One of the slogans of the reformation was “reformed and always reforming.” The idea of reforming is not unfettering the anchors of Protestant orthodoxy, but is the necessary reality of living under the prophetic reign of Christ. We will never fully grasp the truth this side of glory, and so we come to issues of theology and spirituality with our hands open, humbly seeking the Lord for guidance. As Protestants, and more specifically as evangelicals, we do not start reforming spiritual formation from scratch, but we come to the table with certain emphases and concerns. Below, we look at spiritual formation through the lens of five of the key slogans of the reformation. This is not meant to be expansive, but simply an aspect of our focus as we seek to establish a truly evangelical approach to spiritual formation.
There is a real misunderstanding when it comes to “only Scripture.” In fact, many have argued that this misunderstanding is the cause of some of the most destructive heresies that ravaged the church in the post-reformation period. Many have taken the call to “only Scripture,” or, more often translated, “Scripture alone,” as a call to individualistic Bible reading without the broader tradition and church informing one’s understanding. This is not only alien to the Reformers understanding of sola scriptura but attacks the very foundations on which they were reforming. Sola Scriptura is an emphasis on authority and how God ultimately guides his people, by, of course, his Spirit. The Westminster Shorter Catechism puts it well: Q: “What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him?” A: “The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy Him.”
The people of God, therefore, are always under the Word as they are under God – it is God’s word to his people as the rule of life in which they ultimately find their orientation. It is here, in this Word, where God speaks to his people today. God’s speech, in other words, is formed into text through the prophetic and apostolic witnesses that speak to the saints today just as they spoke to the saints of Corinth, Galatia and Rome. This text is the locus of God’s self-revelation and, ultimately, self-witnessing, and is thereby the grammar by which the church comes to speak meaningfully about life under God.
Therefore, when Protestants enter into a conversation about spiritual formation, unlike other traditions, we must always come back to the Word of God anew. A distinctively Protestant spiritual formation must not create second order spiritual architecture, and then build upon that without the prophetic judgment of the Word. Much of the Catholic Spiritual theological tradition can be seen making such moves – where certain structures are baptized in such a way as to exist without the judgment of the biblical text (e.g. the threefold way: purgation, illumination, union). Furthermore, sola scriptura keeps us digging deep into the tradition to hear from those who have sought to follow God under the mandates of His Word in times past – with different assumptions, goals and cultural forces at play – that inevitably cut against our own. The grammar of our formation therefore must take its primary cues and directions from the “strange world of the Bible,” which provides the locus of God’s self-revelation in Christ, and is, by the Spirit, the guiding director of life under God.
The next Protestant distinctive in spiritual formation I want to discuss is solus Christus – “Christ alone.” This phrase is used to re-orient our entire idea of salvation, religion and God, on God’s own act to reveal himself in His Son – the image of the invisible God – and the only true mediator between God and humanity. Jonathan Edwards puts it this way:
“[I]nasmuch as he was a divine person, he brought down divinity with him to us. So he brought God down to man, and then he ascended to God. Inasmuch as he was in the human nature, he carried up humanity with him to God.”
It is in Christ alone that we can come to know God, because only in Christ does God truly reveal himself. Likewise, it is only in Christ where our hope is found (as the song says so well), because the hope for humanity resides in the humanity taken up by God in Christ. Christ is our true and only mediator, and, through His Spirit, we are united to him in faith, and receive His benefits through his grace alone.
In spiritual formation circles, there is a great temptation to begin to believe in a monadic God – the Spirit – or else start believing in three gods – Father, Son and Spirit as individual deities. There is a great danger here, which can only be abated through the emphasis on the Trinity and the Scriptural witness to God’s action through His Son and Spirit. It is noteworthy that, according to the tradition, God’s work in the world is undivided. While we can talk about one of the persons acting, say, Jesus healing people, it is inadequate to talk about Jesus abstracted away from the Father and the Spirit as he works. In a similar way, the Spirit can never be talked about as if it were an individual entity abstracted away from the economy of redemption and the triune persons’ unity. The Spirit sent to us is Christ’s Spirit, and as we “see” the Father as we “see” Christ, so too do we commune with Christ as his Spirit resides within us. Furthermore, spiritual formation is primarily about sanctification, which, as Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 1:28-31, is had through Christ – he is the source of our sanctification in the same sense that he is the source of our justification. “Christ alone” is a way to emphasize that the triune God of glory comes to us in certain ways, and the way we come to be formed in his image must follow the contours of that way – the Father, revealing himself and offering hope in Christ alone, who took on flesh and paid the price, sending his Spirit to inaugurate life in Christ.
Praying in the Spirit is therefore synonymous with praying in Christ – as he intercedes for us before the Father. The Spirit working in us is the same as Christ being wrought in us, since Christ is the very life which the Spirit works into us. The Spirit’s work allows believers to truly be ambassadors of Christ, because the Spirit doesn’t simply make us spiritual, but makes us truly human after the manner of Christ’s own humanity.
Our third look at Protestant distinctives in spiritual formation is a look at sola fide or “faith alone.” Christ alone, as addressed above, demands, in some sense, these next two – faith alone and grace alone. It could be, for spiritual formation folk, that faith alone will be our most helpful corrective. There are certainly some necessary prodding from sola scriptura and solus Christus, as highlighted above, but when a conversation so heavily stresses sanctification and the working of grace, sola fide is the necessary admonishment.
It is not that we are simply saved by faith and then leave faith behind. We are on a pilgrim journey for the entirety of the Christian life this side of glory. Our faith remains until it collapses into sight – where we will, as Paul states, “see him as he is.” Faith undermines the notion that we are somehow on a path of perfection or that our disciplines, efforts and plans allow us a clear sight – we behold in a mirror darkly – and no effort on our part can clean it. Unlike Catholic spirituality, the clear vision of Christ never occurs in this realm, but is only available to the glorified saints. The way of the pilgrim is truly the way of faith. Solus Christus demands sola fide because it is in Christ alone that our hope is found, and it is only in faith that we grasp hold of his love which he lavishes upon his people. We are not saved in one way and then sanctified in another – justification and sanctification are inter-connected gifts given at the declaration of our righteousness by the God who speaks reality into being – therefore we continue on the pilgrims’ path of faith understanding that it is by faith alone that we relate with our God, and through faith alone that he sanctifies us.
Now, of course, the “aloneness” of faith, just as the “aloneness” of Scripture and Christ means “alone” and not “only.” We can still talk about grace as well, which we will momentarily, but the means by which we come to God is through faith. We are, in Luther’s words, simultaneously justified and sinner. If we lose grasp of the fact that we are both, that we are declared righteous (and that God’s declaration actually has the capacity to make us righteous) and are still sinners – not 10% one and 90% another, or 30% one and 70% another – but 100% justified and 100% sinner, then we will fall victim to either despair or pride, both stemming from a self-centered orientation to spirituality.
Sola gratia, perhaps more so than the rest (not neglecting the importance of the others) is central to a proper understanding of spiritual formation, and, importantly, the Gospel itself. Sola gratia highlights our standing before God, and that standing is guilty. We have, as it were, no ground to stand upon, and no traction from which to gain a God-ward momentum. God’s movement to us, whether it be in justification (through the remission of our sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness), or in sanctification, whereby God sanctifies us for himself – is always by grace alone.
In spiritual formation circles, this is often denied. Somehow our work is seen to move God, to almost seduce him, into “giving us a little push.” There is a general recognition that we cannot help ourselves, but it is often thought that if we try anyway, then God will make up the rest of what we cannot achieve. Instead, what we find in the testimony of Scripture is an unwavering dedication to our helplessness before God, both prior to salvation and after regeneration. The ground we stand upon is not our own, but is Christ – the true rock and foundation upon which to stand. Our hope is not in ourselves, but in Christ, who, again, in his grace, has given his Spirit to reside within us as a down payment of our future inheritance (the life of God in the soul of man as put by Henry Scougal). But there is nothing we can do to put His Spirit to work for us, to allure his Spirit to sanctify us or to generate a spiritual experience of some kind – to even try is to treat God like a pagan god, whose whims are to be channeled through various methods of prodding. For far too many the Spirit is simply a force of some kind that we can tap into to do our will if we only offer the right inputs, treating God as some kind of cosmic vending machine offering experiences, excitement or happiness. This is nothing short of idolatry.
The Spirit of God is the Spirit of Christ, given to his people to bind them to Christ so that they participate in his death and resurrection, truly knowing justification, sanctification and glorification in his person. Our response is to turn to the cross – to Christ – where we come to grasp the grace God offers – with nothing but ourselves, open and submitting to God. We must allow God, by his Spirit, to be gracious in this way, the way of Christ, where the Spirit-filled life under grace leads to the desert (Jesus after baptism), jail (Paul, Peter, etc.), and, as is offered as our example in Philippians, the cross. Grace alone must always be God’s grace alone, and not something we construct and call it grace. Grace is God’s turning to us because of his love, mercy and desire to glorify himself through his creation – and, as grace, is always a gift, and never something we can use, tap into or control.
Soli Deo Gloria
We come now to our last Protestant distinctive, with a focus here on a specifically Reformed distinctive. Soli Deo Gloria means to God alone be the glory. Each of the five “solas” we have looked at offer helpful correctives to the spiritual formation conversation. Sola scriptura orients us around our authoritative source of revelation, sola fide focuses our attention on the only means by which we can come before God – not of ourselves – but only through faith, faith which is offered as a gift from God. Sola fide is a natural corollary to sola gratia, in that we come before God by grace alone, and both follow the contours of our belief in solus Christus. God is the actor of our salvation, which includes our sanctification and future glorification, and we are the receivers of that activity. “God is the alpha and omega in the affair of redemption,” Jonathan Edwards loved to say, and therefore to God alone be the glory.
We must be careful in our accounts of spiritual formation, particularly spiritual practices, to allow these to shape our conception of what we are actually doing. We are wholly unable to grow ourselves, to “clean ourselves up” before God or to put to work the grace given us. Our Christian action does not have an inherent ability to bear the fruit we want – instead, with Jesus, we pray, “Not my will but yours be done.” We do not simply devise action plans to achieve our growth, but pray with the man whose son was healed, “I believe, help me in my unbelief.” Furthermore, it is only as we pray “Without you I can do nothing,” and “In my weakness I know strength,” that we can proclaim soli deo gloria!
The spiritual formation conversation has the advantage of focusing intently on the fact that God’s work of redemption changes everything. The entirety of life should be affected by the reality of the Gospel. That said, the temptation for those involved in the spiritual formation conversation is to take the reins of our own formation. Just as with salvation, there is always the lurking temptation to construct means for our own boasting. Rather, we suggest, spiritual formation follows along the same contours as salvation. Spiritual formation is primarily the act of kneeling before our Lord and King as our Savior, Redeemer and Friend. In this vein, we can pray with the psalmist, “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to Your name give glory” (Ps. 115:1a). This kind of spiritual formation, the kind we are interested in here at Metamorpha, is life at the cross, where all of human wisdom is cast down as foolishness.