What Are Spiritual Disciplines?

I recently introduced this series of posts on the Spiritual Disciplines and we’ll begin with a couple of definitions. I’ll follow-up with my own observations and insights — then we’ll move on to identify the disciplines themselves.

Donald S. Whitney in his modern classic, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, writes:

The Spiritual Disciplines are those personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth. They are the habits of devotion and experiential Christianity that have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times.

John Piper calls the Spiritual Disciplines “grace-empowered habits, and Spirit-empowered disciplines.” Piper’s careful wording is so helpful here if we are to avoid blurring the Biblical doctrine of  justification with the ongoing process of sanctification. Richard Foster says “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.” So, I would say that the disciplines we will be discussing are a means of grace in the sense that they represent our tangible responses to God’s grace, through the power of the indwelling Spirit in which we experience the work of God’s transforming power in us: we become more like Jesus and conformed to His holy life. They are those activities that flow out of what we believe, think, and affirm as Christians – as followers or disciples of Jesus. Spiritual disciplines are the outworking of our faith in Jesus.

Sometimes a contrast will be helpful and it would be good to lead off with what the Spiritual Disciplines are not:

  • They are not a substitute for the Gospel
  • These means of grace do not complete the Gospel — we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone. We are not saved by God’s grace and kept or completed by our works — even really good works.
  • The disciplines do not add to what Christ has done for us. Nothing we do can add to or take us beyond the Gospel (Christians live, as it were, in the Gospel day by day — see Romans 1:16-18)
  • These “grace-empowered habits, and Spirit-empowered disciplines” are not the habits of highly successful people, but the response of morally and spiritually bankrupt individuals to God’s success in saving us. These habits and intentional acts are the fruit of our connection to The Life, Jesus (John 14:6; 15:1-6) – the disciplines do not necessarily make us better, but more fruitful as we grow in grace and the Gospel — See 2 Peter 3:11-18 and Galatians 5)

Jonathan Edwards wrote:

In efficacious grace we are not merely passive, nor yet does God do some and we do the rest. But God does all, and we do all. God produces all, we act all. For that is what produces, viz. our own acts. God is the only proper author and fountain; we only are the proper actors. We are in different respects, wholly passive and wholly active.

As proper actors in this relationship we have with God through the Gospel, we learn that these disciplines can be fairly difficult at times, but they are always costly. Jesus told His disciples:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24–25 ESV) and “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”  (Luke 14:25–27 ESV)

So, in the words of  V. Raymond Edman:

Discipleship means ‘’discipline!’’ The disciple is that one who has been taught or trained by the Master, who has come with his ignorance, superstition, and sin, to find learning, truth, and forgiveness from the Saviour. Without discipline we are not disciples, even though we profess His Name and pass for a follower of the lowly Nazarene. In an undisciplined age when liberty and license have replaced law and loyalty, there is greater need than ever before that we be disciplined to be His disciples.

What are the specific disciplines we’re talking about — the ones Don Whitney says “have been practiced by the people of God since biblical times?” Let’s begin by narrowing down the Spiritual Disciplines to two lists by two recognized contemporary authorities on the subject:

Don Whitney:

  • Bible intake
  • Prayer
  • Worship
  • Evangelism
  • Serving
  • Stewardship
  • Fasting
  • Silence and solitude
  • Journaling
  • Learning

Richard Foster from his book Celebration of Discipline:

  1. The inward disciplines
    1. Meditation
    2. Prayer
    3. Fasting
    4. Study
  2.  The outward disciplines (inward realities resulting in outward lifestyles)
    1. Simplicity
    2. Solitude
    3. Submission
    4. Service
  3. The corporate disciplines
    1. Confession
    2. Worship
    3. Guidance
    4. Celebration

We need to understand that a formal list of Spiritual Disciplines is not found in the Bible — but they are found woven into Jesus’ teaching and spoken of throughout the Bible, from cover to cover. Look at these two lists in light of your Bible reading and I think you’ll agree that all of these disciplines are covered in the Scriptures without necessarily being discussed in detail. They are generally described, but not prescribed — we identify many of them by their regular practice in the narrative portions of Scripture or the occasional teachings of Jesus and the New Testament authors.

As we move forward in future posts, I will focus on a few of the disciplines that are most common across traditions and over the centuries. They are:

  1. Spiritual Disciplines in the Community
    1. Devotion to the Apostles’ Teaching
    2. The Breaking of Bread
    3. The Fellowship
    4. The Prayers
  2. Spiritual Disciplines in the Home
    1. Study or Bible intake
    2. Meditation on the Word
    3. Silence and Solitude
    4. Prayer
    5. Fasting

In my next post, we’ll ask the question “Why Spiritual Disciplines?” What is the purpose or goal of these  “grace-empowered habits, and Spirit-empowered disciplines” in the life of the Christian?


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