Are Spiritual Disciplines the same as Spiritual Formation?

by Mike Ratliff

[4] “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. [5] You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 ESV)

The very last thing I want for my own Christian walk is to get off the narrow way and fall into some form of deception following after some sort of false teacher that promises a way to get closer to God if we only follow him (or her) only to find out that we are like the blind following after blind guides. Any who is truly born of God is in Christ. They are new creations. They were once dead in their trespasses and sins and now they have been made alive by God himself (Ephesians 2:1-9). All through the Bible we are commanded to draw close to God, to repent, to be holy even as our Heavenly Father is Holy, et cetera. This is for the mature in Christ, not the immature. How do we grow from new Christians into those who are those living sacrifices Paul spoke of in Romans 12:1?

We have spent a great deal of time over the last several months digging deep into God’s Word clarifying both how we come to be in Christ and how we grow in Christ. As we look with eyes of wisdom into the history of the Church we see that many persuasive deceivers have been enabled to preach their false gospels and lead many away with their false-gospel of “experience.” Remember what we have been studying my brethren. What is the Gospel? It is a message of good news of the completed work of Christ on behalf of those he came to redeem through the sacrifice of himself on the cross. There, the sins of the elect were imputed to his account and all who believe this good news by faith turning to him as their Lord and Saviour are forgiven of their sins and have Christ’s perfect righteousness and his perfect keeping of the law imputed to their account. This is the Gospel.

Those who hold to that other “gospel” of experience talk about a burning in the heart and a “knowing that you know that know that you know” that you are saved, et cetera. In reality, those truly in Christ receive the Good News with and are transformed into new creations as the Word says. They receive the Good News with Joy and become the Lord’s disciples by taking up their own crosses and following him. But…how do they grow into mature Christians? In John 15 we are commanded by our Lord to abide in him for apart from him we can do nothing. In Romans 12:1-2 we are commanded to become living sacrifices then be transformed by the renewing of our minds. What is that? This is spending time in the Word of God and by us obeying him by be partakers of the ordained sacraments of the Church such as the The Lord’s Supper, hearing the Word Preached and participating in the Baptism of new believers, et cetera.

That is our part as far as what we do in our interaction with our local Church, but what about daily? When Daniel was taken captive to Babylon as a young man he never abandoned his submission to the Lord in is daily devotion of prayer, that is, spending time with him. That is what his enemies used against him and that got him thrown into the lion’s den (Daniel 6). When we think of the proper application of Spiritual Disciplines, Daniel’s example would apply. He was told by an angel that he was held in high esteem in heaven.

I am going to give you three examples. The first two are meant to be guides into becoming more mature as a Christian through Spiritual Disciplines. You read them and we will discuss whether these are proper application based solely upon what we know from God’s Word, not emotional, knee jerk responses.

The first example is from Sinclair Ferguson. I got this from the January 2012 issue of Tabletalk Magazine.

A Catechism on the Heart

by Sinclair Ferguson

Sometimes people ask authors, “Which of your books is your favorite?” The first time the question is asked, the response is likely to be “I am not sure; I have never really thought about it.” But forced to think about it, my own standard response has become, “I am not sure what my favorite book is; but my favorite title is A Heart for God.” I am rarely asked, “Why” but (in case you ask) the title simply expresses what I want to be: a Christian with a heart for God.

Perhaps that is in part a reflection of the fact that we sit on the shoulders of the giants of the past. Think of John Calvin’s seal and motto: a heart held out in the palm of a hand and the words “I offer my heart to you, Lord, readily and sincerely.” Or consider Charles Wesley’s hymn:

 O for a heart to praise my God!

    A heart from sin set free.

Some hymnbooks don’t include Wesley’s hymn, presumably in part because it is read as an expression of his doctrine of perfect love and entire sanctification. (He thought it possible to have his longing fulfilled in this world.) But the sentiment itself is surely biblical.

But behind the giants of church history stands the testimony of Scripture. The first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart (Deut. 6:5). That is why, in replacing Saul as king, God “sought out a man after his own heart” (1 Sam. 13:14), for “the Lord looks on the heart” (16:7). It is a truism to say that, in terms of our response to the gospel, the heart of the matter is a matter of the heart. But truism or not, it is true.

What this looks like, how it is developed, in what ways it can be threatened, and how it expresses itself will be explored little by little in this new column. But at this stage, perhaps it will help us if we map out some preliminary matters in the form of a catechism on the heart:

Q.1. What is the heart?

A. The heart is the central core and drive of my life intellectually (it involves my mind), affectionately (it shapes my soul), and totally (it provides the energy for my living).

Q.2. Is my heart healthy?

A. No. By nature I have a diseased heart. From birth, my heart is deformed and antagonistic to God. The intentions of its thoughts are evil continually.

Q.3. Can my diseased heart be healed?

A. Yes. God, in His grace, can give me a new heart to love Him and to desire to serve Him.

Q.4. How does God do this?

A. God does this through the work of the Lord Jesus for me and the ministry of the Holy Spirit in me. He illumines my mind through the truth of the gospel, frees my enslaved will from its bondage to sin, cleanses my affections by His grace, and motivates me inwardly to live for Him by rewriting His law into my heart so that I begin to love what He loves. The Bible calls this being “born from above.”

Q.5. Does this mean I will never sin again?

A. No. I will continue to struggle with sin until I am glorified. God has given me a new heart, but for the moment He wants me to keep living in a fallen world. So day by day I face the pressures to sin that come from the world, the flesh, and the Devil. But God’s Word promises that over all these enemies I can be “more than a conqueror through him who loved us.”

Q.6. What four things does God counsel me to do so that my heart may be kept for Him?

A. First, I must guard my heart as if everything depended on it. This means that I should keep my heart like a sanctuary for the presence of the Lord Jesus and allow nothing and no one else to enter.

Second, I must keep my heart healthy by proper diet, growing strong on a regular diet of God’s Word ó reading it for myself, meditating on its truth, but especially being fed on it in the preaching of the Word. I also will remember that my heart has eyes as well as ears. The Spirit shows me baptism as a sign that I bear God’s triune name, while the Lord’s Supper stimulates heart love for the Lord Jesus.

Third, I must take regular spiritual exercise, since my heart will be strengthened by worship when my whole being is given over to God in expressions of love for and trust in Him.

Fourth, I must give myself to prayer in which my heart holds on to the promises of God, rests in His will, and asks for His sustaining grace ó and do this not only on my own but with others so that we may encourage one another to maintain a heart for God.

This – and much else – requires development, elaboration, and exposition. But it can be summed up in a single biblical sentence. Listen to your Father’s appeal: “My son, give Me your heart.”

© Tabletalk magazine, Website: Email: Toll free: 1-800-435-4343

For example two you will have to follow this link to Carolyn Mahaney’s blog “Girl Talk.” What do you think my brethren? Which is the way we are going to grow in Christ? If you followed the humbling of self before the Lord as Sinclair Ferguson gave us or this open-ended emotional “Spiritual Discipline” given to us by Carolyn Mahaney? I promise you, the one based on feelings will only be sustainable for a short period of time because it is all of self.

Now for the third example, which is not really an example of a process or method, but a confession of what happens when a believer “goes the wrong way,” but God mercifully brings them back. Read the following with both discernment and charity. The entire post can be found here.

Do you see the difference between true Biblical Spiritual Disciplines and the counterfeit? Do you see the vast difference between that and Spiritual Formation? Be wise and discerning my brethren. Just calling Jesus Lord, Lord and not taking up one’s cross and following him in a life of repentance is simply joining the ranks of those who will be judged by him as false professors at the final judgment.

Soli Deo Gloria!

21 thoughts on “Are Spiritual Disciplines the same as Spiritual Formation?

  1. What would be helpful is to simply not use the term spiritual disciplines at all. That comes from Spiritual Directors and the legalism and pietism of so-called Spiritual Formation originating in the Roman Catholic Church.

    God’s Reformers rightly rejected that and instead correctly taught that the Christian grows in sanctification through the means of grace ala Acts 2:42.


  2. I know they are; it’s guys like Donald Whitney who’ve helped cause the confusion by using Roman Catholic mystic terms and redefining them into a supposed Protestant version.

    I do know your views on this and we are definitely in agreement. Sadly, what’s going on is a rebirth of Pietism.


  3. That’s right Ken, and we have to stand firm against that too. People want it to be all about them and their religiosity when it is all about what God has done. It is finished!


  4. But pietism makes me feel so good! And superior – in a very humble way 🙂

    Truly – ’tis a hard thing to (one might say impossible, apart from Christ) to guard one’s heart, capture each thought, renew one’s mind on eternal things. The enemy never ceases to use people with good intentions to bump our compass just a wee bit so we won’t notice we’re off course until we land in Guinea instead of Ireland.

    May God have mercy!


  5. This was excellent, thank you Mike!

    The first example by Ferguson under question number 6-I liked his numbers 2 and 4…his number one -“allowing nothing and no one else to enter” –I do not quite understand how we do this, although it sounds wonderful, yet I allow other things and people to enter my heart much to my dismay…nor the 3rd, which I would need explained how this plays out-“…when my whole being is given over to God in expresssions of love…”-what exactly is meant by that.

    I looked over the Girltalk example. I see they host something called The Fam Cub that one can join and talk about your fasting experiences, give testimonies about them, read blog posts and have your name published on the blog as a club member. Carolyn Mahaney wrote one particular post and used Matthew 6:16-17 saying Jesus does not say if you fast, but when you fast. I thought about the next verse -18 “so that your fasting will not be seen by others” …thinking isn’t this Fam Club a bit like ensuring your fasting will be seen by men?

    Rejoicing over the third example, as one who has done the Moore studies and tried to warn others with little success.


  6. “Spiritual Formation”…That is nothing more then the way those emergent birds fly, whether they land in Ireland or Guinea matters not to them, for it is the experience of flying with like birds in their spiritual formation that makes them happy!
    Now the word discipline…in my “experience” has little to do with feeling good at the time…
    Now, if you will excuse me, I’m having trouble finding just the right “word’ to focus on as I empty my mind in order to experience the “silence.”
    NEVER do they mention to “Test the spirits” as the bible directs us…hmmm!


  7. I know how about I use the word bethmoore so I can “experience” moore of ….whatever it is I’m supposed to experience


  8. Diane,

    “The Fam Cub that one can join and talk about your fasting experiences” This fasting is part of the fad of CSM I’m writing about. It’s the pietistic asceticism-lite these so-called spiritual disciplines produce.

    This is confusion of Law and Gospel. While fasting is part of a Christian’s life, we don’t fast because it obligates God to “deepen our faith.” We fast quietly to spend more time in prayer and the Word.

    The Word Faith and Seeker Driven attractional camps are all, right now, a-buzz 21 day fasts to begin this year. Fasting in and of itself is beneficial; that said, Daniel’s life is not normative for all believers.


  9. So just so I am understanding correctly, since this part of my comment was not addressed, then it would be ok to form clubs and post your name on a blog in a fasting type club…? To do this kind of fasting publicly is not doing what Matt 6:18 warns about?
    “so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.”


  10. I apologize–I did not see where it was specifically addressed that public posting of a fast club type thing is wrong….just that fasting is beneficial, and the purpose of it is to spend more time in prayer and the Word, and that clubs and 21 days fasts are fads of CSM….
    but glad we agree.:-)


  11. I don’t like some of these blogs that share intimacy moments that should be between you and the Lord-fasting, deep heart-wrenching prayers, your experiences of God’s love shed abroad in your heart-Romans 5:5. Our personal subjective experiences with the Lord are just that- they are not objective truths and can lead us astray; we are to truly anchor our faith in God’s word.

    To me the only thing I can compare it to is this; It is like talking about what you did in the privacy of your own bedroom with your spouse to your friends. Some of these things should be between you and the Lord and no further.

    One other thing that I would add is it is God who inspires us to fear him and not us trying to muster it up-Jeremiah 32:40. Sometimes in the past, I’ve found myself in deep prayer and somehow if my prayers were long enough or convincing and buttered up enough, the Lord would smile on me and grant those prayers for people to be saved for instance. I’ve learned no not at all. WE need for him to do as David said “Psalm 51:10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” All the mustering on my part can do nothing. He’s the Creator. And I’ve learned that I need to ask HIM to teach me how to pray according to his will because really only He grants the increase in people’s lives and cultivates the soil of their hearts

    Thanks Mike


  12. Dear Mike,

    After God opened my eyes to the state of Evangelical Church in 2008 my world was irrevocably altered.

    The first few months were like Ezekiel (chapter 8), the Lord revealing the evil being done in the very Temple of the Living God! [Was very difficult to recover from this one.] After this came the mourning like Jeremiah (chapter 9). There was hardly a day in 2009 that I did not weep for the apostasy of God’s children (among many things, mysticism enveloping Christianity like a lethal cloud). Then came Daniel (chapter 9) and I learned how to pray and intercede by first approaching God with clean hands and a pure heart (to the best of my ability with help of the Holy Spirit:), trying to follow Daniel’s example of pleading for God’s children who had strayed and ask the Lord to have mercy on them and grant them repentence if it was His will. Then learing to accept God’s will either to be like Isaiah (chapter 6) where the people would NOT listen or perphaps God would allow it to be like Nehemiah (chapter 9) when the people recognized their sin and repented and turned to God!

    At any rate I made it to Zechariah 4:6 “Then he said to me, ‘This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel saying, ; Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’ says the Lord of hosts.”

    God is building His Church. Not with human hands but by His Spirit, bringing to life His children, one by one, known before the foundation of the world. We the living stones being built together to bring glory to God in His new Temple that will be complete when His last precious person is brought to faith in Jesus Christ our Wonderful, Gracious Savior.

    NOTHING will thwart God’s eternal plan for the salvation of His people through Christ alone. Praise God if your one of the remnant and continue to pray for all those God places in your path and for the purity and Spiritual cleansing of His people to come to Him with all their heart.

    In the immeasurable lovingkindness of the name above all names, Jesus,


  13. You have it right Charrise and I have been down that very same path. It took a long while to realize that the visible church is not the same thing as The Church God is building. Yes, The Church overlaps and in many areas with the apostate visible church, but we who see the evil must continue to warn and teach and be separate from what is not of God. Yes, it is painful and as we stand firm against this evil from within, it can cause many in that apostate visible church to turn on us with hatred and viciousness. Been there, experienced that… However, we must pray for them not hate them as we keep our eyes on the prize.

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff

    ps: Thanks for the beautiful Christmas Card. 🙂


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