A series of essays exploring an orientation to spiritual formation with specific reference to the New Testament - with a goal to help readers grow by introducing spiritual formation from a biblical viewpoint.
When I began attending Dallas Theological Seminary in August of 1993, the school’s spiritual formation program was in its infancy. Students were required to participate in a small group for the first two years of their program for the express purpose of “spiritual formation,” a term very new to me at that time in my life. My group of male students met weekly for prayer and Bible study; we also followed a loose curriculum which included generating a “life map” and working on service projects. My inexperience with spiritual formation – at least of this type and this level of intentionality – was rather pronounced. The Christian tradition in which I grew up focused on Bible reading, prayer, and fellowship with other believers for the purpose of spiritual growth, but some of the specific activities I was now being asked to do were new to me. I did not know what the goal was, and consequently to my detriment I did not exert the effort needed to grow or to help others in my group grow to be like Christ.
Fortunately for me, the Lord was more concerned about my spiritual state than I was. I did not blaze any trails of spiritual growth during those two years, but I did grow nonetheless and I have continued to grow. Thankfully my awareness of spiritual formation has grown as well. I have a keener sense of my spiritual state than before, and I am much more intentional about developing Christ-like character. Despite my early inexperience with spiritual formation, the Lord has been gracious to help me recognize the importance of intentional spiritual growth. I know better now than I did then what spiritual formation is, and I am much better prepared to participate in the process.
It is with this background that I write this essay as an orientation to spiritual formation with specific reference to the New Testament. Part of my difficulty almost thirteen years ago was not understanding the biblical foundation of what the seminary was asking me to do. My present goal is to help others grow by introducing them to spiritual formation from a biblical viewpoint. The purpose of this essay is three fold: (1) to offer a preliminary definition of spiritual formation drawn from current works on the topic, (2) to discuss selected passages from the New Testament which in my estimation embody the concept according to the synthetic definition I will offer, and (3) to briefly and tentatively offer some future avenues for thought regarding spiritual formation. Thus I intend this piece to be a first step down the path of my own biblical theology of spiritual formation by offering some exegetical support to the concept broadly construed.
Before launching into the body of the work, I need to state three presuppositions I have about spiritual formation which I will not attempt to defend in this essay in any consistent, sustained way. First, spiritual formation is a contemporary expression of both the biblical doctrine and practice of sanctification as it has traditionally been understood and defined, namely, the process by which God makes believers more holy. At the same time, there is a lack of clear differentiation between the doctrine and practice. My initial sense is that some people within evangelicalism are ambivalent over spiritual formation as a result of a confusion between doctrine and practice, or stated a different way, between goals and means. Some interpret spiritual formation to be a prescribed path to sanctification – an overemphasis on means – when that is not the case in many presentations. It is much more important to focus on its stated goals. Specific means are often emphasized in different expressions of spiritual formation, but these must be interpreted in light of the overall goal of sanctification of the individual.
Second, spiritual formation is a synthesis of theology and practice found within the Bible on the one hand and church history on the other. A cursory examination of many writings on spiritual formation points toward a rather intricate amalgamation of concepts and practices drawn both from the Bible and saints throughout history.1 Take the topic of prayer, for example. No one will deny that this is a biblical means for growth in the spiritual life; Jesus modeled it for his disciples, Paul commands prayer, etc. What makes prayer unique within many expressions of spiritual formation is the emphasis on the unique historical practice of various saints throughout history which is then encouraged as a contemporary practice. Third, much of the current literature on spiritual formation – but by no means all – by and large lacks an exegetical foundation. I do not mean that spiritual formation itself as a concept or practice does not have a biblical basis or cannot be supported by exegesis of the text; my point is solely about the literature written in this vein. My cursory examination (and that is all that it is at this point) leads me to little sustained exegetical examination of the biblical text with discussion of how that supports spiritual formation,2 and with exegesis as my personal and professional bent, I wish to help correct this lack.3
Part of the difficulty in studying spiritual formation which must be recognized from the outset is the extreme variety present in discussions of the topic. Varieties of definition and practice are the most noticeable, but there are also varieties in scriptural warrant given and the language used to describe the topic. There are even philosophical presuppositions on the level of worldview which are usually unstated but exert a tremendous influence on the resultant expression. Various authors might differ fundamentally in their approach to anthropology and psychology, for example, but these concepts are fundamental to the way one expresses issues related to growth and change within the human person; fundamental differences on this level by their very nature will lead to fundamental differences in the outworking of spiritual formation. By way of example, there are two things which highlight this systemic variety well. First, I was struck initially by the fact that in much of the literature authors will speak of Christian spiritual formation, by itself an implicit acknowledgement that there are traditions of spiritual formation and practice which are antithetical to Christian faith. Second, many believers are probably familiar with the concept of “spiritual life.” Generally, this term applies to matters of the heart and personal character in our walk with the Lord.4 In many treatments there is little tangible difference between spiritual life and spiritual formation, when an argument can be made that there are some important differences between the two concepts. In order to start making a path through this topic, at this point I will focus on issues of definition.
Definitions of spiritual formation are rather varied, although there are common threads which run between them. Following are six definitions offered in current literature from four different authors. Dallas Willard is one of the most well known writers who addresses the topic of spiritual formation. He is a philosopher, a Southern Baptist, and former director of the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California. In his most recent published work, he defines spiritual formation as follows:
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.5
Many of Willard’s works are available on the internet. In one piece available on his web site, he defines spiritual formation as follows:
Spiritual formation in the tradition of Jesus Christ is the process of transformation of the inmost dimension of the human being, the heart, which is the same as the spirit or will. It is being formed (really, transformed) in such a way that its natural expression comes to be the deeds of Christ done in the power of Christ.6
Ken Boa is the president of Reflections Ministries, “an organization that seeks to encourage, teach, and equip people to know Christ, follow Him, become progressively conformed to His image, and reproduce His life in others.”7 In one of his more recent texts, he defines spiritual formation as follows in the glossary:
The grace-driven developmental process in which the soul grows in conformity to the image of Christ.8
In the introduction to the same text, Boa gives a fuller discussion of the topic he defines as “spirituality,” but which is apropos for the discussion at hand.
The spiritual life is an all-encompassing, lifelong response to God’s gracious initiatives in the lives of those whose trust is centered in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Biblical spirituality is a Christ-centered orientation to every component of life through the mediating power of the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is a journey of the spirit that begins with the gift of forgiveness and life in Christ and progresses through faith and obedience. Since it is based on a present relationship, it is a journey with Christ rather than a journey to Christ. As long as we are on this earth we never arrive; the journey is not complete until the day of our resurrection, when the Lord brings us into complete conformity with himself.9
Dallas Theological Seminary has developed a curriculum which is used in the spiritual formation program, in which most all students participate. The following definition of spiritual formation is given in the first book of the curriculum:
The process by which God forms Christ’s character in believers by the ministry of the Spirit, in the context of community, and in accordance with biblical standards. The process involves the transformation of the whole person in thoughts, behaviors, and styles of relating with God and others. It results in a life of service to others and witness for Christ.10
Many different traditions have embraced the concept of spiritual formation. One manifestation of this is Upper Room, “a United Methodist-related ecumenical organization dedicated to providing resources for spiritual growth and spiritual leadership.”11 In one of their texts related to issues of spiritual formation, the following definition appears:
The dynamics of shaping the human spirit toward maturity and consonance. Spiritual formation can refer to two closely related processes. The first is a basic fact of life: as creatures we are constantly being formed by the world around us; and as creatures with a spirit capable of transcending our world, we can be aware of and take part in that formation....The second process is the more deliberate attempt to form ourselves or allow ourselves to be formed within a particular spiritual tradition.12
The common threads of these definitions revolve around change within the inner person (in the above definitions variously called the “spirit,” “heart,” or “soul”) which is undertaken intentionally to conform to God’s character or standard. The short-hand definition I would offer could perhaps be worded as “the intentional transformation of the inner person to the character of Christ.” It is intentional in two ways: It is part of God’s will for the individual believer, and the individual believer makes a conscious choice about it; it is transformation in that it involves definitive, measurable growth in a certain direction; it involves the inner person in that it concerns itself with character, thoughts, intentions, and attitudes more than actions, habits, or behaviors; it has the character of Christ as its goal and standard of measure.
With this as a workable common thread, the question now is, which passages in the NT teach this concept of intentional inner transformation to the character of Christ? What follows is a discussion of four passages chosen from different parts of the NT and how they support the concept of spiritual formation: one major section from the Gospels, two passages from Paul, and one passage from the general epistles.
The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5–7 has long been a locus classicus for elucidation of proper Christian behavior. In the Sermon Jesus clearly teaches the ethics of the kingdom of God; he calls all who hear to a standard of behavior and inner life in accord with God’s holiness. Within the Sermon is an extended section in 5:21–48 which has received special attention for a number of reasons. Divided into six subsections, commonly referred to together as the antitheses, this larger section of the Sermon serves a number of functions. Among others, it emphasizes Jesus’ authority; of course the entire Sermon emphasizes Jesus’ authority, but the antitheses do this is a heightened way as Jesus asserts his own authority through his teaching over and against the common interpretations of his day. The antitheses also emphasize Jesus’ teaching; of course the entire Sermon does this, but the constant repetition of the phrases “You have heard it said...but I say to you” within the antitheses highlights Jesus’ role as teacher over and against those who have come before him. Important for the present consideration of spiritual formation is the change in emphasis in the antitheses from the external action or adherence to the standard of the Law to the internal attitude or character. Many argue that one of the distinctives of Jesus’ presentation here is the internalization of the principles embodied in the Law which Jesus discusses,13 and this is quite in keeping with the ultimate goal of spiritual formation as it has been defined above. In each of the six antitheses, Jesus first relates some aspect of Jewish Law or religious practice; the antithesis is found in his change in focus from external obedience to inner transformation.14
In Matthew 5:21–26 Jesus addresses the issue of anger by way of the prohibition against murder. He first cites the sixth commandment from Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17: “Do not murder.”15 Along side this, he mentions a crystallization of the OT teaching regarding the death penalty as punishment for murder: “Whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.”16 These citations serve to encapsulate the basic point of the law: Murder, the unauthorized taking of human life, was prohibited. In response, Jesus goes deeper than the act of murder to the emotion which motivates it: anger at a brother.
The three-fold statement in v.22 makes this clear as the centerpiece of the antithesis. Each part of the statement begins with the inappropriate emotion of the inner person and ends with its dire consequence. The first one is the most direct, as the consequence is the same as was stated in v. 21. In both instances the guilty one is subject to judgment, that is, the death penalty. In the former statement murder is the prohibited action,17 but in the latter statement anger is the prohibited emotion.18 Jesus implies clearly that anger is at the root of murder, and thus he drives to the inner person to solve the problem. The second part of the statement focuses not so much on the emotion as the outworking of it within relationships, although the tie to the prohibited emotion is still clear. In this statement Jesus focuses upon an action usually born out of anger, namely, the insulting of a brother: “Whoever says to his brother ‘raka.’”19 The word raka is the transliteration of the Aramaic word רֵיקָא; this is generally interpreted to be an insult demeaning one’s intelligence.20 This emotional outburst is condemned because it is motivated by anger, and as such there is no real difference in the inner person between insulting a brother and murdering him. The result in the second half is similar to what had just been pronounced: The person who insults his brother “is subject to the council.”21 The final statement is similar to the first two, but it reaches a strong crescendo in conclusion; terrible judgment upon those who harbor anger against their brother is undeniable. The one who falls under judgment in the final statement insults his brother: “whoever says ‘you fool.’”22 Again, the assumption is clear that the emotion which motivates this outburst is anger. The punishment the angry individual receives is a vivid image of divine punishment, thus the escalation is complete: That person “will be liable to flaming Gehenna,”23 not just a human judgment or council. With this antithesis so clearly stated, one can surmise with considerable warrant that Jesus is concerned primarily with the character of the inner person and less with the external actions. The motivation to the individual is clear: Be a person who does not get angry with his brother. Jesus discusses some practical applications of this principle in vv. 23-26. With their admonitions to resolve problems as quickly as possible, these statements are both encouragements and warnings: Attempts at reconciliation result in the freedom to approach God in worship because anger as a barrier between brothers has been removed, but stubbornness against reconciliation carries dire consequences because anger has not been dealt with properly.
The entire import of this antithesis is to condemn not just the outward action of murder but more importantly the emotion which provokes it. Jesus is concerned not only with what one does with the hands against a brother but with what one feels in the heart towards him. The ethics of the kingdom require that the heart be free of anger, so the only proper path for the one who follows Jesus is to dismiss anger quickly or to seek forgiveness and thus not become a cause for anger in another. When viewed as an example of the larger principle, this is the call of spiritual formation: The heart must be transformed so that the root cause of sinful behavior is removed.
In Matthew 5:27–30 Jesus addresses the issue of lust by way of the prohibition against adultery. He first cites the seventh commandment from Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18: “Do not commit adultery.”24 In response, Jesus goes deeper than the physical act of adultery to the sinful condition of the heart which occasions it: lust towards another. His identification of the problem first deals with an action and its intent: “whoever looks at a woman to desire her.”25 It is clear that the problem lies not in the physical action of looking at a woman; instead it is in the motivation for doing so and the internal attitude which accompanies the visual sense perception. The verb ἐπιθυμέω refers generically to strong desire or longing,26 but often it carries the specific nuance of sexual desire as it clearly does here; this phrase could be loosely paraphrased as “whoever looks at a woman with sexual interest” or “for sexual fulfillment.” This internal desire and purpose is condemned because of its logical end result: This person “has already committed adultery with her in his heart” and is as guilty as the one who participates in the physical act.27 Jesus’ description of the location of the act in the heart is apropos for the discussion at hand, as it shows that the problem is one of the inner person, and the solution must alter the inner person for it to be effective. The hyperbolic commands in vv. 29–30 illustrate the extreme desire for purity of heart which should mark those who seek to follow the teaching of the Lord in this matter.
This antithesis condemns not just the outward action of adultery but more importantly the state of the heart which occasions it. Jesus is most concerned not with what sort of sexual activity one engages but with the intent and desires of the heart. The ethics of the kingdom require that the heart be free of lust; the only proper path for the one who follows Jesus is to avoid the external action of adultery by first removing the internal compulsion of lust. As with the first antithesis, Jesus is making a claim on the inner person, and again this is the call of spiritual formation. The heart must be transformed so that the root cause of sinful behavior is removed.
In Matthew 5:31–32 Jesus addresses the issue of marital Commitment by way of teaching on divorce. It is very logical that this section follow the previous one, given the connections of their subject matter. Here Jesus begins with a loose rendition of Deuteronomy 24:1, the primary Old Testament passage which touches on the topic of divorce: “whoever divorces his wife must give her a legal document.”28 The force of the original text in context and the force of Jesus’ quotation in comparison are identical: A man is prohibited from divorcing his wife for weak or arbitrary reasons; there must be a substantial cause behind the dissolution of the marriage, and the actual legal action must follow a defined process which is subject to accountability by the community. Thus in the original context there were several restrictions placed upon divorce. In response to this OT teaching, Jesus is even more restrictive. Divorce cannot occur except under extreme circumstances, defined here as “immorality,”29 and divorce under any other circumstances leads to adultery on the part of either party. What makes this different from the prior antitheses is the lack of a specific emphasis on the condition of the inner person. The logical implication of the antithesis, however, especially in light of the proximity to the former one, is that the individual must be committed to marital longevity, and this commitment mandates a change in the inner person. Jesus teaches that there is no easy way out of a marriage, as contemporary Judaism allowed. The only path proper for those who follow the Lord is to remain married permanently, except for the occurrence of immorality.
In Matthew 5:33–37 Jesus addresses the issue of truthfulness through the elimination of oaths. Jesus begins with a crystallization of OT teaching on the topic: “Do not break an oath, but fulfill your vows to the Lord.”30 In response, Jesus abrogates oaths entirely. They were originally part of the worship of Israel, used to commit oneself to a task for motivation and service; a person would swear by the name of the Lord, thereby obligating them to fulfill their oath or be liable to God himself.31 By Jesus’ time, they had become a way to avoid a responsibility; substitution oaths were common in which people would swear by many things other than God on the grounds that if they did not fulfill the oath there would be no dire consequences.32 In his response, Jesus points to a central theological truth: God is in fact connected to everything, therefore any oath implies God in it. Heaven is God’s throne and earth is his footstool, so they cannot be counted on as empty substitutes. The city of Jerusalem must be avoided as well, as that is the city from where God will reign. In the statement regarding hair, it might seem on the surface that God is not invoked, but he clearly is the one in control of aging, as man is not. Jesus commands that oaths be avoided entirely and that simple sincerity of speech mark those who follow him. The heart of the matter is the need for truthfulness on the part of those who follow Jesus; the impulse to deceive should be replaced instead with a passion for truth, for anything less than complete sincerity and integrity of speech comes from the evil one who has set himself against God. As stated above, this transformation of the inner person is the goal of spiritual formation. It does not involve the words as much as it involves the Commitment of the individual for the words to be truthful; this is a change which must take place on the inside.
In Matthew 5:38–42 Jesus addresses the issue of proper response to harm through the lex talionis. He begins with a verbatim citation from two different places in the OT, Exodus 21:24 and Leviticus 24:20: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” This is the standard of justice taught routinely in the OT. From the standpoint of the OT, it is a positive teaching, as it is designed to limit the damage one may appropriately extract when wronged; thus it is at the same time a limit on vengeance and a promotion of appropriate justice. In response, Jesus emphasizes complete and unmitigated deference to others, even when their actions are evil towards the individual. There is no longer a place for any vengeance, even legally sanctioned vengeance, in the life of the one who follows Jesus. The final verse of this antithesis states the same point in a positive way: Those who embody this principle will not only refuse to strike back at those who attack, but they will willingly help those who seek assistance and help, in no way holding back from those who ask. With his emphasis on both the negative and positive aspects of the principle, Jesus makes clear that inner transformation is in view. The believer must be able to respond with kindness and deference to anyone and in any situation in which an individual would wish to protect or preserve themselves over others.
In Matthew 5:43–47 Jesus addresses the issue of love for enemies through interaction with conventional wisdom on how to relate to others. He begins with a command which is clearly stated in the OT in Leviticus 19:18: “love your neighbor.” The second statement which Jesus mentions is not an explicit teaching of the OT but a very common inference that could almost be considered conventional wisdom about dealing with enemies: “hate your enemy.”33 In response, Jesus turns the second statement completely around and requires activity which could not be done without a change in the inner person: “Love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you.” Jesus turns conventional understanding on its head and requires love and prayer for those whom one would naturally hate. The purpose for this action is clearly explicated in v. 45: “so that you may be like your Father in heaven.”34 Loving one’s enemies is exactly the kind of thing the Father in heaven does, and following him in that action is pleasing to him. God shows this common grace through elements of nature which benefit the evil and good, the righteous and unrighteous alike. Jesus intensifies the teaching by pointing out that reciprocated love is normal human behavior, even for those who are far from the kingdom of God. If that is all one does, they are in no way different from a nonbeliever; the kingdom has not changed them. How can Jesus’ requirement of love for enemies be done? Only by transforming the inner person into a person of love, even towards those who do not love back.
In Matthew 5:48 Jesus concludes the antitheses with a capstone drawn from the Old Testament which highlights the overarching principle involved in each of the antitheses: “So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” This statement is similar to Leviticus 19:2 and Deuteronomy 18:13 and appears to contain elements of each. The emphasis is on perfection, which speaks to character rather than action.35 The invitation to enter the kingdom of God and live in accordance with it does not involve appropriate actions as much as it involves appropriate character which will de facto cause a change in related behavior. This is the heart of spiritual formation: The change of the inner person to the character of Christ, framed specifically in the Sermon on the Mount in terms of the kingdom which Christ will lead under God’s sovereign rule.
What is at the bottom of each of these antitheses and the final command which encapsulates them all? It is a recognition that truly following Christ, truly being a member of his kingdom, flows first from the inner person and does not consist solely of outward acts of compliance or obedience. The standard Jesus sets is not at all measured by outward obedience; rather, it consists of a heart which operates on the level of the spirit of the law, not simply its letter. Jesus’ goal in these antitheses is to force people to look inside themselves. He presents the standard which those who enter the kingdom must meet. The individual then is implicitly guided down a particular path: “How will I meet this standard of an inner character as perfect as God is?” It is an invitation to inner change through interaction with Jesus himself. This in seminal form is the nature of spiritual formation: growth in the inner person so that following Christ and obedience to his commands comes from the inside through internal motivation.
Within Paul are many texts which are applicable to the concept of spiritual formation as defined above: “the intentional transformation of the inner person to the character of Christ.” Following are two passages which clearly support this concept.
Paul begins his letter to the Philippians as he routinely does with thanksgiving to God and prayer for those to whom he is writing. His thanksgiving to God is strongly marked by his attitude toward the Philippian believers for their past actions: They had intentionally and abundantly helped Paul in his Gospel ministry, and his affection for them overflowed as a result. This leads to his prayer for them which is the important element for the present discussion.
The overall structure of this prayer is worthwhile to note so that its broad import can be understood. Constructed in typical Pauline style with lots of subordinated clauses, the prayer has a main clause (“that your love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight”) which is modified by an adverbial infinitive clause which indicates purpose (“so that you can decide what is best”). This clause is itself modified by an adverbial ἵνα clause which also indicates purpose (“and thus be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ”). The final clause uses an adjectival participle, describing the individuals involved (“filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God”). Thus conceptually the prayer is composed of four parts: the prayer proper, the intermediate purpose, the ultimate purpose, and the defining characteristic.
In the prayer proper Paul addresses the Philippians’ inner attitude of love. In this letter the noun ἀγάπη occurs four times (here in 1:9 and then again in 1:16; 2:1, 2).36 It is not entirely clear what type of love Paul means here, as there is no object to indicate the recipient. It could reasonably be the love the Philippians have for the Lord, but it could just as easily be the love which they have for one another or possibly even the love they have for Paul himself. The other three occurrences are also somewhat ambiguous. The balance of the prayer has an eschatological focus with reference to both Jesus Christ and God, so love for the Lord is more likely what Paul intends, but it is not impossible that Paul has left it ambiguous to ensure that love in its most expansive, comprehensive sense is understood.37
The verb here is not difficult to understand. περισσεύω means “to be in abundance, to abound.” Paul wants the Philippians’ love to be abundant but not in an absolute sense. He uses a prepositional phrase to carefully qualify in what sphere he wants it to abound: “in knowledge and every kind of insight.” The word ἐπιγνώσις (here translated “knowledge”) does not occur elsewhere in Philippians, but Paul uses it fourteen times in his other writings. In the Pastoral epistles it is used exclusively with ἀληθεία: “knowledge of the truth.” Elsewhere, when the object of the knowledge is positive, it is either God or Jesus Christ.38 Here in Philippians 1:9 the understood object is God; thus Paul wants the Philippians’ love of God to abound in true knowledge about him. The word αἴσθησις (here translated “insight”) occurs nowhere else in the NT, but it occurs 27 times in the LXX, most frequently in Proverbs (22 times), where it routinely translates the Hebrew word דַּעַת, which itself means “discernment, understanding.” The Greek word can simply mean “perception, sensation,” but paired with ἐπιγνώσις which means “knowledge” in a positive sense and not a neutral “awareness” or the like, αἴσθησις naturally takes on the meaning of “insight” or “understanding,” specifically as it relates to moral discernment.39 In addition to praying that their love abound in the knowledge of God, Paul wants the Philippians’ love to abound in proper insight about moral matters, which would essentially concern the multitude of decisions with spiritual import they must make each day.
Before proceeding to the other elements of the prayer, it is worthwhile to take stock simply of what Paul has asked for the Lord to work in the Philippians. Here he mentions nothing concerned with outward actions or obedience. He is solely concerned with their inner person – more exactly, that a particular spiritual response of their inner person to the God who saved them would increase in very specific ways. He wants the love which they have for God to increase in knowledge about him and proper understanding of him. This is a matter of the heart, which is akin to spiritual formation properly expressed.
The next phrase of the prayer expresses what I have called the intermediate purpose. Here Paul expresses the purpose for the prayer proper, but it is not the ultimate purpose, simply because there is another, further purpose expressed for this action. Grammatically this phrase is fairly straightforward: It contains an infinitive in a structure which regularly indicates purpose.40 The verb δοκιμάζω (here translated “decide”) can mean either “to make a careful examination” of something, or “to draw a conclusion based upon a careful examination,” that is, to approve or accept. The object of this verb is an unusual expression; it is the verb διαφέρω used as a substantival participle. Literally διαφέρω means “to carry something through somewhere”; figuratively it can mean “to differ in a positive way, to be superior to,” and that is the most natural meaning here. As a substantive it means “the superior things, the best things.” Paul asks that the Philippians’ love abound in knowledge about God and discerning insight so that they would be able to accept those things in the world which are best, in keeping with God himself.41
The ultimate purpose is expressed in the final clause of v. 10: “and thus be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ.” This is a ἵνα clause which also indicates purpose for the preceding clause. The Philippians should choose what is best so that they will have a particular character. Paul uses two words to describe their character: εἰλικρινής and ἀπρόσκοπος. The former means “sincere, without hidden motives,” with a strong emphasis upon the moral sphere, and the latter means “blameless, without offense.”42 These are qualities which apply naturally to the inner person. The purpose of choosing what is the best in spiritual matters is the development of proper character, in keeping with the character of God himself.
The final verse of the prayer focuses the attention of the Philippians on what advances they can make in moral and spiritual growth during their earthly lives. The final phrase begins with πεπληρωμένοι, a perfect participle which describes the Philippians from the standpoint of their future status on the day of Christ. The perfect tense routinely refers to a completed action with ongoing results; in this instance, from the standpoint of the day of Christ, they will have already been filled with this fruit, that is, their filling will take place before the day of Christ during their lives on earth. Thus this perfect participle deals with what will happen in their lives currently as they look forward to that blessed day. The phrase “fruit of righteousness” indicates with what they will be filled. “Fruit” here refers to the product or results of righteousness; “righteousness” is a somewhat ambiguous term, in that it could refer to righteous standing with an emphasis upon the judicial sense or to righteous character with an emphasis on the moral sense. Because the prior verse mentions choices and appears to have a strong focus on character, that is more likely the sense here. Their righteous character will produce fruit, and Paul prays that they will be filled with this blessed product. The final phrases of this description identify who produces this fruit – Jesus Christ – and who ultimately receives the credit for it – the Lord God.
In short, Paul in this prayer expresses a desire for spiritual formation on the part of the Philippians. He prays that specific aspects of their inner person would be transformed: that their love would increase in an accurate knowledge of God and insight into spiritual matters, that they would then be able to make correct choices about what is best in spiritual matters, and that their character would ultimately be marked by purity and blamelessness; that during this process, their righteousness would bear fruit through the work of Jesus in their lives, and when all is said and done that God would get all the credit for what has happened. Properly expressed, spiritual formation bears these same marks.
In Philippians 3:1-15, a highly introspective section of the letter to the Philippians, Paul reveals his own thinking on what truly matters in life. Because of the conflicts he was experiencing with those who insisted that Gentiles had to obey the Law in order to properly relate to God, essentially becoming Jewish, Paul thought it necessary here in the letter to state clearly what he thought about human credentials. In contrast to reliance upon these transitory, worthless things, Paul in vv. 8-15 emphasizes what truly matters in life to those who trust in Christ. This insight into Paul’s spiritual values provides a biblical basis for a major goal of spiritual formation: understanding more clearly what believers should value and how to make the transition from exalting the unimportant to exalting the truly important.
To set the stage, it is important to understand in a broad way what Paul argues against in vv. 1-7. In summary, Paul here brings to the fore arguments his opponents make about the importance of being Jewish. Essentially, he trumps them by stating his own credentials as a Jew, which serve to show that if anyone wanted to rely upon human credentials, even in that realm Paul has them beat. But more importantly Paul makes the point that human credentials actually do not matter at all. This is made clear in v. 7: “But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ.” Paul clearly contrasts two ways of thinking about human credentials: On the one hand, they can be regarded as “assets.” The Greek word κέρδος means something that is of positive value for the one who possesses it; in certain contexts it can even mean “profit.” Paul uses the word in Philippians 1:21 to speak of the value of dying in his view: It is not a loss but actually a gain because it would usher him into the presence of the Lord. Paul is arguing that in one sphere, from the viewpoint of the world and even more specifically from the viewpoint of the Judaism of his day, these human credentials he mentioned were positive things which brought him gain. But Paul’s viewpoint has changed; in the latter half of the verse he claims now that these things are no longer assets but instead are “liabilities.” The Greek word ζημία means “forfeit, loss.” It is opposite in meaning to the other term: These credentials which most regard as having positive value Paul now considers to have negative value. They bring him down, not up. The reason for this change of mind is clearly stated in three simple words: “because of Christ.” Paul’s revelation of Christ and his relationship to him have changed everything. Christ has caused his worldview to be inverted. This is what he then explains in vv. 8-15.
In v. 8 Paul enlarges his statement of the negative value of human credentials to encompass all things except one: knowing Christ.43 This is clearly stated with his first affirmation in this verse: “I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ.” Important for our purposes is the way he describes this transition. He simply states, “I now regard all things as liabilities.” The action taking place here is one of his own internal viewpoint. Paul has had a paradigm shift, if you will, in which his relationship to Christ has changed the way he views the world. The most important thing to Paul now is knowing Christ, and everything else pales in comparison. Towards the end of the verse he makes his feelings very clear by referring to all worldly things as refuse or “dung.” The word σκύβαλον is rhetorically powerful, with connotations of worthlessness and repulsion; in certain contexts it is even used of human excrement. This is a poignant image: All the things which humans value and for which they strive – social status, worldly standing, impeccable credentials – on their own have as much value in reality as waste which gets washed out into the sewer when compared to knowing Christ. Paul continues the argument in v. 9 by focusing on what gives his life value now. This verse juxtaposes two different types of righteousness: one which comes from human effort, and another which comes from Christ. This contrast is the primary way in which Paul understands the new world which Christ opened. It no longer relies upon obedience to the law for a right standing before God. Instead, it relies solely upon the work of Christ on behalf of the individual. This is what Paul now possesses, and that makes all other pursuits and all other “righteousnesses” worthless.
In v. 10 Paul explains several of the ultimate purposes for his internal change of attitude which trace their grammatical and logical beginning back to his core statement in v. 8. This core statement is modified by a long string of subordinate clauses which further clarify various aspects of this thought. Following the core statement in v. 8 Paul makes a clarifying statement about Jesus Christ: “for whom I have suffered the loss of all things.” This statement is then clarified further by a statement of purpose. Why has Paul suffered the loss of all things for Christ? So that “I may gain Christ and be found in him” with the right kind of righteousness. Why does Paul want to have the right kind of righteousness? So that he might “know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.”44 Paul wants to leave the trappings of the world behind and to know Christ and everything about him above all else.
Verse 12 includes a quick qualification of Paul’s spiritual journey. As a defense against those who might argue that Paul is claiming perfection already in this world, he makes a disclaimer. This is very important for our purposes of spiritual formation. Here Paul states very clearly that his maturity – his knowing Christ and identifying completely with him – is a current, ongoing process: “I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me.” The verb διώκω which Paul uses to describe his action implies an intentional pursuit of the goal. It is not a haphazard implementation of some lazily construed life principles. It is a conscious pursuit with a well-defined goal. The essence of the goal is important as well. It is not self-defined based upon what Paul wants. It is defined by the mind of Christ; it is the purpose and goal Christ had in mind when he laid hold of Paul.
Verses 13 and 14 are a further clarification of this basic point. Paul recognizes that he has not attained this goal. Instead, he focuses upon this goal to the exclusion of all else. The wording here is extremely powerful. Paul divides his life experience into two parts. The first involves those things which are in the past, those things which are no longer useful for his present goal. “Forgetting the things that are behind” involves a mental change of state and is part and parcel of his overall approach to what was formerly important to him. He forgets his human credentials which he used to value. He forgets his failures, the prior actions which were done against Christ and his church. He forgets the self-centered life which he once led. Instead, these things which are behind have been replaced by an entirely new set of circumstances centered around the righteousness he now has in Christ: “reaching out for the things that are ahead.” Paul now strains forward to new things: to the new life he has in Christ, to the knowledge of him and the identification with him. These two actions, forgetting and reaching out, are the means by which he will accomplish his primary intent: “I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” In Christ God laid claim to Paul’s life, and Paul subsumes everything – his own ambitions, his own credentials, his own personality as it were – to this claim. He no longer thinks about things in the same way, and this modifies everything about what Paul does and what he hopes to attain in this life.
The two passages examined from the book of Philippians give us valuable insight into spiritual formation from a Pauline perspective. Paul in the same letter speaks directly to the need for transformation in the lives of the Philippians and the transformation he himself undergoes as he pursues knowing Christ in this life. Key things become clear upon examining these passages. Paul describes first and foremost an internal change. When addressing the Philippians he prays primarily for their love, the internal attitude of heart they have towards the Lord. When speaking of himself he describes his own paradigm shift from what the world values to what God values and seeks to attain through Christ. When addressing the Philippians the emphasis is on the work of God in their inner person; this is balanced when Paul speaks of himself, as he emphasizes his own pursuit of the right goal. Thus we can say that spiritual formation involves the work of God on the inner person through cooperation with the intentional effort of the individual before the Lord.
In the second of his two epistles, Peter encourages believers within his circle of influence to remain faithful and to continue on their path to godliness despite the negative influence false teachers will soon have in their midst. The opening prayer of the letter is poignant because it affirms powerful truths which accomplish Peter’s purpose for the letter: Believers are not left hanging, out on their own, concerning their spiritual growth. God has given them everything needed for continued growth to maturity; thus believers can make positive steps forward in their faith by participating with God in their spiritual formation.
The second verse of the introduction is the prayer Peter makes for the recipients: “May grace and peace be lavished on you as you grow in the rich knowledge45 of God and of Jesus our Lord!” Right on the heels of this verse Peter writes the material apropos for the current discussion. The first verse after the introduction provides the basis46 for the prayer: “his divine power has bestowed upon us everything necessary for life and godliness.” The word ζωή (here translated “life”) can refer to biological life or transcendent, spiritual life; the latter is clearly in view here; Peter means the life lived under the blessing of God.47 The word εὐσέβεια (here translated “godliness”) refers to the proper character of life of the one who is correctly devoted to God; it concerns the attitude and character of the heart. Thus Peter delineates clearly the goal of the Christian life. It is not to be lived for self or pleasure; it is to be lived for the ultimate gain of godliness manifested fully in the believer’s life. The next statement shows the means by which this transformation to “life and godliness” will occur: “through the rich knowledge of the one who called us by his own glory and excellence.” This verse echoes a theme already discussed in Philippians 1:9, namely, the knowledge of God as a means for spiritual formation.48 Through knowledge of God the believer will grow into godliness.
Peter continues this idea in v. 4 by focusing very carefully on the promises of God made in Christ and their ultimate effect. The exact content of the promises is not explained, but Peter likely means to refer to the believer’s hope for salvation and redemption. These promises come through the things he has already mentioned in v. 3, the things which God has graciously bestowed on believers to bring them to life and godliness. The effect of the promises is startling in its affirmation but at the same time clear and understandable. The promises work in the believer not simply to grant hope but to be a means of sanctification where believers “become partakers of the divine nature.” By this Peter means that a believer has a true, real, “organic” connection to God in which he becomes more and more like him and more and more associated with him.49 This is as clear a statement of spiritual formation in the NT that one can find in terms of its ultimate goal. Following this is a statement which could be understood as a negative corollary to the positive growth just expressed: “after escaping the worldly corruption that is produced by evil desire.”50 The sinful desire in the world brings corruption; if the believer is not diligent to grow in the proper way, he will in effect move backwards and be subject to this detrimental effect.
After this statement of a believer’s ultimate goal and God’s provision for that, Peter speaks directly about the responsibility of the individual believer in the process. Here he describes in a very powerful way different virtues which should mark the Christian life and the need for each believer to consciously develop these virtues. The command to add these virtues is heightened Peter’s indications of the means to achieve it: “by making every effort, add to your faith excellence...”51 This leading phrase speaks both to the means of implementation and the attitude which should enable the action of the main command. The command proper is simple and straightforward: “add to your faith excellence,” and then the additional virtues are “added” in turn. Although they are presented in a stair-step fashion in which one is added to the other, there is warrant for understanding each virtue to be as important as the others with the last as a summary of all the virtues as a whole.52 The virtues listed are faith, excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly affection, and unselfish love. As such these qualities by their very nature concern the inner person. The important place of these virtues is shown in the culminating verse of the section: Peter makes the argument that if the virtues increase and grow in the believer’s life then they will serve to ensure a productive pursuit of knowledge of the Lord, which is itself the origin of transforming power in the believer (see. v. 3).
Many aspects of what Peter discusses in these verses involve spiritual formation as it is defined synthetically above. First to note is the standard which is set forth for the believer to attain. Peter mentions “life and godliness” in v. 3, and these are qualities which can only be properly understood and practiced when related to God himself. Second is the intentionality which marks the entirety of the process. It is clear that God is behind the entire process and is the one who grants efficacy at any point. That being said, however, there is a clear requirement upon believers to participate in the process. The believer must give attention to the development of particular virtues, that is, character qualities of the inner person. The entire discussion speaks of intentional transformation in the inner person enabled by God.
Spiritual formation is a topic important to many different groups of believers. It is rapidly becoming a well-known part of Christian life in many circles. Churches and seminaries, small groups and individuals, and many other groups have made spiritual formation a fundamental part of their ministry, and for the foreseeable future it will be a vital topic of discussion for many believers. For this reason, it is crucial that spiritual formation rest on a clear understanding of scripture. This essay, through discussing four key NT texts, has supplemented this aspect of the spiritual formation discussion. It is a clear mandate in the four passages examined and in many other passages that believers be transformed internally to be like Christ in their character. This is in keeping with spiritual formation as it is often defined. In response, I would like to offer two reflections on what constitutes proper spiritual formation.
First, as I mentioned in the introduction, an important distinction to keep in mind when discussing this topic is the difference between the goals and the means of spiritual formation. The goals are what one hopes to accomplish; the means are the way by which one gets there. The four passages I have discussed above are very clear in the goal of spiritual growth. The antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount present the ethics of the kingdom, which can only be attained through internal change in the inner person. In Philippians 1:9-11 Paul prays that the believers would be changed in their inner person so that they would ultimately bring praise to God. In Philippians 3:8-12 Paul describes his own paradigm shift in which he no longer pursues things of this world but singlemindedly pursues knowing Christ. In 2 Peter 1:3-8 Peter shows that transformation of the inner person to the character of God is secured by God’s provision and enacted by intentional application of the individual believer. These passages are very clear on the goals of spiritual formation but noticeably silent on the means by which those goals will be achieved. As a matter of evaluation, most approaches to spiritual formation which I have seen so far are correct in their goals. They all present biblical goals for the individual believer that ultimately involve becoming more like Christ. What marks them as distinctive is the implementation of means: The ways in which spiritual formation is accomplished usually differs to some extent. What I wish to offer is a working hypothesis which defines appropriate spiritual formation in three ways: As long as (1) the goal is biblical, (2) clearly biblical means are emphasized, and (3) other means are not unbiblical, then the particular expression of spiritual formation has merit.
Let me explain this more carefully. (1) The most important element of spiritual formation is its goal. Without a proper focus upon the sanctification of the individual with the character of Christ as the ultimate goal, spiritual formation cannot claim any value for the believer. (2) Any expression of spiritual formation must emphasize clearly biblical means for growth, such as prayer, Bible knowledge, and fellowship with other believers. These have been hallmarks of the Christian life for centuries, and they should never be brushed aside or de-emphasized. (3) If other means encouraged within a particular expression of spiritual formation are not unbiblical, they can have merit as potential paths toward growth. Let me clarify this third point with some examples. A large emphasis within the Christian tradition of my youth was a daily “quiet time.” Believers were encouraged to spend daily, private time in prayer and Bible reading. On the one hand, there is no specific biblical mandate that believers have a daily quiet time, so there is no obligation upon the believer to do this. On the other hand, this practice is not unbiblical, as it emphasizes Bible study and prayer. This then could be a valuable means for spiritual growth in some believers. In a somewhat different vein, many contemporary approaches to spiritual formation emphasize stepping out of one’s comfort zone in order to experience growth in a new way. It may be that a believer’s prayer life is rich, but they have never been exposed to written prayers of saints from history past. Studying and praying these prayers could be a profitable way to commune with the Lord and seek his face.53 It may be that a believer never records their thoughts, prayers, and experiences in written form. Keeping a journal could be a beneficial spiritual exercise, even though that is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible as a means for spiritual growth. Meditating on written prayers and journaling are not unbiblical, so they could be valuable means of spiritual formation for certain believers.
Second, spiritual formation should be multifaceted. This is especially true when considering matters related to the spiritual life. I have focused primarily on the inner person in this discussion for the main reason that this is the primary focus of most current treatments of spiritual formation. But the biblical text is clear that development of inner character is not attained simply through addressing what one might call matters of the heart. Let me restate what Paul wrote in Philippians 1:9: “that your love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight.” I understand this to mean that our love for God should grow in correct knowledge of him and insight into spiritual matters which ultimately reflect upon him. This means that knowledge of God himself must be part of our spiritual formation. It is not sufficient only to address inner growth and character transformation. Side by side with this must be growth in knowledge and understanding of God. This historically is addressed in the Church through a variety of means, for example, knowledge of the Bible, knowledge of theology, and knowledge of Church history. Emphasis only on the spiritual life could devolve into glorified navel gazing in which the individual becomes the center of attention when that place should only be held by our Lord. Spiritual formation must address the whole person, including the heart and the mind, as the scripture indicates that knowledge of God can lead to proper development of the inner person.
1 This is explicitly acknowledged by Kenneth Boa, Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 20, when he writes concerning the believer’s journey to spirituality, “others have preceded us in this journey, and some have left maps along the way to guide us through the territory ahead; and God has equipped us with the spiritual resources he knows we will need throughout the journey.”
2 This is certainly not the case with many texts which focus on the concept of discipleship, which when properly expressed is very similar to the concept of spiritual formation; see Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master: A Biblical Theology of Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992), for one notable example. It stands to reason that this is the case because discipleship is a theme with many biblical connections. There are important lexical connections, the noun μαθητής (which occurs 261 times in the NT) being the most obvious one, the verb μαθητεύω (only four times in the NT) less so. There are important narrative connections, as the calling and training of the twelve disciples is a central theme to the Gospels. There are also important theological connections, as each Gospel seeks to make and influence disciples in its distinct way. The challenge at this juncture is to develop the same exegetical foundation for spiritual formation; most likely it will have to be done on theological/conceptual grounds as opposed to lexical or narrative.
3 Two things are worth noting at this point. (1) Many readers might notice, then, that this article is something akin to a conclusion in search of evidence. Although this is not the best way to develop Christian belief or practice – one would hope that the Bible is the starting point and our faith and practice the natural result of proper interpretation and application – it often times is the default way we learn and grow since we most always approach the scripture with our beliefs and practices already in place. The key is to be willing always to evaluate belief and practice in light of scripture, even if that means changing. When scripture seems to point in a different direction, we must be willing to follow. (2) I am subject to the criticism that my method is entirely biblicist (negatively construed) and modern in that I slight both the history of the church (in that I prefer my interpretation of the text over others’ interpretations) and the positive changes which postmodernism has introduced (in that I am emphasizing my supposed objective interpretation of the biblical text). These criticisms may be true, but my response is that there is no other place to go but an interpretation of the biblical text to build Christian faith and practice. My method may be biblicist and modern, but I have not yet been convinced that a sustained discussion of the meaning of the biblical text should be replaced with anything else as the starting point for Christian belief and practice.
4 For example, since 1986 Dallas Theological Seminary has required the course “Spiritual Life” for those who are in the Master of Theology program. Spiritual formation seems to be a more recent category.
5 Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 77.
6 Dallas Willard, “Spiritual Formation: What It is, and How It is Done,” http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=58, accessed July 2006.
7 http://www.kenboa.org/reflections/associates/ken_boa, accessed 26 July 2006. Many of his writings are featured on the bible.org web site.
8 Boa, Conformed to His Image, 515.
9 Boa, Conformed to His Image, 19–20.
10 Center for Christian Leadership at Dallas Theological Seminary, Identity: Investigating Who I Am, Transforming Life Series (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2004), 11. The term “spiritual formation” is not applied directly to this definition; the text identifies this wording as the working definition of “the Christian’s transformation.” For all intents and purposes, however, this is the subject in play.
11 Keith Beasley-Topliffe, ed., The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2003), 7.
12 Beasley-Topliffe, Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation, 107–8. This quotation is taken from the entry “Formation, Spiritual”; this entry was written by the editor (other contributors are listed on pp. 9-11). “Consonance” is a term taken by the author from the work of Adrian van Kaam; it is defined as “the reforming and graced transforming of our lives to be more in tune with the will of God” (p. 108).
13 See, for example, Darrell L. Bock, Jesus According to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait From the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 131; cf. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., Matthew, 3 vols., International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988–97), 1:509, who state the function of the antitheses are “two-fold: to show, through six concrete examples, (i) what sort of attitude and behaviour Jesus requires and (ii) how his demands surpass those of the Torah without contradicting the Torah.”
14 It is a fair statement that the original approach of the Law was very similar: There is an internal emphasis to the requirements upon Israel which cannot be overlooked; see, e.g., 1 Samuel 15:22, Psalm 51:16–17. Thus in some respects “antitheses” is a bit of a misnomer.
15 The order of the sixth, seventh, and eighth commandments differs between the MT and the LXX. In Exodus 20:13–15 the MT has the order “do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal”; the LXX has “do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not murder.” In Deuteronomy 5:17–18 the MT has the order “do not murder; do not commit adultery”; the LXX has “do not commit adultery; do not murder” (both agree in Deuteronomy in putting the prohibition against stealing as the eighth commandment). By claiming that Jesus is citing from Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17 here, I do not ignore the possibility that Jesus could have used the LXX. It is less likely, though, than the possibility that he would have been more familiar with the Hebrew text.
16 The exact wording of this statement is not found in the OT; see Genesis 9:6; Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17; Numbers 35:16–17 as passages which were likely in view in this summary statement. Thus the term κρίσις is a euphemism, replacing the very specific type of judgment allowed by law, i.e., the death penalty, with a more general term. It is not certain if κρίσις here refers to a legal judgment in general or more specifically to a legal council. Arguing from the general summation in v. 21, the case can be made that the referent here is a legal judgment; arguing from the term συνέδριον in the statement which follows, the case can be made that the referent is a legal council or body.
17 The verb φονεύω routinely refers to the violent, unauthorized taking of life in both biblical and extrabiblical Greek. See, e.g., 1 Kings 20:19.
18 The verb ὀργίζω is always passive in the NT and means “to be angry.” It does not automatically have a negative connotation. It is used in Ephesians 4:26 likely to indicate righteous anger at sin in the Christian community and in itself does not necessarily involve sin; see Daniel B. Wallace, “Ὀργίζεσθε in Ephesians 4:26: Command or Condition?” Criswell Theological Review 3 (1989): 353–72. It is used in Revelation 11:18 to refer to God’s anger at the world which is manifested in judgment. The cognate noun ὀργή is used both for futile human anger and God’s divine anger, e.g., James 1:20 and Rev 1:18 respectively. The verbal form here is ὁ ὀργιζόμενος, a present participle; there may be some weight to the present tense here, as its aspect is continuous, but this should not be pressed too much, as the verb itself is stative, implying duration to the action. It is conceivable that the aorist form is often ingressive, focusing upon entrance into a state (“become angry”), while the present simply emphasizes the state (“be angry”).
19 This is a literal translation of the Greek text (ὃς δ’ ἂν εἴπῃ τῷ ἀδελφῷ αὐτοῦ· ῥακά). The NET Bible translates this as “whoever insults a brother,” which is a dynamic translation that brings out the force of the word “raka.”
20 So BDAG s.v. ῥακά; see J. Jeremias, TDNT 6:974, who summarizes the meaning based on Rabbinic usage: “It expresses vexed disparagement which may be accompanied by displeasure, anger, or contempt, and which is usually addressed to a foolish, thoughtless, or presumptuous person. The insult was regarded as harmless: ‘blockhead,’ ‘donkey.’”
21 The NET Bible translates this phrase as “will be brought before the council.” The word συνέδριον does not necessarily refer to the Sanhedrin, the highest court of Israel which had ultimate authority in all matters which pertained to the Jewish people. It could refer generically to a local council, within a city or village, comprised of leaders who made decisions on various matters pertaining to Jewish life on a smaller scale. If the death penalty is in view, which seems logical given the progression of the argument, the Sanhedrin would be the more likely referent. A broader issue concerns again whether this term refers to the council itself or the legal judgment which it can proclaim as with the term κρίσις above. There is no easy way to decide between the two interpretations.
22 The NET Bible translates this phrase as “whoever says ‘Fool.’” The third statement does not contain any explicit indication as to who receives this insult, but the fact that the Greek word μωρέ is vocative in form makes it clear that it is an insult directed at someone, not simply an insult let loose to the air. Context would seem to indicate that a brother is again in view, as opposed to an enemy or opponent.
23 The NET Bible translates this as “will be sent to fiery hell.” The Greek term γέεννα by the time of the NT had come to mean what might popularly be termed “hell,” a place of fiery torment and judgment for the wicked. Its original referent was the Valley of Hinnom, the boundary between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin (see Joshua 15:8 and 18:16), where during the monarchy Israel at times practiced child sacrifice in worship of the pagan gods Molech and Baal. Through this association, during the intertestamental period Jewish apocalyptic works associated this location with fiery eschatological judgment. By the time of the NT, the geographic connection was almost entirely lost, and γέεννα took on a life of its own with an entirely other-worldly referent.
24 See footnote 15 on the order of the commandments in the LXX and MT.
25 The phrase πρὸς τὸ ἐπιθυμῆσαι αὐτήν is most naturally interpreted as purpose in keeping with the common meaning of πρός plus the articular infinitive. Result is also possible for this construction (so Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 611, although this is not indicated in the prior section on the infinitive of result on pp. 592–94; BDF §402), but the more logical nuance here is purpose. Nigel Turner, Syntax, vol. 3 of A Grammar of New Testament Greek, ed. James Hope Moulton (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1963), 144, argues that the force here is “simple accompaniment,” not purpose in full.
26 This can be something positive, as in 1 Timothy 3:1, where the verb is used to commend those who desire the office of overseer.
27 It is important to note two assumptions of the text in order to avoid misapplication of the principle. (1) Because of the clear focus on adultery in this passage, sexual desire for one’s own spouse is not in view. The sexual relationship within marriage is consistently praised throughout scripture, and sexual desire for one’s spouse properly expressed honors the Lord. That is not what Jesus is condemning. (2) In Jesus’ day it was very common for women to be married, and it was rare for unmarried women to participate in public life (it was rare for women to participate in public life in general, but it would be even rarer for a unmarried woman to do so). If a man saw a woman out in public, chances are she was married. Thus the charge of adultery, i.e., sexual intercourse with a married person, is very specific and exact here. This should not be taken to mean, however, that lust toward a single person is considered acceptable, nor that women may look at men lustfully without condemnation. Jesus’ statement is limited by the culture in which he lived, but the principle it embodies remains regardless of the situation: Marriage is the proper place for sexual activity, and sexual desires or intentions of the heart which ignore that boundary are as culpable as inappropriate sexual contact.
28 The text of Deuteronomy 24:1 is actually quite complex, with a number of conditions given for the acceptability of divorce. The following is a fairly literal translation: “If a man takes a woman and marries her, and it happens that if she does not find grace in his eyes because he finds in her the nakedness of a thing, let him draw up a divorce document and put it in her hand and dismiss her from his house.” The hardest element to interpret in the verse is the Hebrew phrase עֶרְוַת דָּבָר, translated literally above as “nakedness of a thing.” It normally refers to improper or indecent exposure of the genitals, but here the phrase is metaphorical for improper sexual activity. In Jewish literature rabbis debated as to what type of offense this referred, with some opting for a very strict interpretation dealing with sexual promiscuity while others decided upon a very broad interpretation, namely, anything that displeased the husband.
29 The debate about what πορνεία means in this context and how it relates to the term עֶרְוַת used in Deuteronomy 24:1 is long and extensive. It has been variously defined as adultery, prohibited types of marriage, unlawful sexual conduct, and any sexual conduct outside of marriage.
30 See Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deuteronomy 23:21–23. An important aspect of these oaths is that they were sworn in the name of the Lord or to the Lord. Thus the Lord was directly called upon to punish the individual if they did not follow through with their oath.
31 In a somewhat similar manner today, a church might agree to a short period of prayer and fasting in order to seek the Lord’s will in a particular matter.
32 For more information on this topic, see D. E. Garland, “Oaths and Swearing,” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity, 1992), 577–78.
33 This was such a normal feature of Jewish life that the members of the Qumran community, which produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, incorporated it into their standard teaching; see 1QS 1:4, 10–11; 9:21–26.
34 The Greek text is ὅπως γένησθε υἱοὶ τοῦ πατρὸς ὑμῶν τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς, which can be translated literally “so that you might become sons of your Father in heaven.” The phrase “sons of your Father” both implies a close relationship and an identity of character. This is a common Hebrew idiom, which uses the phrase “son of [someone or something]” to imply a very close connection and identity in quality.
35 The word τέλειος here means “meeting the highest standard” (so BDAG s.v. τέλειος) and thus can justly be translated as “perfect.” What is important to note is the standard which is given here: Perfection is measured on the standard of God’s character; the particle ὡς indicates here the standard for measurement. The only other place this adjective is used in Matthew is in 19:21. There Jesus tells the rich young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” In this instance, the standard of “perfection” is clearly an internal one, as the man tells Jesus that he has obeyed all the commandments, thus meeting the external requirements of the Law. Jesus responds with this statement, placing the young man’s focus upon his inner person, specifically his desire for wealth, from which he was not willing to part. So within Matthew, the term τέλειος refers to a standard applicable to the inner person, measured against the character of God.
36 Interestingly enough the verb ἀγαπάω does not occur at all in the book.
37 Peter T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 74; Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians, revised and expanded by Ralph P. Martin, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Nelson, 2004), 30.
38 Colossians 1:9 has a phrase that is remarkably similar to Philippians 1:9 conceptually: ἵνα πληρωθῆτε τὴν ἐπίγνωσιν τοῦ θελήματος αὐτοῦ ἐν πάσῃ σοφίᾳ καὶ συνέσει πνευματικῇ, “that you might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.” It is possible that “his will” is largely a circumlocution for God himself. This is affirmed by the repetition of the word in the following verse with God as the expressed object.
39 So BDAG s.v. αἴσθησις 2.
40 This is εἰς τό plus the infinitive.
41 As O’Brien, Philippians, 78, states, this is echoed very strongly in the command of Philippians 4:8.
42 This adjective is related to the verb προσκόπτω, which can have either an intransitive meaning of “to stumble” or a transitive meaning of “to make another stumble, to give offense.” As such, the adjective ἀπρόσκοπος can mean either here as well: either “blameless” in that the individual himself has not stumbled (favored by O’Brien, Philippians, 78–79), or “without offense” in that the individual has not caused another to stumble (favored by Hawthorne, Philippians, 33). Either sense is possible in the present context. The only other place Paul uses the word is in 1 Corinthians 10:32; there the sense is clearly the latter. For that reason, that is the preferred nuance here.
43 The string of particles which begins v. 8 (ἀλλὰ μενοῦνγε καί) serves both to emphasize the prior argument and to advance it further.
44 The contingency in this statement is not on the actuality of this future event but in its outworking, the way in which it will come about.
45 Peter uses the same word here – ἐπίγνωσις – which Paul uses in Philippians 1:9. Peter uses this word a total of four times (here in 1:2, and then again in 1:3, 8; 2:20).
46 The particle ὡς here with the following genitive absolute construction indicates the basis or cause for the prior statement (see BDAG s.v. ὡς 3.a.β).
47 This is the only place ζωή occurs in 2 Peter. It also occurs in 1 Peter 3:7, 10, where it is used in a similar sense. In the present passage, its meaning is certainly clarified by the occurrence of εὐσέβεια.
48 In Philippians 1:9, the word ἐπίγνωσις had no explicit object; one had to be assumed from the context. Here the object is quite clear: τοῦ καλέσαντος ἡμᾶς is a substantival participle in the genitive case which shows the object of the knowledge.
49 Peter drew this concept from broader Hellenistic thought but imbued it with a Christian meaning. For a recent study on this phrase, see James M. Starr, Sharers in Divine Nature: 2 Peter 1:4 in Its Hellenistic Context, Coniectanea Biblica: New Testament Series, vol. 33 (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2000).
50 The Greek phrasing here is a bit awkward, but certainly understandable: τῆς ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἐν ἐπιθυμία φθορᾶς. It is essentially a noun with two adjectival modifiers in the first attributive position. The oddity is that the two modifiers are both prepositional phrases. A literal translation could be “the corruption in the world by lust.” Similar constructions occur in Romans 2:28 and 2 Corinthians 8:17.
51 The participle παρεισενέγκαντες is best taken as a participle of means related to the main verb ἐπιχορηγήσατε. The NET Bible translates this section as “make every effort to add to your faith excellence”; the translator’s note indicates that this is done because of English idiom.
52 So Richard Bauckham, Jude, 2 Peter, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 50 (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1983), 187.
53 I have benefited from this personally by reading and meditating on prayers in Arthur Bennett, ed., The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1975).
Somewhat of a modern lexical invention, the term “spiritual formation” refers to a concept that is almost ubiquitous in Scripture. Because the term has only recently become widely used, an important task for scholarship at the present time is to define the topic properly and explain clearly how it should be expressed in a believer’s life. A logical, necessary question which should be asked to begin is, “Where exactly is spiritual formation taught in Scripture?” Answering this question can be difficult. The words “spiritual formation” do not occur in any English Bibles to which I currently have access, but this does not mean that the concept as a whole is invalid. A concept can be taught by a biblical text even if specific terms are absent since many different terms can be used to teach a concept.1 Such is the case with spiritual formation.
In my prior essay on this topic, “Orientation to Spiritual Formation with Special Reference to the New Testament,”2 I offered the following as a working definition of spiritual formation:
The short-hand definition I would offer could perhaps be worded as “the intentional transformation of the inner person to the character of Christ.” It is intentional in two ways: It is part of God’s will for the individual believer, and the individual believer makes a conscious choice about it; it is transformation in that it involves definitive, measurable growth in a certain direction; it involves the inner person in that it concerns itself with character, thoughts, intentions, and attitudes more than actions, habits, or behaviors; it has the character of Christ as its goal and standard of measure.
Within the argument of the former essay, this definition was garnered from contemporary works on spiritual formation and then justified by examination of various Scripture passages which deal with the topic in a basic way. In the next phase of my foray into the exegetical basis for spiritual formation I want to advance the argument further by examining passages which touch on the topic quite specifically, both to provide a further basis for the above definition and to augment it properly with appropriate scriptural warrant.
My goal in the present essay is to advance the synthetic definition of spiritual formation which I offered in the prior essay by dealing with Romans 12:1–2, a passage central to the concept:
Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God – which is your reasonable service. Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God – what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.3
This passage stands out because of its reference to the concept of “transformation,”4 which is central to my synthetic definition of spiritual formation and to many other definitions of this concept.5 In this essay my goal is to explain the meaning of the passage in its context and then argue how this passage impacts a definition of spiritual formation.6
Although this comes close to stating the obvious, Romans 12:1–2 begins a major section of the book which runs from the beginning of chapter 12 to 15:13. In this section Paul relates the righteousness of God, his major theme throughout the book, to the conduct of the believer. In prior sections he had dealt with the righteousness of God in salvation (chapters 1–8) and the history of Israel (chapters 9–11). In chapter 12 Paul shifts gears from the grand stages of salvation and history to the smaller stage on which the individual stands.7 These two verses at the beginning of this section become a clarion call which serves as a theme for the rest of this section.8
A few things are worth noting here which help prove this point. First, these verses rely heavily upon potent imagery. Verse 1 is famous for describing the believer as a “living sacrifice,”9 an oxymoron of sorts,10 and how that description should govern the believer’s behavior. Verse 2 presents the believer as the focal point of a struggle between God and this present evil world. By using such imagery at the beginning of this section, Paul creates strong themes which color the rest of the section. Second, because of these images, the verses are somewhat abstract and as such can be understood as quite broad.11 Concerning v. 1, being a “living sacrifice” requires concrete illustration for Paul’s readers to put it into practice; there is nothing that a believer would think of automatically as a fulfillment of this command, so Paul spends a great deal of this larger section clarifying specific actions which embody this broad principle. In a similar vein, in v. 2 Paul states that believers should be transformed so that they can discern God’s will. This command is explained by the phrase “by the renewing of your minds,” but the explanation in itself requires explanation, and Paul spends a good bit of space in the rest of the section doing just that with a variety of concrete topics. Third, there are grammatical indicators which show that Paul intended these verses to be construed as a unit. Verse 1 contains the inferential particle οὖν (here translated “therefore”) to show demarcation from what precedes; verse 1 then is an inference drawn from the prior arguments. Verse 2 begins with καί (“and”),12 which normally shows a connection between various elements; here it is linking the two main sentences in vv. 1–2. In contrast with this connection, v. 3 begins with γάρ (“for”), a particle which routinely notes an explanation, and vv. 3–8 involve a discussion of the proper use of spiritual gifts, a different topic from what is contained in vv. 1–2. So vv. 1–2 constitute a unit within the text, set apart from what precedes and what follows.
Paul begins Romans 12:1 with a strong encouragement – perhaps even an urging or plea – to the Roman believers to follow a particular course of action: “I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies, of God to present your bodies . . . .” The Greek word παρακαλέω can refer to a very emotional appeal; in light of the depths of the righteousness of God which Paul has just plumbed in chapters 1–11, and the emotion he shows as he closes his argument in 11:33–36, it would be entirely appropriate to see strong emotion in view here with Paul’s use of the word.13 This emotion is heightened further by Paul’s reference to “the mercies of God.” The Greek word οἰκτιρμός refers generally to the character quality of genuine concern or compassion for another;14 here Paul uses the term to refer to the specific “mercies” which he has expounded concerning God and the believer up to this point in the letter: the salvation and sanctification of the individual through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This word plus the inferential use of οὖν makes clear that Paul bases his exhortation upon the entirety of what the gracious God has mercifully done for the believer,15 with the implication that the believer will be so moved to respond appropriately. All of Paul’s prior argument leads to the exhortations in these two verses, thus the tone is one of emotion and solemnity.16
The specific action which Paul desires is stated in the middle of the sentence: “to present your bodies as a sacrifice.” The Greek word παρίστημι (here translated “present”) can mean “to cause to be present” or more simply “to be present.” In this verse it has a specific nuance related to animal sacrifice due to the use of θυσία (here translated “sacrifice”) with it: “to present as an offering or sacrifice.”17 Paul used this word earlier in the letter in 6:13, 16, and 19, and Paul’s use here in chapter 12 is similar to his use of the term there. In chapter 6 Paul uses the verb παρίστημι with the sense “to present or make available for someone’s use.”18 There he contrasts the two options believers have in front of them regarding their behavior: They can either present themselves to sin, that is, make themselves available to sin to fulfill its purposes, or they can present themselves to God, that is, make themselves available for his use to fulfill his desires. Paul’s use of παρίστημι in chapter 12 alludes to this earlier use (chapter 6 is the only place παρίστημι occurs prior to chapter 12 in the book) and in a sense intensifies it. Because the believer has a choice between serving sin or serving God, and in light of the wonderful mercies of God displayed in salvation, Paul is now vitally concerned to urge the believer to make the right choice. For this reason the believer’s presentation of the self to God is the central command as Paul begins this ethical section.
This allusion to chapter 6 also aids understanding what Paul means by τὰ σώματα ὐμῶν (“your bodies”) in 12:1–2. In 6:12–13 Paul uses σῶμα (“body”) and μέλος (“member”) to refer to practically the same thing: a believer’s physical body, which he describes in essence as a neutral instrument that can be used either for sin or for righteousness. That same idea is in play in Romans 12:1: The believer has to choose how they will use their body in this world. Paul’s plea is that it be used as a sacrifice to God.19
The word θυσία (“offering, sacrifice”) refers to the item which is offered to the Lord in the sacrificial ritual. It is modified by three concepts which describe it further: “present your bodies as a sacrifice – alive, holy, and pleasing to God.” A quick examination of different translations shows that these modifiers have been handled differently. For example, the ESV and NRSV read “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (the HCSB reads “pleasing” instead of “acceptable”; otherwise it is identical). The NIV is similar, reading “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.” These translations differ from the one offered above in that they place “living” before the noun. It may not be the intention of these translations to do so, but placing “living” before “sacrifice” ends up conveying meaning slightly different from that which the Greek text presents. Various grammatical issues clarify how these terms modify the noun. Despite the fact that different parts of speech are used here,20 each has the same semantic relation to the noun: They are all adjectival in force. They all have the same adjectival force because they all follow the noun and they have the same structural relationship to the noun.21 In short, they all modify the noun in the same way, and putting “living” in front of the noun confuses this.
The word ζῶσαν is a participle from the verb ζάω (“I live”); it functions here as an adjective, describing a quality of the sacrifice. Not too much should be made of the fact that Paul describes the sacrifice as alive since all animal sacrifices were to be brought still living; this was one of the requirements for an acceptable sacrifice. The description of the sacrifice as “living” is simply in keeping with the imagery Paul has chosen to convey his ideas.22 This participle describes the present spiritual state of the believer, who is now “alive to God in Christ Jesus” according to Romans 6:11, 13.23 The one who is alive to God is now able to respond to him with complete dedication. The word ἅγιος (usually translated “holy”) describes two related concepts. In one sense, the word describes being set apart for God’s service specifically within the sacrificial system. But in order to be set apart, the object had to meet a high standard, so ἅγιος can in some contexts mean “pure” or “perfect.”24 It is very possible that both meanings are in view here; because of the sacrificial imagery the sense may be akin to “set apart for use as a sacrifice,” but if Paul’s emphasis is primarily on the believer’s status as a sacrifice to God, then the latter meaning may be most appropriate. The specific words which mean “pleasing to God” are rather rare in the biblical text. The word εὐάρεστος (here translated “pleasing”) occurs nine times in the New Testament; the related verb ( εὐαρεστέω, “I please”) occurs three times (Hebrews 11:5, 6; 13:16), and the related adverb ( εὐαρέστως, “in a pleasing manner”) occurs once (Hebrews 12:28).25 In all instances but one God is the one who is pleased.26 This word group has the basic meaning “to find acceptance” by someone, but within the New Testament it has very positive connotations because God is routinely the object. To be “pleasing” to God means that God has deemed the object under consideration acceptable in his sight or appropriate according to his standards. With these three modifiers, Paul describes on the one hand the qualities a believer’s life has gained before God because of the gracious salvation he grants and on the other hand the ethical imperative to maintain those same qualities.
The final phrase of v. 1 encapsulates a stirring assessment of the command which Paul has issued, describing it as “your reasonable service.” The noun λατρεία (“service,” or perhaps “worship”) refers to worship of God within the context of a ritual or service; it has specific connotations of the rituals and rites of the sacrificial system which was the means for Israel to worship the Lord. This is entirely in keeping with the imagery Paul has invoked throughout this verse, and it highlights the solemnity and importance of what he is asking his readers to do. The adjectival modifier “reasonable” (from the Greek word λογικός) is a very rare word. This verse is the only place Paul uses it, and the only other place it occurs in the New Testament is in 1 Peter 2:2.27 BDAG defines it as “being carefully thought through”; LSJ lists a number of meanings, the most appropriate of which for this context is “possessed of reason, intellectual.” With this term Paul emphasizes the rational conclusion one would draw about what the believer is to do: In light of all God has done, it is eminently reasonable that the believer offer this service to the Lord, namely, that he give himself to God for his use. A response of anything less simply would not make sense.
A very striking element of this verse which captures the essence of Paul’s point is the expansion of worship from a very limited place in the life of Israel to an all-encompassing application in the life of the believer. The Jewish sacrificial system was very limited in scope; only certain Israelites were allowed to serve over sacrifices which had to be made in certain ways with certain items, and even then only in the Temple. Paul has taken the sanctified element of this worship and applied it to every facet of the believer’s life; worship for the believer now “involves all places and all times.”28 In a sense, the entirety of the believer’s life is now sanctified and on par with the holy offerings made in the prior setting of the cultic worship of Israel, and everything the believer does when done unto the Lord is an act of worship.29 “The true worship which God desires embraces the whole of the Christian’s life from day to day.”30
In Romans 12:2 Paul continues the strong exhortation which he began in v. 1.31 He moves from using a periphrastic construction (“I exhort you [to do something]”) to the imperative, a more emotionally direct verb form, to encourage his readers to follow a particular course of action. The two ways of issuing a command are largely equivalent, and the end result is still the same: Paul desires that believers act a certain way in light of what God has done for them.
The two phrases which Paul connects in v. 2 are worth understanding well, primarily because Paul makes an implicit contrast between the two. The first phrase is a prohibition which uses the verb συσχηματίζω: “do not be conformed to this present world.” This verb means “to form according to a pattern, conform.” It implies that there is a standard or pattern in view which is the goal of the formation or change. This verb is rare in the New Testament, but it does have strong theological significance. The only other occurrence of this verb is in 1 Peter 1:14, and its use there is quite similar to its use in Romans 12:2. The former text reads, “Like obedient children, do not comply [ συσχηματιζόμενοι] with the evil urges you used to follow in your ignorance.” The parallels between the texts are strong: Each is a prohibition, each indicates the standard or pattern to be avoided, each has extremely negative connotations, and each has the same theological truth behind it, namely, that believers are fundamentally changed and should no longer follow what previously marked them. The basic point behind this verb is that there is a very real danger that believers will act according to a standard which no longer applies to them. Specifically in Romans 12:2, Paul does not want believers to be conformed to “this present world.” In many places the term αἰών (here translated “world”) is neutral, meaning something akin to “period of time.” In other places it refers to what might be construed as a period of history; this use is often translated as “age” in order to imply some type of succession between the different periods.32 Uniformly within the biblical text, the “age” which is contemporary to the authors and presently active is viewed as evil and passing away, in contrast to the coming “age” in which God will reign and evil will be destroyed.33 Paul’s reference here to “this present world” ( τῷ αἰῶνι τούτῳ) connotes everything bad about this age: its opposition to God, its evil nature, its impending doom. On the whole, then, Paul through his prohibition (“do not be conformed to this present world”) desires to keep believers from being corrupted by the world in which they live. To be corrupted in this way would be the antithesis of his command in v. 1 to present oneself to God as a sacrifice of worship and an absolute travesty in light of the mercies of God bestowed upon the believer through salvation in Jesus Christ.
The second phrase of v. 2 is a command which uses the verb μεταμορφόω: “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” This verb occurs four times in the New Testament text. It is used in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2 to refer to Jesus’ transfiguration. In these passages μεταμορφόω is used to describe a physical transformation;34 Jesus was transformed in appearance before the disciples from his human state to a glorious, supernatural radiance.35 The implication of the transfiguration account is that Jesus was transformed so that the essence of his spiritual being was clearly seen in his physical appearance. As such μεταμορφόω in these Gospel passages has a very positive connotation: It describes transformation from a mundane, earthly appearance to a transcendent, heavenly one. One interesting thing to note is that each author makes the general statement about the transformation first and then follows that with a specific statement about a particular aspect of his appearance. This could be taken to mean that the authors of the Gospel accounts had to clarify what was meant by the verb μεταμορφόω in this context: It is a more general term which requires further explanation, in this case about the change of the physical appearance.
Paul uses the term twice in his writings, once in Romans 12:2 and once in 2 Corinthians 3:18.36 The latter use is clearly defined by the context. There Paul speaks of believers being transformed into the same glory possessed by the Lord: “And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” In the Romans 12 passage, the term is used with no collocations or qualifications which would define it more carefully. The leading statement is a prohibition which in one sense defines the transformation – Paul means for his readers to think of their transformation as opposite in some way to conforming to the world – but this prohibition does not define the transformation completely because it only does so negatively. The use of the noun ἀνακαίνωσις after the verb is a dative of means, explaining how the action of the main verb is to be done, but that does not define the transformation either. The infinitive phrase εἰς τὸ δοκιμάζειν ὑμᾶς τί τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ explains the purpose for the main verb, but again it is not a definition of it as such. Paul’s use of μεταμορφόω in Romans appears to be something which would have been understood implicitly by the readers, informed either by their shared background or by the larger context. The implication is certainly that it is an internal transformation due to the use of the term νοῦς, here translated as “mind.” Paul here is not speaking of anything external but rather an internal change contrary to the results the world would attain in the individual. Exactly what this change is remains to be seen.
When examining any particular word, the immediate context is most determinative of meaning. In Romans 12:2 we can say clearly that the verb implies change of some type, and this change is meant to be construed as internal; it does not involve appearance as it did in Jesus’ transfiguration, but rather it involves the mind as it leads to choices made in accordance with the will of God. The passage makes reasonable sense on this basis alone. One can then turn to the other biblical texts where this term occurs for further illumination. First one should look at other places where the same author uses this word; thus 2 Corinthians 3:8 and its emphasis on transformation into glory is especially apropos. This emphasis on glory is confirmed by the uses in Matthew 17:2 and Mark 9:2, which describe Jesus’ glorious transfiguration. So these parallel passages unite to help inform the use of the verb here in Romans, namely, that the verb μεταμορφόω implies transformation of believers into a glorious existence in some way similar to the glory of the Lord.
Following on the heels of this command to “be transformed,” Paul explains the means by which this will occur: “by the renewing of your mind.” The noun ἀνακαίνωσις has two cognate verbs, ἀνακαινόω and ἀνακαινίζω. None of these words are common in the New Testament,37 but they have a fairly unified meaning: “renew” as a verb and “renewal” as a noun.38 The term νοῦς (here translated “mind”) is almost exclusively a Pauline word in the New Testament;39 he uses it to describe the mental faculties specifically, but he also uses it more generally to refer to the entire state of mental and moral being.40 The latter seems to be more the case here. Exactly what he means by this idea, “the renewing of your mind,” especially as it relates to a believer’s broader state of existence, is not entirely clear.41 With “mind” here as a broad term, referring to the entire inner person as opposed to the physical person, a logical conclusion is that the renewal of this part of a person’s being would be multifaceted, involving many aspects of the human personality between which we might discriminate in contemporary language but which Paul has viewed as a whole. By way of example, in contemporary thought we can distinguish between many different aspects of the human personality: thought life, mental habits, general attitudes, spiritual perceptions, prejudices, emotional life, intelligence, etc. Because Paul uses νοῦς broadly here to refer to the entire mental, moral being, all of these would be involved in “the renewal of the mind.” Every facet of the human personality is subject to renewal, and as each facet is renewed it contributes to transformation in line with the will of God.
The remaining part of Romans 12:2 explains the ultimate purpose for the spiritual change Paul has commanded in the first part of the verse. This is the end goal which Paul wants to see in believers’ lives, so it is worth some attention to understand. The grammatical construction present at the beginning of this phrase can refer to purpose or result.42 If Paul intends to convey purpose with this structure, then it would explain the ultimate goal of the transformation which would be part of the intentionality of the believer’s participation in the action. If Paul intends to convey result, then it would explain the natural outcome of the transformation; the believer’s responsibility would be to focus primarily on the transformation which would then naturally lead to this result. It is difficult to choose between the two because they are not disparate in meaning; they both point to the importance of this secondary action relative to the transformation. Purpose is the more likely candidate here primarily because of the tenor of this passage as a whole. Paul is focusing on the believer’s participation in the process of sanctification, as it were, and the “will of God” is meant to be the overarching standard by which the believer functions. For this reason, Paul’s primary focus in this statement is the goal of the transformation, which the believer should constantly keep in view.
The verb δοκιμάζω has two common meanings. It can refer to the process of testing something, as in 1 Thessalonians 5:21: “But examine all things; hold fast to what is good.” With this meaning the term focuses on the action as examination. The verb can also refer to drawing a conclusion about something on the basis of testing, as in Philippians 1:10: Paul prays that the Philippians’ love would abound “so that you can decide what is best.” With this meaning the term focuses on the conclusion as action, but it does not exclude the process of examination. The latter is in view in Romans 12:2 because the entity which needs to be examined and approved is clearly stated: “the will of God.” Paul has in mind a process by which believers examine things in their lives with the desire to approve those which comport with the will of God.
The phrase “will of God” is very important theologically for Paul’s argument; it is what gives his commands importance and weight in the life of the believer. It is not difficult to understand what the words mean. The word θέλημα refers to what one wishes to happen, so the phrase “will of God” means that which God wants to happen.43 The more obvious and difficult question is what this actually is. There is no clarification in this passage as to the exact referent except for the adjectives which follow. These adjectives are all positive qualities describing of the will of God, but Paul’s point in using the adjectives is stronger than simple description. Grammatically he is making an assertion primarily about the nature of the will of God.44 Paul’s point is not simply that God’s will can be described as “good and well-pleasing and perfect”; more emphatically the will of God is good, well-pleasing, and perfect. Important to note at this point is that Paul does not define the will of God with specific referents, for example, in terms of actions. Instead he defines the will of God generally in terms of how it comports with his character and desire.45 The will of God matches his character in quality and pleases him. Paul casts this point generally to make it as widely applicable as possible, but that does not remove the importance of the fact that it is a standard measured by God himself. Only with the work of God in the believer’s life will there be any hope of attaining it.
In the command of v. 2, Paul is pleading for transformation of the believer into a glorious existence which arises out of a renewal of the inner person. This transformation is not an end unto itself; instead its ultimate goal is the believer’s approval of the will of God and by implication the fulfillment of his will in action.
Based upon the investigation into the meaning of Romans 12:1–2, I now want to move the discussion forward by formulating statements about spiritual formation based upon this text. These two verses are rich and can scarcely be exhausted, either in understanding or application. To be sure, spiritual formation is not the only topic to which they are relevant. One could also mention worship, ethics, Christian living, the will of God, holiness, and others. Spiritual formation is especially apropos for these verses, however, because they speak about intentional change in the inner person to conform to the will of God. This in encapsulated form is the essence of spiritual formation as it is often discussed: a fundamental change in the believer’s character which then creates a fundamental change in the believer’s actions.
What I will offer, then, are statements about spiritual formation which are drawn from the teaching of this passage. These are not meant to be individual definitions of spiritual formation as much as they are meant to be accurate, biblical descriptions of what spiritual formation is in light of Paul’s teaching.
Paul makes clear in this passage that our spiritual life is a response, not an initial action. Spiritual formation is our human response to God’s grace and mercy as displayed in our salvation. Everything Paul asks of the believer grows out of his desire that they respond to the marvelous salvation which God has graciously bestowed upon them. Paul clearly refers to the entirety of God’s work as the basis for his exhortation: “Therefore I exhort you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God . . . .” Paul sees an undeniable cause-and-effect connection between what God has done for the believer and the believer’s response. His desire is to motivate the believer to respond appropriately with an underlying attitude of awe and thanksgiving.
The importance of this point should not be underestimated, as it is a fundamental theological point of the entire biblical record, invoked over and over again by Paul and other biblical authors as they describe how humanity is to relate to God. As recipients of God’s grace, humanity does not initiate the cycle of our interaction with God or provoke God to bless because we have acted appropriately. Instead we are the blessed recipients of God’s divine actions on our behalf. We are the recipients of his love and tender mercy. Any spiritual action on our part must be recognized as a response to his divine mercy, properly understood on our part as an act of thanks and worship. Any efforts at spiritual formation should arise from a response of thankfulness and worship for God’s grace and mercy already active in our lives, not as a means to force God to bestow grace and mercy upon us.
In these verses Paul describes the human response to God as one of worship. Taking the potent imagery of cultic sacrifice and applying it to the individual, Paul does something extraordinary: He makes the spiritual service of worship encompass the entirety of a believer’s life. There is nothing left out: All of a believer’s life is now sanctified as an offering and appropriately considered “worship.”
The ramifications of this are immense. There is no part of a believer’s life which is too small or insignificant to be sanctified to the Lord and given to him as an act of worship. Attitudes, actions, feelings, habits—all are to be sanctified before the Lord and completely given to him. In many ways this is a primary emphasis of spiritual formation: to help the individual live the entirety of life as worship before the watchful eyes of the Lord. Many believers are quite good at making sure that God is worshiped through their behavior in major aspects of life, such as marriage, parenting, and work responsibilities, but we are not nearly as careful to worship God with the countless little things which constitute our lives.
In Romans 12:1–2 Paul mentions both the body and mind in his exhortation, the body in v. 1 as the sacrifice which believers offer and the mind in v. 2 as the aspect of the human personality which is renewed. Despite the fact that the body is mentioned first, the construction and logic of Paul’s argument makes it clear that the transformation begins inside the person and then affects the actions of the body. In v. 1 the very fact that he urges believers so strongly to follow the course of action he prescribes indicates that he is addressing the will. In a more fundamental way, he is addressing the values believers hold. In order to follow Paul’s exhortation something must happen internally. The believer should value the grace of God as highly as Paul has; the believer should desire to worship God as completely as Paul describes. This change of values then produces a change in behavior as the command is carried out and believers present their bodies and all that they do to God as worship. Verse 2 addresses the same basic internal/external relationship but from a different direction. Here the renewal of the mind serves as the basis for the proper understanding of God’s will which is then determined by the believer and lived out through action.
Paul is never one to whitewash a difficult truth. In this passage of Scripture he shoots straight with his readers concerning the challenge posed by the world around them. Believers are not in an environment which is conducive to living appropriately in light of the Lord’s revealed will. Instead, everything about the present world works against them to bring them down and enslave them to sin. The world continuously, insidiously seeks to change the believer to fit in. The only way to counter this is through transformation of the inner person. This is the import of v. 2: The renewal of the mind is the means by which the influence of the world will be nullified and the believer will be freed and enabled to live in light of God’s will. This is the primary task of spiritual formation: to transform the inner person so that the believer has the desire and ability to live in light of God’s desires, not the world’s.
The ultimate goal Paul describes in v. 2 is that the believer would live in light of God’s will, which is good, pleasing to him, and perfect. The specific argument is for the mind to be renewed so the believer can approve appropriately what God would desire with the clear implication that the believer would then live in light of God’s revealed will. One of the most important changes in a believer's life is transformation which enables one to recognize the truth of what Paul asserts about God’s will. So often believers know God’s will but do not do it precisely because they do not believe that God’s will is truly the best path for them. Spiritual formation addresses this disconnection by addressing the will, the emotions, and the attitudes and how those influence behavior. The conviction of spiritual formation, born out by both the testimony of Scripture and the crucible of life experience, is that when the inner person is transformed in the way God desires, the actions of the outer person will very naturally and appropriately follow suit. Thus spiritual formation enables a believer to act in accordance with God’s will by changing the mind first and then the actions next.
In closing, the investigation of Romans 12:1–2 opens the door for a better understanding of exactly what spiritual formation involves and ultimately what it strives to attain. In light of what has been discussed related to the meaning of the passage, I wish to offer a revised definition of spiritual formation in light of the fresh light thrown on it by Romans 12:1–2: “An act of worship in response to God’s mercy and grace which involves the intentional transformation of the character to be like Christ and the intentional transformation of the actions to conform to God’s will.”
1 This truth is usually stated in a negative form as a problem to avoid in study of the Scriptures: the word-concept fallacy. This fallacy is invoked when a Bible student assumes that they have exhaustively studied a concept when they have instead exhaustively studied a word. A good example of this is the concept of God’s reign over the world as its king. This concept is very common in Scripture, and only sometimes associated with the words “king” or “kingdom.” To exhaustively study this concept, one would need to find passages which contain “king” and “kingdom,” but also “prince,” “ruler,” perhaps “father,” and even “shepherd” in some instances. The primary lesson in terms of method is that to study a concept one must cast a very wide net and filter the results carefully. An excellent text which deals with this and many other common exegetical errors is D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996).
3 Unless indicated otherwise, all translations are taken from the NET Bible.
4 This is an interesting example of strong consistency among English translations. The translation given here is from the NET Bible, but it is in no way unique in its use of the English verb “transform” to translate the Greek verb μεταμορφόω. A great majority of English translations use this same term, including the KJV, NKJV, NASB, NIV, RSV, NRSV, HCSB, and NLT. Two English translations which do not are S. H. Hooke, ed., The Bible in Basic English (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1949): “but be changed and made new in mind”; and the Douay-Rheims version (“but be reformed in the newness of your mind”).
5 See the prior essay for some works which use this word within a definition of spiritual formation.
6 Worthwhile to state here are two points: (1) I am not yet addressing the issue of practice, as my conviction is that the definition must be accurate from a biblical standpoint before the practice can be addressed. (2) As I stated before, my overarching goal for this and my other essays on spiritual formation is to provide a firm exegetical foundation for the discipline as it is currently practiced in evangelicalism. My prayer is that my investigation will allow Scripture to inform and correct our practice. See my prior essay, “Orientation to Spiritual Formation with Special Reference to the New Testament,” for my initial comments on this need.
7 These divisions are capable of many more legitimate subdivisions, but for the sake of simplicity these will suffice for present purposes.
8 See this argument as well in Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), 640; C. E. B. Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, ed. J. A. Emerton and C. E. B. Cranfield, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975–79), 2:595.
9 This is the translation of the KJV and many other English translations, but for reasons which will be discussed below, it is not the best translation.
10 See the discussion below on the participle ζῶσαν for a short treatment of this point.
11 The argument I would make to support this is based on what I would view as a broad interpretive key for Scripture: The higher the level of abstraction, the more applicable the point made will be to a variety of situations.
12 This word is not translated in the NET Bible for reasons of English style.
13 Paul uses παρακαλέω frequently in his writings (54x), sometimes at key junctures as here (e.g., 2 Corinthians 10:1; Ephesians 4:1; 1 Thessalonians 4:1; 1 Timothy 2:1).
14 οἰκτιρμός is part of a word group with a fairly unified meaning. The verb οἰκτίρω means “to have compassion on someone.” The adjective οἰκτίρμων means “merciful, compassionate.” The nouns οἰκτιρμός, οἰκτίρημα (which occurs 1x in the LXX), and οἰκτιρμοσύνη (which does not occur in biblical Greek and is extremely rare otherwise) mean “mercy, compassion.” This word group is not common in the NT: οἰκτιρμός occurs 5x; οἰκτίρμων 3x; οἰκτίρω 2x. It is much more common in the LXX: οἰκτίρημα occurs 1x; οἰκτιρμός 37x; οἰκτίρμων 17x; οἰκτίρω 37x. This word occurs frequently with reference to God’s compassion or mercy (it is used very frequently in the Psalms, for example).
15 So Cranfield, Romans, 2:595–96.
16 This argument is also reinforced by the semantics of the command. It is reasonable to view παρακαλῶ + an aorist infinitive as equivalent to an aorist imperative, which often carries the force of a very solemn command (see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 720–21).
17 BDAG s.v. παρίστημι 1.d states that this word functions “as a t.t. [technical term] in the language of sacrifice.”
18 See BDAG s.v. παρίστημι 1.a.
19 This is contrasted nicely with the use of the word “mind” in the next verse. Thus these verses together constitute a plea that believers submit their entire person to God for his service.
20 The word ζῶσαν is a participle from the verb ζάω, while the words ἁγίαν and εὐάρεστον are true adjectives.
21 This is indicated both by order relative to the noun (i.e., the question is whether the adjectival modifier precedes or follows the noun) and by the presence or absence of the article. In this instance all three modifiers follow the noun, and the article is nowhere to be found in the construction. The Greek reads θυσίαν ζῶσαν ἁγίαν εὐάρεστον τῷ θεῶ, literally “[present your bodies as a] sacrifice living holy acceptable to God.” Adjectives can be attributive or predicate to a noun; an attributive adjective describes a noun (e.g., “the tall man”) while a predicate adjective asserts something about it (e.g., “the man is tall”). The difference between the attributive and predicate adjective is defined well by A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 4th ed. (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), 656: “The distinction between the attributive adjective and the predicate adjective lies in just this, that the predicate presents an additional statement, is indeed the main point, while the attributive is an incidental description of the substantive about which the statement is made.” The difference is one of discourse and clause construction: The predicate adjective is the main point, while the attributive adjective is ancillary to the main point.
22 Many people are familiar with the following statement regarding this passage: “The problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar.” Humorous, yes, but almost beside the point as far as Paul is concerned.
23 Schreiner, Romans, 644.
24 See BDAG s.v. ἅγιος 1.a and b.
25 Other related words ( εὐαρεστημα, εὐαρεστήριος, εὐαρεστησις, εὐαρεστητέον, εὐαρεστία, εὐαρεστικός) do not occur in the New Testament.
26 God is explicitly mentioned as the object in Romans 12:1; 14:18; 2 Corinthians 5:9; Ephesians 5:10; Philippians 4:18; Colossians 3:20 (in a prepositional phrase with ἐν); Hebrews 11:5; 12:28; 13:21 (in a prepositional phrase with ἐνώπιον). He is clearly implied in Romans 12:2 and Hebrews 11:6, and in Hebrews 13:16 God is the subject of εὐαρεστέω in the passive. Only in Titus 2:9 is God not in view; there a human master is the one who is pleased.
27 It does not occur at all in the LXX.
28 Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, ed. Gordon D. Fee, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 754.
29 See Schreiner, Romans, 646, for a fuller argument of this point. Some biblical parallels are pertinent here. 1 Corinthians 10:31 reads, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” Colossians 3:17 reads, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” These verses affirm the basic point of Paul’s argument in Romans 12:1.
30 Cranfield, Romans, 2:601.
31 I have divided the verses into different sections simply to make it easier for the reader to track with my train of thought through this essay.
32 A clear example which illustrates this use is found in Matthew 12:32: “Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come [ οὔτε ἐν τούτῳ τῷ αἰῶνι οὔτε ἐν τῷ μέλλοντι].”
33 Some texts which exemplify this use are 1 Corinthians 2:6: “Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing”; 2 Corinthians 4:4: “among whom the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe so they would not see the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God”; Galatians 1:4: “who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.”
34 Interestingly Luke 9:29 does not use this term to describe Jesus’ transfiguration. There it is stated in a more general way: καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν τῷ προσεύχεσθαι αὐτὸν τὸ εἶδος τοῦ προσώπου αὐτοῦ ἕτερον καὶ ὁ ἱματισμὸς αὐτοῦ λευκὸς ἐξαστράπτων; “and it happened that while he was praying, the appearance of his face became different, and his clothes gleamed white as lightning.”
35 This is in keeping with the first definition listed in BDAG s.v. μεταμορφόω: “to change in a manner visible to others, be transfigured.”
36 The use in 2 Corinthians 3:18 will be discussed much more fully in the next essay.
37 ἀνακαινίζω occurs once (Hebrews 6:6), ἀνακαινόω occurs twice (2 Corinthians 4:16; Colossians 3:10), and ἀνακαίνωσις occurs twice (here in Romans 12:2; Titus 3:5). The verb ἀνακαίνιζω also occurs five times in the LXX, where it does not always have a positive connotation: In 1 Maccabees 6:9 “grief” is “renewed” in the sense that it is an emotion that is constantly present, and in Psalm 38:3 (39:2 in the English text) “pain” is “renewed” in that it grows within the individual. In the other three occurrences, though, a positive connotation is clearly present (Psalm 102:5 [103:5 English text]; 103:30 [104:30 English text]; Lamentations 5:21).
38 Titus 3:5 is the other verse where the noun ἀνακαίνωσις occurs; there the Holy Spirit is mentioned specifically as an agent of the renewal: “he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Paul does not mention the Holy Spirit in Romans 12:2, but a strong argument can be made that the work of the Holy Spirit is assumed here because of the dependence of chapters 12 and following on the entire argument of chapters 5–8.
39 It only occurs three times outside of Paul’s writings (Luke 24:45; Revelation 13:18; 17:9). Paul uses the word 21x.
40 So BDAG s.v. νοῦς 2.
41 This is an example of the difference between sense and referent. The sense of a word (or expression) is its meaning; the referent is what the word refers to in reality. The question here is, what is the exact process inside the individual which corresponds to “the renewing of the mind”?
42 The construction is εἰς το + infinitive, and this is well attested as both purpose and result. The first question should be what is the difference in meaning between the two ideas; the second question is which Paul intended at this juncture.
43 Clearly τοῦ θεοῦ is a subjective genitive.
44 The phrase which includes the adjectives ( τὸ ἀγαθὸν καὶ εὐάρεστον καὶ τέλειον) can be interpreted either as the adjective in a second attributive construction modifying “the will of God” or as a substantive phrase in apposition to “the will of God.” It is very rare to have three adjectives modifying the noun in second attributive position; for this reason it is more likely that the adjectives are meant to be taken as substantives in apposition to “the will of God.”
45 In other places in the NT God is described both as “good” (Matthew 19:17; Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19) and “perfect” (Matthew 5:48). God himself is clearly the object of “well-pleasing,” meaning that he is the one who is pleased by a particular action.