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Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life
By Donald S. Whitney
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Donald S. Whitney
All rights reserved.
The Spiritual Disciplines ... for the Purpose of Godliness
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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. V. RAYMOND EDMAN
Discipline without direction is drudgery.
Imagine six-year-old Kevin, whose parents have enrolled him in music lessons. After school every afternoon, prompted by his mother, he slouches into the living room and strums songs he must practice but doesn't like while watching his buddies play baseball in the park across the street. That's discipline without direction. It's drudgery.
Now suppose Kevin is visited by an angel one afternoon during guitar practice. In a vision, he's transported to Carnegie Hall. He's shown a guitar virtuoso giving a concert. Usually bored by classical music, Kevin is astonished by what he sees and hears. The musician's fingers dance on the strings with fluidity and grace. Kevin thinks of how stupid and clunky his own hands feel when they halt and falter over the chords. The virtuoso blends clean, soaring notes into a musical aroma that wafts from his guitar. Kevin remembers the toneless, irritating discord that comes stumbling out of his.
But Kevin is enchanted. His head tilts to one side as he listens. He drinks in everything. He never imagined that anyone could play the guitar like this.
"What do you think, Kevin?" asks the angel.
The answer is a soft, slow, six-year-old's "W-o-w!"
The vision vanishes, and the angel is again standing in front of Kevin in his living room. "Kevin," says the angel, "the wonderful musician you saw is you in a few years." Then pointing at the guitar, the angel declares, "But you must practice!"
Suddenly the angel disappears and Kevin finds himself alone with his guitar. Do you think his attitude toward practice will be different now? As long as he remembers what he's going to become, Kevin's discipline will have a direction, a goal that will pull him into the future. Yes, effort will be involved, but you could hardly call it drudgery.
When it comes to discipline in the Christian life, many believers feel as Kevin did toward guitar practice—it's discipline without direction. Prayer threatens to be drudgery. The practical value of meditation on Scripture seems uncertain. The real purpose of a discipline such as fasting is often a mystery.
First, we must understand what we shall become. The Bible says of God's elect, "For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son" (Romans 8:29). God's eternal plan ensures that every Christian will ultimately conform to Christlikeness. We will be changed "when he appears" so that "we shall be like him" (1 John 3:2). If you are born again (see John 3:3-8), this is no vision; this is you, Christian, as soon as "he appears."
So why talk about discipline? If God has predestined our conformity to Christlikeness, where does discipline fit in? Why not just coast into the promised Christlikeness and forget about discipline?
Although God will grant Christlikeness to us when Jesus returns, until then He intends for us to grow toward it. We aren't merely to wait for holiness; we're to pursue it. "Strive for peace with everyone," we're commanded in Hebrews 12:14, "and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" Notice carefully what that says: Without holiness—that is, Christlikeness or godliness—no one will see the Lord, regardless of how many times they have been to church or how often they have engaged in religious activities or how spiritual they believe themselves to be.
It's crucial—crucial—to understand that it's not our pursuit of holiness that qualifies us to see the Lord. Rather, we are qualified to see the Lord by the Lord, not by good things we do. We cannot produce enough righteousness to impress God and gain admittance into heaven. Instead we can stand before God only in the righteousness that's been earned by another, Jesus Christ. Only Jesus lived a life good enough to be accepted by God and worthy of entrance into heaven. And He was able to do so because He was God in the flesh. Living a perfect life qualified Him to be a sacrifice that the Father accepts on behalf of others who by sin disqualify themselves from heaven and a relationship with God. As proof of God's acceptance of Jesus' life and sacrifice, God raised Him from the dead. In other words, Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life in complete obedience to the commands of God, and He did so in order to give the credit for all that obedience and righteousness to those who had not kept all of God's Law, and He died for them on a Roman cross in order to receive the punishment they deserved for all their sins against God's Law.
As a result, all who come to God trusting in the person and work of Jesus to make them right with God are given the Holy Spirit (see Ephesians 1:13-14). The presence of the Holy Spirit causes all those in whom He resides to have new holy hungers they didn't have before. They hunger, for example, for the Holy Word of God—the Bible—that they used to find boring or irrelevant. They have new holy longings, such as the longing to live in a body without sin and to have a mind no longer tempted by sin. They yearn to live in a holy and perfect world with holy and perfect people, and to see at last the One the angels perpetually praise as "holy, holy, holy" (Revelation 4:8). These are some of the holy heartbeats in all those in whom the Holy Spirit resides. Consequently, when the Holy Spirit indwells someone, that person begins to prize and pursue holiness. Thus, as we have seen in Hebrews 12:14, anyone who is not striving for holiness will not see the Lord. And the reason he or she will not see the Lord in eternity is because he or she does not know the Lord now, for those who know Him are given His Holy Spirit, and all those indwelled by the Holy Spirit are compelled to pursue holiness.
And so, the urgent question every Christian should ask is, "How then shall I pursue holiness, the holiness without which I will not see the Lord? How can I become more like Jesus Christ?"
We find a clear answer in 1 Timothy 4:7: "Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness" (NASB). In other words, if your purpose is godliness—and godliness is your purpose if you are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, for He makes godliness your purpose—then how do you pursue that purpose? According to this verse, you "discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness"
This verse is the theme for the entire book. In this chapter, I will attempt to unpack its meaning; the rest of the book is an effort to apply it in practical ways. I will refer to the scriptural ways Christians discipline themselves in obedience to this verse as the Spiritual Disciplines. I will maintain that the only road to Christian maturity and godliness (a biblical term synonymous with Christ-likeness and holiness) passes through the practice of the Spiritual Disciplines. I will emphasize that godliness is the goal of the Disciplines, and when we remember this, the Spiritual Disciplines become a delight instead of drudgery.
THE SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES—WHAT ARE THEY?
The Spiritual Disciplines are those practices found in Scripture that promote spiritual growth among believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times. The Disciplines could be described in several ways.
First, the Bible prescribes both personal and interpersonal Spiritual Disciplines. This book is about personal Spiritual Disciplines, but they are not more important than the interpersonal Spiritual Disciplines, even if they are emphasized more frequently in most of the literature about spiritual growth. So while some Disciplines are practiced alone, some are to be practiced with others. The former are personal Spiritual Disciplines and the latter are interpersonal Spiritual Disciplines. For example, Christians should read and study the Word of God on their own (personal Spiritual Disciplines), but they should also hear the Bible read and study it with the church (interpersonal Spiritual Disciplines). Christians should worship God privately, but they should also worship Him publicly with His people. Some Spiritual Disciplines are by nature practiced alone, such as journaling, solitude, and fasting (though individuals sometimes fast in conjunction with a congregational fast). Other Disciplines are by nature congregational, such as fellowship, hearing God's Word preached, and participation in the Lord's Supper—all of which require the presence of people.
Both the personal and interpersonal Disciplines are means of blessings for followers of Jesus and a part of growth in godliness, for the Bible teaches both. Moreover, Jesus practiced both, and becoming like Jesus is the purpose of practicing the Disciplines. So, for instance, the Bible tells us that on at least four occasions Jesus got alone to pray (Matthew 4:1; 14:3; Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42), thereby practicing personal Spiritual Disciplines. Conversely, we're told in Luke 4:16, "as was his custom, [Jesus] went to the synagogue on the Sabbath Day," thus engaging in interpersonal Spiritual Disciplines.
Each of us is perhaps inclined a little more toward Disciplines that are practiced individually or toward those that are practiced corporately. Some, for instance, might think they could be all that God wants them to be, even without the local church, just by practicing the personal Spiritual Disciplines faithfully. Others may be equally deceived into thinking that they'll make sufficient spiritual progress if they are deeply involved in the life of their church, believing that somehow their participation in meaningful church activities will compensate for the lack of a personal devotional life. To lean too far toward our own personal inclination, however, will get us out of balance and deform our pursuit of holiness. Christians are individuals, but we are also part of the body of Christ. We experience God and we grow in His grace through both personal and interpersonal Spiritual Disciplines. So even though this book is about personal Spiritual Disciplines, understand that Christlikeness also requires the pursuit of God through the interpersonal Spiritual Disciplines.
Second, Spiritual Disciplines are activities, not attitudes. Disciplines are practices, not character qualities, graces, or "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22-23). Disciplines are things you do—such as read, meditate, pray, fast, worship, serve, learn, and so on. The goal of practicing a given Discipline, of course, is not about doing as much as it is about being, that is, being like Jesus. But the biblical way to grow in being more like Jesus is through the rightly motivated doing of the biblical Spiritual Disciplines. Note it again—"Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness." Godliness—being like Jesus—is the purpose, but the God-given path to that purpose is through certain activities found in Scripture known as the Spiritual Disciplines. To put it another way, there are specific practices we are to do sometimes that cultivate generally being like Jesus all the time. So fasting is a Spiritual Discipline, because that's something you do. Joy, strictly speaking, is not a Spiritual Discipline, because joy is something you experience, not something you do. Fasting itself is not the goal; rather joy is part of the goal of fasting, because joy is a Christlike quality. Joy does not come to you if you are spiritually passive; rather, joy is cultivated, but joy is cultivated by things you do. And the "things you do" that cultivate Christlike joy are the Spiritual Disciplines.
Third, I want to limit the subject matter of this book to those Spiritual Disciplines that are biblical, that is, to practices taught or modeled in the Bible. Without this limitation, we leave ourselves open to calling anything we fancy a Spiritual Discipline. Thus some might declare, "Gardening is a Spiritual Discipline for me," or "Exercise is one of my Spiritual Disciplines," or claim that some other hobby or pleasurable habit is a valid Spiritual Discipline. One of the problems with this approach is that it can tempt people to assert something like, "Maybe meditation on Scripture works for you, but gardening does just as much for my soul as the Bible does for yours." And the result is that virtually anything can be designated a Spiritual Discipline, and worse, it means that we determine for ourselves what practices are best for our spiritual health and maturity rather than accepting those God has revealed in Scripture. I believe a case can be made—to a greater or lesser extent for each—that the following personal Spiritual Disciplines are commended in Scripture: Bible intake, prayer, worship, evangelism, service, stewardship, fasting, silence and solitude, journaling, and learning. Is this an exhaustive list? No, I wouldn't presume to maintain that. A survey of other literature on the subject would reveal additional candidates for consideration as biblical Spiritual Disciplines to be practiced by individual Christians. But I do believe it can be argued that the ones discussed in these pages are the more prominent ones in Scripture.
Fourth, this book takes the position that the Spiritual Disciplines found in Scripture are sufficient for knowing and experiencing God, and for growing in Christlikeness. This is based upon the fact that "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). These verses tell us that Scripture, because it is divinely inspired, provides the guidance Christians need to "be complete, equipped for every good work," including the good work of pursuing "the purpose of godliness." So whatever else a person might claim regarding the spiritual benefits he or she receives from a practice not found in the Bible, at the very least we can say this about that activity—it is not necessary. If it were necessary for spiritual maturity and progress in holiness it would have been recorded and promoted in Scripture.
Fifth, the Spiritual Disciplines are practices derived from the gospel, not divorced from the gospel. When the Disciplines are rightly practiced, they take us deeper into the gospel of Jesus and its glories, not away from it as though we've moved on to more advanced levels of Christianity. New Testament scholar D. A. Carson makes this point eloquently:
The gospel is not a minor theme that deals with the point of entry into the Christian way, to be followed by a lot of material that actually brings about the life transformation. Very large swaths of evangelicalism simply presuppose that this is the case. Preaching the gospel, it is argued, is announcing how to be saved from God's condemnation; believing the gospel guarantees you won't go to hell. But for actual transformation to take place, you need to take a lot of discipleship courses, spiritual enrichment courses, "Go deep" spiritual disciplines courses, and the like. You need to learn journaling, or asceticism, or the simple lifestyle, or Scripture memorization; you need to join a small group, an accountability group, or ... Bible study. Not for a moment would I speak against the potential for good of all of these steps; rather, I am speaking against the tendency to treat these as postgospel disciplines, disciplines divorced from what God has done in Christ Jesus in the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord....
Failure to see this point has huge and deleterious consequences.... First, if the gospel becomes that by which we slip into the kingdom, but all the business of transformation turns on postgospel disciplines and strategies, then we shall constantly be directing the attention of people away from the gospel, away from the cross and resurrection. Soon the gospel will be something that we quietly assume is necessary for salvation, but not what we are excited about, not what we are preaching, not the power of God. What is really important are the spiritual disciplines. Of course, when we point this out to someone for whom techniques and disciplines are of paramount importance, there is likely to be instant indignation. Of course I believe in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, they say. And doubtless they do. Yet the question remains: What are they excited about? Where do they rest their confidence? On what does their hope of transformation depend? When I read, say, Julian of Norwich, I find an example of just how far an alleged spirituality may be pursued, in medieval form, directly attempting to connect with God apart from self-conscious dependence on the substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus—the very matters the apostle labels "of first importance." Wherever contemporary pursuit of spirituality becomes similarly distanced from the gospel, it is taking a dangerous turn.
Excerpted from Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney. Copyright © 2014 Donald S. Whitney. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc..
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