Spiritual Disciplines as Means of Grace

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).

Sanctification is a Community Project

Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works, not staying away from our worship meetings, as some habitually do, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23-25, HCSB)

Early on in my Christian experience, I underestimated the degree to which sanctification is a community project. When I was a young Christian, I was convinced that vibrant spirituality was maintaining a regular daily devotional time of Bible reading and prayer, sharing my faith with others on a regular basis and reading lots of edifying extra-biblical books (I’ve always been pretty bookish). These disciplines sustained me, and by God’s grace, I grew as a follower of Christ. But these disciplines are all “personal” practices that can be pursued apart from the context of one’s local church. At least they were often detached in my experience, especially during my college days.

For the first four years of my Christian life, I operated in some respects like an independent spiritual contractor who happened to be a member–and frequently a paid staff member–of a local congregation. But the longer I’ve been a Christian, the more I’ve come to realize that sanctification is a community project. While I continue to maintain all the personal spiritual disciplines of my early Christian life, I now recognize that they are best practiced in conjunction with like-minded believers with whom I have covenanted with in my local church. In addition to personal disciplines, meaningful church membership by definition includes several corporate spiritual disciplines: small group fellowship, corporate worship, accountability relationships, even members meetings. I sincerely believe that I love the Lord more now than I once did, in part because I love his bride more than I once did. Sanctification is a community project.

Small Group 2010-2011

Finn Home Fellowship Group Picture from May 2011

At First Baptist Church of Durham, we have small groups that meet on Sunday nights in homes all over the greater Raleigh-Durham area. We call these small groups home fellowships. On several occasions since 2005, my family has hosted a home fellowship at our house (check out the pic above from our 2010-2011 home fellowship). Over the years, the vast majority of the families in these small groups have had ties to Southeastern Seminary as students, professors or staff (we live less than five minutes from the seminary). When we host a home fellowship, we tell everyone that we gather weekly with intentionality: we eat together, share together, pray together and studythe Scriptures together. And the reason why we pursue these spiritual activities together in that setting? Sanctification is a community project. This is especially true in Baptist churches, where every member is a professing believer and the entire congregation takes ownership of the church’s ministry.

Over the years, God has used our home fellowships, as well as the entire congregation of saints called FBC Durham, as a means of sanctifying grace in my life. I have no doubt that I have grown to love God more, love our church more and love lost people more in large part because of the way I’ve walked with the brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I’ve covenanted at FBC Durham. My wife would say the same thing. In healthy churches and church-based small groups, believers help each other to “promote love and good works” and point one another to the riches of the gospel, especially in times of doubt and need. The members are stronger in their faith because of their participation in the body. This is the way it’s meant to be. Sanctification is a community project.

(Note: An earlier version post was published in September 2013 at Christian Thought and Tradition, but it has been substantially revised for Between the Times)