The English word “spiritual” translates a Greek adjective, pneumatikos, which occurs twenty-six times in the New Testament. It is employed in several senses, each of which must be determined by the context. The following list, which is not designed to be exhaustive, reflects some of these nuances.
The Term “Spiritual”
- “Spiritual” may be used of that which is characterized by a non-material nature. Paul wrote regarding certain malignant powers that oppose Christians. He described them as “spiritual forces of wickedness,” (Eph. 6:12, NASB). As to their essence, they are “spiritual,” i.e., spirit beings. The context makes it clear that they are not good in terms of character.
Elsewhere, the apostle speaks of the type of body we shall be given at the time of the general resurrection from the dead. It will be a “spiritual” body, i.e., in contrast to the physical body we have now (1 Cor. 15:44; cf. ASV fn).
- The term “spiritual” may suggest that which emanates from God and is, therefore, consistent with the Lord’s moral nature. Paul, in referring to the law of Moses, said that “the law is spiritual.” The meaning seems to be this. The law of Moses was not some legal code that Israel gradually and naturally evolved over a period of time (as modern critics allege); rather, the law was a product of the mind of God himself. Moreover, the message was conveyed to man via the agency of the Holy Spirit. In that sense also it was a spiritual law.
- “Spiritual” may connote one who has accessed knowledge from God, and has an appreciation for the same. In 1 Corinthians 2:6ff, Paul speaks of the “wisdom of God” which had been manifested in certain “spiritual things,” i.e., divine truths, which he could know by virtue of the Spirit’s instruction.
By way of contrast, he affirmed that the “natural man” was not privy to, and would not approve, these truths. “Natural” renders the Greek psychikos, i.e., pertaining to the soul or mind. The passage is complex, but it may suggest that any person, who relies solely upon his own intuitive faculties, his personal intellectual prowess, cannot know the will of God, and certainly will not value divine revelation.
In this context, the “spiritual man” thus may be the one who welcomes the Spirit’s revelation, while the “natural man” is the one who depends upon human wisdom, hence, does not esteem spiritual reality.
- “Spiritual” can denote a quality that stands quite apart from the secular. In our worship, for example, we sing “spiritual songs,” i.e., songs which reflect upon heavenly matters, as opposed to the mundane affairs of this world (Eph. 5:19).
- In 1 Corinthians 3:1, “spiritual” seems to be used in the sense of one who is mature in the Lord, as opposed to one who acts less responsibly, even as a “babe.” For example, a spirit of divisiveness characterized the Corinthian brethren (1:11ff; 3:3ff), and such did not reflect a spiritual quality.
- In a very important sense, a “spiritual” person is one who vigorously pursues the will of the Holy Spirit, as manifested in the words of sacred revelation, whether directly from God (in a supernatural fashion, as in the first century), or whether, as today, by means of the testimony of the Scriptures (Eph. 6:17).
“Brethren, even if a man be overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; looking to yourself, lest you also be tempted” (Gal. 6:1).
The immediate context presents a rather comprehensive definition of the “spiritual” person. Earlier, Paul admonished, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (5:16). He subsequently referred to being “led by the Spirit” (18). He cataloged “fruit of the Spirit,” e.g., love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control (22-23), which are developed by obedience to God.
Finally, the apostle admonishes that since we profess to “live” by the Spirit, i.e., under his direction, then “by the Spirit let us also walk” (25). The verb “walk” (stoicheo) is a present tense form (sustained activity), which suggests steadily “walking in a straight line.”
Clearly, then, the spiritual person is the one who seeks to serve the Creator with the totality of his being (cf. Mt. 22:37), operating within the boundaries of divine truth.
False Notions of the Spiritual
Unfortunately there are many current ideas concerning what constitutes the “spiritual” that are alien to the biblical concept of this theme. Consider the following. [Note: For a few of the thoughts in this section, I am indebted to the beloved Hugo McCord.]
- Contrary to the convictions of some, the spiritual is not achieved by a monastic life-style. In the early 4th century, certain persons professing Christianity concocted the notion that if they withdrew from society and lived in isolation, such would cultivate the spiritual.
A man whose name was Anthony migrated to a cave in upper Egypt (c. A.D. 320), and multitudes followed his example. A Syrian monk by the name of Simon (A.D. 432) lived high atop a series of pillars, segregated from his contemporaries, for thirty-seven years.
In modern times, the Roman Catholic Church, with its system of holy orders, subscribes to this ideology.
- Others contend that asceticism produces spirituality. The ascetic person labors under the illusion that mere acts of self-denial, and even bodily abuse, can generate a spiritual dimension. Some allege, for example, that abstention from marriage is a “holier” state (cf. 1 Tim. 4:3). While there occasionally may be some value in maintaining the celibate state (cf. 1 Cor. 7:25ff), such does not automatically produce holiness.
When dealing with a certain heresy which plagued the saints at Colossae, Paul spoke of those who practiced “severity to the body” in the hope of being spiritual. But, he declared, such is “not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:23).
- Modern charismatics (e.g., the Pentecostals) tend to equate spirituality with miraculous gifts (e.g., the ability to “speak in tongues”). There are two things wrong with this notion.
- Were such the case, spirituality would be severely limited today, because there are no supernatural gifts (e.g., tongue-speaking) in this era (cf. 1 Cor. 13:8-10).
- The disciples at Corinth possessed miraculous gifts, yet many of them still were not spiritual (1 Cor. 3:1). Some of them even abused the gifts they possessed (14:27-33).
- Vast multitudes assume that mere morality is the equivalent of spirituality. They believe that doing benevolent deeds is sufficient to qualify them as spiritual people. Certainly the spiritual individual will evince good works, but noble deeds alone do not bestow that quality. Paul wrote: “...for by grace have you been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory” (Eph. 2:8-9; cf. Tit. 3:5).
This writer is acquainted with a number of people who are very kind and generous. They would give you the proverbial “shirt off their back.” Sadly, however, they evidence no interest in the gospel of Christ and faithful Christian service. They undoubtedly believe, quite sincerely, that their charitable activities impart to them a spiritual aura, but in this fantasy they are woefully mistaken.
- Many are convinced that if they have progressed beyond the level of the mere moral (which has to do primarily with benevolent activity between human beings), and they also are religious, i.e., exhibit a piety towards God, this ensures that they are spiritual people. Such a notion is far removed from the truth.
The Jews of Jesus’ day were devout, believing in the true God, yet they were lost and desperately in need of the redemption that only Jesus Christ is able to provide (Acts 4:11-12).
Cornelius, the Roman centurion, was “a devout man, and one who feared God with all his house, who gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God always” (Acts 10:2), and yet he was lost, quite in need of the saving gospel (Acts 11:14).
The pagans of Athens were “religious” (Acts 17:22ff), but not spiritual. Spirituality is a unique dimension.
Some Traits of the Spiritual Person
What sort of traits must the “spiritual” person possess? Several qualities, we believe, contribute to the status. Let us contemplate some of the basic ones.
- A spiritual person will deeply believe in the existence of an intimate God, and concede the Lord has a sovereign right over his life (Psa. 100:3; Rom. 9:21). He will want to develop a close relationship with his Maker. Paul spoke about the God “whose I am, whom also I serve” (Acts 27:23). There’s something very personal there.
- The spiritual soul will acknowledge that he does not possess the inherent wisdom to know how to conduct his life (Jer. 10:23). He therefore will solicit fervently the mind of God (by consulting the Scriptures) for direction. He will mediate day and night upon such matters (Psa. 1:2).
- The spiritual man and woman will strive to have a yielding spirit that longs more than anything else to obey God. “For Ezra had set his heart to seek the law of Jehovah, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and ordinances” (Ez. 7:10). When one “sets his heart” to do right, everything else follows.
- The spiritual person views things in terms of eternity, not time. For example, he may experience hardships and heartaches now, but he reckons “that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to usward” later on (Rom. 8:18).
- A spiritual individual subordinates the material to higher interests. He sets his mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are upon the earth (Col. 3:2). He does not become inordinately preoccupied with “things” of a material nature. Rather, he seeks foremost the kingdom of God (Mt. 6:33), and trusts the Lord to provide his needs (in conjunction, of course, with exercising personal responsibility – 2 Thes. 3:10ff).
- One who is truly spiritual strives for balance in his existence. He does not compartmentalize his service to God by “selective devotion.” The Hebrews of Isaiah’s day, for example, would bring a multitude of sacrifices to the temple to accommodate their ritualism. At the same time, they ignored the needs of the oppressed, the fatherless, and the widow (see Isa. 1:10-17).
Similarly, in Jesus’ day, the Pharisees would tithe of their smallest garden plants, while leaving undone weightier matters of the law (e.g., justice, mercy, and faith – Mt. 23:23). The Lord did not grant the option of choosing certain areas of obedience and ignoring others.
Some are conscientious guardians of theological precision, but exhibit almost no discernible compassion for their kinsmen in the Lord, while others scurry about, immersed in benevolent activity, laboring under the misconception that “grace” exempts from obedience.
If we have learned anything at all from this study, surely it is this: The quality of being “spiritual” is achieved by determined effort. It is neither an accident, nor an automatic birthright.
May God help his sincere people to strive for this noble quality of life. The spiritual life is where true happiness is discovered.