Introductory Note:

This is one of those articles where each line is so resonant, so vital, so simple and yet deeply important, that it is hard to choose just one quote to savor. “We are part of God’s great renovation project for human beings,” Richard Foster writes. “We work, but we work resting. We worship and labor under God’s abiding grace.” Foster’s exhortations help keep us grounded in the true goals of spiritual formation and point us to the Master Teacher.

Renovaré Team


The ten­den­cy today is to think of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion exclu­sive­ly in terms of prac­tices of one kind or anoth­er. We get all excit­ed about lec­tio div­ina, for exam­ple. But then we think that this is the way … the only way to be formed spir­i­tu­al­ly … and we begin to think that any­one not doing lec­tio is not expe­ri­enc­ing spir­i­tu­al formation.

Such an atti­tude will only pro­duce legal­ism and bondage, and it utter­ly defeats spir­i­tu­al formation.

The Chris­t­ian idea of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is, very sim­ply, the for­ma­tion and con­for­ma­tion and trans­for­ma­tion of the human per­son­al­i­ty — body, mind, and spir­it — into the like­ness of Jesus Christ.

In Gala­tians 4:19 (NRSV) Paul says, “… I am again in the pain of child­birth until Christ is formed in you.” In Romans 8:29 he says, For those whom [God] foreknew he also pre­des­tined to be con­formed to the image of his Son.” And in Romans 12:2 he speaks these famous words, Do not be con­formed to this world, but be trans­formed by the renew­ing of your minds.…”

And so I want to share with you sev­er­al coun­sels in the work of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. Ten coun­sels, in fact. I got the idea from the Bible and its Ten Com­mand­ments. Three of them are stat­ed in the pos­i­tive: You shall” and sev­en of them are stat­ed in the neg­a­tive: You shall not.” I know that depends on whether we view the first com­mand­ment as a pos­i­tive or a neg­a­tive, you shall have no oth­er gods before me,” but you get the idea. Three pos­i­tives, sev­en negatives.

For my coun­sels in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion I want to switch the ratio and give three neg­a­tives and sev­en pos­i­tives. Three do nots” and sev­en dos.”

Do not define spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion in terms of var­i­ous practices.

In anoth­er era those prac­tices were things like qui­et time” and Bible study of one sort or anoth­er. Today it is lec­tio div­ina and jour­nal writing.”

May I say as clear­ly as pos­si­ble: Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion has noth­ing essen­tial­ly to do with such prac­tices. Many of these prac­tices are use­ful, to be sure, and some are more use­ful than oth­ers. But none is essen­tial. What is essen­tial is life with Jesus, inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship with the great God of the uni­verse, inner trans­for­ma­tion into Christlikeness.

We all are to walk with the liv­ing Christ and then in humil­i­ty regard oth­ers as bet­ter than your­selves” (Phil. 2:3).

This real­i­ty can hap­pen with lec­tio and with jour­nal­ing” — and it can hap­pen with­out them. Remem­ber, as far as we know Jesus did not keep a jour­nal … and he turned out OK!

Do not focus on cur­ricu­lum-based solutions.

Cur­ric­u­la of all sorts are impor­tant in the work of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. But they are not the most impor­tant. First comes the rela­tion­ship with Jesus, our liv­ing Head. All the clas­si­cal lan­guage on prayer is rela­tion­al, even erot­ic: Think of Augus­tine, Julian, Richard Rolle, and Charles Wes­ley. Like them, we are to fall in love with Jesus, our liv­ing Lord, over and over and over again.

Sec­ond come the ideas. We must dis­tin­guish Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion from for­ma­tion in gen­er­al that is every­where in the cul­ture. Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is the redemp­tive process of form­ing the inner human world so that it takes on the char­ac­ter of the inner being of Christ him­self. We must think care­ful­ly and expe­ri­ence ful­ly the Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines. And we must under­stand how that func­tions in con­junc­tion with human effort, but how it also goes far beyond human effort.

In The Divine Con­spir­a­cy Dal­las Willard (right­ly, in my esti­ma­tion) has a chap­ter enti­tled A Cur­ricu­lum for Christ­like­ness.” How­ev­er, this is chap­ter 9 and comes only after both a care­ful delin­eation of the unique qual­i­ties of the inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship between Jesus and his appren­tices and a care­ful expli­ca­tion of the cen­tral ideas relat­ed to life in the king­dom of God. Far too many peo­ple rush to the cur­ricu­lum pro­gram of chap­ter 9 with­out first estab­lish­ing into their lives the foun­da­tions set forth so care­ful­ly in all that comes before.

Do not aim at out­ward action.

There is a hid­den dimen­sion to every human life, one that is not vis­i­ble to oth­ers or ful­ly gras­pable even by our­selves. At its con­scious cen­ter is the human spir­it. God is Spir­it; God’s cre­ative will cre­ates and gov­erns the uni­verse. And with­in us the spir­it” is the cre­ative ele­ment in human nature — the ima­go Dei in us. The human spir­it is pri­mar­i­ly what we today call the will” — the capac­i­ty of choice and res­o­lu­tion — and what bib­li­cal­ly has been called the heart.” It is the rad­i­cal source of our life; the stream of actions and influ­ences and con­tri­bu­tions we make to our shared, vis­i­ble world and its history.

It is the ren­o­va­tion of the heart we are after in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion. This inward work is much hard­er than mere out­ward con­for­mi­ty. It is hard­er because we can­not see it, test it, con­trol it. We can­not pro­gram the heart of anoth­er human being. We can­not pro­gram our own heart.

But this is also what makes it eas­i­er. God is the One who sees the heart. God is the One who ten­der­ly pro­grams the heart, always allow­ing time and space for our will to turn, turn, turn — respond­ing in a thou­sand ways to God’s divine Love. We are part of God’s great ren­o­va­tion project for human beings. We work, but we work rest­ing. We wor­ship and labor under God’s abid­ing grace.

And now on to the sev­en do’s” of the work of spir­i­tu­al formation…

Do root spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion in the Great Commission. 

Go there­fore and make dis­ci­ples of all nations, bap­tiz­ing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spir­it, and teach­ing them to obey every­thing that I have com­mand­ed you …” (Matt. 28:19 – 20). 

We are to dis­ci­ple the nations — that is, all peo­ples, all eth­nic groups; to immerse them in the Trini­tar­i­an life and teach them to obey all that Jesus has commanded. 

A dis­ci­ple is an appren­tice, a fol­low­er of Jesus. There­fore dis­ci­pling the nations” must be root­ed in Jesus’ gospel of the king­dom, suc­cinct­ly stat­ed, Repent, for the king­dom of heav­en has come near” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17). Jesus’ Ser­mon on the Mount is an expand­ed com­men­tary on that gospel of the kingdom. 

Do think internationally. 

Think­ing inter­na­tion­al­ly with respect to spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion involves think­ing geo­graph­i­cal­ly of the whole world. But pri­mar­i­ly it means that we are to be think­ing always of the whole human fam­i­ly.

What is essen­tial is life with Jesus, inter­ac­tive rela­tion­ship with the great God of the uni­verse, inner trans­for­ma­tion into Christlikeness. 

Thus we respect diver­si­ty. We hon­or the nec­es­sary human/​cultural ves­sel that must always go with the trea­sure” of Christ in us. Paul says that we have this trea­sure in clay jars” (2 Cor. 4:7). The trea­sure is the glo­ry of Christ, who is the image of God” (v. 4). The jars of clay rep­re­sent the human body and the var­i­ous cul­tur­al forms we use to enshroud the trea­sure. We receive every per­son with­in the con­text of their unique ves­sels, both per­son­al­ly and cul­tur­al­ly. We nev­er try to impose our own cul­ture upon them. Nor do we mis­take our own or oth­ers’ cul­tur­al ves­sel for the treasure. 

At the same time, our work of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion must focus on our com­mon­al­i­ty — the things the human fam­i­ly holds in common: 

  • our com­mon defor­mi­ty — we are all sinners
  • our com­mon need of a Sav­ior to free us from sin
  • our com­mon need to be a good person
  • our com­mon desire to know how to live well, 

includ­ing such ques­tions as

  • how to love our hus­band or wife well
  • how to raise our chil­dren well
  • how to study well
  • how to face adver­si­ty well
  • how to run busi­ness­es and finan­cial insti­tu­tions well
  • how to form com­mu­ni­ty life well
  • how to reach out to those on the mar­gins well
  • how to die well. 

Do think in terms of the Church universal. 

Sec­tar­i­an reform move­ments that cement an eter­nal split only become ends in them­selves. Those involved in the task of spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion work instead for the trans­for­ma­tion of the whole Church, the whole Peo­ple of God in all her mul­ti­fac­eted expres­sions. Tra­di­tion­al. Con­tem­po­rary. Litur­gi­cal. Charis­mat­ic. Emer­gent. Catholic and Ortho­dox and Protes­tant. Big church and lit­tle church; house church and Crys­tal Cathe­dral. We attempt no end run around the Church. God is with his peo­ple in all their way­ward­ness and silli­ness, and so are we. What we are after is life in the king­dom of God — a life that all can live. 

We are today in the mid­dle of a spir­i­tu­al cen­trifuge. Old den­si­ties are break­ing up, new den­si­ties are form­ing. We are learn­ing new ways to do church: 

  • The new ways may not involve build­ings the way it has in the past.
  • The new ways may not involve litur­gies in the same way it has in the past.
  • We may have to learn ways of singing the Lord’s song in a strange land.

Like­ly we are in for lots of changes in the days ahead. But the point is we are for the Peo­ple of God — all the Peo­ple of God — what­ev­er form that takes. 

Do give sus­tained atten­tion to a bal­anced vision. 

Anoth­er ten­den­cy today in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion work is to focus atten­tion only on the Con­tem­pla­tive— because that tra­di­tion has been sore­ly neglect­ed. But we need to remem­ber that that is only one dimen­sion of the spir­i­tu­al life; oth­er tra­di­tions include Holi­ness; Charis­mat­ic; Social Jus­tice; Evan­gel­i­cal; Incarnational. 

We seek a bal­anced vision of Chris­t­ian life and faith:

  • a peo­ple of cross and crown, of coura­geous action and sac­ri­fi­cial love
  • a peo­ple who are com­bin­ing evan­ge­lism with social action, the tran­scen­dent lord­ship of Jesus with the suf­fer­ing ser­vant Messiah
  • a peo­ple who are buoyed up by the vision of Christ’s ever­last­ing rule, not only immi­nent on the hori­zon, but already burst­ing forth in our midst.

Can you see it? Even though it feels like peer­ing through a glass dark­ly, can you see a coun­try pas­tor from Indi­ana embrac­ing an urban priest from New Jer­sey and togeth­er pray­ing for the peace of the world? 

Can you see a Catholic monk from the moun­tains of Col­orado stand­ing along­side a Bap­tist evan­ge­list from the streets of Los Ange­les and togeth­er offer­ing up a sac­ri­fice of praise? 

Can you see social activists from the urban cen­ters of Hong Kong join­ing with Pen­te­costal preach­ers from the bar­rios of Sao Paulo and togeth­er weep­ing over the spir­i­tu­al­ly lost and the plight of the poor? 

Can you see labor­ers from Sowe­to and landown­ers from Pre­to­ria hon­or­ing and serv­ing each oth­er out of rev­er­ence for Christ? 

Can you see Hutu and Tut­si, Serb and Croat, Mon­gol and Han Chi­nese, African Amer­i­can and Anglo, Lati­no and Native Amer­i­can all shar­ing with and lov­ing one another? 

Can you see the sophis­ti­cat­ed stand­ing with the sim­ple, the elite stand­ing with the dis­pos­sessed, the wealthy stand­ing with the poor? 

Can you see peo­ple from every race and nation and tongue and stra­ta of soci­ety join­ing hearts and hands and voic­es, singing, 

Amaz­ing grace — how sweet the sound— that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.
(John New­ton, 1779

Do draw wis­dom and insight from The Great Tradition. 

Let’s reject the heresy of the con­tem­po­rary. The Peo­ple of God through­out his­to­ry instruct us in the way eternal. 

We learn from Moses. We learn from Luther. We learn from Joseph of Ari­math­ea. We learn from Cather­ine of Genoa. These are our teach­ers, our mod­els, our inspiration. 

And so we draw wis­dom and insight from The Great Tra­di­tion of the Devo­tion­al Clas­sics: among them Broth­er Lawrence; Thomas a Kem­p­is; Julian of Nor­wich; Jean-Pierre de Caus­sade; Thomas Kelly. 

Do take the long view. 

In our cul­ture, we’re in a hur­ry. We want quick results. We think in terms of life­times and cen­turies. But the soul will live for­ev­er. It is pre­cious beyond imag­in­ing. Thus invest­ing deeply in even a few folk will count for all eternity. 

In fact there are vast num­bers of peo­ple who are com­mit­ted to the long haul. They real­ly want to be like Jesus with all their heart and soul and mind and strength. And, believe me, invest­ing in these pre­cious lives will take all the ener­gy and all the time and all the prayer and all the weep­ing and laugh­ing and singing and hop­ing we can pos­si­bly muster. 

Do devel­op the high­est pos­si­ble Christology. 

Our task in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is to hold up the won­der and the majesty of this Jesus who is tops over all” — to use a phrase from the Cot­ton Patch trans­la­tion of the Gospels. There sim­ply is no one to com­pare with this ful­ly human, ful­ly divine per­son who strides across the pages of the Gospels. Very God of very God,” and yet human, as the creed declares. Quite clear­ly, Jesus is the sin­gle most impor­tant per­son in all of human history.

Let me make this as straight­for­ward as I pos­si­bly can: Jesus is the absolute mae­stro of life. He is the Mas­ter of every sit­u­a­tion: in teach­ing, in human rela­tion­ships, in all of life. 

And the won­der is that this very Jesus who walked the hills of Galilee and who died on the cross of Gol­go­tha — this Jesus also rose from the dead, vic­to­ri­ous over all the pow­ers of death and hell and is now alive and here to teach his peo­ple him­self! Jesus will teach you and me how to live, real­ly live: 

  • in the midst of our life circumstances
  • fac­ing our life problems
  • answer­ing our life dilemmas.

This is the very Jesus we read about in the Gospels, the mas­ter teacher who could reveal the hearts of his hear­ers with such ten­der­ness and care; of whom it was said, A bruised reed he will not break, and a smol­der­ing wick he will not snuff out” (Matt. 12:20). Jesus would nev­er crush the needy … nev­er snuff out the small­est hope. 

The good news we share in spir­i­tu­al for­ma­tion is this: Jesus the Mas­ter Teacher has come to town and is giv­ing mas­ter lessons in how to live life well! 

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Reformed Wor­ship March 2008. Based on the text Richard Fos­ter deliv­ered to the Evan­gel­i­cal Press Asso­ci­a­tion in May 2007.

Pho­to by Matt Artz on Unsplash

Text First Published March 2008 · Last Featured on January 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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