A brief interview with Don Whitney about spiritual discipline
1. What is a spiritual discipline, and can you list some of the foundational spiritual disciplines?
First Timothy 4:7 says, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of Godliness” (NASB). The kind of discipline that promotes Godliness isn’t physical (see v. 8), but spiritual. Thus the practical, biblical ways by which followers of Christ pursue Christlikeness have historically been called spiritual disciplines.
So the spiritual disciplines are those personal and interpersonal activities given by God in the Bible as the sufficient means believers in Jesus Christ are to use in the Spirit-filled, gospel-centered pursuit of Godliness, that is, closeness to Christ and conformity to Christ.
Specifically, the foundational spiritual practices involve the personal and interpersonal disciplines involving the intake of God’s Word, prayer, and worship. The other disciplines—including fellowship, serving, taking the Lord’s Supper, etc.—flow from or are interwoven with these.
2. What are some of the most common obstacles to practicing the spiritual disciplines on a day-to-day basis?
The first thing that comes to mind, of course, is the relentlessness of our schedules and the avalanche of our responsibilities. And certainly this is part of the battle. When we feel overloaded with life—which is most of the time—an exhortation to practice the spiritual disciplines can make us feel like an exhausted juggler, struggling to keep half-a-dozen family heirloom plates in the air while someone is trying to toss us a few more.
But the reality often is that we simply have not made priorities of the spiritual disciplines. It’s not that we fail to practice the disciplines only because we have no time—our devotion to TV, Facebook, and Netflix prove that we regularly do have some discretionary time. Rather it’s more often that we do not practice the spiritual disciplines because we do not plan to, whether time is available or not. Snow days, vacation days, and holidays result in no more time in the disciplines than any other days.
I should also mention that boredom with or a lack of a sense of blessing experienced through the disciplines is also an obstacle. Many—and I am speaking of truly converted people here, those indwelled by the Holy Spirit—find themselves bored in prayer, for example. I believe the root problem here is usually one of method, as when a person prays and regularly says the same old things about the same old things. As a result they struggle to pray except out of a sense of mere duty or obligation. The simple, biblical solution to that is a change in method to one of praying through a passage of Scripture
3. How does our practice of spiritual disciplines relate to the gospel?
Most importantly we need to realize that practicing the spiritual disciplines—no matter how faithfully, consistently, or sacrificially—does nothing to endear us to God. The gospel is not a message of what we must do for God in order to overcome the offense of our sins and become acceptable to Him, rather it is a message of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ in order to bring us to Himself.
Once we accept the message of the gospel and receive credit for the righteousness of Christ and are indwelled by the Holy Spirit, the spiritual disciplines become the means by which we enjoy God and are transformed more into conformity to Christ.
It is by means of the biblical spiritual disciplines believers in the gospel of Jesus focus on the person and work of Jesus. Through them we learn from, gaze upon, and enjoy who Jesus is and what He has done. By means of the disciplines we find the truths of the gospel restoring our souls. As we engage in the spiritual disciplines given by God in Scripture, we should continually sense our need for Christ and find the infinite supply of grace and mercy to be found by faith in Jesus Christ.
This interview was conducted by David Burnette and first appeared on the Radical.net blog on March 17, 2014.
When it comes to discipline in the Christian life, many believers question its importance. Devotion to prayer declines into drudgery. The real-life usefulness of meditation on Scripture seems uncertain. The purpose of a discipline like fasting is a mystery. Why not leave spiritual discipline to those who seem to more disciplined by nature and let the rest of us “live by grace”?
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 (John 3:3-8), 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; Godliness—no one will see the Lord, regardless of how many times they’ve been to church or how often they’ve 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 would accept on behalf of others who by sin had disqualified 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 (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 they will not see the Lord in eternity is because they do 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 Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. In it I attempt to unpack the meaning of 1 Timothy 4:7 and apply it, chapter-by-chapter, in practical ways. I will refer to the scriptural ways Christians discipline themselves in obedience to this verse as the Spiritual Disciplines. I maintain there that the only road to Christian maturity and Godliness (a biblical term synonymous with Christlikeness and holiness) passes through the practice of the Spiritual Disciplines. I emphasize that Godliness is the goal of the Disciplines, and when we remember this, the Spiritual Disciplines become a delight instead of drudgery.
Do not try the following when you are discouraged by the lack of spiritual progress among those in your ministry setting. In other words, if you have been experiencing disappointment with the spiritual condition of those in your discipleship group, Bible class, or church, wait awhile before you attempt the experiment I suggest. For if you aren’t discouraged before you try this little quiz, you almost certainly will be afterward.
Distribute pens and paper to all who are present. Then ask, “How many times do you think you have heard the gospel?” Some listeners, especially those who have been Christians for many years or who have attended Bible-preaching churches since childhood, may roll their eyes and say, “Thousands of times.” Others will nod, affirming their repeated exposure to the Gospel.
“Good!” you reply. “And since most of you profess to be Christians, you certainly had to not only hear the Gospel, but understand it well enough to believe it and be saved, right?”
Again, you’ll see relaxed, confident affirmations all around.
“Great! Since you’re all so familiar with the Gospel, I’m sure you won’t have any problems with this simple exercise. Please take that sheet of paper and write down the Gospel. In a paragraph or so, write the message people must hear, understand, and believe in order to be right with God and go to Heaven.”
Watch people freeze.
“Please, go ahead now and write a paragraph declaring the Gospel which you say you have heard perhaps thousands of times and which you understood and believed when you were saved.”
Now, in an increasingly uncomfortable silence, people will begin shifting in their seats, shuffling their feet, and staring at the sheet of paper. Many will not know what to write. The only thing more discouraging than these empty sheets will be some of the things people actually do write.
What will likely become depressingly apparent in this pop quiz is that an alarming number of those in your group are unclear on the most basic and important message of the Bible. Despite the fact that by their own admission they have read or heard countless presentations of the Gospel and claim to have experienced new life in Christ through its power, they are unable to convey even the ABCs of the message of salvation.
What are the implications of this inability to articulate the Gospel? For some, it surely reveals the reality that they aren’t Christians at all. If you maintain—as I hope you do—that no one is saved apart from believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it is rather hard to argue that a person has savingly believed the Gospel if they cannot convey—in their own words and at their own level of understanding—the message they claim to have believed.
For those who are genuine Christians, but for whatever reason are unable to articulate the Gospel there’s another implication: their efforts at personal evangelism are likely to be seldom and shallow. If someone cannot communicate the Gospel in the loving environment of a gathering of Christians, how can they possibly do so with unbelievers out in the world? No amount of pulpit encouragement or shame about evangelism will motivate them to speak words under pressure that they cannot express in the best of circumstances.
Still another implication for true Christians who are unclear on the Gospel is that a weak grasp of the Gospel is a hindrance to holiness. Or to put it positively, those who know the Gospel best are those most likely to become closest to Christ and most like Christ.
Do you have a simple practical way to measure basic Gospel literacy you would share? If so, please leave a message in the box below.