This past Sunday, I began teaching a class at First Baptist Church of Durham on the topic “Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.” The class is loosely adapted from Donald Whitney’s well-known book by the same title, which has recently been republished in a second edition. In the first class meeting, I introduced the topic by discussing some key definitions, explaining the nature and purpose of spiritual disciplines, and expounding some key biblical texts. I also addressed the idea that the spiritual disciplines are means of grace in the Christian life. Let me explain what I mean.
Many people, both believers and non-believers, are tempted to practice the spiritual disciplines in a legalistic way. They are either trying to earn God’s favor or keep God’s favor. This is unfortunate, but perhaps understandable: the language of spiritual disciplines sounds similar to the religious self-help lingo that is so pervasive in American culture. For this reason, Kyle Strobel suggests that “spiritual disciplines” is a well-meaning term put in an unfortunate way in his excellent book Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards (IVP 2013, p. 70).
In part as a reaction to this legalism, other believers do not practice spiritual disciplines in any sort of deliberate manner. Because they live under grace, they consider almost any discussion of the spiritual disciplines to be legalistic. (Though, interestingly, most of them still say we should read the Bible and pray regularly.) As the late Dallas Willard reminded us as often as he could, grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Spiritual maturity is hard work!
We need to remember that we never pursue the spiritual disciplines as ends unto themselves. Instead, we pursue a closer relationship with God through the practice of the spiritual disciplines in the power of the Holy Spirit. In other words, one of the ways we live out the gospel is to practice the spiritual disciplines. When we think about spiritual disciplines in this way, we see they are what past generations of Christians called “means of grace” that the Holy Spirit uses to conform us more and more to the image of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29). Please don’t misunderstand me. By “means of grace,” I do not mean that the spiritual disciplines contribute to our spiritual standing before God; we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone! Rather, I mean the spiritual disciplines are God-ordained practices that God uses to grow us in godliness.
Near my home is a great city park with a couple of miles of trails. Many of the trails wind through acres of woods. When the city bought the land for the park from a local farmer several years ago, they carved out these trails to help walkers, joggers, and bikers avoid getting lost in the wilderness. The trails are not ends unto themselves; rather, they are the means to help us make progress in our journey of exercise and guide us to the right destination. In the same way, spiritual disciplines are “trails” that God has ordained to help keep us on the right path and make progress in our journey of sanctification.
I want to urge you to practice biblical spiritual disciplines such as Scripture meditation and memorization, prayer, fasting, silence and solitude, service, worship (personal and corporate), and mission. If you want to learn more about the spiritual disciplines, check out Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (NavPress, 2014).