I have just started reading a book that has been on my shelf for several years: Revolution of Character, by Don Simpson and Dallas Willard. The book is an abridgement and distillation by Simpson of Willard’s book Renovation of the Heart. Recent sin in my life has made me hunger again for robust and deep spiritual formation, yet I’m still wary of legalistic effort-driven approaches to personal holiness because I know they don’t work.
This summary of spiritual formation from Revolution of Character gives me hope that there really is a grace-empowered, Jesus-centred way of spiritual formation that can bring true life transformation (emphasis mine):
Christian spiritual formation is focused entirely on Jesus. Its goal is conformity to Christ, a process that arises out of purposeful interaction with the grace of God in Christ. Obedience is an essential outcome (see John 13:34-35; 14:21).
However, we cannot manifest Christlikeness through a primary focus on external behavior. When externals are the main emphasis, spiritual formation doesn’t really happen. The process falls into deadening legalisms. This is what has happened so often in the past. Peculiar modes of dress, behavior, and organization don’t change the heart.
Externalism was a danger even in New Testament times. But “that Christ be formed within you” has always been the true watchword of Christian spiritual formation (Galatians 4:19). This watchword is fortified by the deep moral and spiritual insight that while “the letter of the law kills, the spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
To illustrate briefly, Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5-7) refer to various wrong behaviors: acting out in anger, looking so as to lust, heartless divorce, verbal manipulation, returning evil for evil, and so forth. But as abundant experience teaches, to strive merely to act in conformity with Jesus’ expressions of what living in the kingdom of God is like is to attempt the impossible. We may work hard at it and keep up a good front for a while, but eventually we fall flat on our faces.