The word discipline has disappeared from our minds, our mouths, our pulpits, and our culture. We hardly know what discipline means in modern American society. And yet, there is no other way to attain godliness; discipline is the path to godliness.
Mistake not, I pray you: these duties must be had and used, but still a man must not stay there. Prayer says, “There is no salvation in me;” and the sacraments and fasting say, “There is no salvation is us;” all these are subservient helps, no absolute causes of salvation.
Use thy duties, as Noah’s dove did her wings, to carry thee to the ark of the Lord Jesus Christ, where only there is rest.
The way to godly living is surprisingly simple: We are to walk with God in His appointed way (Micah 6:8), diligently using the means of grace and the spiritual disciplines, and waiting upon the Holy Spirit for blessing. Note that godly living involves both discipline and grace. This emphasis upon duty and grace is fundamental to Reformed, experiential thinking on godly living.
We must remember that the methods of spiritual disciplines are a means to the end, not the end themselves.
The word, stored in the heart, provides a mental depository for the Holy Spirit to use to mediate His grace to us, whatever our need for grace might be.
As we become soft and lazy in our bodies, we tend to become soft and lazy spiritually. When Paul talked about making his body his slave, so that after having preached to others he himself would not be disqualified, he was not thinking about physical disqualification, but spiritual. He knew well that physical softness inevitably leads to spiritual softness. When the body is pampered and indulged, the instincts and passions of the body tend to get the upper hand and dominate our thoughts and actions. We tend to do not what we should do, but what we want to do, as we follow the craving of our sinful nature.
Spiritual disciplines are provided for our good, not for our bondage. They are privileges to be used, not duties to be performed. To take off on a familiar quotation from Jesus, “Spiritual disciplines were made for man, not man for spiritual disciplines” (see Mark 2:27).
We will never become truly spiritual by sitting down and wishing to become so.
Bodily exercise will profit nothing if abstracted from those more spiritual. The glory that God hath, and the comfort and advantage that will accrue to your souls is mostly from the spiritual exercise of religion.
People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.
No voluntary act of spiritual discipline is ever to become an occasion for self-promotion. Otherwise, any value to the act is utterly vitiated.
We must be careful [with the spiritual disciplines] that we don’t insist on a certain standard of practice when the Bible merely insists on a general principle.
If you want to be Christlike you need to have communion with Christ, and if you want communion with Christ you need to do it on His terms with the channels of grace He’s provided [prayer, Bible reading, church fellowship, Lord’s table]. And that means the only way to extraordinary holiness is through ordinary means.
Discipline, for the Christian, begins with the body. We have only one. It is this body that is the primary material given to us for sacrifice. We cannot give our hearts to God and keep our bodies for ourselves.
You do not become a master musician by playing just as you please, by imagining that learning the scales is sheer legalism and bondage! No, true freedom in any area of life is the consequence of regular discipline. It is no less true [in the spiritual realm].
The purpose of practicing spiritual disciplines is to grow in our love for and devotion to God. But we can wrongly do them to try to earn God’s approval, avoid His punishment, or gain His blessings. We can even focus on gaining knowledge of the things of God for the sake of appearing godly and impressing others. We can also complete our personal quiet times to avoid feeling guilty.
There is a discipline involved in Christian growth. The rapidity with which a man grows spiritually and the extent to which he grows, depends upon this discipline. It is the discipline of the means.
We will never get anywhere in life without discipline, be it in the arts, business, athletics, or academics. This is doubly so in spiritual matters. In other areas we may be able to claim some innate advantage. An athlete may be born with a strong body, a musician with perfect pitch, or an artist with an eye for perspective. But none of us can claim an innate spiritual advantage. In reality, we are all equally disadvantaged. None of us naturally seeks after God, none is inherently righteous, none instinctively does good (cf. Romans 3:9-18). Therefore, as children of grace, our spiritual discipline is everything – everything! I repeat…discipline is everything!
But underlying much of the conscious rejection of spiritual discipline is the fear of legalism… But nothing could be farther from the truth if you understand what discipline and legalism are. The difference is one of motivation: legalism is self-centered; discipline is God-centered. The legalistic heart says, “I will do this thing to gain merit with God.” The disciplined heart says, “I will do this thing because I love God and want to please Him.” There is an infinite difference between the motivation of legalism and discipline! (Paul) knew this implicitly and fought the legalists bare-knuckled all the way across Asia Minor, never giving an inch. And now he shouts to us, “Train (discipline) yourself to be godly”! If we confuse legalism and discipline, we do so to our soul’s peril.
The word discipline in “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7, NASB) is a word with the smell of the gym in it – the sweat of a good workout. It is an unabashed call to spiritual sweat.
The rich etymology of “discipline” suggests a conscious divestment of all encumbrances, and then a determined investment of all one’s energies. Just as ancient athletes discarded everything and competed gumnos (naked), so must the disciplined Christian man divest himself of every association, habit, and tendency which impedes godliness. Then, with this lean spiritual nakedness accomplished, he must invest all his energy and sweat in the pursuit of godliness.
It is an immutable fact that we will never get anywhere in life without discipline – especially in spiritual matters. There are some who have innate athletic or musical advantages. But none of us can claim an innate spiritual advantage. None of us are inherently righteous, none of us naturally seek God or are reflexively good. Therefore, as children of grace, our spiritual discipline is everything.
Although these abstinences give some pain to the body, yet they so lessen the power of bodily appetites and passions, and so increase our taste of spiritual joys, that even these severities of religion, when practiced with discretion, add much to the comfortable enjoyment of our lives.
How often do we hear about the discipline of the Christian life these days? How often do we talk about it? How often is it really to be found at the heart of our evangelical living? There was a time in the Christian church when this was at the very center, and it is, I profoundly believe, because of our neglect of this discipline that the church is in her present position. Indeed, I see no hope whatsoever of any true revival and reawakening until we return to it.
Godly character is not the result of good intentions, wishful thinking, some mystical “zap,” or even sheer Bible knowledge. It’s developed through the self-disciplined application of God’s Word at a very basic level, enabled and empowered by God’s Spirit.
Why is discipline important? Discipline teaches us to operate by principle rather than desire. Saying no to our impulses (even the ones that are not inherently sinful) puts us in control of our appetites rather than vice versa. It deposes our lust and permits truth, virtue, and integrity to rule our minds instead.
The present benefit of spiritual discipline is a fulfilled, God-blessed, fruitful, and useful life. If you get involved in spiritual gymnastics, the blessings of godliness will carry on into eternity. Although many people spend far more time exercising their bodies than their souls, the excellent servant of Jesus Christ realizes that spiritual discipline is a priority.
Living the Christian life is often described in the Bible with words and phrases such as: “warfare,” “fight,” “run the race,” “yield not,” “work out,” and “press on.” The Christian life is a disciplined life of constant vigilance, of taking up the cross daily. There are no short-cuts. The spiritual conflict will continue till we step on the other side of glory.
Ours is an undisciplined age. The old disciplines are breaking down… Above all, the discipline of divine grace is derided as legalism or is entirely unknown to a generation that is largely illiterate in the Scriptures. We need the rugged strength of Christian character that can come only from discipline (Victor Edman).
One measure of the greatness of a man is not only that he practices what he preaches, but also that he doesn’t consider himself above the ordinary means of grace that all Christians need.
One thing essential to growth in grace is diligence in the use of private means of grace. By these I understand such means as a man must use by himself alone, and no one can use for him. I include under this head private prayer, private reading of the Scriptures, and private meditation and self-examination. The man who does not take pains about these three things must never expect to grow. Here are the roots of true Christianity. Wrong here, and a man is wrong all the way through.
When I speak of “means,” I have in view Bible-reading, private prayer, regular attendance on public worship, regular hearing of God’s Word, and regular reception of the Lord’s Supper. I lay it down as a simple matter of fact, that no one who is careless about such things must ever expect to make much progress in sanctification. I can find no record of any eminent saint who ever neglected them. They are appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul, and strengthens the work which He has begun in the inward man. Let men call this legal doctrine if they please, but I will never shrink from declaring my belief that there are no “spiritual gains without pains”… Our God is a God who works by means, and He will never bless the soul of that man who pretends to be so high and spiritual that he can get on without them.
I would neither have you be idle in duties – nor make an idol of duties.
There are no men more careful of the use of means than those that are surest of a good issue and conclusion, for the one stirs up diligence in the other. Assurance of the end stirs up diligence in the means. For the soul of a believing Christian knows that God has decreed both.
What moves God is not our supposed goodness or trophies of righteousness, but rather our desperation and cry to Him for grace. If we could earn it, grace would no longer be grace. Grace by its very definition is giving us what we do not deserve. If we were entitled to God’s favor, it would be a wage that we are due. But since we have merited nothing from God and God being God owes us nothing, we see His favor both in salvation and the blessings that follow all as a token of His undeserved grace to the praise of His glory.
Means must be neither trusted nor neglected.
We have not advanced very far in our spiritual lives if we have not encountered the basic paradox of freedom…that we are most free when we are bound. But not just any way of being bound will suffice; what matters is the character of our binding. The one who would be an athlete, but who is unwilling to discipline his body by regular exercise and by abstinence, is not free to excel on the field or the track. His failure to train rigorously denies him the freedom to run with the desired speed and endurance. With one concerted voice, the giants of the devotional life apply the same principle to the whole of life: Discipline is the price of freedom.
The undisciplined is a headache to himself and a heartache to others, and is unprepared to face the stern realities of life.
The standard of practical holy living has been so low among Christians that very often the person who tries to practice spiritual disciplines in everyday life is looked upon with disapproval by a large portion of the Church. And for the most part, the followers of Jesus Christ are satisfied with a life so conformed to the world, and so like it in almost every respect, that to a casual observer, there is no difference between the Christian and the pagan.
There’s a problem…when the inflow of spiritual renewal doesn’t replenish the outflow of spiritual ministry. For the spiritual life should also be the source of inner recreation and restoration since it is the way we most directly experience the Lord Himself in daily life. Through our spiritual disciplines (rightly motivated and practiced) come many of the most refreshing blessings of knowing Christ.
All our spiritual disciplines should be practiced in pursuit of Christlikeness. We pursue outward conformity to Christlikeness as we practice the same disciplines He practiced. More importantly, we pursue intimacy with Jesus and the inner transformation to Christlikeness when we look to Him through the spiritual disciplines.
Self-discipline is not self-punishment. It is instead an attempt to do what, prompted by the Spirit, you actually want in your heart to do.
The Spiritual Disciplines are those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth. They are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times…The Spiritual Disciplines are the God-given means we are to use in the Spirit-filled pursuit of Godliness.
They are the God-given means by which busy believers become like Christ. God offers His life-changing grace…to every believer – through the Spiritual Disciplines.
Worship is a Spiritual Discipline insofar as it is both an end and a means. The worship of God is an end in itself because worship, as we’ve defined it, is to focus on and respond to God. There is no higher goal than focusing on and responding to God. But worship is also a means in the sense that it is a means to Godliness. The more truly we worship God, the more we become like Him.
In my own pastoral and personal Christian experience, I can say that I’ve never known a man or woman who came to spiritual maturity except through discipline. Godliness comes through discipline.
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, 1991, p. 17, Used by permission of NavPress – www.navpress.com, All rights reserved. For more information please see the website www.BibicalSpirituality.org. Get this book!
Our bodies are inclined to ease, pleasure, gluttony, and sloth. Unless we practice self-control, our bodies will tend to serve evil more than God. We must carefully discipline ourselves in how we “walk” in this world, else we will conform more to its ways rather than to the ways of Christ.
Spiritual disciplines [are] the God-given means by which we are to bring ourselves before the Lord. And as we enjoy a growing relationship with Him through them, He changes us “for the purpose of godliness,” that is, He makes us more like Jesus.
If we measure particular aspects of our disciplines in order to simplify our spiritual lives or to hold ourselves accountable to certain goals, then there may be real benefits. So a person might try to read a given number of chapters in the Bible daily in order to avoid deciding every single day how much to read, and/or to keep pace for reading through the Bible in a year. Not even the most rigorous practice of the spiritual disciplines is legalistic when the motives of our spirituality are what they should be, namely to do all to the glory of God and to pursue Christlikeness.
There is much Spirit-filled human effort involved in sanctification. On the one hand, “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). On the other hand, we’re commanded in 1 Tim. 4:7, “discipline (ourselves) for the purposes of godliness.” God uses means of grace to sanctify us, chief of which are the personal and corporate spiritual disciplines. In the personal realm, these include intake of God’s Word, prayer, private worship, fasting, silence and solitude, etc. These are balanced by disciplines we practice with the church: public worship, hearing God’s Word preached, observance of the ordinances, corporate prayer, fellowship, etc.
Since the Scriptures tell us in several places that the Christian life is a life lived by faith (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 2:20), some may feel that personal resolve and strenuous effort have no place. While no one should neglect or minimize the necessity of faith as it relates to Christian sanctification, no one should forget that Christian faith is not passive. Christian faith works itself out through personal resolve, self-discipline, and effort.
Unless our resolve is the out-flowing of the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we, like Peter, will fail (Mt. 26:31-34). As Jesus said to his disciples, “without Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5)… It is our responsibility to exert the effort and develop the essential disciplines of the Christian life if we are to become more like Christ. But as we resolve to discipline ourselves and to diligently pursue holiness, we need to know that there is a deeper truth underlying and empowering our experience – the powerful reality that God is the one enabling, compelling, and willing all that takes place.