see only a reflection as in a mirror” (1 Cor 13:12), in other words, “what we will be has not yet been made known” (1 John 3:2). But once again, spiritual formation is a journey; and it is a journey of grace. The ego, because of its need to accomplish and be rewarded, resists grace and unconditional love. Grace effectively puts the ego (think of the “flesh”) out of a job. But there is power in grace to transform (Titus 2:11–12 cf. 1 Cor 15:10; Acts 11:23 and Isa 6:6–8). In fact, Paul articulates it well by indicating that it is only by experiencing Christ’s unconditional love that we experience “the fullness of God” (Eph 3:17–20), indeed this is the goal of spiritual formation. Thus, as we experience more of Christ’s grace and love, we become more like what we worship, Christ formed in us, loving others as Christ himself has loved us.
 I am using the word “experience” to summarise what idols cannot do in Ps 115:5–7.
By Alan P. Stanley