What About “Spiritual Formation” and “Spiritual Disciplines”?

April 2, 2012

Bob Kellemen

More From

Bob Kellemen

What About Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Disciplines

As biblical counselors, we’re often asked:

“What do you think about “spiritual formation” and “spiritual disciplines”?

In response to this legitimate question, consider the following eight principles for responding to questions related to the terms we use to describe our ministry.

1. Understand the Bigger Picture Behind the Question

This is really a question about the legitimacy of using “extra-biblical terms.” Not “un-biblical terms,” but “extra-biblical terms”: words or phrases not directly found in the Bible.

In using “extra-biblical terms,” the answer is not: “The word/phrase must be used directly in the Bible for it to be legitimate.” We couldn’t use the word “Trinity” if that were the case. And even if the term were in the Bible, we’d have to use the exact Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek word to be exact. Even then there would be questions about whether our use of the exact word was accurate to the original usage.

The answer must be: “Is the person defining their word/phrase biblically and providing biblical support for their usage?”

2. Don’t Just “Defend Our Terminology Turf”

Sometimes in the modern biblical counseling world (see Powlison and Lambert for historical overviews of modern biblical counseling) we seem hyper-focused on “defending our terminology turf.”

That is, it’s okay for us to coin terms that we do not directly find in Scripture (just two examples are “halo data” by Adams and “volitional beings” by myself). But then we get nervous when others use terms, such as spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines, for which we don’t detect a direct biblical counterpart.

3. Define Our Terms

If we choose to criticize a modern extra-biblical term, whether it’s spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines, biblical counseling, or biblical psychology, the person critiquing others must first provide an “operational definition” of the term they are critiquing. That is, we need to craft a careful and specific description of how we are using the term. We need to be careful about blanket, generic, abstract statements like, “Spiritual formation is a non-biblical term that reflects Eastern mysticism.” By whose definition and whose usage?

David Powlison provides a tremendous example of defining his terms in his discussion of six usages of the term “psychology” (click here for a video interview). With Powlison’s operational definitions in hand, now he can intelligently interact with others about “psychology.”

4. Allow the Other Person to Define His/Her Term

Once we have our definition clear, then we need to be clear and fair about how others define their terms. Far too often we critique a straw man. Rather than allowing others to define what they mean by spiritual formation or spiritual disciplines (from their own writings and teachings), we embed and load their term with what every other person in history has ever said about the term.

It demonstrates common courtesy, academic honesty, and biblical/exegetical excellence to read in context what others mean by their use of a given term. Let’s not be sloppy and lazy in our critiques of how other people use extra-biblical terms. Let’s engage their work specifically from their definitions and developments of their terms.

5. Be Careful of False Guilt by False Association

What we sometimes hear when people critique terms such as spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines is, “So and so, who is outside our ‘camp,’ used the phrase, so anyone inside our ‘camp” who uses that phrase has obviously capitulated to that unbiblical usage.”

Let’s be more specific. In the Evangelical world, it might read like this, “Catholic and Eastern Orthodox mystics in the Dark Ages used spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines, so if this Evangelical is using those terms, he is obviously guilty of non-Evangelical mysticism.”

Or, in the biblical counseling world we might hear, “‘Integrationists’ use ‘psychology,’ so any biblical counselor who uses that term is obviously guilty of being an ‘integrationist.’”

How does one know if it is true guilt by actual association or false guilt by false association? Fair question.

Some people assume the answer is, “See, they quoted someone outside our camp.”

Are we saying by that: “Only those inside our camp are always right (which they are not), and those outside our camp are always wrong”? We seem to insist on practicing secondary and tertiary separation even in the scholarly quoting of those outside our group.

A more accurate assessment asks: “Is this person defining their term biblically or using the term with a ‘whole-hog graft’ from others who may not have defined the term biblically to begin with?” That is a legitimate, fair, and vital question to ask.

6. Be Willing to Reclaim Legitimate Terms

Have some extra-biblical terms become embedded with unbiblical definitions? Yes. Psychology is an example.

However, we can, and I believe, should, reclaim those terms. The Church Fathers (such as Tertullian) and the Puritans (such as Edwards) did just that. They developed a “biblical psychology”: a biblical way of understanding people (Creation), problems (Fall), and solutions (Redemption).

The same is true with spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines. Luther is a prime example. For my dissertation, I studied Luther’s Pastoral Counseling. Given his place in church history, Luther was very careful about any false form of spiritual discipline. He vehemently rejected any notion of spiritual disciplines that were practiced to earn God’s grace. However, he accepted and encouraged others to practice spiritual disciplines when they were practiced as a response to God’s grace and as a means of being responsive to the Spirit’s work in their heart.

I believe we ought to reclaim a phrase like spiritual formation rather than running and hiding. We’ve abdicated far too many words. Let’s stop surrendering. Spiritual formation, biblically defined, is the goal of biblical counseling: our inner lives increasingly reflecting the inner life of Christ (Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; Galatians 4:19; Colossians 1:27-29). We tend to call it “Christlikeness through progressive sanctification.” We could also call it “spiritual formation.”

Any time a biblical counselor moves from “the indicative” to “the imperative” and starts talking specifically about “put off/put on,” that biblical counselor is involved in the process of spiritual formation. And, when that biblical counselor suggests a specific “put off/put on,” he or she has moved into the realm of spiritual disciplines—biblical truth applied specifically to a unique person in their specific circumstances.

If people would rather use the phrase “progressive sanctification” instead of “spiritual formation,” that’s fine. And if people would rather use the phrase “biblical counseling homework,” instead of “spiritual disciplines,” that’s fine, too. But carefully and biblically defined, those are overlapping terms theologically and methodologically.

7. Be Wise in the Implementation of Spiritual Growth Practices

People also need to be careful with the adage, “Jesus did not practice _______, nor did His apostles. So that spiritual practice is obviously unbiblical.” Ponder the implications of that philosophy.

  • Where do we have biblical warrant from the example of Christ and the apostles for a sixty minute meeting (often fifty minutes) once per week for biblical counseling?
  • Where do we see “homework” at the end of those once a week meetings?”
  • Taking it to broader categories, where do we see warrant for much of what happens in our Sunday worship services? Or even for something as basic as Sunday School or Children’s Church? Or newer elements such as multi-site churches?

It is an illegitimate argument to declare a particular spiritual discipline to be wrong simply because it was not specifically practiced by Jesus or the apostles.

Rather, the legitimate question would be: “Do we have a theological basis for what we do and for what we don’t do in the particulars of progressive sanctification, putting off and putting on, and being formed by the Spirit through the Word increasingly into the image of Christ?”

8. Define Extra-Biblical Terms Using Biblical Categories

Principle eight has been implicit in all the preceding principles. The term itself is not the crux of the issue. Whether the term is biblical counseling, progressive sanctification, growth in grace, soul care, spiritual direction, spiritual formation, or spiritual disciplines, the core question relates to how the extra-biblical term is defined biblically. Much could be shared here, but two main points summarize the biblical categories.

  • Is the term developed based upon comprehensive theological categories?

Is the term developed with a biblical anthropology (Creation): A comprehensive biblical understanding of how God designed the soul?

Is the term developed with a biblical hamartiology (Fall): A comprehensive biblical understanding of the impact of sin, fallenness, depravity, the world, the flesh, and the devil?

Is the term developed with a biblical soteriology (Redemption): A comprehensive biblical understanding of salvation, grace, our new nature, and sanctification?

  • Is the term developed based upon a Gospel-Centered biblical understanding of salvation and sanctification?

This second question was hinted at in the last part of the previous question.

Is the term developed based upon a comprehensive understanding of Christ-centered salvation: grace, faith, justification, reconciliation, regeneration, redemption, union with Christ, and the biblical gospel indicatives?

Is the term developed based upon a comprehensive understanding of grace-based sanctification that builds the imperatives upon the indicatives?

Teaching You to Fish Instead of Giving You a Fish

The preceding eight principles do not tell you what to think about “spiritual formation” and “spiritual disciplines.” Instead, they share ideas about how to think about those terms and any other extra-biblical term that we use in ministry.

Do I think there is an “Evangelical and a non-Evangelical theology of spiritual formation and practice of spiritual disciplines?” Yes. There are biblical ways and unbiblical ways of understanding growth in grace.

Should we be concerned about our theology and practice of spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines? Absolutely. I spend 750 pages developing my biblical approach to those vital matters in Soul Physicians and Spiritual Friends.

I want us all to be wise, discerning Bereans (Acts 17:11) and not carnal, divisive Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:10-17) when it comes to discernment about spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines.

Join the Conversation

  • “What do you think about “spiritual formation” and “spiritual disciplines”?
  • What principles would you add for helping people to assess extra-biblical terms?
  • Which of the eight principles resonate with you? Which do you disagree with? Why?

Note: This blog was first posted at RPM Ministries by Dr. Bob Kellemen and is re-posted with permission. You can read the original post at Ask the Counselor.