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Biblical Spirituality: What is it?

August 1999 | by Michael Haykin

During Easter 1985, Thomas Howard – a graduate of Wheaton College and a professor of English at Gordon College, both long-standing bastions of evangelicalism, and himself the product of a staunch evangelical family, whose sister is Elisabeth Eliot, author and widow of the evangelical martyr Jim Eliot – became a Roman Catholic.

His conversion to Roman Catholicism caused quite a stir at the time in evangelical circles, and Christianity Today, that quintessential evangelical publication, ran a nine-page special report on the event. It makes fascinating reading. When asked why he had decided to make the journey to Rome he cited the ‘shallowness’ of evangelicalism, ‘the desperate, barren, parched nature’ of its worship, and its ‘poverty when it comes to the deeper riches of Christian spirituality’.

Growth industry

Howard’s observation that contemporary evangelical spirituality is poor and shallow is something that many others have also apparently recognised, for a growing number of Evangelicals in the past fifteen years or so have begun to pay more attention to this vital subject. In fact, in evangelical circles, ‘spirituality’ is fast becoming what American evangelical historian Richard Lovelace has called ‘a growth industry’. However, despite this vast increase in interest, there is still a certain vagueness about the meaning of the term ‘spirituality’ and about its essence. This article seeks to lay out simply what biblical spirituality looks like, in terms of its source and its one major component.

Our word ‘spirituality’ comes from the Latin term spiritualitas which, in turn, is derived from the word spiritus, Latin for ‘spirit’. Spiritualitas appears to have been coined by Latin-speaking Christians in North Africa in the second century AD to describe all the activities in a believer’s life that are prompted and inspired by the Holy Spirit. These believers rightly discerned that the Holy Spirit is at the heart of all that can be genuinely called ‘spirituality’. True spirituality is intimately bound up with the Holy Spirit and his work.

The essence

The Holy Spirit is the one who first makes us aware of the fact that we were created to be spiritual beings. It is he who makes God’s love real for us – ‘God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit’ (Romans 5:5). And it is also he who enables us to embrace Christ as Saviour and Lord – ‘no one can say, “Jesus is Lord”, except by the Holy Spirit’ (1 Corinthians 12:3). He gives us the boldness to come into the presence of the awesome and almighty Maker of heaven and earth and call him ‘Dear Father’ – ‘God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father”‘ (Galatians 4:6).

So it is the Spirit who undergirds and empowers the entirety of our spiritual lives. For this very reason the apostle urges us in Galatians 5:25: ‘since we live by the Spirit’ – that is, since we have been given spiritual life by the Spirit – ‘let us keep in step with the Spirit’ – that is, let us live lives characterised by genuine spirituality. But what do such lives look like? What is the essence of spirituality?

We are given an important clue as to the nature of genuine spirituality in John 16:13-14, verses which record important words that Jesus spoke to his disciples on the night of his betrayal. ‘When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you’.

Here, in the words ‘He will bring glory to me’, we have set forth for us what J. I. Packer has rightly called the ‘Holy Spirit’s distinctive new-covenant role’, namely, ‘directing all attention away from himself to Christ and drawing folk into the faith, hope, love, obedience, adoration, and dedication, which constitute communion with Christ’.

Focus on Christ

This ministry of the Spirit in relation to Christ is what Packer goes on to call ‘a floodlight ministry’. I recall very vividly walking around a neighbourhood in west Montreal a number of years ago, in which there were a significant number of wealthy homes. A good number of them had placed floodlights outside of their homes to draw the attention of passers-by like myself to their wealth and achievements.

Now, if instead of focusing on the homes which were lit by the floodlights I had instead concentrated my attention on the floodlights themselves – ‘Oh, that’s an interesting-looking floodlight; I wonder where they bought it’ or ‘what a lovely light that floodlight is giving; I wonder how powerful it is’ – I would have missed the whole meaning and purpose of the floodlights. The owners of the homes had put the floodlights out in front so that I should look at their homes, not at the source of illumination.

So it is with the Spirit. He has been given to us not so that we should focus primarily on him and his work, but that we should focus our thoughts, worship and affections on Christ; that we should love Christ and adore him; that we should seek to live each day in obedience to Jesus.

Here, then, is the rule by which all spirituality must be measured: Is it Christ-centred? Genuine spirituality has this one indispensable mark; it focuses on Christ. As Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) quaintly put it in a sermon preached in July 1884: ‘the Holy Spirit always keeps sweet company with Jesus Christ’.

Out of step

Now, by this gauge, much of Roman Catholic spirituality, with its focus on Mary as a mediatrix alongside Christ, and its veneration of ‘saints’, is revealed to be utterly out of step with the Spirit. But the same plumb-line shows that some of what takes place in charismatic circles also arises from a deeply-skewed spirituality. The Spirit has come to glorify Jesus, to make men and women passionate lovers of the Saviour, not to make them bark like dogs, play-act as lions, or bask in their own spiritual experiences.

The test of Christ-centredness is a measure which reveals other things too. For example, it shows that much of what has passed for ‘deep spiritual teaching’ in evangelical circles has actually little to do with biblical spirituality. I am thinking especially of the millions of books on prophecy that have been sold, and the hundreds of ‘prophecy’ conferences that have been held, many of them filled with fruitless speculation about such things as the identity of the antichrist and the exact nature of the number of the beast.

Paul writing an epistle, by Valentin de Boulogne 1619
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As American evangelical John Armstrong has recently observed, such ‘carnal speculation’ is ‘completely irrelevant for vital godliness’ and true spirituality. Yes, biblical spirituality longs for Christ’s appearing and return (2 Timothy 4:8), but the focus is on seeing Jesus.

Holiness

And this is also a test by which the legalism of some of our evangelical past – ‘don’t do this, don’t have that, don’t go there’ – is shown to be sadly lacking as a model of spirituality. For the focus in legalistic teaching is on externals, and smacks too much of the very thing Paul condemns in Colossians 2:21 as ‘self-imposed worship’. True spirituality is indeed interested in holiness. James tells us that part of what God the Father accepts as ‘pure and faultless’ religion is ‘to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ (James 1:27). But the holiness in view is Christ-centred and fuelled by a longing to be like him.

In the articles to follow, we shall explore biblical spirituality from the vantage-point of church history. Hopefully, this will provide us with resources for discerning and developing a genuinely biblical spirituality, one that honours Jesus Christ.