Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness — 1 Timothy 4:7.
As we approach the Easter season, we mourn our sin that cost Christ so dearly on the Cross. As we confess and repent, we may consider turning to the spiritual disciplines to help us live in a manner worthier of being called disciples of our Lord and Savior.
What are spiritual disciplines?
Followers of Jesus learn about God-given spiritual disciplines from the Bible, and use them to go deeper in the Spirit-filled, gospel-driven, transformational pursuit of Christ-like holiness. The disciplines — solitude, fasting, Bible study, prayer and worship (to name a few) — restore famished souls, and help us more fully enjoy Jesus and the grace of the gospel.
Why do we need spiritual disciplines?
As disciples of Jesus we seek to become like our Master during his earthly ministry. Jesus fasted, ministered daily, and rose before dawn to pray and travel to the next place of ministry. He taught, worked hard, got so tired he slept in a storm-tossed boat (Luke 8:22-25), and withdrew and sought solitude when people pressed around him (Luke 5:16). He faced the Cross with resolve (Luke 9:51; Hebrews 12:2). He modeled resolute and focused discipline.
But ours is an undisciplined age. In today’s culture we dismiss discipline as regimented, legalistic and old-fashioned, and consequently we live shallow, flabby and indolent lives. But spiritual disciplines help us develop the kind of holy, rugged strength of character that Jesus displayed during his earthly ministry. The disciplines help us become more like Jesus (See Roman 8:29 and Hebrews 12:14). This does not happen by accident, but by an intentional process of learning and training, which is what Paul is referring to in his letter to Timothy in the verse quoted above.
Where do we start?
The gospel, of first importance (1 Cor 15:1-4), is always the start point for a journey of faith, including the spiritual disciplines. All who come to God trusting in the person and work of Jesus are given the gift of the Holy Spirit, who causes those in whom he resides to yearn for godly holiness. As we keep in step with the Spirit, He is able to produce more Christ-like fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). To display the fruits of the Spirit consistently requires discipline, including self-control, perseverance, and the ability to endure life’s ups and downs cheerfully. These are the qualities needed to live a godly and effective life (Romans 5:3-5; 2 Peter 1:3-10).
Not legalism, but blessing
Our foundation is Christ-focused and gospel-based, not self-focused and legalistic. We pursue the disciplines out of humble gratitude for the gospel grace that has saved us, not through boastful, superior, Pharisee-like self-justification. The reward of discipline is not drudgery, it is the blessing of freedom in Christ. Our motive is love of God, not love of self. The disciplines don’t make us more acceptable to God, they help us grow to be more like the One we love. The disciplines are not tiresome religious duties, they lead famished souls to the banquet of God. They equip God’s people for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Spiritual disciplines put us in the way of God’s sanctifying, character-building truth so that, through our unique personalities and gifting, we can better reflect the character of Christ (Romans 8:29) and live abundantly fruitful lives.
The role of the Holy Spirit
The Holy Spirit is the one who makes us more like Jesus — we can’t make ourselves more like Jesus. The Holy Spirit works through the disciplines to bring us closer to Jesus and make us more like Him. The disciplines help us submit to the Holy Spirit’s transforming instruction and power. The Holy Spirit preserves God’s people in faithfulness by giving the grace to persevere in the disciplines. The Holy Spirit is ever-faithful to help God’s elect to persevere to the end in those things that will make us like Christ. In turn, we must not harden our hearts, but instead respond to the Holy Spirit’s promptings and keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:16).
Spiritual warfare requires discipline
Paul said that he toils, struggling with all his [God’s] energy that he powerfully works within me (Colossians 1:29). Toil and strive means to work hard: to struggle. We are forgiven, yet tainted sinners becoming like Christ. Growth in Christian life comes by our responding to the grace the Holy Spirit initiates and sustains. The world, the flesh and the devil constantly war against us, so we will struggle to overcome sin in this mortal body. The devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Therefore, like a disciplined soldier, we put on the armor of God (Ephesians 6:10-17) Much of this struggle is against the flesh — the indwelling tendency toward sin. Galatians 5:17 warns us that the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit. The spiritual disciplines help us sow to the Spirit instead of the flesh (Galatians 6:8). The Holy Spirit grants us the grace to be faithful. Our role is to work with the Spirit in Spirit-ignited resolve until one day all struggle will end and we will be like Him (1 John 3:3).
The role of other believers
Spiritual disciplines include growth in fellowship with other believers. Many Biblical disciplines are corporate — they cannot be practiced without other Christians. So, we should study the Word, not just on our own, but also in fellowship with other believers. Worship is not just private — it is also corporate. Koinonia (community) can only be practiced with others. Spiritual disciplines are not just for private use but for mutual edification. We are expected to exhort and encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11), helping each part work properly together as the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4) of whom Christ is the head (Colossians 1:18).
We are saved through faith in Christ. Finally, we give an account before God of how we spend our lives (Romans 14:12) and will face reward or loss based on how we lived our lives (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). So, let us use our time profitably not only in this life, but to best prepare us for eternity as well.
A master musician has the freedom to play anything he or she likes, and can play with excellence and joy. Similarly, a great artist paints with joy and freedom. Underpinning this level of excellence are many disciplines mastered, sometimes painfully, over time. Discipline is the only way to freedom. It is the necessary context for spontaneity and joy in Christ.
Disciplines can’t be mastered in one’s spare time. Godly people are never lazy people. However, we cannot discipline ourselves into heaven. Only Jesus lived a life worthy of that. We cling to Christ by faith. However, one of the surest signs that someone does indeed cling to Christ is his or her ever-deepening desire to know Christ better and to become as much like Him as possible. We are disciples at the feet of Christ. Therefore, let us discipline ourselves to be more like our Master, who we will enjoy forever.
Lord Jesus, you warn us so strongly against the wide gate and the easy, well-trod way that leads to destruction. You remind us that the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and that those who find it are few. Holy Spirit, lead along the path of truth, and help us keep in step with the Spirit, that we might live an abundant and fruitful life, for the glory and purposes of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
By Warwick Alcock, Director of Strategic Operations, Village Schools of the Bible
Whitney D. S. Spiritual disciplines for the Christian life. NavPress, 2014.