As I have taught this ordo salutis at my church, we have exposed ourselves to the spiritual disciplines. Evangelicals regularly emphasize such disciplines as Bible reading and prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and community. They may even encourage other forms of spiritual discipline without labeling them. As far as I know, it is only since Richard Foster’s release of The Celebration of Discipline several decades ago that evangelicals have started to embrace the broad spectrum of spiritual disciplines as valuable.
Spiritual disciplines are a means of grace. They are part of the “path of disciplined grace” as Foster says. This does not mean they are the sole means of grace, but any discussion of the avenues God has appointed to distribute His grace to us would be severely lacking without mention of them. They are, as Dallas Willard says, wisdom not righteousness. In the disciplines, we do not earn righteousness but become wise toward the ways of God.
Galatians 6:8 says, “Those who sow to please their sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; those who sow to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Richard Foster comments, “A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines–they are a way of sowing to the Spirit…. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 7).
G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy something to the effect that we falsely assume that something consistent does not have life in it, such as a clock. We are wrong. Consistency is actually a sign of life. He gives the example of children who say, “Do it again,” to parents who get tired quickly and then says God may be much younger than we. Our inconsistency gives away the death within us. The spiritual disciplines are, if anything, the consistent way to let God breathe life into us.
Inward disciplines are those that one does in solitary that no one knows about. These are those Jesus speaks about in Matthew 6 where we must be careful not to get our reward from people observing our deeds of righteousness. Outward disciplines are ones that one does where there is evidence of the act. They are not necessarily done alone—in fact, some of them seem to require a relationship with others. But they are not done intentionally with others. And corporate disciplines are those done together with a consistent group of other Christians. The adjectives describe a person’s relationship to those around him while practicing the disciplines.
Think of it like raising a child. A child, as he grows up, learns new things that will prepare him for life. He learns how to set an alarm clock and wake up early, how to manage his money, how to behave around the opposite sex, how to respect his elders. All of these practices are new at one time but, in time, become a part of who he is. Eventually, he is one who wakes up early, one who can manage his money, etc. And, in time, he becomes a person who wakes up because it makes him a better businessman. He manages his money because it enables financial freedom.
We practice the spiritual disciplines not only so we can be people of prayer, etc. but people for whom prayer provides an avenue for God to change us. If we want to be people of character, of virtue, prepared and ready to rule and reign as people reflecting God’s image in the world, then we must subject ourselves to this path of disciplined grace. And we must remember that change will take time.
Dallas Willard gives correction to those who would complain about the difficulty of the disciplines, as if following Jesus were simple and easy. “Ironically, in our efforts to avoid the necessary pains of discipline we miss the easy yoke and light burden [that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 11]. We then fall into the rending frustration of trying to do and be the Christian we know we ought to be without the necessary insight and strength that only discipline can provide. We become unbalanced and are unable to handle our lives” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 7).
Here is a list of some of the basic spiritual disciplines taken from Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.
Mildred Wynkoop wrote, “What one believes about human nature and God’s grace will have a direct bearing on the kind of Christian life one experiences” (qtd. in Harper, The Way to Heaven, p. 65). I think we’re finding that out already in our study of how God changes us. Knowing the way God desires to work in us, and believing He will, has great bearing on our further growth in Christ.
The Wesleyan doctrine of progressive sanctification basically says that as we are Christians, we continue to receive more of God’s grace, enabling us to grow. Thomas Oden writes, “During the entire time that sanctifying grace is continuing to work—throughout life—the believer is daily called upon to confess, repent, and pray for forgiveness. The new birth begins a life that grows in responsiveness to unmerited grace and presses on in the way of holiness” (Classic Christianity, 657).
This is an important topic–we grow in grace. Normally, when we talk about spiritual growth, believers assume we mean taking another class to grow in knowledge. And yet knowledge is only part of the equation, and knowledge without grace means nothing. Now is probably a good time to explain grace a bit.
Grace has to do with at least two things:
- God’s unmerited favor given to us as a gift. This is the grace we speak of at conversion/salvation.
- God’s power enabling us to live the Christian life. This is the grace we speak of afterward.
John Wesley taught that we grow in grace out of a sense of assurance. Romans 8:16-17 says, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (TNIV). Assurance is possible that we are indeed God’s children, saved for a glorious inheritance. Satan would try to make us doubt and fear God’s love for us and our standing with Him. Assurance is not a rest-on-your-laurels kind of thing, as if God’s assurance means we sit back and wait for heaven one day. For John Wesley, assurance only dealt with one’s present relationship; it was not a guarantee for the future. Only continued obedience and faithfulness could take care of the future. Assurance says, “How amazing is my Savior, Jesus!” He has made His home in me and He intends to stay.
Progressive sanctification really is simply what we’ve been talking about all along–renewal of the mind and of the heart/will, changing our narratives, etc. And it encompasses things we’ll talk about in future posts. The point of understanding that what we’re experiencing now is “progressive sanctification” is that we understand that all of our work to partner with God in response to His grace is both a necessary and natural step for us to take. To take a class and gain knowledge is necessary and natural. To read blog posts is nice. To surrender your will to God is necessary and natural, and only enabled by grace. And so on and so on.