Death: The Beginning of Spiritual Formation

By Coleman Ford

From death comes new life. Here's what dying to self looks like for the church planter as you grow in the area of spiritual formation.

New churches and planters cannot overlook an essential element to new life—death. To continue the work of spiritual formation in a church plant, planters must remember that spiritual growth happens in the compost soil of death.

Spiritual Formation and Death?

Author Bill Bryson observes, “We shed skin cells copiously, almost carelessly; some twenty-five thousand flakes a minute, over a million pieces every hour. Run your finger along a dusty shelf and you are in large part clearing a path through fragments of your former self. Silently and remorselessly we turn to dust.”¹ Kind of depressing, isn’t it? Why would a conversation about something positive like spiritual formation start on such a sour note? Hasn’t Christ defeated death (2 Timothy 1:10)? Aren’t we more than conquerors (Romans 8:37)? Don’t we have eternal life, including hope and joy, through the gospel (1 John 2:25)? The answer to these questions is a resounding, “Yes!” But joy and promises of the gospel are the fuel we need as we navigate a world subject to decay and death.

Planting with Eternity in Mind

Spiritual formation understands that we are not yet where we will be. Formation takes the reality of our current life seriously, while reflecting on the glory that is to come. We prepare for our life thereby recognizing the limitations of our mortality in life here. There is no growth without death. Resurrection happens from the soil of crucifixion. Peak around the corner of life; eternity is not far away. As you think about where to begin in formation, think about the end, too.

You may think all this talk about death sounds too negative, somewhat strange, or just plain morose. It’s meant to sober us. When it comes to discipleship, evangelical Christians too often avoid the conversation of death, opting for ministry and preaching focused more on felt needs and positive “practical” topics. Isn’t it better to teach on having fruitful relationships, a rewarding quiet time, or a fervent Christian witness in evangelism? These are certainly necessary topics within the discipleship ministry of the local church. Pastors and leaders should be shepherding their people toward spiritual vitality in every aspect of their lives. But if we forget the aim of our Christian life, namely, to behold the beauty of God for eternity, these discipleship topics are much less meaningful. If we don’t have eternity in mind, then our spiritual formation will be shallow and misdirected.

Death to Life

Music is filled with upbeats and downbeats. Such is life and ministry. There is no resurrection without crucifixion, no transformation without mortification of the flesh. Spiritual formation attends to our need to die to ourselves daily. Paul tells the church in Galatia: “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Christ reminds those who wish to follow Him to “deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Dying to self is simultaneously a one-time and daily decision. We look at ourselves in the mirror and decide that, though we are loved and redeemed by Christ’s atoning death, we must decide to follow Him in the everyday occasions of life. Christian living is daily self-crucifixion. Indeed, as a virtue, self-sacrifice only makes sense from a Christian perspective. When we consider that the God who took on flesh served as the ultimate sacrifice, then we can rightly understand the nature and potential of our own self-sacrificial life in His footsteps. Death to life is the narrative of Christianity, our lives, and spiritual formation. Death to our sinful selves is ongoing.

Formed by the Living Word

Pastors must help people see that spiritual formation is also a process of dying to our own wisdom and to false stories. This means that, for Christians, we are in a constant process of knowing, obeying, and loving God through reading and living out His Word to us. The Scriptures become the source of our wisdom, encouragement, and daily bread for life. The Puritan preacher Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686) describes the Bible as the “compass by which the rudder of our will is to be steered; it is the field in which Christ, the pearl of price, is hid; it is a rock of diamond…it is a spiritual optic glass, in which the glory of God is resplendent; it is the panacea, or universal medicine for the soul.”² Through reading, hearing, studying, and applying Scripture, we grow in our understanding of His infinite beauty and finite nature. The Scriptures give us His story of redemption, as well as our invitation to join Him in that grand story. We die to any other notion of fulfillment that will never satisfy our restless hearts. Only the life-giving words of God can bring the gratification our thirsty souls see.

So, spiritual formation begins and ends with death. It begins with recognizing our mortality and need for salvation. We are becoming dust (literally!), yet we have the opportunity to understand how our lives can be shaped and molded to bring glory to God and benefit others for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. It continues with a death to self, acknowledging our dependence upon God and our constant need for repentance, correction, and growth in Christlikeness. This self-denial is not self-centered, but God and others-centered. This notion of death-to-self leads us to shed away our selfish desires and wisdom, leading us to consider God’s wisdom found in His written Word. The life He intends for us is bound up in His Scriptures, which reveal His marvelous plan of redemption in Christ. As we die to our own wisdom and desires, we simultaneously adhere to God’s wisdom and follow His desires for our lives. The Word taught, read, sung, and meditated upon seals His Word in our hearts, bringing the life we need now as we prepare for our lives with Him in eternity. The ministry of spiritual formation helps us reckon with the dust of today because there will be no dusty shelves in heaven.

¹ Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants (New York: Doubleday, 2019), 9

² Thomas Watson, “How We May Read the Scriptures with Most Spiritual Profit,” in The Bible and the Closet: Or How We May Read the Scriptures with the Most Spiritual Profit; and Secret Prayer Successfully Managed, ed. John Overton Choules (Boston: Gould, Kendall and Lincoln, 1842), 28.

Published February 26, 2024

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Coleman Ford

Coleman M. Ford serves as assistant professor of humanities at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. He also serves as assistant pastor of home groups at The Village Church in Denton, Texas. He is married to Alexandria, and they have three children.