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.
Trevin Wax: You write of spiritual disciplines as “the means to godliness” and point to biblical evidence and historical examples to make this case. Are you speaking of spiritual disciplines in a general sense or particular practices, some of which are not prescribed in Scripture (journaling, for example)?
Don: I am speaking of specific practices found in Scripture by command, example, or principle. I’ve never seen a supposed “definitive list” of the spiritual disciplines, and I state in the book that I am not attempting to present an exhaustive list, but I do think a case can be made that the ones presented in the book are the most prominent ones in Scripture. Admittedly, there’s less biblical evidence for keeping a spiritual journal than for other disciplines in the book. but in the book as well as in this Baptist Press article I have argued that there is something very much like journaling in the Psalms of David and in the Lamentations of Jeremiah.
Trevin Wax: I hear two common concerns with regard to spiritual disciplines. The first is from the Christian who fears that emphasizing spiritual disciplines turns Christianity into a checklist of rules and can weigh Christians down with unnecessary guilt. How do you respond to those who worry that spiritual disciplines detract from our experience of grace?
Don: This reminds me of a famous line from Martin Luther that Jerry Bridges more recently popularized: we need to preach the gospel to ourselves every day. At times during the day we need to be reminded of that part of the gospel that tells us what God requires of us to live a life for Him. At other times each day we need the reminder of the grace in the gospel, the assurance of forgiveness in Christ for not living up to God’s standards, that God accepts us because of what Jesus has done, not what we do.
Moreover, the spiritual disciplines–both the personal disciplines (which are the subject of this book) and the interpersonal ones (the subject of my Spiritual Disciplines Within the Church)–are means of grace. In other words, these disciplines are God-ordained means by which we experience God and His grace. Our job is to place ourselves before God by means of these disciplines, and then, when we look to Him by faith through them, we can expect to experience Him and His grace.
Think of how many times you awoke on Sunday morning and said to yourself, “I don’t feel like going to church today.” But you disciplined yourself to do what you knew you should do and what was best, and you went. There, after a meaningful encounter with God in worship you said, “I am so glad I came!” That you had the desire and the power to gather with God’s people to worship Him was all by grace. Anything fruitful that came from the experience was all by grace. But God didn’t drag you out of bed. That was your grace-enabled discipline. The same is true with all the spiritual disciplines. Grace doesn’t mean we coast spiritually until we get to heaven. Grace gave us the disciplines; grace gives us an affinity for the disciplines, and grace is experienced through the disciplines.
Incidentally, for those who fear that practicing the spiritual disciplines can lead to legalism, be aware that there’s a greater concern out there. While it’s true that legalism in all its forms is a legitimate danger, a danger we should preach about and warn against, a proclivity we all have in one way or another (for not all legalism looks the same outwardly), I see far more of the opposite error today. For every legalistic practitioner of the spiritual disciplines I come across, I see ten who ignore or minimize the disciplines. So while on the one hand we need to preach grace to our legalistic tendencies, on the other we need to emphasize the spiritual disciplines against our tendencies to sloth and spiritual laziness.
Part two of this interview is scheduled to appear in the next blog post on this website.
This interview originally appeared on August 12, 2014, on Trevin Wax’s blog on The Gospel Coalition website.