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What is Spiritual Formation? Dr. Kyle Strobel

Home » What is Spiritual Formation? Dr. Kyle Strobel

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Strobel on spiritual formation.

Topics of conversation include:

  • How to define spiritual formation
  • The definitive vs. progressive nature of salvation
  • The difference between habituation and abiding/drawing near to God
  • The influence of Jonathan Edwards on spiritual formation, and what we can learn from him today
  • Resources for further study on this topic

Dr. Kyle Strobel holds a PhD from Aberdeen University, and serves as assistant professor of Spiritual Theology and Formation at Talbot School of Theology. He is the author of Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards (IVP Books, 2013), and is also on the preaching team at Redeemer Church in La Mirada, California.

 


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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

 

Brian Arnold (00:16):

As humans made in the image of God, we are spiritual beings. Not only are we made up of body and spirit, but we were created to have a spiritual relationship with our Creator. But what is this spiritual relationship supposed to look like? Do we lose ourselves in a euphoric moment of ecstasy with the Spirit? Or are we supposed to be caught up in a divine revelation, or vision, or dream? Or does the spiritual life exist just in our reading of Scripture and prayer? Well, growing in godliness and Christ-like maturity means that we must be formed by the Spirit in a life that is fully oriented towards God. In a time of confusion about spiritual formation, we need clarity that is grounded in Scripture and practiced in church history. Spiritual immaturity is ubiquitous, and more than ever we need, as Paul said, to present every person mature in Christ. Well, to help us think through the confusion on spiritual formation, we have with us today, Dr. Kyle Strobel. Dr. Strobel earned his PhD from the University of Aberdeen, and is a systematic theologian who teaches spiritual theology for Talbots Institute for Spiritual Formation and Spiritual Formation Focus programs. His areas of interest include systematic theology, Jonathan Edwards, spiritual formation, and prayer. And in addition to his impressive academic career, Dr. Strobel is on the preaching team at Redeemer Church in California. Dr. Strobel, welcome to the podcast.

 

Kyle Strobel (01:33):

Hey, thanks so much for having me.

 

Brian Arnold (01:35):

So Kyle, we always ask our guests one big question. Today that question is going to be—what is spiritual formation? Obviously this is something that you have thought a lot about, written a lot about. Let’s just go right at it. How would you define spiritual formation?

 

Kyle Strobel (01:49):

Yeah, I think this is a really great question, and I think it’s one that often gets misunderstood. You know, spiritual formation, at its kind of barest, is simply growth in Christ by the Spirit. Right? And so, your intro did a great job of just kind of naming that. I think what tends to be confused today, is people think it’s a view of something. And by that, I mean, they go—oh, you believe in spiritual formation, therefore you believe X, whatever X is, you know. When in reality, every Christian believes in spiritual formation, because it simply names what is true of growth in the Christian life. And so we have to then distinguish—well, there’s going to be kind of Wesleyan varieties of that, and there’s going to be Reformed varieties of that. And the Roman Catholics are going to have their own versions of that. And that means when we talk about spiritual formation, that’s going to lead us into certain kinds of questions that are going to be governed by how we understand salvation, by how we understand God’s action and our action, by how we understand doctrines like sanctification, and how we make sense of what the tradition has often called the means of grace, and these means by which we grow in the Christian life. And so, in short, it just is the work of the Spirit to grow us more and more into the likeness of Jesus.

 

Brian Arnold (03:05):

I think it’s helpful for you to trace out some of those streams, even, that it differs historically based on tradition. And I want to talk about some of those different pieces, because I think for a lot of people today, when they hear spiritual formation, there is kind of a Catholic connotation to that idea, that doesn’t sound as, you know, Protestant, or even in the Reformed tradition, or even necessarily in the Wesleyan tradition, not spoken of in terms like that. So there seems to be a revival, if you will, of spiritual formation, of that language in recent years. How did that happen? Where did that come about, and how do you see the connotation of spiritual formation?

 

Kyle Strobel (03:48):

Yeah. So there’s a couple of key things here, I think. In general, the way that I’ve seen at least, that the new conversation of spiritual formation arise…and most people would turn back to like Richard Foster’s book on spiritual disciplines, and that came out in 1978.

 

Brian Arnold (04:01):

Yeah. That was kind of like a watermark moment in this discussion.

 

Kyle Strobel (04:04):

It was, yeah. And it’s interesting, because Richard just kind of looked around and was like—you know, we used to talk a lot about spiritual disciplines, and we don’t anymore. You know, it wasn’t like a whole methodological proposal. The problem is, we led with spiritual disciplines and that isn’t…and so a lot of people just think—oh, spiritual formation, that’s like doing disciplines, right? It’s like, no—you know, spiritual formation has to reach much farther back into a doctrine of salvation than that. And I worry that in many circles, what spiritual formation has become is basically a kind of self-help endeavor, where we merely employ spiritual disciplines to try to grow ourselves. And at its worst case side that that has happened. I think there’s actually a deeper problem, though, in the tradition with this. If you look at the Protestant tradition, we’ve just never landed on a term for this. It’s really peculiar. I mean, if you read The Institutes, you know, Calvin’s doing this very doctrinal thing, and then suddenly it’s just “the Christian life.” And we’re left to wonder, is that a doctrine? Is that just stuff we’re now kind of tacking on the end? What are we talking about, here? The Dutch refer to it as “Christian ethics.”

 

Brian Arnold (05:19):

Bavink, right? You would you’d get that kind of flavor. And with Calvin, even, you get the union with Christ as a major motif in his writings and in his thought. And in that there is spiritual formation, but he doesn’t really explain thoroughly kind of how those connect.

 

Kyle Strobel (05:35):

That’s right. And so the tradition kind of developed it under different language. You know, the Puritans would talk about experiential divinity, sometimes practical divinity, or what we call practical theology. And so the term spiritual formation, I, you know, I think we…you could just kind of see throughout the tradition, we just have grasped terms trying to kind of name this conversation. And I think, you know, one of the biggest problems that happened in the evangelical church, really through our pastor training, is that in the seminary, the way the seminary developed, there was really no place for the Christian life to go. And the modern seminaries divided up what we used to just call “divinity” into a dozen different areas. Right? So now we study New Testament, or Old Testament, we study systematic theology, we study biblical theology, we study pastoral theology, homiletics, you know, all these different things.

 

Kyle Strobel (06:24):

Well, there’s all these questions that we used to talk about under these other headings, like Christian ethics. If you want a good example, even, you know, prior to Bavink, someone like Richard Baxter, for instance, in his famous Christian Directory, the whole first section, which is what we would just call spiritual formation, he just calls “Christian Ethics.” And he’s asking really important questions about—what is the Christian life like? You know, why do I struggle in prayer is a question they used to talk a lot about. Or someone, like in my own background, Jonathan Edwards, you know, he would turn to kind of questions of practical theology or practical divinity, and he would talk about, you know—well, what does it look like to discern the work of the Spirit? And how do we compare that to, say, something like mob mentality? You know, during the Great Awakening you have thousands of people claiming to have been born again.

 

Kyle Strobel (07:19):

Well, how do I discern—is that true? And so, because this had no kind of obvious place to land, I think, in the modern academy, we tended to kind of, for a while, just lose it altogether. And the modern recovery is an attempt, I think, to ask these questions again. At its worst, it asks them separated from Bible and theology. At its best, I think, it is a recovery of what we see in our own tradition, doing quite well from the beginning of really wrestling through—what does this look like on the ground? You know, it’s why Calvin doesn’t give us what Aquinas gives us. He doesn’t give us a sum of theology, but a sum of piety. And it’s—what does it actually look like to walk in the Spirit?

 

Brian Arnold (08:02):

Yeah. Well, let me go back and grab something you said earlier. Because I think people listening might think—well, spiritual formation…my pastor talks about that, some, it is reading my Bible and praying. But you said, you know, it’s not the totality of the disciplines. And I will say I’ve benefited greatly from Don Whitney’s book on spiritual disciplines. I think it’s really helpful for believers to understand some of those rhythms that we have in the Christian life and experience that do bring us closer to God, whether it’s reading Scripture and hearing God, us praying to the Lord, journaling, or fasting. Some of those disciplines that have kind of fallen by the wayside. But it’s not just that, is it? And so you said it is actually grounded in salvation. So maybe walk us through what that looks like, from I’m saved, I’ve become a believer, the Holy Spirit’s now indwelling me, and now I’m beginning this spiritual life with God where I’m supposed to be formed spiritually. And that includes the disciplines, but that’s not the totality of it. So how do you kind of put that all together?

 

Kyle Strobel (09:03):

Yeah. Yeah. Well, I think, something you said earlier just named it really well, as Calvin does so well in his thought, that union with Christ is the kind of center of this. That in salvation, we’ve received Jesus by his Spirit. And so one of the things that means is we have been sanctified. You know, I think today we tend to focus too much on the progressive side of sanctification, that we miss what we used to call its definitive nature. You know, in 1 Corinthians 1:30, we’re told that Christ is our sanctification. In Hebrews 10:10, we’re told that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ, once and for all. And so there’s this element of—we have been sanctified. And we see in Scripture that things are sanctified for God’s presence and action. That by being sanctified, God has ushered us into his presence and his life.

 

Kyle Strobel (09:57):

And so now the Christian life is embracing his presence and his life. It’s the same thing that we see in the Exodus, really. And it’s unsurprising that in the New Testament, the Exodus is the same motif for us in our salvation—that God has delivered us from the evil age in order to have life with him and his Son. And so he has sanctified us for his life and presence. And so now when we look at what we used to call means of grace, what we now tend to call spiritual disciplines. These aren’t merely ways to habituate a life. Like that’s Aristotle. Aristotle is going to give us—oh, you want to be good, you want to be virtuous? Okay, well, habituate a life. Figure out where you have vices, and habituate virtue. Try hard to work at it. And we all know that there’s good here.

 

Kyle Strobel (10:44):

There’s just certain things we need to know about our bodies and how humans function. But the Protestant tradition has always really worried about how much we get blinded by Aristotle, because the Christian life is not merely becoming good. It’s not a kind of moralism. That we are called to abide, and we are called to bear fruit. And so when you look at Paul’s language from Romans 12:1, for instance, he turns to temple or tabernacle language about drawing near to God, sacrificially. So we are to present our bodies as living sacrifices. And in Romans 6, he actually says present yourself. And so there’s this kind of way to draw near where we are presenting ourselves. And that’s precisely what we’re doing when we do spiritual practices. We’re not merely kind of forming a life, as if somehow, you know, Jesus died on the cross, he’s ascended back to the right hand of God in order so we can get our act together.

 

Kyle Strobel (11:39):

Like that’s not the vision here. It’s—he’s done this work, precisely so that we can draw near, I mean, one of the maybe most shocking kind of contrasts in Scripture is when you look at Exodus, you know, don’t draw near lest you die. And then you get to the book of Hebrews, and it’s boldly ascend to the throne of grace. And so these spiritual practices that we’re given are all forms of drawing near to God, and of offering ourselves to him. And so whatever else, spiritual formation is, it is utterly impossible unless it is in and through Christ, by the Spirit. And I really worry about accounts—and there’s plenty of accounts on offer out there—where you can kind of get rid of Christ and the Spirit. And sadly, you wouldn’t probably have to change too much about the account.

 

Brian Arnold (12:29):

Yeah, because like you said before, self-help. Bookstores are filled with books about how to do this. And there’s kind of a spiritual formation, kind of like that—I’m spiritual, but not religious. So I don’t really want Christ and Christianity, but I want to be spiritual and I want to be formed, which is self-help-ism, and that’s not helpful. I think you’ve done a really good job of even laying the biblical foundations for this. What does it mean to be in Christ? How does that look across the Testaments? I love what you did with Exodus and Hebrews, there. I think it’s a beautiful sign of the new covenant that we can approach the throne of grace with confidence. That Christ is there to intercede on our behalf. And, you know, you mentioned our position in sanctification. I think that is important—that we are positionally sanctified. Christ is our sanctification.

 

Brian Arnold (13:10):

As Paul even says in 1 Corinthians elsewhere, he’s talking to them as “the saints,” which are the holy ones, the sanctified ones, but also progressive. And there’s a reality in which we are going to grow in godliness and pursue Christ through the Spirit. And by doing that, we are being spiritually formed, as we are being transformed from one degree of glory to the next, as we are being molded into the likeness of Christ. I love how the Puritans really set forth that bold vision. Now that’s like a dirty word in English today, is Puritans, but they really have a deep God-wardness to them. Now a lot of your work has been with a person that’s debated as to whether or not he’s a Puritan, and that’s Jonathan Edwards. I actually like to keep the pond separated a little bit and talk about English puritanism, especially in the 17th century, but then…I’m sorry, in the sixth…in the…yeah, in the 17th century, and then, you know, Edwards born at the beginning part of the 18th century, 1703. And you have found him to be a great model for what does this look like, to be formed in Christ for spiritual formation? So why did you look to Edwards? Why is he such a great model for retrieval? What can we learn from him that would really help Christians benefit in our day?

 

Kyle Strobel (14:25):

Yeah. You know, Edwards, I think Edwards is interesting for a lot of reasons. I mean, even simply because he really is the fountainhead of one kind of side of evangelicalism in America today. And so, you know, as I tell my students, I was like, you know, when you look at Edwards, you can kind of see what we would have assumed to be true if we would have lived 300 years ago, and it’s worthwhile meditating on that. Because a lot of things, he assumed are things we don’t assume. And we have to have some serious questions about that. But in Edwards, we get this really holistic vision of what does it mean to really ground spiritual formation in the gospel, such that we see our growth as growth from God? As Paul says, the growth comes from God. And yet that doesn’t somehow mean we turn kind of to passivity. But we’re given this series of things that the Scriptures call us to do.

 

Kyle Strobel (15:22):

And yet we do them as a way of abiding. And when Edwards gives us this theologically, we have the categories of glory, of God has kind of revealed his glory to us by faith so that we may be transformed from one degree of glory to another, in 2 Corinthians 3. And then you get to 2 Corinthians 4:6, when we get—well, what is that? It’s the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Well, how do we, by faith, attend to Christ? You know, Edwards would call that contemplation. Or how do we give ourselves to reading Scripture? Well, there’s this whole account of kind of meditation. What does it mean to meditate deeply on God’s Word, to kind of internalize it as God’s word? And you know, one of my favorite spiritual practices of this day, what they called conferencing. And conferencing, you had all these different conferencing relationships, but there was really kind of two major parts.

 

Kyle Strobel (16:15):

One was very objective. Like, do we know what Scripture says? And so if you’re…if it’s after church, you might ask, you know—was the pastor right on Sunday morning? And that gives your family or your friends a chance to say, where else in Scripture do we see this? And so there was a really high level of, not only biblical literacy, but expectation that every believer should be able navigate Scripture. But they wouldn’t merely leave it there. The next question would be—what did your heart do when the Word was proclaimed? How does Scripture kind of attack you, to use language of Hebrews 4 a bit? And what are the thoughts and intentions that come up from your heart? And so Edwards gives us this really holistic vision of this. And yet it’s deeply grounded in—what does it mean that God has offered himself to us in Christ, in the Spirit?

 

Kyle Strobel (17:04):

And so one of the—in my estimation—one of the key hallmarks of Reformed theology, from Calvin on, is that growth is relational. And we only grow as we stand before him who has given himself to us in Christ Jesus. And that means we have to stand before the one who has the double-edged sword that pierces us, and it divides us and, you know, awakens the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. But it’s also the same one who said there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. And so there’s a real kind of drawing near to God, who has already drawn near to you, who has sanctified you. So you can kind of share life in his presence. And you know, the Puritans in this day—so yeah, I actually agree with you, I think it is kind of good to separate the pond there a little bit—but what we get with Edwards is the kind of early evangelical…

 

Kyle Strobel (17:57):

We have this really holistic vision, not only of individual life and practices, we have these letters that Edwards will write to his children, for instance, telling them—you need to get away from the regular rhythms of your life, and you need to take a solitude retreat and meditate on how your sins have shaped you. Which is really interesting. I’m not actually sure…he’s warning them about all the chaos of the world. You know, it’s pre-electricity, so I’m like, what was so chaotic about your world that they needed retreats? But then you get all these rhythms of, you know, what does it mean to be a part of the covenant community? What does it mean to hear the Word of the Lord declared as a member of that body? What does fasting look like? What does practicing Sabbath entail? You know, he gives us this vision, and it’s never merely habituating goodness, but it’s always a kind of embracing of the grace that is given to us, so that we can draw near to God, and know the growth that truly only comes from God.

 

Brian Arnold (18:54):

And I think pulling out some of those practices that have just kind of gone dormant in a lot of Christian’s lives. You mentioned things like meditation. I think when people think meditation today, it’s more of a Buddhist kind of sense, of let’s make my mind this tranquil pond that nothing can set a ripple upon. But I need to empty, instead of, you know, for Edwards and the Psalmist, filling the mind with the things of God, and meditating and ruminating on those things to lead to greater spiritual depth and growth. Well, let me ask you this, as we maybe kind of start to transition. As a pastor, how do you guide people in your church to grow spiritually? To form? Like, what would you say to somebody in two minutes in your church, who said, “Kyle, help me with spiritual formation.” How would you encourage them as a pastor?

 

Kyle Strobel (19:41):

Well, honestly, you know, the first thing I would do is I actually wouldn’t turn immediately to spiritual formation. I’m going to ask two primary questions. One is going to have to do with how they understand God. And I want them to be able to articulate to me, not theologically, but how…like when you go to pray, who do you stand before? Is it a God who’s rolling his eyes at you? Is it a judge who cannot be placated? Is it, you know, what…like what’s actually going on in your understanding of God? You know, you have that great Tozer line—if you could find out what someone believes about God, you can kind of name everything in their life. But then I also want to sit with the gospel with them, and I want to really help them see that for many people in the church, they have a very reductive gospel and they don’t yet fully understand that God has actually given himself to them in Christ.

 

Kyle Strobel (20:37):

And so I want to start there, because if we don’t start there, our foundation will be off kilter. And I worry that if I lead them into any sort of practices, now they’re going to construct a kind of moralism. But if, assuming we have a robust account of God that is biblically accurate and theologically astute, and assuming they understood the gospel, I tend to lead and to start with prayer, because I find prayer is a little bit of the Christian life in miniature. Whatever your temptations are in the Christian life, those tend to come out in prayer. And I often lead people to the Psalms. You know, begin praying the Psalms. And as Paul says in Colossians 2, continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it. You know, one of the Puritans and early evangelical’s favorite words was watchful. Attend to your heart.

 

Kyle Strobel (21:33):

What don’t you bring to God? Or what’s going on when you go to pray? Does your mind wander? Why? What is the Lord doing in that? You know, why does God’s presence awaken in your heart other treasures than him? What do you want to do, rather than be with God? And be very watchful of your heart in his presence. Be watchful what you say in prayer. You know, are you trying to placate God with your words, your theological savvy? You’re kind of saying the right sorts of things? You know, how are you navigating that space? And I think one of the things we discover in prayer, is we discover all of our idolatry. And the Psalms will help you see that, because you’ll realize there’s a lot of the Psalms you don’t think you can pray faithfully. And I think one of the reasons they are in the canon at all, is to kind of show us that we usher in quite a lot of the flesh with us, as we seek to be with our Lord.

 

Brian Arnold (22:33):

Well, I think that’s convicting, even for my own heart, of thinking—if a prayer life is the Christian life in miniature, I think that’s a challenge for a lot of us. Give me some resources. What are some of your favorite places to send people when they are starting to think about this topic?

 

Kyle Strobel (22:52):

Well, I usually send people directly to the Psalms. I mean, that really would be, you know, like the first place to go. After that, you know, I have a real love of the Puritan tradition. You know, one of the reasons I’ve done so much work on Edwards, is to try to make his resources available. I did a book called Formed for the Glory of God, which tried to say—what was Edwards’s view of spiritual formation? Just to try to…because, sadly, there’s really not one place you can go. But I do think, you know, Edwards…there’s two of Edwards’s works that I find really accessible. The first is Charity and its Fruits, and that’s just his meditation on 1 Corinthians 13. And there’s just something that is just so profoundly rich about a theological mind as deep as Edwards’s just meditating on love.

 

Kyle Strobel (23:46):

But then I still think his Religious Affections is an absolute classic. And the questions he asks there, having to do with—what does it mean to discern the work of the Spirit? And what does it mean to have, not only what he would call a speculative knowledge of God, which is the same kind of knowledge that the demons have, but an affectionate knowledge of God, a knowledge of God of the heart? And I think there’s so much work in the Puritans that still needs to be recovered. And whether that’s Richard Baxter, whether that’s, you know, someone like Sibbes, or, you know, there’s a whole slew of these figures who did such rich pastoral and biblical theological work on the Christian life, that I think, you know, that’s usually where I turn rather quickly.

 

Brian Arnold (24:33):

Yeah, it’s a beautiful era of church history, as far as for the soul. And so let me just tell listeners, your book on Jonathan Edwards Formed for the Glory of God is fantastic, a great entry point to Edwards. And so I would highly recommend it to those listening. And then, you know, some of these names might be new to people, who have not heard of Sibbes or Baxter, or Watson, or, you know, Brooks, or any of these other great Puritans. So maybe a Bruised Reed would be a great place to start for people thinking through where to begin with the Puritans. That’s one of my favorite launching pads for them.

 

Kyle Strobel (25:11):

Yeah, totally. That’s a beautiful book.

 

Brian Arnold (25:13):

Well, Kyle, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about spiritual formation, situating it in Christ and making sure that people recognize that it’s our union with him out of which all of this comes. And then thinking about things like prayer and meditation as ways to really grow in our Christ-likeness and be formed for the glory of God. So thank you so much for being with us.

 

Kyle Strobel (25:34):

Oh, of course. Thank you so much for having me.

 

Outro (25:37):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.

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