Jesus-centred spiritual formation – Dallas Willard and Don Simpson

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.

Neil Cole – Erasing the apostles and prophets

I have long been convinced that all the gifts listed by Paul in Ephesians 4:11 are of vital importance to the health of the church. However, having spent my formative years in a cessationist/conservative evangelical church, I have often felt a certain defensiveness when broaching the subject of modern-day apostles and prophets with those who hail from this background.

The conservative evangelicals I know are convinced that it’s clear and obvious that these were special gifts, limited to the first century of the church. In this view, the apostles and prophets were essentially walking, talking Bibles; authoritative sources of revelation that the church could trust. They were given to the church to ensure the Bible was completed with the New Testament witness to Jesus. Since we now have the Bible, we have no need of these more extraordinary gifts and are left with pastors and teachers whose job it is to explain the Bible for the instruction of the church. Where Roman Catholics claim ongoing apostolic validity via apostolic succession traced down the centuries, conservative evangelicals claim apostolicity through their reliance on the Scriptures.

Combined with their reputation as people of the Word, the conservative evangelical certainty on this matter is formidable. They give the impression that the burden of proof lies with whackos like me who suggest that Jesus may still be giving apostles and prophets to the church today, rather than upon themselves who claim God intended a radical ecclesial shift to occur with the passing of the original apostles.

Primal Fire by Neil ColeWhich is all mere preamble to sharing a quote from Neil Cole’s book about the Ephesians 4 gifts, Primal Fire. Chapter 4 sees Cole tackle the evangelical reluctance to accept contemporary apostles and prophets head-on. In the quote below, he pulls no punches in exposing the emptiness of the establishment tactics to theologise the contemporary apostolic and prophetic ministries out of existence. I found it provocative, encouraging, and emboldening:

Opposition to the prophetic and apostolic gifts is nothing new. Jesus spoke against the religious leaders of His day who honored the very prophets their ancestors had persecuted and killed.

Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. . . . For this reason also the wisdom of God said, “I will send to them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and some they will persecute.
Luke 11:47,49

Today there is no less resistance to the apostolic and prophetic gifts by the religious establishment. But instead of making martyrs of the apostles and prophets and having to raise statues in their name, the religious leaders of our day have found it far easier to theologically define these gifts out of existence. Instead of killing them in public, they have expunged them from their theological textbooks, classrooms, boardrooms, and pulpits. They remove them before they can even become a problem. This is another way of killing them, without having to look like murderers. They simply deny their existence and do not allow any place for them. This they do with their Bibles open, but without a shred of biblical support.

Primal Fire, Neil Cole (p. 62)