Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered Book Review

Spiritual Formation Book

       Born in Seattle, Washington, James C. Wilhoit has served on the faculty of Wheaton College since 1981. Currently he serves as the Scripture Press Chair of Christian Formation and Ministry. His extensive academic achievements include: a Ph.D. from Northwestern in Religion, a M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a Master of Religious Education from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a B.A. from the University of Washington in History.[1]

            Wilhoit writes this work, “As an evangelical and one who is deeply concerned about the erosion of intentional practices of spiritual formation in many of our churches.”[2] His overreaching goal is, “Not reversing a trend, but about a call to intentionality about our formation and to repentance about how we have tried to engineer formation more than we have prayerfully opened our lives and churches to God’s grace.”[3] Wilhoit begins by establishing spiritual formation is the task of the church, which is structured around the framework of receiving, remembering, responding, and relating. Intentionality is at the forefront of Wilhoit’s approach and he links it closely to community. He then defines spiritual formation as, “The intentional communal process of growing in our relationship with God and becoming conformed to Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.” Wilhoit also concludes, “The primary motivation behind spiritual formation involves understanding the gospel and seeing its fruit grow in our lives.”[4] The gospel not only calls one to discipleship, it also contains the power to follow and live like Christ. Just as Christ came to serve, Christians are also called to serve and from this foundational-truth, Wilhoit illustrates how Christians are formed to serve and formed by serving.[5] [6] He contends cultivating the instinct to act on the gospel is one of the most important evolutions in the believer’s transformation. Wilhoit also establishes, “Unless the brokenness is a prominent orientation, we will not catch the truth that the church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”[7] Sin separates humanity from God, creating a spiritual chasm that cannot be crossed without divine influence, which came in the form of the cross, allowing humanity to bridge the gap. Wilhoit demonstrates this principle is crucial to understanding that brokenness extends beyond the individual and is at the heart of true community formation.

Critique

       Wilhoit contends, “From personal brokenness and reflection I have come to see that the gospel is not simply the door of faith; it must also be a compass I daily use to orient my life and a salve I apply for the healing of my soul. It is in returning again and again to the cross that we receive the grace that transforms us.”[8] For this writer, his transparency is refreshing and his aim for spiritual formation, restoration, and wholeness are well presented. He shows how greater dependence on the grace of Christ is best explained as a transformation that is never-ending. From the moment of salvation, the believer is made new, but that is only the beginning of the metamorphosis. The longer one walks with Christ, the more they should embody His likeness.

       All spiritual growth springs forth from God’s grace, which leads to Wilhoit’s premise that, “We are all born homesick, longing for a land and a way of life we have never directly experienced, but which we know is somewhere, or at least ought to exist.”[9] This notion rings more true as each generation emerges feeling less a part of society and being ostracized for their differences. Our brokenness leaves us empty, broken, and thirsty. “[Our] brokenness forces us to find a source of love outside ourselves and that source is God.” Without God in our lives we will never find meaning or purpose in life. He is the source of all our longings, leading to the two great invitations of Jesus: to love and obey God, and to love one another. From this invitation, the natural response is to spread the gospel and extend His compassion to the lost and hurting.[10]

       Wilhoit also does a good job explaining how the church has found itself heavily influenced by a consumer view of religion and explains the necessity to be consumers, but consumers of God’s grace. Here, Wilhoit demonstrates the perception of the cross and explains that by allowing the cross to grow larger in one’s life increases the awareness of God’s grace, which is infinite.[11] God’s grace not only restores the believer, it also allows the believers to forgive themselves and live a life of freedom. Sin brings with it such bondage that causes many to live in shame and guilt. This is why Jesus calls His followers to cast their cares and burdens on Him, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light.[12] Wilhoit then demonstrates how this process happens in the community of faith. The church is now known more for what it is against than what it is for, largely because when people fell short of the glory of God, they were called out or shunned. Wilhoit’s model provides a way for believers to be restored intimately with God within the community of faith. This is the picture Jesus had for the local church: working together, loving one another, and relying solely on the mercy and grace of God. The church has become a lid to spiritual formation, but by applying Wilhoit’s model, it will allow a great number of toxic churches/families/relationships to begin the road back to love, acceptance, and forgiveness.

       This work has many things going for it. (1) There is already a trend among churches seeking to go back to the early church model, so it contains sound theological principles and practices. (2) In a age where everyone wants things quicker, cheaper, and easier, Wilhoit provides practical steps, which when applied will lead to spiritual formation both on the personal level and communal. (3) There is something for anyone who reads this book making it valuable to a new and mature believer. (4) Lastly, in an individualistic and consumer-dominated era, Wilhoit brilliantly, “Navigates the delicate balance between the personal appropriation of spiritual truth and the reality that our faith is a historically grounded community event.”[13]

Application

       As Wilhoit explains, “Much of our failure in conceptualizing spiritual formation comes from our failure to keep the gospel central to our ministry.”[14] Jerry Bridges explains, “Our first problem is that our attitude toward sin is more self-centered than God-centered.” Viewing others through the lens of the cross serves as a reminder that Jesus has become the mediator between God and believers. As this perception of others and their circumstances becomes the norm, it will lead to closer fellowship with God, as well as being able to speak into the lives of the lost and hurting. As Wilhoit demonstrates, “[Dependence] on the cross seems to become a means of transportation rather than God’s means of transformation.”[15] He shows, because of our blindness and self-justifying behavior, we can only perceive a small cross. This causes the perceived need for grace to fall drastically short of one’s actual need for grace, which is infinite.[16] One of this writer’s primary roles is overseeing the spiritual formation of over one thousand members. For many believers, their past mistakes are a stumbling block to what God wants to do in and through them. Wilhoit’s work will be an invaluable resource to unlocking the full potential of His mercy and grace for both the church and the believer’s life. Viewing others through the lens of the cross will give believers a much better perspective that the people they interact with daily may be prisoners of war in a battle they do not even know exists. Real spiritual formation and growth is possible; the problem, as Wilhoit highlights, is “Culture and sadly many churches seek to squeeze believers into a mold of simply being nice and seeking a sensible consumer-oriented faith that meets our needs and avoids offending anyone else.”[17] There is no quick fix model or six-step process. Wilhoit explains, “The deep longing for Christlikeness is a longing for God Himself and the primary motivator for deep spiritual transformation. Seeking Christlikeness is a lifelong endeavor that requires personal and corporate commitment to both active and passive stances.”[18] This lifelong endeavor is one rooted out of the four dimensions of community formation: receiving, remembering, responding, and relating. To receive is to cultivate spiritual openness through confession, worship, sacraments, and prayer. To remember allows transformation to occur through teaching, preaching, evangelism, meditation, spiritual guidance, and small groups. To respond engages the believer in service, which is what God calls every believer to do and allows for ministries of compassion. Lastly, to relate opens the door for one’s spiritual formation to take place in community, which breeds hospitality, honor, respect, and handling conflict well.[19]

Bibliography

Wheaton College, (Wheaton, IL).  http://www.wheaton.edu/Academics/Faculty/W/James-Wilhoit (accessed July 15, 2016).

Wilhoit, James C. Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2008.

 


[1] Wheaton College, (Wheaton, IL),  http://www.wheaton.edu/Academics/Faculty/W/James-Wilhoit (accessed July 15, 2016).

[2] James C. Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic Publishing Group, 2008), 13.

[3] Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation, 14.

[4] Ibid., 32.

[5] Ephesians 3:7

[6] Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation, 149.

[7] Ibid., 58.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation, 64.

[10] Ibid., 46.

[11] Ibid., 107.

[12] Matthew 11:29-30

[13] Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation, 117.

[14] Ibid., 27.

[15] Ibid., 28.

[16] Wilhoit, Spiritual Formation, 107.

[17] Ibid., 33.

[18] Ibid., 55.

[19]  Ibid., 50.

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