What We Believe About Spiritual Transformation

A Biblical and Theological Perspective

Following is a brief summary of the core beliefs that form the foundation of our approach to spiritual transformation (spiritual formation).

Christ Formed in Us

Spiritual transformation is the process by which Christ is formed in us …for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives, and for the sake of others.  (Galatians 4:19; Romans 8:29; Romans 12:1, 2) The possibility that human beings can be transformed to such an extent that they image Christ is central to the message of the gospel and therefore it is central to the mission of the Church.  Spiritual transformation in the lives of redeemed people is a testimony to the power of the Gospel and it results in an increasing capacity to discern and do the will of God.  (Romans 12:2)

Renewing the Mind

It is God’s will and delight that we actively resist being conformed to this world and seek instead to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. The Greek word nous (translated mind in Romans 12:2) includes, but goes far beyond, intellectual or cognitive knowing.  It denotes the seat of reflective consciousness and encompasses a person’s faculties of perception and understanding as well as the patterns of feeling, judging and determining that shape our actions and responses in the world.  Thus, any approach to transformation that seeks to bring about real change must go beyond merely grasping information at the cognitive level to full knowledge that impacts our deepest inner orientations and trust structures, false-self patterns, and any obstacles that prevent us from fully surrendering to God.  This kind of change involves clear teaching about the nature of the Christian life, concrete practices that help us internalize truth in ways that change how we respond in the world, and community that supports and catalyzes the process.

The Work of the Spirit

Spiritual transformation is something of a paradox in that it is quite natural for Christ followers to grow and to change just as it is natural for human beings to grow from infancy to childhood to adolescence to adulthood. The seed of the Christ life (“everything we need for life and godliness”) is planted within us at salvation and if the conditions are right, that seed will grow and flourish. However, the process of transformation is also supernatural in that it is something only God can accomplish in our lives through the work of the Holy Spirit.  The third person of the Trinity has been given as our advocate, teacher and counselor to lead us into truth as we are able to bear it (John 15 and 16) and to communicate the depths of God.  (I Corinthians 2:9-16)  We can find ways to open to this process of transformation as it is guided by the Spirit, but we cannot control it or make it happen ourselves. The wind of the Spirit blows where it will. (John 3:8)

Paul alludes to the paradox of the natural and the supernatural by using two metaphors. The first is the process by which an embryo is formed in its mother’s womb:  I am in labor until Christ be formed (morphoo) in you. Even though human beings have their part to play in conceiving and giving birth to children–and even though we think we understand certain facts about it–there is something that remains a mystery.  No matter how much we think we understand it, the process of conception and birth is always a miracle.  It is something God does. Every single time.

It is the same with the process of metamorphosis, to which Paul refers in Romans 12:2.  Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed (metamorphoo) by the renewing of your mind. The Greek work metamorphoo refers to the process by which a caterpillar enters into the darkness of the cocoon in order to emerge, eventually, changed almost beyond recognition.  Through the process of metamorphosis, the caterpillar transcends its previous existence to take on a completely different form with a completely different set of capacities.  The caterpillar’s transformation seems to have little to do with cognitive understanding about the process of metamorphosis; something more primal and God-ordained is at work.

Embracing Mystery

Both the formation of the embryo in its mother’s womb and the transformation of a caterpillar in the cocoon are natural phenomena in the physical world, but there is something about both that is a God-thing.  These metaphors place the process of spiritual transformation squarely in the category that we call mystery—something outside the range of normal human activity and understanding that can only be understood through divine revelation and brought about by divine activity.

In fact, everything we affirm as central to our Christian faith is somewhere in Scripture referred to as a mystery. The mystery of God (I Corinthians 2:1)…We are servants and stewards of God’s mysteries (I Corinthians 4:1)…The mystery of God’s will (Ephesians 1:9), the mystery of Christ (Ephesians 3:4)…the mystery of the Gospel (Ephesians 6:19), the mystery of marriage which is applied to Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:31, 32)…the mystery of Christ in you, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)…God’s mystery which is Christ himself (Colossians 2:2)…the mystery of the faith (I Timothy 3:9)… just to name a few.

If we are not comfortable with mystery, we are not comfortable with the very gospel we preach. The journey of transformation requires some measure of willingness to relinquish control and give ourselves over to a process that we cannot fully understand nor can we predict the outcome. We know we will be more like Christ but we cannot predict exactly what the person of Christ lived in and through us will look like or where it will take us.

The Role of Spiritual Disciplines

While we cannot transform ourselves into the image of Christ, we can create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place.  This is where spiritual practices come in.  Spiritual practices are not ways to make brownie points with God or to prove our spiritual superiority to others. They are not a self-help program by which we take control of our journey and change ourselves.  Rather, spiritual disciplines are concrete activities that we engage in in order to make ourselves available for the work that only God can do.

This is what Paul is referring to when he appeals to the Christians in Rome to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1) He is saying that we can be intentional about creating the conditions for transformation by engaging disciplines that help us surrender ourselves to God –not just in theory but in reality.  As Richard Foster describes it, “[Spiritual] disciplines are the main way we offer our bodies up to God as a living sacrifice.  We are doing what we can do with our bodies, our minds, our hearts.  God then take this simple offering of ourselves and does with it what we cannot do, producing within us deeply ingrained habits of love and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Renovare Perspective, April 1999)

The Necessity of Community

Spiritual transformation takes place incrementally over time with others in the context of disciplines and practices that open us to God. In general, while we are still on this earth, our transformation will happen by degrees (II Corinthians 3:18) and we need each other in order to grow. (I Corinthians 12)

Paul’s teaching on spiritual transformation in Romans 12 and in the other epistles is always given in the context of community—the body of Christ with its many members.  We are given to one another in the body of Christ for mutual edification and to spur one another on to love and good deeds. Our spiritual gifts are given, not primarily for our own benefit or self-aggrandizement, but so we can be agents of grace for one another, building up the Body of which we are only one part. As Robert Mulholland writes, “We can no more be conformed to the image of Christ outside corporate spirituality than a coal can continue to burn outside of the fire.” (Invitation to a Journey, p.145)

While our spiritual practices certainly include private disciplines (solitude and silence, prayer and meditation, scripture, self-examination and confession, retreat, spiritual direction), to be effective they must also include disciplines in community (corporate prayer and worship, teaching, communion, Sabbath, hospitality, caring for those in need, spiritual friendship and direction), and disciplines of engagement with the world (evangelism, caring for the poor, compassion, justice, etc.)

For the Sake of Others

Spiritual transformation is both an end in itself in that it that brings glory to God and it is a means to other ends in that it enables us to mediate the presence of Christ to others and to discern loving action in the world. The litmus test of mature spirituality is obedience to Christ’s commandments (Matthew 28:18-20), which always involves an increasing capacity to love God and to love others. (Mark 12:30, 31; I Corinthians 12; I John 4:7)

Loving presence and action in the world includes sharing our faith (evangelism), giving generously of our resources, reconciliation and peacemaking (interpersonally and also across lines of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and people groups), working for justice, exercising compassion and care for the poor, and working for the betterment of life in the human community in Jesus’ name.

All true Christian spiritual formation is for the glory of God, for the abundance of our own lives and for the sake of others or it is not Christian spiritual formation. For this we toil and struggle with all the energy that God so powerfully inspires within us.

© Dr. Ruth Haley Barton, 2011. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Ruth Haley Barton

Ruth (Doctor of Divinity, Northern Seminary) is founder and chief essence officer of the Transforming Center. A teacher, seasoned spiritual director (Shalem Institute), and retreat leader, Ruth is the author of numerous books and resources on the spiritual life including Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Sacred Rhythms, Life Together in Christ, Pursuing God’s Will Together, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, Invitation to Retreat, and Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest.
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What is missing here is that all religions are “practicing” Spiritual Formation. What is wrong with this? Its disturbing that Christians follow this deception especially when it is connected to dangerous false teachers Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, ALL mystic universalists who don’t look to Scripture as absolute Truth or believe that Jesus is the ONLY Way to Heaven. John 14:6

And, what you don’t hear in Spiritual Formation is the term “Born again” (John 3). Rather, you follow certain ‘disciplines’ to be more like Christ. This is a self-works “transformation.” And along with it comes contemplative prayer. (Silence and solitude – the universal “key”) Neither of which is a ‘requirement’ to interact with God. Yes, we give reverence, but the true ‘key’ is confession of sin and praying to God through Christ our mediator. And we pray with a sound mind, not engaging in mystical mind-numbing sessions. Also Spiritual Formation has us merging with other faiths in the disguise of “Community”. The TRUE Spiritual Formation is when a person recognizes they are lost without Christ, they are sinners and apart from God. (Romans 3:23) Then confession, repentance and accepting Christ alone as Saviour, brings about the true Holy Spirit guiding the believer. This is the true spiritual transformation. And the Scriptures are absolute and sufficient!

David Hughes, here, TC’s resident theologian. Thanks for your response, JCH.

We do not attempt to defend everything taught by Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, and Dallas Willard. But we can attest that these three giants in the field of spiritual formation have positively impacted millions of Christ-followers in their walk with Jesus. They would embrace the term, “mystic”, meaning that they had direct experience with God that shaped their understanding of faith, and deepened their relationship with God. We use the language of spiritual formation to mean Christian spiritual formation and although Ruth uses both terms somewhat interchangeably, she and we are always referring to Christian spiritual formation which, by definition, is centered around Christ. We also use the phrase spiritual transformation, which refers to the process by which Christ is formed in us—for the glory of God (Romans 12:1,2) for the abundance of our own lives (John 10:10) and for the sake of the world for which Jesus died (John 3:16, 17). In our view, spiritual transformation is all about being “born again” or to use another deeply biblical phrase, being “sanctified.” As we observe in this blog post,… “the process of transformation is…supernatural in that it is something only God can accomplish in our lives through the work of the Holy Spirit….We can find ways to open to this process of transformation as it is guided by the Spirit, but we cannot control it or make it happen ourselves.” For that reason, “self-works transformation” is an impossibility, as God is always the primary actor in the process. 

Our approach to spiritual transformation is unapologetically Trinitarian. We teach and practice private and public confession, and approach Christ as our mediator. Our experience of prayer stills and clarifies our minds rather than clouding them. We treat other faith traditions with respect while holding to ancient Christian confessions like the Apostle’s Creed that emerge directly from Scripture and are affirmed as part of our historic Christian faith. We not only read Scripture but meditate upon it “day and night” like the Psalmist writes (Psalm 1), trusting the same Holy Spirit who inspired it to lead us into truth about what it means to follow Jesus in every facet of our lives. Your use of the word “key” is unfamiliar to us but suffice it to say that we do not characterize disciplines like solitude, silence, and confession as “keys” but rather concrete activities we can engage in to open to the grace of God’s transforming work. All the great ones of our faith practice these, so we are in good company as we join them. 

Any reading in theological history will quickly uncover that no one gets it all “right”. While I have not read everything written by the “dangerous” authors you mention, I have yet to read anything from these three where they denied the deity or exclusiveness of Jesus. From what I have read, their writings appear to be from souls who were seeking to abide in Christ (allowing His Word to fill their minds, direct their wills, and transform their affections). I don’t see any evidence that warrant a charge of heresy. As I have aged I have found it helpful to hold my theological convictions with a bit more open hands. While I can’t agree with everyone’s beliefs, believing the God of the Bible means giving ascent that His thoughts are greater than any human mind (1 Corinthians 1:25.) I am not trying to change your mind, but I felt compelled to provide an alternate perspective from my own readings of these authors. I am grateful for these men and beyond grateful for the definition of spiritual transformation that Ruth provides. I have found a more robust and sturdy faith through the work of Ruth and the Transforming Center.

The times I was most happy was when I was focused on loving, helping and respecting those around me. The USA is a place where living a holy, peaceful life now is very difficult. The key is surrendering your heart to Jesus and to never stoping doing that in every aspect of your life.

The present culture in the USA is very damaged with much strife and hurt feelings everywhere.
I now reside in the Philippines with my very loving and giving wife.We both had sad first marriages.We now live in our beautiful seashore home and are retired and enjoying a very peaceful culture in the Philippines.
As a born again Christian and retired attorney I can help others to be bound for heaven. I love Jesus very much and we are both looking foward to Jesus’s return at the rapture and being with Him for all eternity.

Miller White

This article has blessed my life. It has helped me understand how, why, and what “spiritual transformation” is. Thank you for such an insightful article. Remain blessed in our Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanks for letting us know that this article was helpful to you. So glad to hear it!

Do you perceive the presence of Jesus? If so, how do you know it is Jesus and not just…you?


Truly an inspirational article i am blessed in Jesus Christ.

This is really an inspiring article. Thank you for sharing this with us.

What makes someone ‘redeemed’? (Spiritual transformation in the lives of redeemed people is a testimony to the power of the Gospel) What is involved in ‘redemption’?

Ruth, thank you for putting a face to the practice of what should be a discipline for every believer. This piece is the blue print for the ‘actions’ we must take in order to encounter the spirit of the living God. It’s not enough to read and recite and pray and fast and fellowship, we must practice being still until He shows up in and through us. We must practice how to prepare for the ‘encounter’.

So, I am being connected to you because I reached out to 4 of my old professors from Nyack, where I received my MA in Biblical Studies, to inquired about a few things that were pressing on my heart. Then I asked if anyone knew someone who is a believer who I could study under to become a certified ‘meditation instructor’, Christ centered. Dr. Rob Reimer referred me to you. I searched your website today, only to find something better because my spirit has been wrestling with what’s out there in our Western world in terms of schools to attend. Would love to know how I can learn more from you about how I can get plugged in. Thanks for a great article. ; )


The mystery of God our creator although we do not know if everything written is 100 percent accurate we do know that it is a power that is stronger wiser than anything we can comprehend. It can change situations it can do things that man kind cannot.it changes bad to good the power is The Most High

[…] What We Believe About Spiritual Transformation – TransformingCenter.org […]

Excellent, well crafted, defining piece of journalism that should be used as THE definition of Spiritual Formation in places like Wikipedia, Seminary texts, church bulletins, etc. I might be gushing a tad here, but it does form a working model for what many people are not getting right. It’s scriptural, logical, balanced and clear.

I especially appreciate Ruth’s treatment of “mystery” and “relinquishing control”. These are difficult areas for us to talk about, but she does so by tying them into spiritual practices and noting two important factors that we don’t always include in our discussions of spiritual transformation. First, it is God (not us) who does our transforming. And, second, it is done over a period of time (no quick fix).

It so reminds me of an old 12-step saying: A Farmer doesn’t grow crops, but creates a fertile environment where growth can take place. And God does the growing. A doctor doesn’t heal a patient, but creates a sterile environment where healing can take place. And God does the healing.

Ergo, through spiritual practices, we create a sacred, still environment where transformation can take place. And God does the transforming.

When close to death I went through a redemption process and lost my ability to carry hate of others. Instead now I pity and have empathy instead as I better understand how we can easily loose our perception of a higher power to a darker side of life. The Christ consciousness for me is real but also just a label. It’s the message and connection that’s important not the labels of history and it can be in all religions regardless of their label. This higher power does not discriminate and is all inclusive when we open and connect. All be well and safe.

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