The spiritual formation movement—popular among many Christians today—has certain attractions. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuits, inaugurated this theme as he promoted a disciplined spirituality in his Spiritual Exercises.
Spiritual Directors applied these exercises to aspirants during quietist retreats. Loyola, a former soldier, meant to spread the Catholic faith—and to suppress the budding Protestantism of his day—with a paradoxical blend of steel-like duties and mystical devotion. To a critic it works only at one level—in creating spiritual compliance—but not as a pathway to genuine spirituality.
Why not the latter? Because it presumes an ability to change ourselves from the outside-in: as something we initiate and control. It calls for us to be godly by our own efforts. But achieving self-produced godliness is about as likely as our walking to the moon.
Yet spiritual formation is sound if what we mean is the Spirit’s work to change us from the inside-out. Think, for instance, of what Jesus said in John 15: a fruitful branch needs to be attached to a vine. And only a healthy tree will only bear good fruit. Ezekiel also spoke of God’s work in changing hearts of stone into living hearts. It’s why Jesus told Nicodemus he needed to be born again. Real transformation relies on God, not man.
But before going there let’s note a possible third option: can we, perhaps, work on changing ourselves by using God as a resource? Isn’t faith a cooperative effort between God and humans: a call to “work out your own salvation” while also acknowledging that “God is at work in you” as Paul stated in Philippians 2:12-13?
Okay, but the underlying question is still whether God initiates that transformation or we do. Is God our assistant who helps us to be more spiritual through grace, with grace treated as a spiritual commodity? Or is the Spirit’s presence, expressing God’s love to us, the basis for every spiritual change?
So it’s an “either-or” option. And a given answer brings us back to an ultimate question we’ve considered before: is grace a ‘who’ (the Spirit united to our spirits) or a ‘what’ (an infused disposition for good)? And, with that, what is the focus of our faith? Are we looking to Christ or to self?
That’s critical: we rely either on ourselves or on Christ for the work of transformation. If we look to Christ then we rely on him not only for conversion but also in our ongoing growth. Paul worked with that assumption in all he wrote, including the full elaboration of the text cited above: “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (verse 13).
Another source for answering the question is 2 Corinthians 3-4. There Paul dismissed moralistic efforts—the outward compliance to religious rules—and explained, instead, how the ministry of the Spirit transforms those in whom he lives. The Spirit, also called “the Lord” to underscore his unity with Christ, is the one who transforms us from “glory to glory”.
The context of this text is striking. Paul compared the glory that Moses experienced centuries earlier with the glory we now experience. What Moses experienced was external and soon faded. What we have is inward and grows over time.
What makes the difference? Exposure to God’s presence. Moses was exposed to God’s tangible glory in their face-to-face meeting and Moses walked away with a luminescent glory of his own. But it was a residual and diminishing sign of having been in God’s presence; not a perpetual reality.
Paul’s point, then, is that, unlike Moses, believers in the new era of Christ now have God’s continuing presence in us by his Spirit—and the product of this union with Christ is a spiritual glory in the soul of every believer. It’s not seen in this era as a tangible quality but as a transformed heart. The power of that transformation is the love of Christ that engages us and changes us to be more and more like the one we love.
The pathway towards biblical transformation, then, doesn’t feature our discipline but our delight. Our role is to see Jesus as he is: as our loving savior. So when God’s wooing Spirit opens the eyes of our hearts we begin to be formed to be like the object of our gaze: like Jesus himself.