Defining Spiritual Formation





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Defining Spiritual Formation

by Dr Alex Tang



This sanctification is throughout in the whole man (1 Thess. 5:23), yet imperfect in this life; there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part (1 Jn.1:10; Rom. 7:18,23; Phil. 3:12): whence ariseth a continual and irreconcileable war; the flesh lusting against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh (Gal 5:17; 1 Peter 2:11).In which war, although the remaining corruption for a time may much prevail (Rom.7:23), yet, through the continual supply of strength from the sanctifying Spirit of Christ, the regenerate part doth overcome (Rom.6:14; 1 Jn. 5:4; Eph. 4:15,16): and so the saints grow in grace (2 Peter 3:18; 2 Cor. 3:18), perfecting holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1)

                                       The Westminster Confession of Faith


1.                  What is Spiritual Formation?

Spiritual formation is the process of growing into Christ-likeness; characterised by knowing and loving God, knowing and loving ourselves, knowing and loving other people and experiencing the Presence of God in our everyday lives. The basis of spiritual formation is the call of God the Father, the finished work of Jesus Christ the Son and is empowered by the Holy Spirit.


2.                  Spiritual Formation and Sanctification.

 Sanctification and to sanctify - This noun and verb, derived from Lat. sanctus, ‘holy’, and facere, ‘to make’, translate Heb. qdsű and Gk. hagiasmos, hagiazoµ.

The basic sense of the Heb. root qdsű is variously given as (1) ‘set apart’, (2) ‘brightness’. The former could underlie references to holiness or sanctification in terms of position, status, relationship, where the words are translated ‘cut off’, ‘separated’, ‘set apart for exclusive use’, ‘dedicated’ or ‘consecrated’, ‘regarded as sacred or holy in contrast to common, profane or secular’. The latter could underlie those usage which relate to condition, state or process, leading on in the NT concept of an inward transformation gradually taking place, resulting in purity, moral rectitude, and holy, spiritual thoughts expressing themselves in an outward life of goodness and godliness.


2.1        In the Old Testament

a.         God is depicted as holy in majesty, mysterious in his otherness, loftily removed from man, sin and earth (cf. Ex. 3:5; Is. 6:3ff.).

Any thing or person sanctified is recognized as set apart by God as well as by man (e.g. Sabbath, Gn. 2:3; altar, Ex. 29:37; tabernacle, Ex. 29:44; garments, Lv. 8:30; fast, Joel 1:14; house, Lv. 27:14; field, Lv. 27:17; people, Ex. 19:14; congregation, Joel 2:16; priests, Ex. 28:41). This does not necessarily involve an inward change. This is evidenced by the ceremonial ritual of the law made provision for the infringements with avenues for atonement.

b.         While these were primarily external and ritual instances of sanctification, they were sometimes accompanied by the deeper, inward transformation.

God’s exhortation, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’, required a moral and spiritual response from the people, a reflection of His moral ideals of righteousness, purity, hatred of moral evil, loving concern for the welfare of others in obedience to his will; for the Holy One of Israel was actively engaged for the good of his people (Ex. 19:4) as well as being separated from evil. His holiness was both transcendent and immanent (Deu. 4:7; Ps. 73:28), and theirs was to be correspondingly similar.


            2.2       In the New Testament

There are six references to sanctification (hagiasmos) and another four instances in which the same word is translated ‘holiness’ in rsv. Five other Gk. terms are translated‘holiness’(hagioteµs, hagioµsyneµ, eusebeia, hosioteµs, hieroprepeµs). As in the OT, we find a twofold usage of sanctification, but there are significant differences.

a.                   The two synoptic usages of the verb ‘sanctify’ are ceremonial or ritual. Our Lord speaks of the Temple that sanctifies the gold and the altar that sanctifies the gift (Mt. 23:17, 19). Here the primary meaning is consecration; the gold and gift are dedicated, set apart, and reckoned as especially sacred and valuable by their relation to the already holy Temple and altar.

In a parallel use of this concept, but one more exalted and more directly spiritual since it has to do with the personal realm, Christ sanctifies or consecrates himself for his sacrificial work, the Father sanctifies him, and he bids his followers ‘hallow’ (regard with sacred reverence, devote a unique position to) the Father (Jn. 10:36; 17:19; Mt. 6:9). A further extension of the thought comes in Christ’s sanctifying of the people with his own blood (Heb. 13:12) and possibly in Jn. 17:17 the Father’s sanctifying of the believers through the word of truth.

b.                  The second meaning of sanctification is in Paul’s writing concerning the moral and spiritual transformation of the justified believer who is regenerated, given new life, by God. The will of God is our sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3), and to be sanctified wholly is to be conformed to the image of Christ and so to realize in experience what it is to be in the image of God.

Christ is the content and norm of the sanctified life: it is his risen life that is reproduced in the believer as he grows in grace and reflects the glory of his Lord. In this progressive experience of liberation from the letter of the law, man’s spirit is set free by the Lord the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:17-18). The Holy Spirit is the operator in man’s sanctification, but He works through the word of truth and the prayer of faith, and through the fellowship of believers (Eph. 5:26) as they test themselves in the light of the ideal of the love of the Spirit and the indispensability of holiness (Heb. 12:14). Faith, itself produced by the Spirit, lays hold of the sanctifying resources.

The Epistle to the Hebrews forms a bridge between the external and internal meanings of sanctification. Christ by his sacrifice sanctifies believers not only in the sense of setting them apart but also in that of equipping them for the worship and service of God. This He does by making propitiation for their sins (Heb. 2:17) and cleansing their consciences from dead works (Heb. 9:13ff.).


            Therefore sanctification is spiritual formation.


3.                  The Goals of Spiritual Formation

3.1       Become like Christ.[Christ-likeness](Gal. 4:19; Rom.8:29; 2 Cor 3:18)

The process of spiritual formation is so we can become more like Christ. Jesus Christ is the ideal man. He has the fruit of the spirit. And the goal of spiritual formation is to make us like Him. In the Orthodox tradition, they call spiritual formation, theosis, the process of divinisation.

3.2       Restore the Image of God (Gen.1:26-27; 2 Cor. 4:4)

Man was initially created in the image of God. With the Fall, the image of God was distorted. One of the goals of the new creation in Christ is to restore the image of God.

3.3        The People of God. (Rom.8:29)

The redemption plan of God is to create a people of God, laos, so that He can dwell amongst them. Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God while Paul taught about the people of God.


4        Key Concepts about Spiritual Formation (sanctification)

4.1              The Bible teaches that spiritual formation is past, present and future.

 It is past because it begins in a position of separation already gained in Christ’s completed work. It is present in that it describes a process of cultivating a holy life. And it has a future culmination at the return of Christ when the effects of sin will be fully removed. 

4.2              Spiritual formation requires believers to strive to express God’s love in their experience. 

They must devote themselves to the traditional Christian disciplines and daily make the hard choices against evil and for God’s righteousness.

4.3              God promises success in this process of struggling against personal sin, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The key to spiritual formation is the Holy Spirit. Without the Holy Spirit, one will struggle in vain and whatever changes will be only external, legalistic and cosmetic. Only the Holy Spirit can affect true inner transformation.


5        Questions about Spiritual Formation (sanctification)

            The prayer that God will sanctify the believers wholly so that their whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of Christ is followed by the assertion that ‘He who calls you is faithful, and he will do it’ (1 Thes. 5:23-24). This raises three important questions.

5.1              Will God do it all at once?

Does sanctification by faith mean that complete sanctification is received as a gift in the same manner as justification, so that the believer is instantaneously made holy and enters once for all into actual, practical holiness as a state?

Some urge that in a crisis-experience, subsequent to conversion, the old man is crucified once for all, and the root of sin extracted or the principle of sin eradicated. Some go further and stress the need for the reception and the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit (notably the gift of tongues) as evidence of such a work of the Spirit. Others consider that NT teaching is definitely opposed to this view and that the very existence of the Epistles with their reasoned statements of doctrine is enough for our sanctification.

5.2              Will God do it all within the believer’s lifetime?

           Among both those who emphasize the crisis-character of the experience of sanctification and those who see it rather as a process are some who claim for themselves very high attainments of sanctified living. Underlining such injunctions as ‘You, therefore, must be perfect’ (Mt. 5:48) and not interpreting ‘perfection’ here as meaning ‘maturity’, they maintain that perfect love is achievable in this life.

High claims in the direction of ‘sinless perfection’, however, usually minimize both the description of sin and the standard of moral living required. Sin is defined as ‘the voluntary transgression of a known law’ (Wesley) rather than as ‘any want of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God’ (Westminster Shorter Catechism), the latter being a definition which covers our sinful state and sins of omission as well as sins openly and deliberately committed. Others, agreeing that unbroken holiness and unblemished perfection may not be possible, claim that it is possible nevertheless to have the perfect possession of the perfect motive of love.


5.3        Will God do it all without the believer’s activity?

Those who minimize sin and the standard of holiness God requires are in danger of placing undue stress on human enterprise in sanctification. There is, however, an opposite extreme which lays the entire onus of sanctification on God. He is expected to produce a saint instantaneously, or gradually to infuse a Christian with grace or the Spirit. This is to reduce man to a mere robot with no moral fibre and thus virtually to produce an immoral sanctification—which is a contradiction in terms. Those who are concerned for the intrinsic character of human spirit deny such impersonal operations of the Holy Spirit. They are also dubious of the claims that the Spirit works directly upon the unconscious, rather than through the conscious processes of man’s mind.

The believer is to have no illusions about the intensity of the struggle with sin (Rom. 7-8; Gal. 5), but should realize also that sanctification does not occur in instalments merely by his own endeavours to counteract his own evil tendencies. There is a progression of moral accomplishment but there is also a mysterious, sanctifying work within him. Moreover, it is not merely a synergism whereby the Spirit and the believer each contribute something. The action is attributable both to the Spirit and to the believer in the paradox of grace. God the Spirit works through the faithful recognition of the law of truth and the believer’s response of love, and the net result is spiritual maturity expressed in the fulfilling of the law of love to one’s neighbour. The consummation of sanctification to the believer who, by gracious faith in the work of Christ, by the Spirit ‘purifies himself’ (1 Jn. 3:3), is indicated by the assurance: ‘we know that, when he appears, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is’ (1 Jn. 3:2).

6.      Different Views of Sanctification

6.1                          The Reformed Perspective

The Reformed tradition embraces these Protestant denominations which trace their roots to the Swiss reformation under Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich and John Calvin in Geneva. These churches generally called themselves Reformed if they originate in Europe and Presbyterian if they began in the British Isles. The ongoing motto of the Reformed tradition, “The church reformed, always being reformed”.

Reformed theology builds around the central theme of the sovereignty of God. The whole of reality falls under the supreme rule of God. Salvation can be summarized by the five points of Calvinism (TULIP): Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.

                        Sanctification is that gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, involving our responsible participation, by which He delivers us as justified sinners from the pollution of sin, renews our entire nature according to the image of God, and enables us to live lives that are pleasing to Him.

Definitive sanctification occurs together with justification and occurs once only while progressive sanctification occurs throughout the life of the believer. Fulfillment and satisfaction of moral law is the act of the believer’s justification.

Means of growth: (1) fuller and richer union with Christ, (2) by truth, and (3) by faith.


6.2                          The Wesleyan Perspective

John Wesley is the founder of the Methodism family of churches. His theology is essentially Arminian which is concerned to preserve the justice or fairness of God.  How could God holds individuals responsible for obedience to commands they are powerless to obey? The Wesleyan perspective has a strong sense of grace and holiness. (holiness view)

Entire sanctification (perfectionism) is distinct experience, separate from and subsequent to justification, a second work of grace. It is an instantaneous experience involving the removal of original sin and destruction of the carnal nature. Sin is defined as deliberate transgression of a known law. The perfection attained is always qualified; it is not Adamic, angelic, or resurrection perfection and it is not the same as the perfection of Christ.

The essence of sanctification is love in action. True Christianity is to have the mind of Christ, which is demonstrated in love for God and neighbour. Fulfillment and satisfaction of moral law in process and end of sanctification. Commandments of God as the ‘royal law of love’

Means of growth: (1) Scripture, (2) reason, (3) tradition and (4) experience (The Wesleyan quadrilateral).


6.3                          The Pentecostal Perspective

 The present root of the Pentecostal movement started in Bethel College of Topeka, Kansas on January 1, 1901 when some students searching the Scriptures came to the conclusion that speaking in tongues as in Acts 2:4 is the external evidence of being baptized in the Holy Spirit. This was further taken up by W.J.Seymour, a black holiness preacher in 1906 at Azusa Street in Los Angeles. From this beginning, many Pentecostal churches developed. Early in the movement, it was split into two groups by a difference in theology.

The first, Holiness Pentecostal group (Church of God, Pentecostal Holiness Church) believe that the crisis experience of entire sanctification is a definite second work of grace that is a prerequisite to baptism in the Holy Spirit.

The second , Pentecostal group (Assemblies of God) believed that sanctification occurs with justification, and that faith and cleansing of blood is adequate for baptism of the Holy Spirit. Sanctification is defined as including (1) separation from sin and the world and (2) dedication or consecration, to the fellowship and service of God through Christ. It is two fold, positional (instantaneous) and progressive (practical).

Concerning the law and love: The Holy Spirit helps us to do the good things God really wanted when He gave us the law.

Means of growth: Baptism in the Holy Spirit. The distinction often made by Pentecostal scholars is that the experience Paul speaks of is different from the experience spoken of by John the Baptist and  Jesus. Baptism by the Spirit incorporates believers into the body of Christ and baptism in the Holy Spirit, in which Christ is the Baptizer and where the purpose is to empower the believer through the filling of the Spirit.


6.4                          The Keswick Perspective

Keswick is the name of a resort town in England’s Lake District where annual conference for ‘the promotion of practical holiness’ has been held since 1875. The emphasis has been to define ‘normal Christian life’ and its relationship to ‘practical holiness’. (Higher life or victorious Christian life view)

 The normal Christian life is “the experience of the child of God should be one of victory instead of constant defeat, one of liberty instead of grinding bondage, one of ‘perfect peace’ instead of restless worry. It shows that in Christ there is provided for every believer victory, liberty and rest, and that this may be obtained not by a life-long struggle after an impossible ideal but by the surrender of the individual to God, and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.”

Sanctification is two-fold. The first step is positional sanctification, in which one is set apart from sin for the purpose of becoming God’s possession: (1) a person is forgiven, (2) a person is justified and (3) the forgiven, justified person is regenerated. The second step is experiential sanctification – the outworking of one’s official position in daily life. We are called to complete or perfect the measure of holiness that we have. The third step is complete sanctification (glorification) when the believer is transformed into the total likeness of Christ.

Means of growth: (1) prayer, (2) Scripture, (3) Church, and (4) suffering.


6.5                          The Augustinan-Dispensational Perspective.

 Many have taught that saints of all ages belong to the church. Dispensationalists, however hold that the church only consists of the church of the present age. It only came into existence in Acts 2 and will be transformed or ceases to exist with the Second Coming.

Sanctification is how individuals with two natures (flesh and spirit) in their total character can achieve a relative measure of righteousness in their life. Progressive sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit. Ultimate sanctification in heaven is assured but believers do not automatically achieve sanctification on earth simply because they have been made new creatures on earth. The essence of sanctification is being filled by the Holy Spirit.

Baptism of the Spirit and regeneration occurs at conversion. Means of growth: (1) repeated filling of the Holy Spirit and (2) Word.


7.      Recommended Reading

7.1                          Willard, Dallas The Renovation of the Heart. Colorado Springs, Colorado: Navpress, 2002

This book is easy to read and gave a good introduction to spiritual formation. Though the author’s approach is slight different from the approach taken in this course, the message of spiritual formation is the same. Strongly recommended.

7.2                          Gundry, Stanley N.  Five Views on Sanctification. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1987

A brief overall view of what we have discussed in this session. May not be easy to read because the writers uses a lot of theological terms and assumes a basic knowledge of their church traditions. However if you can wade through all these terms, it does give a better understanding of each view- their strengths and weaknesses.


8.      Personal Reflection Questions

8.1                          Read and meditate on the section on sanctification in The Westminster Confession of Faith at the beginning of this handout. Does it speak to you about your own spiritual formation?  Draw a picture to illustrate your thoughts and feelings about your own spiritual formation.

8.2                          Read and meditate on the sermon ‘Spiritual Formation: The Education of the Heart’. How has this sermon increased your understanding of spiritual formation? How would you like the Holy Spirit to form your spiritual life? Write out a prayer to God concerning your own spiritual formation.

8.3                          There are different views of spiritual formation but all views agree that it is a spiritual journey towards Christ-likeness or ‘perfection’. Ask the Holy Spirit for wisdom and decide which view you are most comfortable with. Then think about your own spiritual formation with respect to that view. What have been the factors that affect your spiritual formation, either positively or negatively? Draw a graph that approximate your spiritual formation so far and list the factors that influence it. Then talk to God about your spiritual formation (be honest), your hopes and your aspirations. What do you want your spiritual life to be?


GOD, teach me lessons for living

so I can stay the course.

Give me insight so I can do what you tell me –

my whole life one long, obedient response.

Guide me down the road of your commandments;

I love traveling this freeway!

Give me a bent for your words of wisdom,

and not for piling up loot.

Divert my eyes from toys and trinkets,

invigorate me on the pilgrim way.

Affirm your promises to me –

promises made to all who fear you.

Deflect the harsh words of my critics –

but what you say is always so good.

See how hungry I am for your counsel;

preserve my life through your righteous ways!


Psalm 119:33-40 (The Message)



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