Ask three people to explain what it means to be spiritual . . . and you’ll get four different answers. That’s a humorous way to state the problem. Definitions of spirituality are very squishy things. The term means something different to everyone. So, what is biblical spirituality? Can we settle on an objective definition of spirituality from the Bible?
That’s the question today from a young woman — and for her, it’s not a theoretical question at all. “Pastor John, my mother and I have differing views on biblical spirituality. So much so that she has said that my husband and I are not spiritual. I believe this is because she embraces spirituality as spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, interpreting dreams, and claiming healing. My husband and I have worked in the mission field, are heavily involved in church, love the Lord, and seek after him in all things. I don’t know what to say to this. Is it possible that we — my husband and I — are not spiritual? I feel that this is not the case as I see fruit of the Spirit in our lives. How would you respond to such a statement towards yourself? And more broadly, what does authentic Christian spirituality look like?”
Let’s start with a few comments about the use of language and the importance of definitions, and then we’ll move over to the biblical use of the term spiritual, which is especially interesting because, in the ESV, the word spiritual or spiritually occurs 29 times, and 27 of them are in the writings of the apostle Paul, and the other two are in Peter’s first letter. So, it isn’t a very widespread term, and we’re mainly dealing with Paul — we’re dealing with his understanding of it — when we talk about the meaning of spirituality or being spiritual in the New Testament.
So first, a few thoughts about the use of language. I wonder what our friend would feel or think if a New Age spiritualist who practices divination, fortune telling, necromancy, palm reading, and earth worship were to say to our mature Christian friend, “You’re not spiritual because you don’t pursue these spiritual practices like I do.”
“Paul’s most basic use of the term ‘spiritual’ is to refer to true Christians who have the Holy Spirit.”
Now, my guess is that our friend would not feel very threatened at all or seriously criticized because she knows that those practices are not at all what the Bible means by spiritual. In fact, just the opposite: the Bible opposes those practices. But the point is that the New Age spiritualist is spiritual by his own definition. So, there would be no point in arguing which of those is spiritual. If you don’t define your terms, it would go nowhere. The argument would go nowhere if you said, “Which one of us is spiritual?” because they don’t agree on what they mean by spiritual. They are using the word in drastically different ways.
So, when our friend says, “My mother and I have differing views on biblical spirituality,” she could mean, “My mother and I agree on the meaning of the word, but we disagree on whether my husband and I are living up to it.” Or she could mean that they seriously disagree on the biblical definition of spirituality, and so they can’t assess the other with the same criteria, and we just talk past each other.
Now, I’m pretty sure, from what she says, that our friend takes the latter view because she says she embraces spirituality as spiritual gifts such as speaking in tongues, interpreting dreams, claiming healing. So, the mother thinks that being spiritual in a biblical sense is exercising spiritual gifts, while our friend thinks being spiritual means something else.
Let’s go to Paul’s writings and see what the term actually means. Paul uses the word spiritual to refer to spiritual wisdom, spiritual blessings, spiritual songs, spiritual bodies, spiritual gifts, spiritual rock, spiritual food. Now, we’re going to leave all that aside. We’re only going to talk about spiritual people.
I think he uses the term in three ways, but they are all rooted in the same basic idea. And I think that basic idea is that a person is spiritual if, by the power of the Holy Spirit, he has experienced a new birth and is no longer defined by the flesh, which opposes God, but is defined by the Holy Spirit, who causes him to trust God and love God. So, a spiritual person is most fundamentally a supernaturally transformed person who has been transferred by the Spirit from the natural condition of unbelief to the Spirit-created condition of a new creature in Christ. They are spiritual in the sense that they were created by the Holy Spirit, and are indwelt and formed by the Holy Spirit.
So, you can see that if I’m right, Paul’s use of the term spiritual gets its meaning mainly from God’s Spirit, not my spirit. Paul doesn’t call others spiritual because their spirit is especially active or because they have an unusual preoccupation with mystical things, spiritual things.
Spiritual vs. Natural
Now, the most important text for seeing these things is 1 Corinthians 2:12–15. Let me read a couple of verses:
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. (1 Corinthians 2:12–13)
Now, who are they — “those who are spiritual”? We’ve received the Spirit. We’re imparting things from the Spirit by words taught by the Spirit, but we can only do that to “those who are spiritual.” Who are they? That’s what Paul turns to. They’re the only ones to whom Paul can successfully transmit spiritual truths.
So, Paul explains why that is and who they are in verse 14, the next verse: “The natural person” — that’s the unregenerate, unsaved person, without the Holy Spirit, contrasted with the spiritual 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 [assessed]” (1 Corinthians 2:14). They are spiritually assessed — that is, in the sense that the indwelling Holy Spirit enables a person to assess them rightly. They’re not foolishness, but they’re true and beautiful.
He goes on, “The spiritual person” — now he’s contrasting that with the natural person, the unregenerate person — “[assesses] all things, but is himself [assessed] by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:15–16). That is, we have the Holy Spirit shaping the way our mind assesses things so that we don’t call wisdom “stupid” or “foolishness.” Instead, we assess things in the true light of Christ, but natural people can’t make that act. They can’t do that, because it’s not real to them. It’s just foolishness to them.
So, my conclusion from this passage is that Paul’s most basic use of the term spiritual is to refer to true Christians who have the Holy Spirit and therefore are no longer merely natural people but supernatural people, who have been born again by the Spirit, and whose minds are therefore able to see in the gospel the beauty of Christ and the wisdom of God. All true Christians are spiritual in that fundamental sense, and that’s his most basic sense.
Now, I think there are two other uses of the term in Paul, and both of them are adaptations of this meaning, not contradictions of it.
Mature in Christ
The first is that Paul can use the term spiritual for Christians who are more mature in their experience of this newness of their spirituality.
“Here’s the real test of being spiritual: it’s not gifts, but submission to the apostolic word.”
He writes in 1 Corinthians 3:1, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people” — which is different from saying that they’re not spiritual people — “but . . . as infants in Christ.” Now, I don’t think that means — I used to think this — that they’re not spiritual in the first sense, but that they weren’t acting like it. Strife and jealousy were all over the church, and so Paul treats them as babies.
Here’s another example of this use of the more mature Christian as spiritual in Galatians 6:1: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” Now, he’s a Christian, and yet he’s calling these “spiritual” folks to go restore him. Those who are walking in the more mature influence of the Spirit and have the Spirit’s fruit — like meekness, which he refers to — you go restore that one back. That’s my second use of the word, a more mature experience of that spirituality.
Submissive to Scripture
The other use of the term spiritual is ironic in 1 Corinthians 14:37. It goes like this: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord.” So, ironically, there are those who have spiritual gifts — and they really do, like (I think) our friend’s mother is thinking — and they claim therefore to be spiritual. But Paul says, “Now here’s the real test. You people who are speaking in tongues and experiencing healings and exorcisms, here’s the real test of being spiritual: it’s not gifts, but submission to the apostolic word. Do you acknowledge that our word is from the Lord?”
So, my counsel to our friend who sent this question is that she will, with all humility, in the pursuit of all the fruit of the Holy Spirit, not be shamed by her mother’s misunderstanding. Don’t let her words shame you. She should realize that having spiritual gifts does not make a person spiritual. That was the problem at Corinth. It’s having the Holy Spirit that makes one spiritual — and being formed into the image of Christ by his fruit. That’s mature spirituality.