[To read part 1 of this post, click here.]
The Role of Spiritual Disciplines
Although the Holy Spirit gives a believer the desire and the power for a biblical spirituality, a certain reformatting of the life and habits must also take place to practice a Gospel-centered piety. Thus Paul also wrote, “Train yourself for godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). This doesn’t refer to physical training, for mere bodily activity—despite its health benefits—does not by itself build godliness, as the very next verse makes plain. Rather, the kind of training or exercise that promotes godliness (that is, Christlikeness) is spiritual training.
No Christian coasts into Christlikeness. Godliness, according to this text, requires training. Some Bible translations render “train” as “exercise” (KJV) or “discipline” (NASB). Thus the biblical and practical ways in daily life of living out this command to “train yourself for godliness” have often been termed “spiritual exercises” or “spiritual disciplines.” (Note: some false teachers have also used these expressions, but that doesn’t invalidate such biblically-derived terms any more than a heretic’s use of the word “Trinity” nullifies our orthodox use of that term.) What was true in Paul’s day is still true: it is by means of the spiritual disciplines found in Scripture that we are to pursue godliness.
Of course, legalism is always a danger in spirituality. Anything a Christian can count, measure, or time can be twisted into something that falsely assures a person that by this—instead of the sufficiency of the life and death of Jesus—they’re more spiritually secure or favored by God. But just because the disciplines of godliness can be misused doesn’t mean they should be neglected. “Train yourself for godliness” is God’s command, therefore it must be possible to pursue obedience to it without legalism
Gospel-Centered Spiritual Disciplines in Practice
So how do Christians practice a Gospel-centered spirituality? First, practice the right disciplines—those personal and interpersonal spiritual disciplines found in the Bible. A Gospel-centered spirituality is a sola scriptura spirituality. For individual practice, the most important personal spiritual disciplines are first, the intake of Scripture and second, prayer; all the others relate to these two. The interpersonal spiritual disciplines we’re to observe are primarily those biblical practices related to life together in a local church.
Second, practice the right disciplines with the right goal. Consciously practice these disciplines with Jesus as the focus—pursuing intimacy with Christ and conformity (both inward and outward) to Christ. To put it more succinctly, by means of the biblical spiritual disciplines seek to be with Jesus and like Jesus.
Third, practice the right disciplines the right way. Emphasize the person and work of Jesus in each one. Through them, learn from, gaze upon, and enjoy who Jesus is and what He has done. Let your soul be restored through by the truths of the Gospel.
Engage in the spiritual disciplines given by God in Scripture so that you are continually shown your need for Christ and the infinite supply of grace and mercy to be found by faith in Jesus Christ.
As you’ve surely noticed, everyone is “spiritual” today. I saw a USAToday survey where even a majority of atheists consider themselves “spiritual” people. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I’m just not a spiritual person.”
What is spirituality?
Perhaps for many spirituality simply means spending time occasionally in personal reflection. For others maybe it means consciously trying to live by certain principles, or attempting to be thoughtful on important issues like the environment or homelessness.
However, the common perception of spirituality is not the biblical one. I’m writing from the perspective that spirituality includes—but transcends—the human spirit, and involves the pursuit of God and the things of God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit in accordance with God’s self-revelation (that is, the Bible).
Spirituality and the Gospel
This kind of spirituality is not self-generated; rather it is one result of the new spiritual life that God creates in the soul as He works through the Gospel. In other words, Christian spirituality is part of a life lived in response to the Gospel. In theological terms, spirituality is an aspect of the sanctification which necessarily begins at and follows justification.
Think of it this way: we come to God through the Gospel and we live for God through the Gospel. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Colossians 2:6). It is through the Gospel by faith that we receive Christ, and it is through the Gospel by faith that we walk in Christ.
The Gospel—in a word—is Jesus. In a phrase, the Gospel is the person and work of Jesus Christ. That’s why we can speak of the Christian life as a Gospel-centered life. We come to God initially on the basis of faith in who Jesus is and what He has done for us. And we continue to come to God and to live a life pleasing to Him on the same basis. To paraphrase Paul in Galatians 3:3, having begun by the Spirit through the Gospel, we are perfected (that is, sanctified; made like Christ) in the same way—by the Spirit through the Gospel.
In part two of this post, I write about the role of the Spiritual Disciplines in a Gospel-centered life and also Gospel-centered Spiritual Disciplines in practice.
To read part two of this post, click here.
On the occasion of the release of the Revised & Updated edition of my Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Trevin Wax interviewed me about spiritual discipline, legalism, and laziness.
Part one of this interview is here.
Trevin Wax: 3. The second concern deals with specific spiritual disciplines, primarily those concerned with meditation on God’s Word or spending time in silence and solitude. How do you respond to those who believe time in silence is a misinterpretation of Psalm 46:10, an extrabiblical innovation that can lead us to place personal experience over God’s revealed truth?
Don: First, I trust that no Bible-believer has an issue with the responsibility, privilege, and value of meditation on God’s Word. Passages such as Joshua 1:8, Psalm 1:3, 2 Timothy 2:7 and others should settle that. How could anyone who loves God and His Word discount the importance and benefits of meditation on Scripture? And the fact that meditation would frequently be most fruitful when done in privacy stands to reason.
But to unite the two (solitude and meditation on Scripture) on the basis of Psalm 46:10 is an error. Psalm 46:10–“Be still, and know that I am God”–is indeed frequently misinterpreted. In fact, I would say that when it’s used in the context of the devotional life it’s always misinterpreted. While I do think it represents a biblical principle, namely that it’s always beneficial to stop and be reminded of the sovereignty of God in the midst of all circumstances, that’s not what Psalm 46:10 is about. Rather the context there is international, not personal. It’s about God’s exaltation above the nations, not about an individual’s personal piety.
Meditation on Scripture, done rightly, leads to the richest “personal experience” (with God), but never at the expense of God’s revealed truth. Rather I would contend that the richest experiences with God come most consistently by means of meditation on His Word. Why is it that so many Christians, people who read the Bible every day, cannot remember the last time their daily time in the Word of God changed their day, much less changed their life? Why is it that most days, if pressed, as soon as they close their Bible would have to admit, “I don’t remember a thing I read”? I would argue that the reason is a lack of meditation.
While reading the Bible is the exposure to Scripture–and that’s essential; that’s the starting place–meditation is the absorption of Scripture. And it’s the absorption of Scripture that leads to the experience with God and the transformation of life that we long for when we come to Scripture. My contention is that people just don’t do that, even people who read the Bible every day. It’s not that people can’t meditate on Scripture; they just don’t. Often it’s because they’ve not been taught about meditation, and/or they just don’t know how to meditate on a verse of Scripture. That’s why in the section of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life where I write about meditation I conclude with seventeen different ways to meditate on Scripture, ways that are doable by any Christian (for any devotional practice–like meditation–expected of all God’s children has to be fundamentally simple).
Trevin Wax: 4. One of the reasons why worship attendance is down in some denominations is that the faithful Christian who is active in church is attending less often. In your opinion, does it help us to see the public worship gathering as a “discipline,” or is conceiving of worship as an “obligation” one of the reasons of why Christians are attending church less often?
Don: In my opinion, the reason the “faithful Christian” you mention attends church less often has nothing to do with the intentional rejection of an “obligation” imposed by the church. Having no interest in gathering when God’s people gather for the purpose of publicly honoring and enjoying God, finding no delight in the incarnational (not merely recorded) proclamation of God’ Word, and having no appetite for the grace of the Lord’s table comes from a deeper root than an avoidance of legalism. In the New Testament, the concepts of “faithful Christian” and avoidance of church life never characterize the same people.
Because of the internal war of the Spirit against our flesh and our flesh against the Spirit (Galatians 5:17), there remains within us while in this world a gravitational pull of our hearts away from the things of God (such as public worship) as well as a Spirit-produced gravitational pull toward them. To be one who intentionally fights against the flesh and who “sows to the Spirit” (Galatians 6:8) it’s right and biblical to speak of participation in congregational worship as a discipline. As I mentioned earlier, the blessings experienced in the worship of God with His people will often be forfeited if we attend only when we feel like it when we awake on Sunday morning (if indeed we even awake on time without discipline).
Trevin Wax: 5. In this newest edition of your book, you have added more than 10,000 words of new material, adding more Bible references and a more cross-centered focus. What led you to make these adjustments in the new edition?
Don: The single biggest addition to the book was the expansion of the section on methods of meditation from six to seventeen. Some of the book’s enlargement came simply from including things I’ve learned about the disciplines in the twenty-three years since the original edition was published. I also took the opportunity to delete a few lines and quotations that could be construed as inclining toward mysticism. Most importantly, I added more of the gospel in every chapter. In 2011 I did a year-long series on “The Gospel and the Spiritual Disciplines” for Tabletalk magazine. Much of that material found its way, chapter-by-chapter, into the Revised & Updated edition of Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. I wanted to do my best to ensure that no one separated the gospel from the disciplines or became tempted to think that by the diligent practice of the disciplines they could earn God’s favor.
I’d also like to mention that the terminology of the book has been updated, and I believe it’s now a better-written book. I reviewed every line, and I hope I’ve learned a few things about writing in the last twenty-three years. Overall, I think this edition is a big advance for the book in style, but especially in content, and I hope your readers find it to be so.
This interview originally appeared on August 12, 2014, on Trevin Wax’s blog on The Gospel Coalition website.
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.
After 23 years in print, my Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life has been released in a “Revised & Updated” edition.
More content. You’ll find more than 10,000 words of new material, such as seventeen methods of meditation on Scripture, up from six in the original edition.
More gospel. In 2011 I contributed a yearlong series of articles to Ligonier Ministries’ monthly magazine Tabletalk. The substance of each of these articles on the theme of “The Gospel and the Spiritual Disciplines” (such as “The Gospel and Fasting”) has been incorporated into each chapter. So there’s more explicit Christocentric, cross-connected material for each of the Spiritual Disciplines.
More Bible. Over 430 Scripture references, taken from 51 books of the Bible saturate these pages. Also, I have attempted to remove any lines from the 1991 edition that some have construed as supportive of a mystical view of the Disciplines, as well as quotations from writers who later came to be identified with that perspective. My goal in this book is a Sola Scriptura spirituality.
More contemporary. Obsolete cultural and technological references have been deleted or updated. Moreover, I’ve attempted to use timeless terms as much as possible to minimize connections to rapidly changing sectors of society. So, for example, instead of changing “cassette tape” to “MP3”, I’ve used the term “recording” since holograms (or something yet unforeseen) may be as common in 23 years as cassette tapes were 23 years ago
By the way, I’ve also revised and updated the companion Study Guide to Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. This 140-page volume is designed for class or small group study, but is also a helpful resource for the teacher or small group leader guiding others through the book.
Both these resources can be ordered through this website by clicking on the respective pictures above or on the links in the next sentence. The book is $15.50 and the study guide is $10.50. Shipping is included in the price. You may order by phone at 502-883-1096.