Spirituality within our society is a very controversial topic. However, it is also a very broad topic. Spirituality for someone in Maine can be totally different than for someone in California and likewise different for someone else in Turkey. While there are many different interpretations on spirituality, this commentary will focus on Christian spirituality and specifically Christian Spiritual Formation.
In order for one to proceed there must be a clear understanding of what is meant by spiritual formation. While this sounds simple enough, placing words around such a deep and complicated subject will always leave holes and require constant refinement. With this said, spiritual formation in Christ is the process by which one moves and is moved from self-worship to Christ-centered self-denial as a general condition of life in God’s present and eternal kingdom. However, a more simple definition offered is the intentional transformation of the inner person to the character of Christ.
Spiritual formation, like other topics today, have no direct scriptural references, however that should not mean that one ignores what was so prominent in society during these times. Through proper exegesis and through personal application through the lenses of scripture, tradition, knowledge and experience will guide those on their spiritual pilgrimage.
This commentary will focus on two biblical passages, Romans 12:1-2 and Ephesians 4:17-20. Within these passages we will discover the Apostle Paul’s call for all Christians to develop a spiritual formation and how it should be applied to their lives.
Romans 12:1-2 stands out because of its reference to the concept of “transformation”, which is central to the definition and concept of spiritual formation. However, before one can truly dive into this text one must remember that all meaning is context depended. So, before we continue with this further explanation one must understand the writing style of Paul. He often divided his letters into two sections, a section on doctrinal issues and a section on practical use. This passage is the transition passage between these sections and is the start of the practical application. This practical section rests firmly on the prior theological foundation of the first eleven chapters.
Within the opening sentence of this section, Paul is pleading compassionately for Christ’s followers to comprehend exactly what God has done for each of us. Looking at the text closely you will see Paul using strong language like “I urge you”. So what exactly is Paul urging? He tells us just a few words later “in view of God’s mercy”. God’s mercy is one that relates to grace and compassion, not one of doctrine and law, which his audience was well familiar with. Paul is asking in light of this, that they will “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God”. Paul is requesting that they give their bodies as an offering to the Lord in the sacrificial ritual— to be obedient.
In verse two, Paul goes from exhortation into the call to action; where he tells us to not crave our life into what we see around us, what our culture says is good and perfect, but to change our way of thinking, testing the will of God and once we do, to see that God’s will is perfect, just and good.
Paul continues this call to action in Ephesians 4:17-20 where he is requesting that Christians live as Children of Light. He reminds his audience about those unbelieving Gentiles who did not know the will of God and as such, were not guided in their behavior by the will of God. Paul is again pleading with his audience to put off the ways of this world and be a true follower of Christ. Paul tells his audience that they have lost all “sensitivity” and have given into the temptations of this world. When Paul uses the words “hardening of their hearts” he is indicating a condition of insensitivity, lack of feeling, inability or unwillingness to respond or to react; a giving into every good impulse.
In the final verse Paul states: “That, however, is not the way of life you learned”. In this verse, Paul reminds them, this is not what they have learned about Christ, which was taught to them through the presentation of the gospel. More importantly the “that” for which Paul is referring is being able to put off the old self—the sinful nature and putting on the new self – one united in Christ through His resurrection.
Call to Spiritual Formation
As one looks at how Paul’s writing here pertains to our spiritual formation or growth, we can see it is connected to the transformation of our mind, not by the removing oneself from any particular part of the culture. There is a balance here that Paul refers to by calling believers to be transformed or renewed; a balance that comes with being a believer not of the world but in the world. Renewing our mind, not by a specific action taken but by changing how our mind responds to the grace and mercy of God.
However, as Paul is alluding to in Ephesians 4:18, one can be darkened in their life with God. This word “life” can also be interchanged with “walk” or “pilgrimage” which identifies that over time Christians have a tendency to veer off course. As Paul states in Ephesians 4:19 we lose all sensitivity, giving into the things of this world.
The last verse, Ephesians 4:20 is the start of what has been paraphrased as “In Christ the transition affected from the old man to the new man”. It is monumental that those who have “learned Christ” not having learned about Him, but as having reached the true knowledge of Him. It is through the import of this truth that one puts off the old man and puts on the new man. This process, which has been described, can be summed up in one word – sanctification.
The process of sanctification is one of positional separation unto Christ at our salvation. Additionally, it is a practical progressive holiness in a believer’s life until Christ’s return. Lastly, it is being changed into Christ likeness—holy, sanctified and completely separated from evil.
So how are these verses a calling to spiritual formation or growth? It is because Paul states that this process of sanctification is a life long process that will be worked out in the believer’s life. That this sanctification process or spiritual growth stems from what we actually do with our lives, from the habits we form and from the character that results. Remember, Paul stated that Christians have a tendency to veer off course. One must remember that our bodies and mind are weak in our own strength. That as Christians we must remember that man’s natural condition is one of total depravity. That is only by the grace and mercy of God our Father that spiritual formation can be. It is these verses, along with other Scripture (specifically Corinthians), in conjunction with the Gospels that can teach this concept of spiritual formation, which was very relevant to the New Testament church.
Bratcher, Robert G. and Eugene Albert Nida. A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. UBS handbook series; Helps for translators. New York: United Bible Societies, 1993.
Mounce, Robert H. Vol. 27, Romans. electronic ed. Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001.
Piper, John, “Total Depravity”, http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/piper/depravity.html, accessed June 1, 2011.
The Pulpit Commentary: Ephesians. Edited by Spence-Jones, H. D. M. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004.
Westerhoff, John H., Spiritual Life; The foundation for Preaching and Teaching, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press: 1994.
Willard, Dallas, The Spirit of The Disciplines; Understanding How God Changes Lives, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.
Willard, Dallas, “Spiritual Formation in Christ: A perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done”, http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=81 accessed May 31, 2011.
Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Formation in Christ: A perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done”, http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=81 accessed May 31, 2011.
Robert H. Mounce, Vol. 27, Romans. electronic ed. Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, 230.
 Ibid., 231.
 Robert G. Bratcher and Albert Nida Eugene A Handbook on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. UBS handbook series; Helps for translators. New York: United Bible Societies, 1993, 111.
 Ibid., 113.
 John Westerhoff Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.
 The Pulpit Commentary: Ephesians. Edited by Spence-Jones, H. D. M. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2004, 168.
 Dallas Willard The Spirit of The Disciplines; Understanding How God Changes Lives, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988, 20.
 John Piper, “Total Depravity”, http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/piper/depravity.html accessed June 1, 2011.