Discipline and The Spiritual Disciplines

by Matthew Emerson August 6, 2015

For many Christians, myself included, regularly seeking God’s face in prayer, reading his Word, sharing the gospel, and fasting is, at one point or another, one of the most frustrating parts of the Christian life. In thinking on this issue in my own life and in talking with students, friends, and mentors, it seems to me that this is a result of one of two errors:

First, many fall back into legalism, punishing themselves when they don’t remember to pray or read. Many times they berate their consciences by believing God is angry with them and won’t use them like he would have had they remembered.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the Keswick-like response, where we “let go and let God,” assuming that when we do nothing he will do something. I don’t know about you, but I’ve fallen prey to both of these.

There have been three decisive moments (at least, three that I can recall) in my walk with God and my understanding of spiritual disciplines, each of which the Spirit has used to point out these two errors in my life and to sanctify me.

The first two happened in college, the initial one during my freshman and sophomore years. I felt convicted of my lack of growth in holiness and the fruits of the Spirit since I had been saved in high school, and one day during “Bible roulette” I stumbled on 2 Peter 1:5–7:

“For this very reason, make ever effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”

So I, like any good evangelical in the early 2000s, did a word study on each of these traits. And after I felt like my concordance had given me a good understanding of each of them, I worked hard at mastering one, and then the next, and then the next. Needless to say I never got very far. (Self-control would have killed me had I ever made it there.) But in failing over and over and over again, the Spirit lit a reformational spark in my heart, namely that my own efforts were always filthy rags and would amount to nothing. I needed God’s help; I needed God to change me, not me to change me.

The second moment occurred during my senior year of college. I, along with a group of guys who were interested in going to seminary, met with our pastor to discuss that interest. To be honest I don’t remember much from these meetings except one particular conversation I had with Pastor Steve. For whatever reason we were discussing spiritual disciplines and I made the offhand comment that I couldn’t wait to get to seminary so that I could be more disciplined with prayer, reading my Bible, etc. At the time I was working full time at Chick-fil-a and felt that, if I could just get onto a seminary campus, I would somehow magically be transported into some Puritan-esque level of routine in my walk with God.

I will never forget what Pastor Steve told me – “Matt, if you can’t be disciplined now, when you don’t have commitments to family [I wasn’t married yet] or to graduate work, getting onto a seminary campus won’t change anything.”

Again, I wouldn’t say a light bulb came on here, but something certainly began to flicker, as it did when I tried to work through 2 Peter 1:5–7. This time it was that, although it is God who works in us, he does so as we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12–13).

These two truths – that it is God who sanctifies us, who changes us into Christ’s image, and that he does so through us working out our own salvation – came together for me in seminary, when I read Jerry Bridges’s The Discipline of Grace. Jerry put together those two pieces together in ways that I couldn’t before. Only God can change us, and God changes us through our pursuit of holiness. This third “lightning bolt” in my understanding of spiritual disciplines helped me to see how God calls us to holiness and to pursue it, but that it is he who changes us through his Spirit. It is God who even first motivates us to pursue holiness through his Spirit.

So now, when I think about discipline, my hope and expectation is that I do not pray God would change me without me making any effort. And I hope and expect that I do not beat my body in my own power trying to exert moralistic change in my flesh. Instead, I pray that the Holy Spirit would motivate me to love God, would give me insights into his Word so that I might see his Son, and that through prayer, reading, meditating, fasting, and sharing the gospel I might be transformed into Christ’s image by the power of the Spirit and to the glory of the Father.

Of course, in trying to sail between the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of “let go and let God” I often shipwreck on one or both of those shores. But God, who is faithful to keep us until the last day, by his Spirit and through the blood of his Son forgives me and sets me again on the path of righteousness.