There has been much confusion about the meaning and usage of these words: discipleship, spiritual formation, and Christian spiritual formation. These words are sometimes used interchangeably by some teachers while others offered a more nuanced definition. Here I will offer some definitions of these terms.
Spiritual formation is the process of forming our inner spiritual beings (soul) which manifest outwardly as our character. This is an ongoing process which starts when we are in our mothers’ womb and continues until we die. There are numerous influences that affect our spiritual formation which includes our cultural legacy, our childhood experiences, our ethnicity, the socio-political environments in which we live in, the dominant culture in our society, and our social interactions with other people, including our family members. Often these influences act subconsciously by a process of socialization or enculturation. In other words, all of us are undergoing spiritual formation all the time, whether we are conscious of it or not.
Christian conversion (accepting Christ) involves a change in status by our justification by faith, and of the formative regeneration of our souls (sanctification). Christian spiritual formation starts after conversion. Christian spiritual formation is the process of the redemptive inner transformation of the character of a person to reflect the character of Christ himself. There are two components to Christian spiritual formation: (1) the work of the Holy Spirit, and (2) the willingness of a person to follow Christ in discipleship. Christian spiritual formation is a collaborative divine-human interaction. The influences that act on Christian spiritual formation are similar to those experiences by all living human beings. Additional influences are the formative practices of the Christian faith communities (Christian education) and the Word of God.
Discipleship is the part of Christian spiritual formation where we can be actively involved in. The Holy Spirit is ever willing to be involved but respect our choices and will not force us to be disciples. Discipleship is following and obeying the teachings of Jesus Christ and in doing so, we become Christ-like in our character. Jesus summarizes this by saying that, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). To be his follower, Jesus points out that there is a part about denying self, and there is another part about following him. Luke helpfully gives us some essential features on discipleship. These essentials are trust (Lk 9:37-43); suffering (Lk 9:44-45); humility (Lk 9:46-50); purpose (Lk 9: 51-56); commitment (Lk 9: 57-62); involvement (Lk 10:1-20), and prayer (Lk 10:21-24). However all these need the work of the Holy Spirit if Christian spiritual formation is to take place. We cannot will or discipline our bodies into spiritual transformation.
The purpose (telos) of Christian spiritual formation is three-fold reflecting the economy of the Triune God. Christian spiritual formation is (1) to restore image of God (imago Dei) within us so that we reflect the character of Christ; (2) to form a people of God –the body of Christ; and (3) to be part of God’s plan of reconciliation with all of creation (missio Dei). Christian spiritual formation is Trinitarian in basis as it is an invitation to join in the perichoresis or eternal dance of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
So let us embark on the journey of Christian spiritual formation, availing ourselves to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit, and intentionally becoming disciples of Jesus Christ with “informed minds, hearts on fire, and contemplative in actions” until “we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18)