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Excerpts from

The Dangers of "Spiritual Formation"

 and "Spiritual Disciplines"

by Pastor Bob DeWaay, December 2005

Please read the entire article with endnotes at

(Emphasis in bold letters added throughout)

Practices called “spiritual disciplines” that are deemed necessary for “spiritual formation” have entered evangelicalism. Recent encounters with this teaching narrated to me by friends caused me to investigate these practices. The first experience involved my friend and co-worker Ryan Habbena who went back to seminary to finish his masters degree. Here is his experience in his own words:

"I recently took a seminary course on the book of Luke. It was a summer intensive and was one of only two classes being offered at the time. About midway through the week, while the class was steeped in trying to discern the intent and significance of the book of Luke, we began to hear the echoes of mystic chanting coming through the walls. As it turned out, the other class being offered was parked right next to ours. The paper thin walls were carrying the choruses of a class exploring the life and teachings of Catholic mystic Henry Nouwen. We proceeded, trying to concentrate on studying the Scriptures while tuning out the chants that were carrying on next door. Perhaps what was more unsettling though is the class studying Nouwen was chock full, while there were plenty of empty seats next door for anyone wanting to learn about the inspired book of Luke."1

How can this be? A Baptist seminary was favorably studying the teachings of this Catholic mystic whose own biographers describe as having had emotional problems and homosexual inclinations.2 Soon after talking to Ryan, I met a lady who attends a Christian college. As part of her study program she was required to take a course on spiritual formation at her college. Spiritual formation in her class also concerned the study of Roman Catholic mystics and the search for techniques to help those who implement them feel closer to God. This study also explored “spiritual disciplines” which promised to make those who practiced them more Christ-like. After she finished the class she shared her textbooks with me. This article will focus on the claims of one of these text books, The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard.3 In our study we shall see that those promoting spiritual disciplines in courses of study called “spiritual formation” make claims that are unbiblical and dangerous.

Jesus’ “Yoke” as “Spiritual Disciplines”

Dallas Willard bases his entire spiritual disciplines book on his understanding of Matthew 11:29, 30, which says, “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light.” Willard cites this passage at the beginning of a chapter entitled “The Secret of the Easy Yoke,”4 ... He claims that the “yoke” is to try to emulate Jesus’ lifestyle in every possible way.7 Willard interprets Jesus’ “yoke” as the practice of spiritual disciplines like solitude, silence, and simple living....

Willard is very critical of traditional Protestant doctrine and practice, declaring it a massive failure.
8 His remedy for this failure is to see the body and certain ascetic practices using the body as the means of change: “Looking back over our discussion to this point, we have connected the reality of the easy yoke with the practice of the spiritual disciplines. These in turn have led us to the body’s role in redemption.”9

He claims that we have been misguided by being concerned with the forgiveness of sins and “theories of the atonement.” He says, “Salvation as conceived today is far removed from what it was in the beginnings of Christianity and only by correcting it can God’s grace in salvation be returned to the concrete, embodied existence of our human personalities walking with Jesus in his easy yoke.”10 According to this thinking, the yoke of Jesus involves using the body in certain ways to accomplish changed lives:

"Although we call the disciplines “spiritual”—and although they must never be undertaken apart from a constant, inward interaction with God and his gracious Kingdom—they never fail to require specific acts and dispositions of our body as we engage in them. We are finite and limited to our bodies. So the disciplines cannot be carried out except as our body and its parts are surrendered in precise ways and definite actions to God."11

So evidently, rather than concerning ourselves with the blood atonement, averting God’s wrath against sin, salvation by faith through grace, we should be practicing spiritual disciplines with our bodies so that we could then be more like Jesus.

The concept of Jesus’ “yoke” being interpreted as an invitation to practice His life-style is reiterated throughout Willard’s book....  But the question is, “Is this what Jesus meant in Matthew 11:29, 30?” Let us examine the passage in context to see if teaches the spiritual disciplines.

The True Meaning of Jesus’ “Yoke”

If we want to understand Matthew 11:29, 30 it is essential that we understand the context, particularly the meaning of verse 28. Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). We must understand Jesus’ offer of rest in the context of His debates with the religious leaders. Their “yoke” demanded the strict observance of Sabbath rules and their oral tradition. Immediately after Jesus’ offer of “rest” in Him, there ensued a Sabbath debate with the religious leaders accusing Jesus and His disciples of being Sabbath breakers (see Matthew 12). They plucked grain on the Sabbath and Jesus healed on the Sabbath. Jesus was offering true Sabbath rest and the Jewish leaders were offering the yoke of the Law. Jesus’ yoke was different. Jesus perfectly kept the law so that all who would come to him would enter into the true Sabbath rest that could never be achieved by keeping the rules laid down by the religious leaders.

Taking this understanding of the term “yoke” we can see what Jesus meant in Matthew 11. His words came in the middle of a dispute with Jewish leadership. He had pronounced woe upon cities that did not repent (Matthew 11:20-24). He uttered this prayer:

"At that time Jesus answered and said, 'I praise Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent and didst reveal them to babes. Yes, Father, for thus it was well-pleasing in Thy sight. All things have been handed over to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son, except the Father; nor does anyone know the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wills to reveal Him.'”
(Matthew 11:25-27)

The wise and intelligent were the Jewish Scribes and Pharisees who accused Jesus of being a Sabbath breaker and who refused to repent when they witnessed His miracles. They rejected both Jesus and John the Baptist in a most fickle manner (Matthew 11:16-19). They refused to come to God on His terms, but demanded that God the Son obey them on their terms! So Jesus pronounced the judgment of hardening on them and chose instead to reveal Himself to babes.

When Jesus said, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest”
(Matthew 11:28), He was offering them what the Jewish leadership rejected—Messianic salvation. True Sabbath rest is only found in Christ (see Hebrews 4:1-9). Ironically, the people who accused Jesus of being a Sabbath breaker were the ultimate Sabbath breakers because they rejected the only one who could give true rest. They put the yoke of law-keeping on the people but kept them from the one true Law keeper, Christ who died for their sins. Therefore, no matter how scrupulous and religious a person is, if he or she does not come to Christ by faith, that person is under the yoke of bondage rather than the Sabbath rest for the people of God.

There are other places in the New Testament where the term “yoke” is used in the sense of the requirement of law keeping. Two of them are very pertinent to interpreting Matthew 11:28-30. In Acts 15 the apostles gathered in Jerusalem to determine whether the new Gentile converts would be required to keep the Law. The three most prominent laws that marked off the Jews as unique were the food laws, Sabbath, and circumcision. Peter’s speech convinced the apostles that the Gentiles were not obliged to follow such Jewish laws:

“Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.” (Acts 15:7-11)

The “yoke” was being under the Law.

Now consider how Paul used the same term: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery”
(Galatians 5:1). The Judaizers wanted to put Christians under obligation to be circumcised and Paul called this “a yoke of slavery.”

So Jesus’ yoke is in stark contrast to the “yoke” that the religious leaders put on the people. He is offering salvation to all who come to Him by faith....

Jesus’ Yoke is to Practice Spiritual Disciplines? Matthew 11 Jesus was offering salvation to all who come to Him. Now let us examine Willard’s claim that Jesus was telling people to try to emulate His life-style. Willard claims that we are failing to practice the disciplines that would make us able to live better lives.... He further states that the solution is that we practice spiritual disciplines that are based on Jesus’ lifestyle and supplemented by practices of the Medieval Catholic Church. So he sees Jesus’ “yoke” as an offer to take up a life-style that will make us better people, rather than an offer of true Sabbath rest through Christ’s finished work on the cross. This is tantamount to substituting works for grace, and making Jesus an ethical teacher whose example can be followed rather than the unique Son of God who alone always does the things that please the Father. Willard offers no exegetical analysis of the passage in Matthew to defend his interpretation....

Does the Bible Prescribe the Spiritual Disciplines?

The spiritual disciplines are not taught in Matthew 11:29, 30 (Willard’s primary proof test), and even Willard admits they cannot be found elsewhere in scripture.... But he is nevertheless enthusiastic about the recent rediscovery of the disciplines.

Dallas Willard is excited to tell us that finally, through the lead of people like Richard Foster, we are having a revival of the use of spiritual disciplines. Writes Willard: “Today, for the first time in our history as a nation, we are being presented with a characteristic range of human behaviors such as fasting, meditation, simple living, and submission to a spiritual overseer, in an attractive light.”
13 He claims that ordinary means such as Bible study, prayer, fellowship, and evangelism are inadequate and having failed, have left most Christians as failures.... He writes, “All pleasing and doctrinally sound schemes of Christian education, church growth, and spiritual renewal came around at last to this disappointing result. But whose fault was this failure?”14 The “failure,” according to Willard is that, “. . . the gospel preached and the instruction and example given these faithful ones simply do not do justice to the nature of human personality, as embodied, incarnate.”15 ... It means that we have failed because our gospel had too little to do with our bodies.

The spiritual disciplines are supposed to remedy this deficiency. Willard says, “By contrast, the secret of the standard, historically proven spiritual disciplines is precisely that they do respect and count on the bodily nature of human personality.”
16 Willard claims that Paul understood the need for such practices but that they were lost: “Paul’s teaching, especially when added to his practices, strongly suggest that he understood and practiced something vital about the Christian life that we have lost—and that we must do our best to recover.”17 Of course, had Paul bothered to write about these “lost” disciplines in his epistles, they would not have been lost....

Where do we find this “wisdom” that Paul failed to write about? Says Willard, “This is not something St. Paul had to prove or even explicitly state to his readers—but it also was not something he overlooked, leaving it to be thought up by crazed monks in the Dark Ages. It is, rather, a wisdom gleaned from millennia of collective human experience.”
20 So the disciplines we need to be more like Christ cannot be found in the Bible, but they can be gleaned from religious history. Willard tells us, “But thoughtful and religiously devout people of the classical and Hellenistic world, from the Ganges to the Tiber, knew that the mind and body of the human being had to be rigorously disciplined to achieve a decent individual and social existence.”21

...if this type of logic is valid, we could claim that we need Ouija Boards as part of our spiritual practice and that Paul and other early Christians must have been using them so regularly there was no need to write about them. ...

To hear evangelicals like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster tell us that we need practices that were never spelled out in the Bible to become more like Christ or to get closer to God is astonishing. What is more astonishing is that evangelical colleges and seminaries are requiring their students to study practices that are relics of Medieval Rome, not found in the Bible, and closely akin to the practices of many pagan societies.

The False Gospel of Human Ability

As with most unbiblical approaches, the spiritual disciplines are based on the idea of innate human powers that can be harnessed for good. Holding a false concept of sin as a “disruption of that higher [spiritual] life,”22 Willard looks for a solution through finding our true potential, individually and corporately, through spiritual disciplines that will enable us to reconstruct the rule of God now. Willard says, “The evil that we do in our present condition is a reflection of a weakness caused by spiritual starvation.”23 Rather than wicked rebels abiding under God’s wrath, humans are bundles of huge potential who have lost their way through “disruption of the higher powers.”...

Willard gives this interpretation of 1John 3:2: “Because of his personal experience with spiritual powers brought to him in Christ, John sensed unimaginable greatness in our destiny.”25

So how do we tap into this great human potential? He says we must tap into the spiritual dimension using spiritual disciplines. Willard shares his definition of “spirit”: “If the missing element in the present human order is that of the spirit, what then is spirit? Very simply, spirit is unembodied personal power.”
26 His idea is that “spirit” is the missing nutrient that we need to realize our full potential. The ideas of total depravity, the wrath of God against sin, the blood atonement, and the cross are either absent or distorted in Willard’s theology. What replaces these truths is the hope that we will realize our potential through tapping into the spiritual kingdom of God. This is to be done by the use of spiritual disciplines to obtain the necessary power to transform the world. The terminology that Willard uses is strange and unbiblical. For example, he writes,

“When the human organism is brought into willing, personal relationship with the spiritual Kingdom of God, ‘sucking in orderliness’ from that particular part of the human environment, it becomes pervasively transformed, as a corn stalk in drought is transformed by the onset of drenching rain—the contact with the water transforms the plant inwardly and then extends it outwardly. In the same way, people are transformed by contact with God.”27

These ideas are more akin to Eastern Religion than Biblical Christianity. Our problem is not the need to suck in more “unembodied personal power” by techniques to contact God. We are dead sinners facing God’s wrath unless we repent and believe the gospel. Willard’s concepts are foreign to the Bible....

What results are in store for the church when we take action to tap into this spiritual dimension to realize our full potential? The church will be the incarnation of Christ and the kingdom of God will come through us, now, before Christ’s bodily return. Rejecting the pre-millennial doctrine, Willard says, “Often, we are told that the rule of God upon the earth will be fulfilled in a great act of violence, in which multitudes of people are slain by God, followed by a totalitarian government of literally infinite proportions, headquartered in Jerusalem.”
31 He fails to mention that this “totalitarian” rule is the rule of Christ Himself as promised in the Bible. What is Willard’s alternative? – “I believe, to the contrary, that the coming rule of God is to be a government by grace and truth meditated through personalities mature in Christ.”32 It is amazing that he would consider Christ Himself reigning as “totalitarian” and us reigning as “grace and truth.”

For Willard, Christ is not coming for the church but in the church: “The real presence of Christ as a world-governing force will come solely as his called out people occupy their stations in the holiness and power characteristic of him, as they demonstrate to the world the way to live that is best in every respect.”
33 We gain the ability to reign over the world for Christ through spiritual disciplines.

Since these disciplines were the order of the day for Rome at a period where her goal was to rule over the world, I wonder why the result was the Dark Ages? What kind of glib optimism would make us think that if we try them again, this time we will have a better outcome? Whenever theology turns to human potential and human ability aided by some type of spiritual infusion, the result is utopian dreaming. ...

According to Willard’s theology, just like Christ coming at the fullness of time during the first advent, the church will be the answer (not Christ’s bodily return) for the coming kingdom. We, not Jesus, will be the new incarnation: “...As a response to this world’s problems, the gospel of the Kingdom will never make sense except as it is incarnated—we say ‘fleshed out’—in ordinary human beings in all ordinary conditions of human life.”

By downplaying the doctrine of total depravity and the sin nature, Willard makes it seem plausible that we can be infused by divine power and establish the kingdom now. The Bible, however, predicts apostasy and the revealing of the man of lawlessness just before Christ returns in judgment (2 Thessalonians 2:3-8).... Signs of the times

Which Spiritual Disciplines?

The spiritual disciplines that are supposedly necessary for spiritual formation are not defined in the Bible...  Willard says, [W]e need not try to come up with a complete list of disciplines. Nor should we assume that our particular list will be right for others.”36 The practices are gleaned from various sources and the individual has to decide which ones work the best. Willard lists the following: voluntary exile, night vigil of rejecting sleep, journaling, OT Sabbath keeping, physical labor, solitude, fasting, study, and prayer.37 Willard then lists “disciplines of abstinence” (solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, sacrifice) and “disciplines of engagement” (study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission).38

Willard offers a discussion of each of these, citing people like Thomas Merton, Thomas a Kempis, Henri Nouwen, and other mystics....

Willard tells us that the list of disciplines he provides is not exhaustive.... The walk with Christ certainly is one that leaves room for and even calls for individual creativity and an experimental attitude in such matters.”
40 However, there is a serious problem with Willard’s logic here. ...

Willard had admitted that there is no clear list of the disciplines and that each person might choose different practices through pragmatic means. This does not give sufficient ground for rejecting such practices as self-flagellation....

He cannot have it both ways. Either God’s Word determines both how we come to God and how we grow in grace, or humans determine these things by pragmatic means. Willard has chosen the later. But then he steps in and tells us that some practices are wrong, even though they fit his own criteria for validity. If a person feels that sleeping in a tiny stone crevice with all the heat being sucked out of his body makes him more spiritually disciplined, then who is to say that is wrong? Had he been willing to submit to the authority of Scripture, Willard could have refuted these practices based on Colossians 2:21-23....

"Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations— 'Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,' which all concern things which perish with the using— baccording to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh." Col 2:20-23

Spiritual disciplines are man-made, amorphous, and not revealed in the Bible; they assume that one is saved by grace and perfected by works. Paul wrote, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)....

Elsewhere he suggests that growth comes through human will power: “The entire question of discipline, therefore, is how to apply acts of the will at our disposal in such a way that the proper course of action, which cannot always be realized by direct and untrained effort, will nevertheless be carried out when needed.”46 It is hard to see how this is anything other than “being perfected by the flesh” which Paul said was impossible.

The Reformation understanding of means of grace was that they were God’s gracious means of working in a person of faith’s life. What ever is not of faith is sin.

The Spiritual Disciplines as Presumption

The spiritual disciplines, as we have seen, are bodily activities that we engage in hoping to become more Christ-like. So we decide what discipline we need, perhaps with the help of a “spiritual director.” Since we have established (and Willard admits) that most of these disciplines are not prescribed in the Bible, we have to decide which ones will work for us. The problem is that this is the very opposite of what the Bible says about discipline: “and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, Nor faint when you are reproved by Him; For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, And He scourges every son whom He receives’” (Hebrews 12:5, 6). God, not man, determines what each of us needs because only God knows exactly what each of us needs.

For example, consider Paul’s thorn in the flesh described in 2 Corinthians 12: “And because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to buffet me-- to keep me from exalting myself!” (2Corinthians 12:7) Paul did not determine he needed this, God did. When Paul asked for it to be removed, this was the result: “And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may dwell in me”
(2 Corinthians 12:9)....

God disciplines us in ways we could never imagine or never arrange. The Bible tells us, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Obviously everything in the universe is at His disposal. Do we think He is unable to discipline us according to His infinite wisdom?...

We began this discussion with a description of strange teachings and practices entering evangelical Bible Colleges and seminaries. They have been borrowed from Medieval Rome and dressed up for evangelical consumption. We have examined the teachings of one of the visible leaders of this movement. Starting with a serious misinterpretation of Matthew 11:29, 30, Dallas Willard built his entire system on the idea that Jesus’ “yoke” consists of various spiritual disciplines. The issue in Matthew 11 was Messianic salvation—finding true Sabbath rest in Christ rather than following meticulous religious rules decreed by the Scribes and Pharisees. The idea of practicing spiritual disciplines was imported to the text, not found there.

We live in an age of mysticism. People lust for spiritual reality and spiritual experiences. The danger is that unbiblical practices will give people a real spiritual experience, but not from God. Deception is the likely outcome....

If we ignore the boundary set by Biblical guidelines, there is no telling were we will end up. If however, we come to God on His terms, knowing that we have a High Priest who is at the right hand of God, and that we have access through His blood into the holiest place, we can be assured we cannot be any closer to God this side of heaven.

“Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)

End Notes
1. This happened during the summer of 2005 at Bethel Theological Seminary in Arden Hills, MN.
Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet (Image: New York, 1999); for a review:
Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Understanding How God Changes Lives, (HarperCollins: New York, 1991)

Find the rest of this message -- along with all the endnotes and references -- at

Copyright © 1992-2005 Twin City Fellowship

Other articles by Bob DeWaay:

True and False Unity | Redefining the Church

Faulty Premises of the Church Growth Movement

 “Church Health Award” from Rick Warren or Jesus Christ?

Bob DeWaay is the Pastor of Twin City Fellowship, a non-denominational evangelical Church in Minneapolis, MN:  "We are a body of believers who attempt to live our Christian faith according to Acts 2:42 by devoting ourselves to prayer, fellowship, searching the Scriptures, and the Lord’s Supper. Our mission is to equip the saints for the work of ministry and to reach the lost with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do this through expository preaching, study of the Scriptures, publications, our website and neighborhood outreaches."

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