Definition of Spiritual Formation at DTS
The process by which God forms Christ’s character in believers by the ministry of the Spirit, in the context of community, and in accordance with biblical standards. This process involves the transformation of the whole person in desires, thoughts, behaviors, and styles of relating with God and others. Such life change is manifest in a growing love for God and others—a dying to self and living for Christ.
To better understand this definition, we will examine each of its phrases.
"The process": Spiritual formation is a life-long process. All who have trusted in Christ and are filled with the Holy Spirit are in process. The process is often slow, sometimes painful, and always filled with hills and valleys along the way. Our intentional engagement in the process is essential, but learning to be patient with God, each other, and ourselves is a vital part of our spiritual formation.
"forms Christ’s character": Spiritual formation is the formation of Christ’s character in us. The Apostle Paul told the Galatians that he was in the pains of childbirth "until Christ is formed in you" (Galatians 4:19). God the Father’s desire for his adopted children is that we become increasingly like his Son, Jesus Christ. This is the ultimate goal of all Christian spiritual formation—to be conformed to the character of Christ.
"by the ministry of the Spirit": Spiritual formation is accomplished only by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of believers. The work of the Spirit in believers affects a transforming process that results in Christlike character. Left to ourselves we are powerless to bring about this transformation. The agent of change in the Christian life is the third person of the Trinity. Our role is to open ourselves up to his work, yielding to him, and allowing him to accomplish his purposes in us.
"in the context of community": Spiritual formation happens in the context of Christian community. Any vision of spiritual formation that does not sufficiently acknowledge the importance of living "life together" misses something essential. God has created us to live in authentic relationships with other people and he uses these relationships to nurture and sustain our spiritual lives.
"in accordance with biblical standards": Christian Scripture is indispensable to the process of spiritual formation. The Bible is the place where the viva vox dei—the living voice of God—is heard today. Not only is the Bible the ultimate norm for Christian faith and practice, it serves as the primary instrument of the Spirit, which he uses to bring about the transformation of our character.
"the transformation of the whole person": Spiritual formation is a holistic process. It is not merely about an internal change in the disposition of our hearts, but an internal change that results in the transformation of our whole self—our desires, thoughts, behaviors, and relationships—so that we can increasingly learn how to live the way Jesus lived, love the way Jesus loved, and serve the way Jesus served.
"a growing love for God and others—a dying to self and living for Christ": Authentic Christian spiritual formation results in a life of service to others and witness for Christ. Spiritual transformation compels us toward mission. All too often we reduce spirituality to "sin management"—learning to manage our fallen, broken natures. But the essence of Christian spirituality as defined by Jesus is loving God with all that we are and all we have and loving our neighbors as ourselves.