Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in Christ“You did not choose me, but I chose you and 

appointed you that you should go and bear fruit”  

(John 15:16)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

What is a Christian?  

Is a Christian someone who has been baptized and confirmed or is it someone who draws closer to Christ with each passing day? The formalities of baptism and confirmation mark Christendom and the institutional church while the relational act of drawing closer to Christ is often associated with the Jesus (or pietist) movement.⁠1 Mission circles actively debate this question, in part, because formal church membership acts can bring persecution, arrest, and even death.

The Ancient Church

For scripture and for the ancient church, formality or relationship posed a false dichotomy. Jesus invited his disciples into relationship a long time before the church even existed:

“As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.” (Matt 9:9)

Still, even Jesus insisted on some formalities:

“So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 10:32-33)

Later on the church’s indoctrination could take years before a new believer underwent baptism, suggesting that baptism was not a mere formality. Clearly, the early church took discipling seriously and engaged the inner life of the disciple beyond the reciting of a few Bible verses and a confessional statement.

Character Versus Personality

In his study of today’s moral dilemma facing the church, Wells makes a distinction between character, which arises from our inner life and virtues, and personality, which focuses on outward appearances. He writes:

“Today, we cultivate personality (a word almost unknown before the twentieth century) far more than we do character, and this is simply the concomitant to the way in which values have come to replace the older sense of virtue…Character is good or bad, while personality is attractive, forceful, or magnetic.” (Wells 1998, 96-97)

In some sense, the “hollowing out of the self” began with this emphasis on exterior characteristics and is exemplified by the rise of celebrities over heroes. Wells notes, citing Daniel Boorstin:

“The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark. The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media.” (Wells 1998, 100)

The focus on external appearances and the neglect of the inner life are akin to devaluing our experience of God, even if we believe that we take faith seriously. Wells observes:

“If the narcissist classically has a shrunken, fragmentary self, our culture has similarly become hollowed out and lost its core. If the narcissist covers up the emptiness by exaggerated self-importance and fantasies of power, our culture is covering up its hollowness by fads and fashions, ceaseless consuming, and the constant excitement of fresh sexual conquest.” (108)

While someone of strong moral character has no need of “buzz,” personality addicts live for public approval. Pastors are not the ones often guilty of being people pleasers. In Washington, the joke is that most dangerous place to stand is between a particular congressional representative (or senator or president) and the television cameras. 

Looking Beyond Personality 

 In the midst of a culture that constantly shouts at us, it can be hard to hear the still, small voice of God. If the shouting creates a crisis atmosphere that tempts us to ignore our inner life, to abandon our walk with Christ, and to evaluate our worth by secular standards, then our culture forms our character and our number one priority is not God, as required by the first Commandment (Exod 20:3-5). We commit idolatry and our identity lies in our family, work, gender, and other things. 

Identity is critical to Christian ethical practice. Just like fire fighters who run into burning buildings, not away from them, our identities shape our actions. This makes character formation a priority for Christian families and the church. 

Number One Priority

Jesus constantly talked about the heart and loving the right things—his way of talking about character formation and an allusion to the first Commandment—as we read:

“The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)

For the Hebrew, heart and mind are undivided, components of a unified whole, as we are reminded in the Shema, the Jewish Daily Prayer, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deut 6:5) that Jesus repeats in his Greatest Commandment discourse (Matt 22:36-40).

If we act out of our identity, then obviously Christian ethics requires that we strive in our daily walk to make Christ our number one priority.


See, for example, (Gehrz and Pattie 2017).


Boorstin, Daniel J. 1962. The Image; or, What Happened to the American Dream. New York: Atheneum.

Gehrz, Christopher  and Mark Pattie III. 2017. The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity. Downers Grove: IVP Academic.

Wells, David. 1998. Losing Out Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.


Also see:

Preface to Living in Christ 

A Roadmap of Simple Faith

Christian Spirituality 

Looking Back 

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Rice Reclaims Reformed Spirituality

Howard Rice, Reformed Spirituality

Howard L. Rice.  1991.  Reformed Spirituality: Introduction for Believers. Louisville:  Westminster/ John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a lifelong Calvinist and seminary graduate, Howard L. Rice’s Book, Reformed Spirituality: Introduction for Believers, came as a surprising find. The term, spirituality, has a New-Age ring to it. In reading about spiritual practices, I  accordingly assumed that I was straying from the reformed tradition. Thanks to Rice, I no longer feel that way.


Rice organizes his book into eight chapters, starting with an introduction and followed by seven topical chapters.  The topics addressed are informative:  The experience of God, problems and possibilities, prayer, study, consultation, the practice of discipleship, and discipline in the Christian life.  None of these topics come as a surprise.  The introduction starts with the Heidelberg Catechism: What is your only comfort in life and in death?  (7).  At the time of publication, Rice was chaplain of the Seminary and a professor of ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Spirituality Defined

Rice defines spirituality as:  the pattern by which we shape our lives in response to our experience of God as a very real presence in and around us (45).  He notes that:  spirituality demands letting go of control, taking emotions seriously, and emphasizing being as of equal value with doing (49).

Rice highlights the Puritan experience in explaining the reformed tradition (12). For Puritans, the preferred term is piety, not spirituality, reflecting the reformed suspicion of private revelation and guarded attention to the more colorful spiritual gifts. In worship, Reformed spirituality focuses more on scripture and the sermon while, in individual practice, it focuses more on prayer and meditation.

Importance of Theology in Reformed Spirituality

Rice emphasizes the importance of theology in the reformed approach to spirituality. For example, Richard Baxtor (1615-1691; 37) sought renewal of his congregation through personal instruction in the catechisms.  While this terribly un-modern technique sounds dated, I know of at least one pastor who successfully used it to energize a youth group.  The catechisms help church members to appreciate the doctrines of the church and to relate them to life.  Theology is not the only lens that Rice employs.  He observes that we encounter God in experiences of conversion, ecstasy, visions and spoken words, intuition, transcendence, and incarnation (30-35).  These observations normally qualify one as a charismatic in reformed circles!

Rice clarifies the role of small groups and church committees in the reformed spiritual life.  Reformed theology is systemic, complex, and complete–small groups and committees help maintain spiritual balance.  For the Calvinist, the spiritual life requires walking with a community of faith.  Rice writes:  that is why corporate worship, hearing the word preached, and sharing in common administration of the sacraments are so central for any Reformed understanding of the spiritual life (53).


As a text on reformed spiritually, Rice’s book was unique in helping me understand my own faith practices.  Clearly, I might have benefited from Rice’s systemic presentation at a younger age.  Rice deserves to be studied more than once and is suitable for small group discussion.


Baxtor, Richard 2007. The Reformed Pastor.  Carlisle:  Banner of Truth Trust.

Rice Reclaims Reformed Spirituality

Also see:

Why is Spirituality Important? 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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