Illegal Procedure: Spiritual Formation

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referee-falsestart  As the various winds of false doctrines continue to blow over the religious landscape, many false religions have been birthed through apostate Christianity (kind of an oxymoron but we will use it for now). Or better yet, many who claimed to have a rich or fresh understanding of God, believed their approach was more accurate. They had the “answer” to who God was and how to gain access to Him. We are certainly not unaware of these problems. From Islam to Mormonism, and everything in between, false religions have an all to common denominator––personal experience above the historical reliability of Scripture.

With that being said, the believer should know that God’s word is true, inerrant, and more than sufficient for life and godliness. God’s word needs human support in dealing with humanity and its problems, because the maker of man is the writer of Scripture, and that is all we need. So then, we are as followers of Christ, able to detect anyone who makes any attempt to undermine the authority of God’s word, right?sufficiency of scripture

 

Well, maybe. Sometimes if we are not growing in our discernment, certain practices can creep into the church, making it so much like the world of false religion. This problem becomes more difficult when conservative churches and conservative seminaries are training men along these lines. The church will inevitable run into this. I must say and do so somewhat disappointingly, that this problem has not been dealt with as thorough and with as much passion as it should, and the clock is ticking against us. The problem is Spiritual Formation.

Spiritual Formation has taken over the landscape of Christianity and is evident in some of our https://i0.wp.com/standup.lakeshorecomm.org/files/2013/05/spiritual-formation.png?resize=282%2C163most cherished institutions. While we can rightly associate certain “religious” activities as formation in some way, such as Christian private schools, the usage of Spiritual Formation has been confined or better yet, adopted by mainstream Christianity as a process for sanctification.

What exactly is Spiritual Formation? The term is lucid and can mean a variety of things. Some consider any “spiritual” activity a Christian does that isolates it from the world, such as Christian education or home schooling for example, as a form of Spiritual Formation. That is the broad meaning. But recently, especially the past few years, Spiritual Formation has been narrowed to a practice, namely, a method employed by the Christian so that they can grow in Christlikeness. That is the area of attention this blog will provide, because this has created confusion.

To give you a brief example of the deception behind this movement, Spiritual Formation typically employs anything from yoga to eastern meditation techniques. On the subtle side, it uses biblical terms such as mediation or soft words like “quiet time” as a way to stress the similarities with biblical sanctification. Unfortunately as you will see, this practice has nothing to do with Scripture as much as it has to do with its parent, the New Age Movement.

The problem is that many churches have adopted its methods, evening to the point of teaching it in Sunday School or from the pulpit. Prominent pastors are going to conferences in foreign countries to learn the “art” of meditation and mantras, finding that this has liberated them and claiming they have never been so free in their relationship with God. One pastor took an extended sabbatical to learn how to “draw” closer to God using these techniques. Now he is impacting many churches with this deception.

What makes it even more deceptive is what it offers. Who as a believer does not want to draw closer to God? But the Bible provides the solution. Yes, but how do you hold fast to that truth when someone who has taught you for so long is able to use Scripture and church history to lure you in? If you are not discerning, it can happen. In fact, for many people it is happening. Books are beginning to employ techniques of Spiritual Formation to “help” the Christian in their spiritual growth. And I know there are some in sincerity and deep ambition who desire to be like Christ, but they are sincerely wrong if they believe Spiritual Formation is the solution.

This movement has ushered in the dawning of mysticism within the fellowship.

Spiritual Formation has taken flight during the past 10-15 years (maybe more that that), and has made a significant impact in churches where pastors, who have been trained by cherished institutions for pastoral ministry, are employing this deadly system that is tied to ancient mysticism more than Scripture. The believers who follow the teachings of these men are in trouble and the reliability of Scripture, while it is not being rejected, is subtly being supplanted by human experiences.

What surprises me is how so many conservative seminaries, even those in whom we would agree with in may key doctrinal areas, are offering courses and degrees in this field. Do they know the source of this extra-biblical practice? Even if they claim to teach something uniquely different, why use the term if it is not found in inspired Scripture?

Now some may say, we are only redeeming the process, not accepting it altogether; but can that really happen? Can we take what is offered to Satan and redeem it for our use? Can a method that endorses human self-exaltation blend in with authentic sanctification. Are we that desperate to “experience” God outside of His revealed word and the work of the Holy Spirit? You cannot divorce a practice from its theology, just like a leopard cannot change its spot (Jer. 13:23).

And I do not think we really believe that to be the case. Overall we know that an evil system cannot be redeemed, only the person who is living in sin and evil can be rescued and transformed. Additionally, the end does not justify the means. God demands obedience and for us to know Him based on what He has established as the only way to grow in grace and holiness.

So let me present a few reasons why some leaders may be having a problem recognizing this as a real threat to biblical purity and joy in the faith.

First of all, this has nothing to do with what orthodoxy has done. This is a primary lie of the enemy, making some believe that orthodoxy can be dry. That is tantamount to saying the cross can loose its impact or maybe to a lesser degree a well-designed cup cannot hold water. My point is this: something is missing from this person’s understanding of conversion or Christianity as a whole when they blame orthodoxy as the problem. Of course, orthodoxy without transformation, the outcome is obvious: shallowness, dry, weak, disappointing, ritualistic, or even legalistic, and certainly not life-changing. But that is not true orthodoxy. It is orthodox in what it produces or should produce genuine––repentance, conversion, obedience, and trust. And yes, I get the importance of orthopraxy, but orthopraxy is a direct result of sound doctrine and can never be accomplished apart from sound doctrine. In my estimate, you are dealing with two sides of the same coin. You cannot have one and not the other––Right doctrine will produce right practice in the life of the one who has been made right with God through Jesus Christ.

I do agree with the fact that there are and will be times and seasons as we grow in grace where an occasional “dry” moment takes place. But this is generally associated with sin, where either we become stagnant in God’s work of sanctification in us (2 Cor. 7:1), or we are not in step with the Holy Spirit in obedience to His word (Gal. 5:25-26). But to have this as a normal part of our life as redeemed believers in whom the Holy Spirit dwells, that makes very little sense biblically.

So what must we take into account? We must consider what has taken place over the past 30-50 years. There has been many false conversions or people wanting to be saved but not quite sure why they needed Christ or what they need Him for. Let me explain briefly. There are those who realize the problem of sin: we have a holy God who made all things. After everything was made according to His word, He declared everything good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Nothing was out of order, or lacking in any way. This same God was and is perfectly holy and radiant in beauty (Psalm 8:1; 93:1; 148:14); He is glorious (James 1:17). But at some point after creation, man sinned against God (Gen. 3). He lost reverence for this holy and righteous God, who demands perfect obedience and allegiance to Him (Matt. 5:48; James 2:10).

So because of Adam, humanity fell from God’s good grace and as a result of his disobedience became lifeless––dead spiritually. As a result of Adam’s transgression, the entire human race would have to deal with the consequence of his disobedience to God. Every generation has experienced the consequence of disobedience but could do nothing to change it. He needed a repentmk1Redeemer, one who could crush the head of the serpent (Gen. 3:15) and take the penalty of sin for fallen man. That Savior was and is Jesus Christ, God Incarnate: fully God and fully man (Phil. 2:5-6). This Savior, Jesus Christ, came in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), lived a perfect life, and died for the sins of all who would trust in Him (1 Tim. 1:15), and God raised Him from the dead because of our justification (Rom. 4:25).

Anyone who desires to be saved must have some awareness of who God is, where man stands before Him, the hope that is only found in Christ Jesus, and the the need to repent and place their faith in what God has done through Christ Jesus (Rom. 10:9). Christ’s death in our place, the just for the unjust, is of necessity. He died for sinners, not just for unhappy or unfulfilled people.

Over the years the atonement of Christ for sinners has typically been the focus of the gospel. Yet many have turned away from the gory nature of the atonement, offering a sub-orthodox gospel message to the detriment of true conversion. As a result we have had many false conversions and people who came to the “altar” (whatever that means) to be happy or satisfied.

Now fast-forward to our time and they are wondering where the excitement is. After a turbulent marriage, rebellious children, financial hardship, or maybe seeker-sensitive indoctrination, what can they do to spark this seemingly dead spiritual life or their sinking Christianity?

So along comes a Spiritual formation guru who is in touch with their problem and he would pose these questions: “Are you not tired of the Christian life you have been living? Don’t you bad exegesisgrow weary of reading the Bible, praying, and going to church? Wouldn’t you really like to enter into the very depth of your soul and encounter God in indescribable experiences that will radically change you forever? If so, then you must learn the disciplines that have been used by the historic church almost since its inception”[1]. Sounds like this person needs to be saved, does it not? But the sales pitch really sounds enticing, and the person who thought they came to Christ to feel great about life and find purpose, is truly empty and needs more. Then add the evangelical who is convinced by this spiritual pep speech he or she is spiritually stale and dry, and this only validates the sweeping need for spiritual formation. Everyone, including the protestant evangelical needs more of Christ and do not want to miss Him.

Just consider, many false movements have had a shot in the arm by conservative evangelicals would have normally been able to discern truth and error, but for some reason they let experience or feelings get in the way of objective truths and have turned to spiritualizing Scripture.

But if the word of God is more than enough for teaching and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), and Christ in His high priestly prayer directed us to God’s word for our sanctification because it is truth (John 17:17), why do we need anything else––especially mythical and mystical methods of men as a means for sanctification?

That is a question and others we must examine in detail next time, including the history behind Spiritual formation and the men and women who are esteemed for helping us discover this “door” for greater spirituality.

Until then let us remember Paul’s words in Colossians 2:20-23, “20 If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!”22 (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom inself-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

 

This series will not deal in depth with sanctification, only what has been promoted as such. My purpose is to present the case where there may be a fly in the ointment.

I would encourage everyone to visit gty.org: Dr. MacArthur’s recent blogs provide excellent instruction on biblical sanctification.

I must also thank faithful believers from GCCLB who brought this to my attention, and have proven how this movement has affected many former Bible teaching churches. Young ministers are being swept into  this and so are their followers.  

 

References:

Spiritual Formation, “Think on These Things”, February/March 2012, Volume 18, Issue 1: http://www.svchapel.org/resources/articles/133-spiritual-formation-movement/753-spiritual-formation

“A Time of Departing: How Ancient Mystical Practices are Uniting Christians With the World’s Religions” Ray Yungen, 2006.

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  • Aaron Palmer

    Hi Seymour,

    I appreciate your thoughts. I would like to comment and say that I definitely can see the danger in these teachings if they do rely on human experience over scripture. However, in my (limited) experience with people who teach spiritual formation, I have not observed it to be presented as above scripture. I have also never noticed or seen the yoga like practices you describe. What I have seen is people incorrectly label churches and people who utilize spiritual formation practices, and make up stories about what those people are actually doing. I hope this can be avoided in treatment of this topic.

    I look forward to the next posts in this series. Thanks!

    -Aaron

    • Eric Dodson

      Hey Aaron! Thanks for reading my friend. We try always to make sure we’re giving a fair assessment of issues we address, but we do understand their tend to be a “spectrum” of uses under the same label from time to time. We certainly don’t mean to mislabel or falsely accuse churches, but rather to address the error and what it can and does lead to in many cases. Thanks for bringing your experience to the discussion. Next time you’re down in Long Beach, you should meet Seymour. He’s a fellow bassist and all around great guy! I think you’d both be blessed to meet each other!

      • Aaron Palmer

        Absolutely, I am thrilled that he is in LB and a couple of blocks from where I used to live no less. And I do think that we are on the same page. I agree with you that there is a spectrum of uses under the same name and I absolutely would take exception if someone was touting mystic practices as superior to scripture.

        I’m always reading, but I will try to comment now too so you know I’m here.

        Thanks Eric!

    • Seymour Helligar

      Thanks Aaron, and I believe your concern is valid. I have been and continue to investigate this very closely. This has been over the period of several months after hearing about how it has infiltrated many churches. Spiritual formation was never a part of the church as a whole, and next week I will draw out its history. Many people are not always willing to examine the historicity of a particular movement or system and that is what hurts us in many ways. The term itself is open to deception because there are no biblical parameters for it. Additionally many prominent leaders are placing certain formation tactics, especially in sanctification or drawing closer to God, as being on par or above Scripture. There is no way to avoid it when there are no theological barriers established to examine these things. The reason for this problem is because of the end goal; if it is Christlikeness, the movement seeks new ways to “experience” God. in my next blog on this topic, I will plead for us to avoid the terminology altogether because its basic roots were not shaped by the Bible at all. That to me is very scary. I desire to be more like Christ but the most fundamental way that God has given is His word, the Holy Spirit, and the steadfastness of the believer. Anything else can tend to be a shallow version of the real thing, forcing the person to look for more ways to stimulate their spirituality.
      If anyone seeks to grow and teach spiritual maturity, my argument is that spiritual formation is a term we should not use. It is too confusing, diluted, and not authentic. Thanks Aaron, and feel free to look for us whenever you are in Long Beach.