9. Spiritual Disciplines
In session 8, we explored aspects of the Holy Spirit’s role in the process of sanctification. We must never forget that sanctification is a process. One of the ways that we open ourselves to the Spirit’s work is in exercising the spiritual disciplines.The spiritual disciplines are activities we do to practice dependence on Christ. They include studying the Bible, prayer, and others to be mentioned in this session.
However, they are means to an end. The Christian life is not a call to simply study the Bible and pray. The goal, as we discussed last session, is to grow in moment-by-moment dependence on God through the Spirit of God who indwells us. From the time God sent His Spirit to live with us, after Christ ascended to heaven, all believers have had the privilege of depending on the Spirit. He brings to mind revealed truth in our times of need and supports us in our pursuit of holiness. The spiritual disciplines, when we develop them into habits, help that process.
- Individual Aim: To explore how to use spiritual disciplines while maintaining dependence on the Spirit.
- Group Aim: To share ways the group can develop greater accountability in spiritual disciplines.
Read Session 9: Spiritual Disciplines.
Complete the Life Change: Spiritual Disciplines exercise beginning on page 99.
Jonathan Edwards was one of America’s premier theologians and greatest preachers. Edwards lived by a list of resolutions. For example: “Resolved, never to do anything which I would be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.”1 This statement shows how serious he was about pursuing holiness. It reveals a man who understood the fear of the Lord and sought to live it.
Yet look at another of Edwards’ resolutions: “Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken, my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.” What marvelous balance! Edwards resolved to fight the sin in his life but recognized that it would be a slow and painful process, one that would often feel unsuccessful. Defeat didn’t weaken his resolve.
Train yourself to be godly. (1 Timothy 4:7)
Pastor Donald Whitney describes spiritual disciplines like this:
The spiritual disciplines are those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth. They are habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times.
We need to develop habits of holiness while guarding ourselves from the dangers of both heartless discipline and slothfulness. The path of sanctification must avoid two pitfalls: legalism and passivity.
The terms disciplines, exercises, and habits make some of us fear that legalism will stifle our growth. R. Kent Hughes describes such sentiments: “For many, spiritual discipline means putting oneself back under the Law with a series of Draconian rules which no one can live up to—and which spawn frustration and spiritual death.” Legalism reduces the sanctification process to a list of dos and don’ts and becomes an exercise in self-sufficiency. But there is a difference between legalism and disciplines, and this difference is in the motivation. As Hughes notes, “Legalism says, ‘I will do this thing to gain merit with God,’ while discipline says, ‘I will do this because I love God and want to please Him.’” Our motives aren’t always clear, even to us, but we can ask the Spirit to show us where we are practicing disciplines out of self-sufficiency rather than out of love for God.
The second pitfall to avoid is passivity.This is an attitude of “wait and see.” To avoid any appearance of earning merit, this approach promotes “letting go” and “waiting for the Spirit to move” before taking any action. The motivation for this approach can be nothing more than personal laziness. This position sets up a false dichotomy between grace and action. As Dallas Willard notes, “Faith is not opposed to knowledge; it is opposed to sight. And grace is not opposed to effort; it is opposed to earning.” Richard Foster agrees and supports a more disciplined approach, calling it “the way of disciplined grace. It is ‘grace’ because it is free; it is ‘disciplined’ because there is something more for us to do.” Spiritual disciplines don’t guarantee that we’ll avoid the pitfalls of legalism or passivity, but they can serve as channels of grace.
For spiritual disciplines to help us grow, the Holy Spirit’s work must accompany them. However, the Spirit can’t force us to grow. We must be active in our dependent faith. Foster notes, “God has given us the disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving His grace. The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us.”
Practicing the disciplines is like placing yourself in a channel for grace, with results similar to placing yourself in a channel for water. If you place yourself in a channel for water, you have a greater likelihood of getting wet. It’s not a guarantee; sometimes the channel is dry and one must wait for the water. Likewise, sometimes the rains come and soak those who are not in the channel as much as those in it. But on the whole, those who are in the channel will regularly receive water.
As we practice the disciplines, we place ourselves in channels where God can pour out His grace into our lives. On the whole, those who make a commitment to pursue holiness through these channels of grace will find refreshment that only the Spirit can bring.
Paul tells us that self-control, or self-discipline, works hand in hand with the Holy Spirit. God gave us spirits of power, love, and self-control (see 2 Timothy 1:7). Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:23). Personal discipline and the Holy Spirit work together to produce fruit in our lives. So, just as we discipline ourselves to become godly, we must also always depend upon the Spirit to be fruitful. Therefore, we now turn our attention to the topic of the fruit of the Spirit.
Read Session 10: The Fruit of the Spirit.
Complete the Life Change: The Fruit of the Spirit exercise beginning on page 101.
Related Topics: Basics for Christians