Why Spiritual Disciplines? What Is Their Purpose or Objective?

In my last post, I narrowed down the Spiritual Disciplines to focus on the few that are most common across traditions and over the centuries. They are:

  1. Spiritual Disciplines within 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

But, before we consider them individually, we should look at the purpose or objective of these disciplines. After all, if we are saved by grace through faith, how can we hope to improve upon the relationship we have with God in Christ?

The short answer is we can’t. But, we can position ourselves — we can orient ourselves in such a way that God will work more effectively in and through us by the power of His Holy Spirit. It is the work of the Spirit to bring about His purposes in us, through those particular “personal and corporate disciplines that promote spiritual growth… The Spiritual disciplines then are also like channels of God’s transforming grace. As we place ourselves in them to seek communion with Christ, His grace flows to us and we are changed.” Don Whitney 1

Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Christians, “this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). The ultimate goal of the disciplines is holiness: To be holy or separate from the world or, in Bible lingo, sanctified for God’s plans, purposes, and use like Jesus. D.A. Carson observes, “People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord.” This process of sanctification takes intentionality, hard work, and sacrifice on our part:

Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:12–14 ESV)

As we are changed and transformed, our progress toward holiness will  become evident to ourselves and others through good works — those good works God saved us to do:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4–10 ESV)

Embarking upon the Spiritual Disciplines or, in Don Whitney’s euphemism, “placing ourselves in the channels of God’s transforming grace,” can lead immediately to discouragement. That’s not our destination and the Lord urges us on with this promise:

For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:7–14 ESV)

And, Tim Challies reminds us we are not alone:

There is not a Christian in the world who has mastered the spiritual disciplines. In fact, the more we grow in grace, the more we realize how little we know of hearing from God, speaking to God, and meditating on God. Our maturity reveals our inadequacy. 

As we move forward in the disciplines, we find ourselves weaker, needier, and more dependent upon the Lord and come full circle, right back where we belong: in His grace. And, we can measure our growth as we glorify God through the disciplines and live in His love:

By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:8–11 ESV)

But, it’s not only for this life that the disciplines hold out the promise of love, peace, and righteousness, but the life to come as well:

“discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance. For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers. Prescribe and teach these things.” (1 Timothy 4:7–11 NASB) 

So, let’s summarize the goals and objectives we hope to reach, as we discuss the individual Spiritual Disciplines in upcoming posts. The Word tells every disciple of Jesus to discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness:

  • We want to display God’s work in us through good works — those works He prepared for us long before we ever knew Him
  • The disciplines display God’s glory, while promising us joy and peace
  • Through obedience, we abide or live in the love of both the Father and the Son
  • To receive God’s discipline is to submit to the will of God for us — our sanctification or holiness
  • Because we have fixed our hope on the living God, the Savior of all men, these disciplines are profitable in this life, as well as the life to come

In closing, we want to remember that the Spiritual Disciplines are not a give-to-get scheme or a path to super-spirituality. Don Whitney puts our sanctification in its place: “It’s crucial—crucial—to understand that it’s not our pursuit of holiness that qualifies us to see the Lord. Rather, we are qualified to see the Lord by the Lord, not the by good things we do… Since Christians are loved by the Father through the work of Christ and empowered by the Spirit, we now have the freedom and ability to grow in holiness.”

  1. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Don Whitney []

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