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DISCIPLESHIP (14): The Spiritual Disciplines

Excellent material is available about the “Spiritual Disciplines,” and how important these are for our growth as disciples of Jesus. The “spiritual disciplines” are things such as prayer, Bible study, meditation, fasting, etc., which can be help to us to become more like Jesus.

Disciplined Training

Disciplined Training

Two authors, whom I respect highly, are Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. Willard writes primarily about spiritual formation. His book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, is an in-depth look at how the spiritual disciplines help in our spiritual formation. Foster, on the other hand, looks at the practical aspects of the disciplines as we attempt to use them to grow in Christ. Perhaps some other time, I will want to share some of what these two authors have to say about the spiritual disciplines.

In this post, however, I want to caution against making a “fetish” of the disciplines as if practicing these acts of piety will change our hearts into the likeness of Jesus simply because we practice them. Neither of these authors promotes this, but some sincere people do. The “discipling movement” makes rigid rules of behavior for those who would be disciples. These bear some similarities to the “spiritual disciplines,” but tend to lead to pride in self-accomplishment and condemnation of others who are less rigorous in their walk.

I cannot help but remember the Jews to whom Jesus spoke in John 5:39-40,

You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

While the Scriptures are able to “make you wise unto Salvation” (2 Timothy 3:15), this is only possible when the Scriptures lead us to “faith in Christ Jesus.” The Jews of Jesus’ day were avid students of the Scriptures. Many of them memorized the entire Old Testament. Even the Synagogue schools that taught children required memorization of the Talmud.

These followers of God did more than memorize Scripture, however. They also followed the arguments and discussions between the rabbis where they sought the meaning of the Scriptures.

Yet, even this diligent study of the Scriptures was not enough without their coming to Jesus that they might have life.

How much of our zeal for knowledge today is similarly misguided?

I cannot judge others. I know only of my own experience. Yet, I suspect that my experience is at least similar to that of others. There were times (and still are?) when my study of the Scriptures were not so much to learn from God as to establish or prove a point I wanted to make.

Early in my life, I looked for how to establish the truth of the positions handed down to me as a faithful member of the Church of Christ. I knew the position the church took on various points of doctrine. The Scriptures clearly taught some of these. Others were not so clear, and I wanted to know how to establish these as well. Therefore, my studies took me in that direction. Every list of principles of Bible study says we should study without a conclusion to prove – but as I look back, that is exactly what I was doing. When I was doing that, though, I did not learn Christ; I learned how to prove what I wanted to prove.

Later, I learned to study the Bible for what it says instead of to prove what I wanted to prove. The results began to change how I read the Bible. Jesus became much more central to my study, my teaching, and my life.

I relate this to emphasize that slavish adherence to any of the disciplines will not guarantee that we become faithful disciples of Jesus. It is only coming to know Him and to love Him that will make us His disciples.

Any system of discipline to which we submit, other than love for and faith in Jesus as our Savior and Lord, will ultimately fall short. Jesus said that it is those whose will is to do the will of God who will really come to know and understand His teaching (see John 7:17).

The Galatians’ heresy was faith in Jesus plus the observance of days and circumcision. Paul wrote to them that this was “another gospel” that is damnable (Galatians 1:8-9; 5:4), not because it was sinful to observe days or to circumcise someone. Paul did both of those. In Romans 14:5, he put observing days in the category of things for which we should not judge another. Yet, he expressed fear for the Galatians because they were observing days (Galatians 4:10-11). He had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3) after he had refused to allow anyone to circumcise Titus (Galatians 2:3). What was the difference? Either of these became damnable when it was required for salvation. Done as a non-binding custom or tradition, either was fine. Done to try to win someone who was not in Christ, either would be acceptable. However, done as a matter of salvation, he rejected both.

The problem was that the Galatians did not trust Jesus as a sufficient Savior. They did not consider faith working through love to be sufficient for salvation apart from observing days and circumcising their male converts. Paul called faith “Spirit,” and trusting the rituals and observances of law, he called “flesh.” What begins in the Spirit does not find perfection in the flesh. Indeed, he said those who practice the works of the flesh would not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 3:1-5; 5:19-21). In fact, it is only by walking in the Spirit that we will grow in the grace of discipleship (cf. Galatians 5:6 & 6:15).

A similar situation existed in Colosse. In what appears to be a mixture of Jewish legalism and insipient Greek Gnosticism, the Colossian church was depending on observance of legalistic regulations, visions of angels, and empty philosophy while losing connection with Christ. In Colossians 2:18-23, Paul wrote to them:

Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions. He has lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they depend on observing human commands and teachings.

Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

These acts of piety and submission, when not connected to Christ, are worse than worthless. They actually destroy our spiritual health.

Things such as these is what Paul likely had in mind when he cautioned Timothy,

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

The physical training here is not in a context that would suggest a workout at the gym. Rather, it is the disciplines of study, prayer, etc. such as the Wesley brothers designed in the Methodist Discipline for their pietistic growth as disciples of Jesus. Paul recognized that there is some value in these things. It is godliness, however, that has value for all things.

Does the godly man pray, study the Bible, and even practice the other spiritual disciplines? Of course, he does. However, the godly man recognizes that his spiritual growth and development comes from God as he follows Christ through the lead of the Holy Spirit. He pays attention to his life and character as he walks in the Spirit. He knows that reading ten chapters of the Bible every day, praying before every meal, and observing all the “rules” men have devised to judge each other’s faithfulness to God is not what makes him a disciple of Jesus. Rather, being Jesus’ disciple depends on absolutely trusting Jesus and loving Him with all your heart.

If I love Jesus, I will want to be with Him, both as I converse with Him and with others about Him. Will this look like following the spiritual disciplines? In many ways, it will – but my relationship to Jesus and loyalty to Him will make me more like Him, not the external things I may do.

In the final post of this series, I will look more at the relationship the disciple of Jesus has with the Holy Spirit.

– (15) The Holy Spirit & Disciples of Jesus

Previous – (13) Discipline As Disciples

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