Last week I attended a summer class put on by a fairly typical Southern California church on spiritual disciplines. I thought it was cool that they even cared about spiritual disciplines – a subject grossly neglected by most evangelicals. For this reason, I was excited to go to the class, thinking I may have found a kindred spirit in the teacher. My enthusiasm quickly waned, however, as the pastor could not distinguish between doing things for the purpose of earning God’s love or salvation and doing things for the purpose of increasing sanctification. The lowpoint of the message came near the end when the pastor encouraged his flock to “do those disciplines that come most naturally to you.”
That’s great, I thought, Encourage the congregation to keep on settling for the mediocre Christian life they’ve always known. Why do you need to be disciplined in something you’re already good at?!
The poor quality of the message lit a fire in me to seek some reconciliation on the matter of the relationship between spiritual disciplines and salvation. First, “spiritual disciplines” are activities we do such as fasting, prayer, and meditation done in order to gain control over the body and the desires thereof as well as the mind, for the purpose of allowing God’s Spirit to work through us.
Dallas Willard, in his gem of a book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, has an excellent chapter on the history of the disciplines. His thesis is that we as evangelicals, in our reaction to Roman Catholicism, have by and large rejected spiritual disciplines because they were abused as things that had to be done to merit salvation. He suggests that evangelicals re-engage with the disciplines, knowing that they are essential to living the sort of Christian life intended for us by God. After all, the prime model for us in the manner of life we ought to lead is Jesus Christ. He happened to regulary engage in the disciplines. For example, He fasted (for 40 days at times), He studied to the point where He could discuss Scripture with the Rabbis at age 12, He spent extended times in prayer, He withdrew for solitude and silence, and He watched (a form of discipline in which one goes without sleep).
So I was reading Romans today and found a place where Paul said something very interesting on this topic. Romans, after Galatians, is the key book in the New Testament on the subject of grace and the necessity of it for salvation. After extended meditation on the way to salvation through faith alone, Paul rhetorically asks, “What shall we say then? Are to to continue in sin that grace may abound?” If we are saved by grace, why do we need to stop sinning? Paul’s answer is profound.
“By no means”, he declares (6:2), “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” He then speaks about how we, by putting our faith in Christ and undergoing death to our own desires and devices, now are alive to God. If we are alive to God, we cannot engage in behavior leading to death, which is sin. Thus, Paul commands, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” (6:12) The spiritual disciplines are specifically aimed at training the body to get out of the way, so to speak. Once the body stops demanding that we focus on our own needs, we can live for God.
For instance, if I am hungry I tend to become selfish and a habit of thinking that my needs are more important than others creeps in. That is why I fast to practice living for God in the midst of my hunger. Perhaps the next time I’m hungry I can keep my body in submission so I can be of service to those around me. Now that’s living a life “alive to Christ!” Focussing on myself is a straight path to death.
That’s why Paul goes on to say: “Do not present your members (i.e. body parts) to sin as instruments for unrighteousness (or injustice), but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” (6:13) Now, the important thing to keep in mind is that the whole presenting our members to God thing only happens after the whole salvation by grace through faith thing that Paul has elaborately described in the past two chapters. It’s important to remember because this verse can sound as if you have to get your body in submission before you can be a Christian. Paul speaks of just the opposite: he says that we have to be saved, have the Spirit dwell in us, and then our efforts in conjunction with and in acknowledgement of God’s grace will yield the result of sanctification.
Paul didn’t have to mention that disciplines are the way to get there, because he had been practicing them from a very early age. At the time, any one seriously religious would do disciplines to avoid being ruled by the base passions.
So the life of grace entails practicing disciplines. Post-salvation Christians should be most concerned about becoming effective instruments to God. They shouldn’t confuse the cause of their salvation with the effort put into spiritual disciplines. The cause of their salvation is God’s grace and His love cannot be separated from us – read Romans 8!
My sincere hope and prayer is that we evangelicals would embrace spiritual disciplines and get serious about Christianity. It’s God’s grace, I daresay, that we have the impact we do on our culture.
To close, one of the best exhortations to spiritual growth in the Bible – Romans 12:1-2: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal fo your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”