Clarifying “Spirituality”

tsslogo.jpgOf late, the religious culture of America has been abuzz with the word “spiritual.” And we can be encouraged that (at some level) there’s a growing interest in spirituality. Spearheading the spawning spirituality are pastors and authors willing to write, travel and speak on the topic. Talk of “spiritual journeys” and books on Celtic spirituality sprinkle the pop-religious scene. Last year one pastor successfully managed a 22-city, nationwide speaking tour under the banner: “Everything is Spiritual.” From what I hear, most of the venues sold out.

But I’ve also noticed when discussions focus on “spirituality,” biblical exegesis often takes a backseat (or gets trunked altogether). As you can imagine, the Bible has a lot to teach us about spirituality and can help us sift through the spiritually exaggerated lingo in our culture. Today I want to examine two of the “spiritual” exaggerations on my radar screen, (1) everyone is spiritual, and (2) everything is spiritual.

1. Everyone is spiritual

First is the popular assumption that everyone is spiritual. On the surface this seems accurate. We have a conscience to warn us ethically and a creativity that is manifested artistically. These are both the fruits of our spiritual makeup. And each of us has an eternal soul. That’s pretty spiritual!

Our initial response, then, is to affirm that everyone is spiritual. But Scripture cautions us of making this broad generalization. Let me explain.

The Apostle Paul gets at the heart of “spirituality” in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16. He answers some fundamental questions. Why do some believe in the cross and others laugh at the cross? Why do some ‘get’ the cross and others ‘stumble over’ the cross? These are the questions in Scripture that answer a broader question: What is genuine spirituality?

Here’s Paul’s main point: some people are spiritual, and some are natural. Quite obviously in these passages, the natural person is un-spiritual. They are easily attracted towards the glittering religious wisdom of the world, or quickly look towards the next miraculous expression. It may look like spirituality, but the natural soul is sustained by worldly wisdom and fleeting miracles that were never intended to sustain the soul. The gospel – the true power to sustain the soul – is written off as foolishness (1:18, 22-23).

This naturalism is a problem of interpretation. Paul writes: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). Literally, the natural person considers the gospel ridiculous because he/she is incapable of making decisions of spiritual discernment. Spiritual truths do not register where the saving work of the Holy Spirit is absent.

On the other hand, the spiritual person understands the gospel and places his eternal hope in the crucified Messiah. Those who are spiritual can interpret the “secret and hidden wisdom of God” and therefore believe in “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2, 7). But this is not to the glory of the “spiritual,” it’s a work of God’s grace: “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” because “no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (2:10,11).

So the Bible carefully distinguishes between the spiritual and non-spiritual and it has everything to do with the saving work or absence of the Holy Spirit in one’s life.

Hold this thought for a moment.

2. Everything is Spiritual

A second exaggeration of the spirituality of the day is that everything is spiritual. Now, again this needs a brief word of clarification (because exaggerations are partly true). Believers can do all things for a spiritual end, even in the most basic things like eating and drinking (1 Cor. 10:31). For the spiritual, all things are spiritual.

The pop-talk of the day says the Old Testament has no word for “spiritual,” therefore we should assume that everything is spiritual. But the New Testament does have a word for “spiritual” and frequently uses this term in contrast with its terms for “natural” and “material” (see 1 Cor. 9:11 for example).

Perhaps it would be best to approach this from another angle altogether by asking: What is most spiritual?

When Paul explains the differences between the spiritual and the natural, his basis of discernment is the cross. All throughout the passage Paul’s message is of “the cross of Christ,” “the word of the cross,” “we preach Christ crucified,” “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified,” and the cross is the “secret and hidden wisdom of God.” As Paul begins to carefully distinguish between the spiritual and the non-spiritual, he comes back to the cross of Jesus Christ. For Paul, the cross is the gauge of genuine spirituality.

There may be spiritual implications to many things in our lives, but this does not mean everything is spiritual and certainly does not mean we are free to equalize all things as equally spiritual. When Paul seeks to explain the spiritual, he avoids broad and extensive categories to keep what is most spiritual in the spotlight.

We’ll return to this theme in a bit. But first are a few other points to ponder.

1. Paul’s distinction between ‘spiritual’ and ‘natural’ hearers directly impacted his method of outreach and style of preaching. It would be wrong for us to say the distinction between the ‘natural’ and ‘spiritual’ hearers is just a theoretical conclusion. These conclusions are richly practical.

Paul based his very ministry methodology on this careful spiritual discernment! When Paul entered a pagan city to preach the gospel, he entered with a pre-understanding that some people were spiritual, and some were non-spiritual. This dichotomy gave Paul the freedom to preach the “foolish” message of a crucified Messiah — even though Paul was aware of his personal weaknesses, fears, lack of lofty eloquence, and despite audience demands for signs and wisdom (1:17-2:5).

Paul’s ministry faithfulness – and our ministry faithfulness – depends upon the sobering reality that audiences are filled with “spiritual” and “natural” hearers. Only this theological foundation will free us to boldly center our ministries on the center of genuine spirituality: “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). This sobering reality turns talkers into preachers.

2. Spirituality is not defined by our human nature, but by the saving activity of God’s Spirit.
One myth circulating in this pop-“spirituality” is the assumption that to be a human being is to be a spiritual being. In reality, true spirituality depends upon the saving activity of God’s Spirit. Paul writes, “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (2:12-13). True spirituality finds its basis in regeneration. There is no true spirituality apart from the New Birth because until the Spirit of God lives within us, we cannot comprehend the spiritual. The biblical definition of “spiritual” is a redeemed sinner who understands the cross of Christ. True spirituality exists only where the saving work of the Holy Spirit exists. Where the saving work of the Holy Spirit is absent, an understanding of the cross is absent, and thus spirit-uality is absent.

3. Spirituality is measured by the cross! Scripture does not define spirituality in vague and uncertain terms. Paul’s spirituality ministry is explained like this: “interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (2:13). Spirituality has everything to do with properly interpreting the deep wisdom of God in His plan of redemption.

Notice how saturated with the gospel is this section of Scripture (see verses mentioned earlier). The spirituality question comes down to this: Are we captured by the cross? Then the Holy Spirit is at work and we are spiritual. Do we stumble over the cross in a pursuit of some other “spirituality”? Then the saving presence of the Holy Spirit is absent and we are natural (or non-spiritual).

By saying true spirituality is centered directly upon cross, Paul is saying the holiness of God, the demands of the Law, our personal guilt, and our saving faith in the blood of Christ that absorbed the wrath of God’s fury are all truths of vital importance to our spiritual vitality.

The biblical expectation is that talk of spirituality should be centered on the details of the gospel message. If I understand Paul correctly here, speaking of “spirituality” without reference to the cross is really just another form of naturalism.


Very clearly, Paul reserves the term “spiritual” for those who possess the saving work of the Holy Spirit and find their joy and hope alone in the cross of Jesus Christ. Spirituality has everything to do with God’s sovereign grace and everything to do with the power of the Holy Spirit because spirituality is not a journey to the gospel, it’s a life illuminated by the gospel.

I would encourage you to personally study 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 for yourself. I think Paul’s careful definition of “spirituality” will equip us to tread carefully among the contemporary discussions.

If you are spiritual – if your eternal hope is found in the cross of Christ – Paul would have you respond by praising God for His graciousness! This spirituality is the fruit of God’s electing grace in your life (1:24)! Be encouraged at Christ’s spiritual all-sufficiency. But also be deeply humbled:

“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1:30-31).

4 thoughts on “Clarifying “Spirituality”

  1. Tony,

    I rarely comment, but thank you for your comments and thoughts on this issue and many other issues!

    This is one of few blogs that I find consistent encouragement and great content. Thank you brother!

  2. Tony,
    Really enjoyed reading this post. Your point is very strong, and the biblical support undeniable. I think what a lot of what some might call “spirituality” is just the fruit of common grace. Certainly there is incredible depth and things that can touch the human soul that come from the non-Christian world. But, to lump it altogether as “spiritual” I think really clouds the line that the Cross dug in the sand. Your points 2 and 3 clarify this very well. If in our evangelism we blur the lines of spirituality, I think we then blur the line of the necessity of spiritual rebirth, being born-again, being saved from sin and the wrath of God. If it is all a progressive journey of spiritual things to just more spiritual things, then when does the spiritually dead become spiritually alive? That’s my fear with the “journey/all-things-spiritual approach,” that it lessens the radical, saving, rescuing work of Christ. Colossians 1:13 doesn’t sound like a progressive journey, it sounds like an extraction, a snatch from death, a transfer from spiritual death to spiritual life.

    Well, all that to say, I agree with you! I just recently found your blog and have enjoyed it very much. Great resource!

    Brad Evangelista

  3. Seems to me that when God told Adam he would die for partaking of the forbidden fruit this is what God was saying.Adam died a spiritual death that day…separation from God is spiritual death.Only Jesus Christ can make us alive again!

  4. I agree that there are many non Christian approaches to spirituality that are superficial – but certainly not all. For example, anyone who followed Buddhism’s Eightfold Path would be a saint by Christian standards. It’s hardly an “anything goes/everything’s spiritual” approach to life.

    Also, many Christians take terribly superficial approaches to faith. Christianity is turned into a kind of carrot and stick system where the focus is on scoring points with God to go to heaven and avoid the bad place.

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