The secret to spiritual formation

Hi friends,

For years I have searched to figure out HOW spiritual formation happens.

Sometimes I have been swayed by teachers who taught me that “it is the work of God” - and this has led me to passivity. If God is going to do it, then what do I have to contribute to the process?

Other times I have been influenced by teachers who taught me that spiritual disciplines are the key to spiritual growth - and this has led me to legalism. If it is up to me, then I need systems, plans, hard work, and accountability to become mature in Christ.

How about you? Have you veered between these two ‘approaches’ to spiritual formation?

This summer I took a class on Spiritual Formation as part of my D.Min. program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Our professor, Dr. Richard Averbeck, drew our attention to 2 Corinthians 3:16-18. I want to share some of his insights with you, mix them in with some of my own, and put it together in my own words (so I take responsibility for any mistakes or errors!)

First, Paul explains that we are being transformed into the image of Christ. This is the deepest work of change that can be imagined. This is not merely learning new information, acquiring new habits, or becoming a ‘good’ person. We are being restored to “better than brand new” as one of my church’s pastors puts it. The perfect holiness that Christ displayed in his life - that reflects the eternal holiness of the Triune God - we will be like that one day! Wow.

This is not a believe now, go to heaven later message. This is a full-scale renovation of our souls.

Second, notice that this is a Trinitarian vision. We look at the glory of Yahweh by the Spirit so we can be like Christ. We worship one God, so it should not surprise us to see the Trinity acting together, with one will, to transform us.

We can be lost in worship here. To be priests of Yahweh, but with unveiled faces? We are given intimacy with God himself.

Third, are we doing the work to be like Christ? No, we see that the Holy Spirit is working in our spirit to transform us. As we emphasize here, it is God’s uncommon pursuit that is primary. It is “from the Lord who is the Spirit” that transformation happens.

How could we make ourselves like Christ?

This is a spiritual work so it depends on the Holy Spirit for its effect.

Fourth, does this mean we have no role to play? By no means!

In light of this reality, our work is to respond to the Spirit’s work in our lives.

For instance, go on to consider 2 Corinthians 4. We see that Paul is perfectly clear that “this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us” - we are clay jars.

Yet, he is actively giving himself to the work of the Spirit in his life, which animates his perseverance, his preaching, and his passion.

To sum it up, we see that God’s Spirit graciously does his work IN us, then AMONG us, so that God may work THROUGH us to reach more and more people with his grace. (The in-among-through framework is from Dr. Averbeck).

For me, this theological vision of spiritual formation is transformative. It brings together the supremacy and primacy of God with the practical response we make to God.

Everything you know about spiritual formation - Bible reading, prayer, serving the poor, fasting, friendship with Christians, hearing the preaching of God’s word, the discipline of study - all of it - you can engage with those practices as you respond to the Spirit’s work in your spirit.

To me, that’s the open secret of spiritual formation.

Let me know. Do you see this in the Scriptures? If so, where else do you see the Bible teaching this is how spiritual formation takes place? Or have I gone astray?


Thank you for sharing this framework, it’s given me lots to think about. I particularly enjoyed the way you highlighted the work of the Trinity in this process, which is something I haven’t considered directly.

As I was considering a practical example of this, I was drawn to the concept of fasting. This, you mentioned, could be one of the ways in which we are trying to respond, urged on by a sense of legalism. I think of Martin Luther, who fasted a great deal as it was one of the ways in which the Catholic Church taught that points could be earned, although it wasn’t one of the seven sacraments. Later in life, he had huge digestive trouble which he put down to the intense and unreasonable periods of fasting he partook of in earlier life. This could be seen as a work of the flesh.

In contrast, fasting can also be our response to the Spirit’s work in our spirit. For example, we could feel a sense that God is leading us to a time of fasting. By acting on that, we are participating in the process of transformation, but it is a response to the Spirit’s leading. It’s not out of our own effort to try and get something back from God.

Would you say this is a fair example of what you explained?

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Hi Alison, yes, exactly.

I think it is unlikely that the Spirit was lead us to fast to the extent that we damage our bodies. (I am not ruling this out in extreme circumstances, but I believe that God loves us and wants to see our bodies restored to wholeness - yes, we’ll die, but the end state is a glorified, resurrected body).

However, I think it is very likely that some people, in their desire for God, or perhaps in their desire to be religious and gain a sense of spiritual accomplishment, might fast to the point of self-harm.

By contrast, as the Spirit leads a particular believer or community to fast, then the absence of food will be a time for sweeter communion with God. We are not depriving ourselves; rather, we are participating in the Spirit’s work in our spirit(s) through the means of abstaining from food.


This combination of the Spirit doing the work in us, as we take steps to respond is reflected on well by Richard Sibbes in The Bruised Reed. He emphasises how God responds to the things in us which is led by His Spirit, especially in the framework of grace given to us from God. In this example of prayer, he says:

And as every grace increases by exercise of itself, so does the grace of prayer. By prayer we learn to pray…Pray as we are able, hear as we are able, strive as we are able, do as we are able, according to the measure of grace received. God in Christ will cast a gracious eye upon that which is his own.

‘His own’ refers to us as his children, but I believe it could also reflect the work he is doing in us. He gives grace to us for these things, we respond, however feebly that we can, and this is enough for God to continue His work of spiritual formation in us.

Just as Paul pressed on towards the goal, knowing that it was God who enabled him. Sibbes also says:

There is a certain meekness of spirit whereby we yield thanks to God for any ability at all, and rest quiet with the measure of grace received, seeing it is God’s good pleasure it should be so, who gives the will and the deed, yet not so as to rest from further endeavours.

His Spirit gives us the ability to respond to Him. This really helps me to understand the concept of “in my weakness, He is strong”.

Like the man who said, “I believe, help me in my unbelief” (Mark 9:24),

’Lord I believe’ with a weak faith, yet with faith; love thee with a faint love, yet with love; endeavour in a feeble manner, yet endeavour.

In God’s uncommon pursuit of us, he leads us on step by step.

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