Are you hearing the term “spiritual formation” more often now? How about “the silence, or stillness?” Has your pastor or church leaders been recently talking about this? Is it being introduced as part of Bible Study, or prayer service, or in Sunday School? Do you know what you might be getting into? The following by my friend John Henderson should give you pause if you have encountered this new terminology in your church. Most likely it will be the same kind of spiritual formation that false teacher Richard Foster is using to deceive so many today. An article on the continuing apostasy at a Nazarene university will be posted next week.
What Really Is Spiritual Formation?
The speaker, a leader in his denomination, mentioned the term spiritual formation towards the end of his message. He defined it in non-objectionable terms for an evangelical-minded congregation such as he was addressing. One could take the same definitions he used and probably apply them to what is commonly understood as developing and growing in grace.
Emergent advocates have recently resorted to more subtle approaches to get their emergent doctrines accepted. This is not a new approach because many who have an agenda that is basically without substance or is weak in substance frequently rely on the used-car-salesman approach—they make it sound good but put sawdust in the crankcase.
The pastor of a large but diminishing church stated that he was using a particular book in his messages that some had raised questions about and insisted it was authored by a very godly leader in the church. I suppose he knew folks would check that out. It turns out the author has some red flags in his vitae. He has a seminary degree from a very emergent seminary and is a leader within his denomination in training people in spiritual formation. Just one of the chapters in his book raises other flags about the emergent heresy.
As much as you and I would like it otherwise, words do have meanings we would rather they did not. In this day of fanatical political-correctness and people everywhere looking for some excuse to create a stir over otherwise innocent comments, we Christians are under some moral obligation to measure our words as best we can. For instance, no matter how happy we might feel, we would be instantly misunderstood if we announced that we were gay.
Consider the term itself. Lighthouse Trails, an evangelical website, defines spiritual formation this way:
Spiritual Formation is “a movement that has provided a platform and a channel through which contemplative prayer is entering the church. Find spiritual formation being used, and in nearly every case you will find contemplative spirituality. In fact, contemplative spirituality is the heartbeat of the spiritual formation movement.”
Contemplative spirituality is a “belief system that uses ancient mystical practices to induce altered states of consciousness (the silence) and is rooted in mysticism and the occult but often wrapped in Christian terminology. The premise of contemplative spirituality is pantheistic (God is all) and panentheistic (God is in all). Common terms used for this movement are “spiritual formation,” “the silence,” “the stillness,” “ancient-wisdom,” “spiritual disciplines,” and many others.”
I have a problem with the term itself, even when used in the most “evangelical” of expressions. Even speaking evangelically, the definition gets around to saying that spiritual formation means that believers can attain spiritual growth through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines, they say, are exercises that usher one into God’s presence, [RED FLAG!] where His life has the opportunity to transform our lives. They will deny it as being a salvation by works or of somehow conjuring up the Holy Spirit then turn around and tell you this.
The word, formation, is the indicator. Formation is construction, materialization—becoming other than what it is. There is genuine Christian development and growing in grace and the Scriptures tell us precisely what that is and how it is done. Emergent heresy, as is its nature, offers persuasive counterfeits. The above “evangelicalized” definition smooths out the bumps but it all arrives at one or more of those mystical “spiritual disciplines” which is the work of demons over the work of the Holy Spirit. It wants to be “like the Most High” but not actually include Him as is evidenced by their many denials of His Person and truth.
One of its most common approaches to “spiritual discipline” is what emergents call disciplined spirituality: engaging in the historical disciplines. This is where they delve enthusiastically into the “ancient practices” of the “early church fathers.” What they don’t tell you is that those “fathers” were largely engaged in departing from and corrupting the Early Church practices by superimposing many pagan mystical exercises over a definition of Christianity that lost its true meaning in the mix. The tainted gospel always takes on the characteristics of the elements that contaminate it.
This is precisely why there were those in the interim we call the Dark Ages who attempted to rise above it and stand for Scriptural truth. It was the singular drive behind the Protestant Reformation under Martin Luther. To return to them is to bypass Luther and those who blazed trails before him and to immerse once again into the very practices that corrupted the church in the first place. The irony is that many “evangelical” Protestants are enthralled by ancient Catholic practices that many modern Catholics are finding unacceptable. As teenagers used to say, “Go figure!”
It’s Not New
We should know that the idea of “spiritual formation” is not recent. As an objective of “spiritual disciplines,” it is centuries old and has waxed and waned in popularity over time. This is a clue to its possible inadequacies because truly spiritual (Biblical) disciplines are constant and are only accepted or rejected according to people’s spiritual state. One can always go back to God’s Word and see His guidelines and mandates on the disciplines of the Christian life. Current emergents who use these terms are more fluid with definitions and applications.
They run into the problem that Biblical Christianity asserts that transformation of the heart is a work of grace that only God can accomplish and that we are saved not by our works or efforts, but by God’s grace (unmerited favor). When people in the church are tempted to marginalize the usefulness of Biblical disciplines so as not be confused with preaching “justification by works” (a false premise), they become more agreeable to the suggestions of mysticism that leads them into trying to get closer to God by their own design and efforts. Since this is unacceptable to God, they become prey to the seducing spirits around them and are fooled into believing they have actually approached God.
The cover story is that “it is not salvation that is at stake, but rather the need to develop people of genuine Christ-like character to live in the world and confront its values.” This effort to separate salvation from “spiritual disciplines” is crucial to the deception. Salvation cannot be isolated from growing in grace. Salvation is precisely why we grow in grace and develop in Christian service. The prayer of Jesus in John 17 makes it clear that we are in the world but not of the world.
Our calling is not to confront the values of the world but to preach Christ crucified. The values of the world will confront us but our message of Jesus should never give way to debating issues over pointing souls to Christ. It is good to campaign for social changes but never in lieu of or even alongside the preaching of the gospel. All of that must come after evangelization of the soul.
Emergents will say that spiritual formation “involves the growth of the whole person: the mind, body, heart, and will. Over time a believer may work with different pathways or facets of spirituality in the process of spiritual growth.” As innocent as that appears at first, notice that the second sentence defines the first one. Different pathways in the process of “spiritual growth”? Different facets of spirituality? This kind of thinking goes directly into the universalism that characterizes the end result of “spiritual” formation.
Spiritual formation, no matter how innocently defined, is just more snow heaped on the garbage pile. The garbage will still be there when the snow melts.