Jon Moffitt: Hi, this is Jon. Today on Theocast, we are discussing spiritual disciplines. Justin and I have a conversation about the history of where they come from, and how they are actually counter-Reformation theology. Then we look at how we should be understanding the way in which we grow and mature in Christ.
In the members’ podcast, we have a lively conversation about how spiritual disciplines tend to be individualized and how it could possibly hurt the unity of the church.
We hope you enjoy.
Justin Perdue: This topic is a good one. It’s a topic that we get a lot of questions about here at Theocast. It is something that is on the front burner for many evangelicals in our current moment, and that is the topic of spiritual disciplines.
We want to come in pastoral, but we don’t want to bury the lead either. The way that spiritual disciplines are framed and talked about and presented in our modern context, we would contend, is not directly from the Scripture. We don’t get it directly from the Bible or directly from the New Testament. I think many people would be surprised to know where spiritual disciplines, in particular the movement of spiritual disciplines that has been on the resurgence in the last 30 or 40 years—where this comes from and where it finds its roots historically. We’re going to talk about that a little bit today.
But the question is how did we find ourselves here? Where depending on who you ask about spiritual disciplines and what they are, you might be given a list of things that could contain dozens, even hundreds, of items depending on who you talk to. Those lists might contain anything from Bible reading to gardening. How did we get here? How should we think through these matters of spiritual disciplines and their place in the Christian life? Even the question of how do we grow in Christ? How do we grow in maturity, in grace, in knowledge and understanding? How is it that we’re sustained in the Christian life? All that is underneath this conversation as well. We hope to talk to all of those things.
To us, it makes all kinds of sense to begin with history, to begin with a brief overview about where these things come from, and some of the ebbs and flows and movements through the history of the church that matter for this conversation. Our brother Jon Moffitt, faithful man that he is, has done a lot of work on this topic. He’s written and given lectures on this. He has a lot of familiarity with this. What I want to do is let Jon talk to us for a few minutes about the history of spiritual disciplines in this movement, and what I may do is just interject briefly as you’re guiding us through the portals of history. Then what we’ll do is move on from that historical overview to unpack this topic in terms of life in the church, the Christian life, our pastoral concerns, and stuff like that.
Jon Moffitt: Early on in my ministry, when I was working with college students, once a year I would let them pick whatever we wanted to study. They said there’s a lot of confusion on spiritual disciplines. I started doing research on it and got every book I had in my library and every book that was in all the different pastors’ libraries, so I had a large stack of books, and I started going through them. As I went through them, I realized they were not rooted in confessional historic-biblical theology. I couldn’t figure out where the concept of spiritual disciplines was coming from. I then started to read the most popular books that are out there and footnotes are where all the keys are. So I started looking at all the footnotes.
Justin Perdue: Because you’re looking at who these guys are citing, what are their sources, and where are these ideas coming from?
Jon Moffitt: Yup. So I went to the sources, and as I’m reading these footnotes, I’m recognizing some common names and threads. I started to research those names and what I was very disappointed to find was that a lot of what was being quoted were not Reformation writers, but actually Roman Catholic writers. So I started to do research and back up even farther. This is where the research led me: during the early stages of the Reformation, there was what’s called the Counter-Reformation in the Catholic, or it’s also known as the Catholic Revival or the Catholic Reformation. It was a direct response and was most famously known in the Council of Trent and the things that were written.
Justin Perdue: So what you’re talking about as a period of time, Jon, is from the 1520s through the middle to latter part of the 16th century.
Jon Moffitt: That’s right. During this time there was a very famous captain or basically a warrior named Ignatius and he is from Loyola, so he’s called Ignatius of Loyola, and he ended up presenting to the Roman Catholic church his concerns with the way in which the church was moving away from its spirituality; it had been regressing in its holiness. He had been leading soldiers for years. and so he wanted to encourage the church to move back into this spiritual reformation. He was basically saying what the Reformers are saying: that justification is by faith alone, and that’s enough. He’s saying no, it’s not enough. There’s more that is required, which was the whole Council of Trent. So he wrote a book in 1522 and was published again in 1524 called The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. In this, he laid out basically this monastic movement where there will be all of these different things that were absolutely required of you as a believer in order to grow as a Christian. There is a response from Luther, of course, when Luther finds out about this Counter-Reformation. Luther’s response later on in life is this: “Yet all these seeming holy actions of devotion, which the wit and wisdom of man holds to be angelical sanctity, are nothing else but works of the flesh.” Of course, that’s really a direct quote from Colossians 2 towards the end of the chapter. “All manner of religion, where people serve God without his Word and command, is simply idolatry, and the more holy and spiritual such a religion seems, the more hurtful and venomous it is; for it leads people away from the faith of Christ, and makes them rely and depend upon their own strength, works, and righteousness.”
Justin Perdue: If I may interject briefly, the way I understand Luther when he says if you’re doing anything devotionally or as a matter of discipline without the word and command of God, I think what he’s meaning is if you’re doing something that is not explicitly and directly commanded in Scripture, then what you are doing can be called something, but it is not an exercise in godliness. And that matters.
Then of course, he’s driving at how this actually pulls people away from faith in Christ, which is a huge issue. It actually places their trust and confidence elsewhere.
Jon Moffitt: He says at the end of it, “In like manner, are all kinds of orders of monks, fasts, prayers, hairy shirts. . . are mere works of the flesh.”
So early on, this is the one who started this movement, and then used spiritual formation, or even used the concept of spiritual discipline. During my research, I wanted to see how we got from Ignatius to today. I don’t know if you know this but almost every book in history has almost been digitized. It’s insane. You can go on and do a Google search in the Google archives and put years in there of how and what your search frame is. So I put in from 1970—which I’ll explain that date in a minute—all the way back as far as it’ll go. There are five books that show up on spiritual disciplines or spiritual formation, and Ignatius being one of them. When you put in 1977 and forward, the pages are endless. It’s hundreds and hundreds of books on spiritual disciplines. So the question is: what happened? What happened between Ignatius and the 1970s?
What happened was the writings of Richard Foster. Richard Foster was a Quaker and he wrote one of the most famous books in history, which at one point was in every Christian college. Every Christian college had a spiritual formation class after the writing of this book in 1977. He wrote Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. That was the name of the book. Christianity Today gave a review on this and it basically said that it is medieval Roman Catholic mysticism. This is true because what Richard Foster ends up doing is quoting men like Ignatius and using them as references of saying that this is how the Christian life should be. So he’s pulling Roman Catholic theology and adjusting it for Protestant purposes. Before Richard Foster does this, the concept of spiritual disciplines was not commonly used or known in the spiritual sphere around the world.
Justin Perdue: Those who are advocating for spiritual disciplines in the modern era, in the last 40 years, and in particular some of the figures that really got this movement going—Richard Foster being one of them—they are looking back historically not to Protestant Reformation theologians and theology, but they are looking back to Roman Catholic medieval theologians and practices of that theology. Listeners of Theocast will be familiar with medieval theology and the Roman Catholic church of that time, and how it operated and functioned, but a couple of things are worth mentioning again.
You’ve mentioned mysticism where there is this mystical understanding of how we are grown or matured in the Christian life. It is also this understanding that God’s grace works apart from faith and all that where we are just there and get it, and in something magical essentially almost happens as a result of that. Then also, there is a notion that we cooperate with the grace of God. It’s a very synergistic notion where two parties are working: God does His part and we do our part. Thereby, our spiritual state, our spiritual condition, and our spiritual growth and maturation very much hinge upon how we’re doing, how we’re applying ourselves, and how disciplined we are.
It’s important that we understand in that part of that schema, what would naturally flow out of it is the monastic movement, which was an ascetic existence where you deprive yourself of all kinds of things. It’s very much a Colossians 2, disciplining yourself according to the flesh. These things had the appearance of godliness but, according to the apostle Paul, are of no value in combating the flesh or training oneself for godliness. All of those things are related to the medieval church, and it’s very telling.
Again, we’re not trying to say that everyone who’s talking about spiritual disciplines is aiming to draw upon Roman Catholic theology on purpose. It’s important that we understand that many of the ideas and citations come from this era and from this tradition.
Jon Moffitt: They’re citing their sources saying, “These men wrote this so we should listen to what they say.” For instance, the man that was also influenced by Foster was another famous book that came out in the eighties by Dallas Willard. He wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. In the introduction, he says this: “Today, for the first time in our history as a nation, we are being presented with a characteristic range of human behaviors, such as fasting meditation, simple living, and submission to spiritual overseers,” listen to this, “in an attractive light.” The reason he has to write that is because up to this point before Foster, these were not attractive because we saw them as contra-biblical. We did not see them as helpful. Even in his book, he makes this claim that the ordinary means such as Bible study, prayer, and fellowship are inadequate and have failed and left most Christians in failing in their spiritual growth. So he is saying that this is going to fix the failure of the Christian growth.
Now the one that follows him, Donald Whitney, would probably be the most recent famous writer. His book Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life became almost as popular as Richard Foster, and Don Whitney often will quote Willard and Foster in his book.
This is where Justin and I are going to take, because this is probably the book that has the most influence today. Willard and Foster aren’t really read anymore.
Justin Perdue: Certainly amongst Calvinistic evangelicals, it does.
Jon Moffitt: Right. In the worlds that we have been involved in, Don Whitney’s book is still promoted heavily. This is what he says in his introduction: “I will maintain that the only road to Christian maturity and godliness passes through the practice of spiritual disciplines.” Justin and I are going to take any qualms with that because he hasn’t really clarified what he means yet. So let’s see. Maybe he’s rephrasing means of grace. He continues, “This book examines the Spiritual Disciplines of Bible intake, prayer, worship, evangelism, service, stewardship, fasting, silence and solitude, journaling, and learning. This is by no means, however, an exhaustive list of disciplines of Christian living. A survey of other literature of this subject would reveal that confession, accountability, simplicity, submission, spiritual direction, celebration, affirmation, sacrifice, watching,” I don’t know what that means, “and more qualify as Spiritual Disciplines.” He is saying, I maintain the only road of a Christian maturity and godliness passes through practicing these lists—and he says there’s even a larger list. So this is what we’re referencing. When we say spiritual disciplines, there are other ways in which it has been described. We’re referencing what has been popularly written and what has been spreading.
When someone says to me, “Jon, do you think spiritual disciplines are biblical?”, I would have to say, according to what Whitney, Willard, Foster, and Ignatius of Loyola wrote, no, those are not grounded on spiritual concepts. Now, do they say things that are biblical inside those books? Of course. Praying, reading your Bible, evangelism—all of those are absolutely biblical things, but the confusion and the muddying of the water is when we infuse bad doctrine into these.
Justin Perdue: I’m going to say a few things at a high level that I know we’re going to go on to talk a lot more about; things that we understand to be clearly biblical, or what have historically been known as the ordinary means of grace in the context of the gathered church, which we’re going to discuss. In addition, rather than using the phrase “spiritual disciplines”, one of the ways that Jon and I would prefer we speak is to encourage the saints to pursue good works—and we want to define what those are biblically—and to pursue obedience. But to act like every act of obedience or every doing of a good work is a discipline is actually an unhelpful and unclear way to speak.
We’re trying to clarify some things and ask some legitimate questions. With all due respect, I don’t know what a number of those things are that Don Whitney mentions in the intro to his book. I would completely agree with some of the things that he articulates when it comes to the word and prayer and even worship. I understand him to be meaning something happening in the gathered church context there. I don’t know if he means that to be synonymous with singing, like many people do, or if he means that to be corporate worship wholesale. I agree with a number of those things. But then he also says some things like journaling, watching, and sacrifice. I don’t know how to understand that as a spiritual discipline in my life.
Based on how he’s defining it, I would take some issue with his language of “the only way to Christian maturity passes through this”. If you’re going to make a statement like that, that is so definitive and absolute, then I would contend that we need to be saying something that is practically a quote from Scripture that is absolutely grounded in the New Testament, like a command that’s explicitly given: you need to be doing these things, give careful attention to these things, don’t neglect these things. As we’re going to see, the New Testament speaks those ways about corporate realities in the gathered church: not neglecting assembling together, giving attention to the preaching of the word, the reading of the word, to sing together, to pray together about everything. Anyway, I could go on.
Jon Moffitt: Later on in the book, which we’re not going to deal with today, and I will mention this now, I have a three-part article series that I’ve written that we will link to here. I also did a full on lecture on this called Reformed Spirituality. You can get this on our website. We’ll link all of this so you can download and listen to that if you want all of the quotes.
Later on, Whitney ends up quoting Hebrews where he says, “Without godliness, no one will see the Lord.” He makes the connection between doing these disciplines and seeing the Lord, and he’s saying, “Look, I’m just quoting Scripture here.” This is a very dangerous thing to say because somehow simplicity and accountability—which I don’t even know what those means, simplicity, what does he even mean by that? Without the discipline of simplicity, I won’t see the Lord. I know I’m being a little bit punchy here, but the point I’m getting to is that we are placing things upon Scripture that scripture itself never says.
Justin Perdue: Hebrews 12 is about the way that the Lord in His grace and sovereignty disciplines us so that we might share in His holiness.
Jon Moffitt: We have done a podcast on that and we will link that podcast as well on what that passage means.
This is a quote by D.A. Carson I found helpful. He says this: “It is not helpful to list assorted Christian responsibilities,” we agree there are Christian responsibilities, “and label them spiritual disciplines. That seems to be the reasoning behind the theology that smuggles in, say, creation care and almsgiving. But by the same logic, if out of Christian kindness, you give a back rub to an old lady with a stiff neck and a sore shoulder, then back rubbing B becomes a spiritual discipline. By such logic, any Christian obedience is a spiritual discipline,” and I couldn’t agree with him more.
That’s Don Carson. If you read different books, there are some people who have over 250 spiritual disciplines that you can do in order to gain godliness, maturity, and spirituality.
The problem I have with this are two things. There are certain things you can do that are godly acts, meaning that they reflect the nature of God but they’re not guaranteed to bring about maturity. What concerns me is that nowhere in Scripture, other than plain passages like Ephesians 4, say “Do this and it will cause maturity.” Paul flat out says that when the body functions properly, it builds itself up in love. Nowhere else in Scripture does it say you will be built up into Christ by doing simplicity, or quietism, or journaling.
Justin Perdue: I’m restraining myself from wanting to jump on that Ephesians 4 train, because what is the context? What’s the understanding there? It is completely a corporate reality. It is the body of Christ corporate and all of the gifts that Christ gives to the church, which includes apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers, pastors, all of those, and then the whole body. If we think about Paul’s writing elsewhere about how every member has its function, the whole body functions under God by the ministry of God’s Spirit to build itself up in love unto maturity in Christ Jesus.
God has promised to uniquely bless corporate realities in a way that He has not promised to bless something you do in private. That does not mean that what you do in private is irrelevant. That’s not what we’re saying. But it does mean that the most important thing by miles, when it comes to the Christian life and our growth and sustenance, is that we gather with the saints to partake of the means that God has promised to bless and to use for our growth, maturation, and sustenance.
That language of Paul in Ephesians 4 is maybe the most obvious place where the apostle says to do these things and this will happen. But the New Testament is full of that, at least at the level of implication, with all of the corporate exhortations that are given to how we live together, and things that need to be given attention like the preaching and reading of Scripture, the singing of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to one another. Even the exhortations to prayer are corporate exhortations: you have to be praying about everything as a body of Christ, and certainly we pray individually.
Jon Moffitt: Even the individual prayer, according to Jesus, is a prayer of dependence. We are depending upon God for our ongoing sustenance. If you turn prayer into a discipline, here’s my problem with it. If someone disciplines themselves to pray at a certain time every day, this is different from turning prayer into a discipline. This is why: you can equate that if you pray this much, you will mature that much—and it doesn’t work that way. Prayer is about you depending upon God. It is the greatest acknowledgement of our weakness because we have to reach out to God in everything: in our meals, in our fears, in our joys, we always give praise, honor, and reflection to God because we depend on Him for so much. Let me put it this way: the thing that I want people to hear is that the Reformers said the means by which God matures you and sustains you is through the corporate preaching and teaching of His word, the Lord’s Table, baptism, and prayer. If you’re going to discipline yourself, you need to structure your life in such a way that that becomes the priority of your life. Discipline your time at home so that you can participate in these corporate realities. What bothers me is that people want to go home and do all these spiritual disciplines, and yet they are so frustrated by their life because they are not having joy and aren’t seeing growth. I’m saying you’re disciplining yourself in the wrong areas.
Justin Perdue: I want to be so charitable because people have never been taught, they’ve never had anybody look at them and unpack Scripture, unpack history, and help them see these things. But you hear it regularly where people talk about discipleship, and how we need discipleship and accountability. Tell me about the Bible studies that are going on. Tell me about these meetings that are happening—and by meeting, they don’t mean the corporate gathering but men’s accountability or women’s accountability—and what kind of reading programs that we have. People talk in these terms as though this is the real marrow of the Christian life. I find it very interesting when people that are all geeked up about those things are often very quick to miss the corporate gathering because it’s as though the private stuff they do by themselves, or that Bible study on Wednesday night, or that men’s group on Thursday morning are really the ones that matter. The corporate gathering on Sunday is, at best, supplemental to that.
If you’re going to discipline yourself for anything in the Christian life, discipline yourself by planning your life around the corporate gathering of your local church on Sunday morning, or whenever your church meets. Structure your life around it as much as you can so that you can be there with the saints whom you have determined that you’re going to live life with. Together, we’re submitting to the doctrine of this church. We’re submitting to the pastors of this church. We’re submitting to the discipline of this church. We together are gathering and assembling to sit under the word, and to come to the Table to pray and to sing. We’re going to experience the fellowship of the saints, and that, biblically speaking, God has promised to uniquely use so that we might be matured in Christ Jesus. If you’re going to discipline yourself, please, brothers, sisters out there, discipline yourself to do that. It is the most important thing that you could do.
Jon Moffitt: Right. I will tell you that godliness is part of the Christian life. It is obvious that as part of the Christian life. But you have to understand its place and its purpose. Godliness is not to confirm or somehow maintain your relationship with God. That would be Roman Catholic theology right there because they believe that one is not fully justified by faith alone, that there must be works that add to it. This is also part of that final justification confusion that’s been going around, that we will have our works examined to determine. The way in which Paul, Peter, and James all use good works, and they write on this extensively, is that it is for the very purpose we were talking about: if the body isn’t functioning properly, which requires godliness, then it can’t grow. How does the body work properly? It’s through love, patience, and kindness. This is why he says in Ephesians 4 that you need a walk in a way that reflects the calling of Christ upon your life—with patience, meekness, and long-suffering, maintain the bond of unity in Christ. He’s saying the unity around Christ requires godliness. I mean, we talked about this passage. I’ll let you jump in on that.
Justin Perdue: I’m happy to go to 1 Timothy 4 in terms of training yourself for godliness in the context of that passage.
Jon Moffitt: We hear this. 1 Timothy 4:7, the New American Standard will actually say the word “discipline”. ESV says, “Train yourself for the sake of godliness,” which we would need to look at the context there. Is he talking about maturity so that God is pleased and we confirm our salvation? No, he’s not talking about that kind of godliness. There is a context. Justin, walk us through the context here.
Justin Perdue: I’m not going to go way back for the sake of time. I think we can even start in 1 Timothy 4:6 and make very clear what Paul is exhorting. Remember that these pastoral epistles, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus, are written to those respective pastors, but they are written to congregations through those pastors. It’s not as though Paul is just writing to the pastor in a vacuum; now he’s writing to the pastor with the congregation in view. Even these letters have a very corporate aspect and tone and tenor to them.
Beginning in 1 Timothy 4:6, Paul writes to Timothy: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained,” this important, “in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
Then he’s going to go forward and exhort Timothy to teach. He’s going to tell him to teach the things he’s talking about: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and to teaching. Do not neglect the gifts you have.” Immerse yourself in these things and practice them. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching, you know, because in doing this, you’re going to save yourself and others. It’s very clear that Paul is exhorting Timothy to the proclamation and the teaching of sound doctrine and the sound words of the faith, as opposed to silly myths and irreverent nonsense.
That’s the command in terms of training yourself for godliness. How would one do that? In the context of the church, your pastors and your leaders are going to give attention to the reading and the teaching of the Scripture, and to give attention to the proclamation of sound doctrine. The tradition that has been handed down to us; the faith once for all delivered to the saints. That, Paul is contending, is going to lead us toward godliness. Whereas there are all kinds of silly stuff and irreverence stuff that’s talked about that’s useless.
Jon Moffitt: When someone comes to me and says, “Jon, do you think the spiritual discipline of daily bible reading is unbiblical?” I would say if you assume the amount of time you spend in your word equates to the maturity of your Christianity, then I would say, yes, that is a confusion. But if you say you love God’s word, want to know God’s word, and want to know God because you’re His child then dig in. And if your time in the word is not producing patience and kindness and long-suffering and love for neighbor, I think you’re missing the point of God’s word.
I agree with don Carson when he says not to relabel Christian responsibilities. We, as Christians, are responsible to show kindness and patience and love to all. It’s the response to our receiving kindness and patience. But do not think that the more you perform that the more godly God assumes that you are. That’s a dangerous comparison.
Justin Perdue: It is crystal clear, and no one could ever object to this, that in the New Testament we are encouraged to pursue good works and obedience. Now there are other questions underneath those, like how do we do that? Why do we do that?
Jon Moffitt: What are those good works?
Justin Perdue: For whom do we do that? That’s really another podcast for another day, but let’s not relabel everything as a discipline. Let’s just encourage people toward love and good works. Again, if we’re going to discipline ourselves for things, we need to be disciplining ourselves for the stuff that the New Testament is absolutely clear about in terms of the stuff that we need to be doing. To your point about the Bible and Bible reading, I agree completely with you that motivation matters a lot; don’t wig about your motivations. But if you’re seeing this as ticking the box for godliness, that’s not so good. But if you’re seeing this as loving God and wanting to read His word then amen, brother, sister, absolutely dig in and dive headlong into it.
At the same time, you are going to be helped and it’s going to be much safer for you to spend a lot of time reading your Bible personally if you are doing that in the context of a faithful church that teaches sound doctrine, like what Paul is talking about in 1 Timothy 4. This is why you need the corporate gathering. There are a million reasons you need it, but we together on Sunday mornings are learning how to read and understand our Bibles. You need pastors, we need the tradition of the church, the history of interpretation, and the rule of faith. Evangelicals are notorious for going it alone when they do theology. We write systematic theology on our own, or we go about thinking about theology by ourselves rather than doing it corporately with saints who have lived for the last 2000 years. But this is why you need the church so that when you go to your Bible and when you are reading it—because you’re going to run up against passages where you’re not sure what that means—instead of coming up with something wild, you’ve got a pastor that you can go ask or you’ve been given good theology and a good framework through which to read and understand Scripture. You have a much better chance of being able to make something of it, rather than having spent time looking at something and having no idea what you just read, and thinking that somehow that is going to be profitable for you.
Even the Bible reading is undergirded by the corporate reality of the church and proclamation of the word.
Jon Moffitt: I want to read something that’s so plain that Paul says. We always assume personal devotional time, journaling, and all of these other things that we’ve been told are supposed to train us. Paul says this is what trains you in Ephesians 4: “[The Holy Spirit] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that what we may no longer be children. . .” He’s saying the path from children to adulthood or maturity to the path of more knowledge of Christ, to effectively doing the work of ministry—where does he say it happens? He says it happens through those who the Holy Spirit has brought into the church to equip the saints.
You need to understand the priority. We’re not saying Bible reading isn’t helpful; it’s just not the primary means by which God grows His church. Your spiritual disciplines aren’t the way in which God grows you. They’re necessary. It’s necessary for you to live a disciplined life, meaning that you have to structure your life in such a way that you reflect love and kindness and mercy and patience. But that’s not the way God grows you. You do those things because God is growing you and God grows you through these means, which is God using His church. So we reversed it; we put spiritual disciplines at top saying when you do these, you will then act right. The discipline list is so crazy.
Here’s my favorite question, Justin, and I’m sure we’ve got to get into the members’ podcast here: what is the most important spiritual discipline if you’re going to pick one of all the lists that people offer you? I love asking this question. What’s the most important one?
Justin Perdue: One is faith in Christ. Two, if you’re talking about something that you need to do, like an action, then it’s to go to church on Sunday.
Jon Moffitt: Right. But if you look at the list, it’s prayer, it’s Bible reading, it’s evangelism, it’s tithing.
Justin Perdue: Do you know what’s wild, brother? This is just an observation that just popped into my brain so look out. I feel like a lot of people act like showing up to church is some sort of like legalistic, ritualistic thing that people do that really has no value. I think that in reality, the thing that often becomes very legalistic is all of these boxes that we check in terms of our personal disciplines. It’s just ironic to me the way that we speak sometimes, because it’s like we’re going to turn the corporate gathering into this legalistic thing but what I do in private is like really a devotional act. The opposite, I think, is actually true; you showing up to church on Sunday is something you’ve been commanded to do in Scripture, and this other stuff is supplemental that I think often becomes a yoke of slavery because we turned it into this legalistic thing where the act itself is somehow sanctifying me. We need to check our thinking and we need to assess ourselves according to God’s word as to how we’re approaching these things and viewing them.
Jon Moffitt: I really want to unpack this in the members’ podcast, and I’m sure you have some stuff too, but my biggest beef with the modern day concept of spiritual disciplines is that it takes your rest and places it on your own efforts.
Justin Perdue: It’s pietism. It takes your focus off of Christ and puts it on you.
Jon Moffitt: As you’re pursuing Christ in your discipline, you end up feeling good depending on how well you are in your discipline, and you end up feeling you have a lack of assurance if you are not being disciplined. We even tell people they’re bad Christians, lazy Christians, or not even Christians at all because they aren’t performing these spiritual disciplines.
Justin Perdue: I’m going to read a quote from Horatius Bonar in the members’ section from his book God’s Way of Peace that speaks to some of this.
Jon Moffitt: I have a lot more to say in this. The thing that bothers me the most about spiritual disciplines is that those who pursue them the most tend to have either pride and they are very judgmental, or they have no assurance because they can’t find rest.
Justin Perdue: Another quick thought, and I don’t really have time to unpack this fully, but just to offer it and maybe this prompts some good thoughts for others: we are called in the Christian life to deny ourselves. You said it a minute ago that discipline absolutely is a part of the Christian life. There are a number of things that we need to discipline ourselves to do. Amen. Please do not misunderstand us to be saying that there aren’t duties or responsibilities. Don’t misunderstand us to be saying that you don’t need to discipline yourself or deny yourself. We absolutely believe biblically that we need to deny ourselves and discipline ourselves, but what are those things that we need to deny and what are those things that we need to discipline ourselves for? Thinking about Jesus and the apostles, we are needing to deny ourselves so that we might love and serve others. We deny ourselves and consider others as more important than ourselves so that we might love and serve them and be concerned for their good. We discipline ourselves so that we might be patient and kind and gentle and self-controlled in the ways that we interact with our brothers and sisters and with our neighbor, because they need that from us. We wound them and harm them when we’re not those things.
I think our emphasis on discipline is misplaced. We need to be concentrating our efforts in terms of self-denial and discipline in a much more corporate way, with our brothers and sisters in view. At the same time, certainly, that is in no way contradictory to the Bible’s expectations to flee from sin. It’s all of that. That denial of self and that theology of the cross that calls us to die to ourselves and love others is legit. Let’s put some effort there in terms of our disciplines, rather than in all the other areas that we tend to put it.
Jon Moffitt: We have a membership and that’s the way that you can support us. We’ll give you additional content. We also have a book that is underway on covenant theology and all your support is helping us produce that as well. Stay tuned for that. If you don’t know what we’re talking about, you can go to theocast.org to learn more about total access. This gets you into our members’ only podcast, which we’re going to continue the conversation there, but more importantly, it helps support what we’re doing to help pastors and listeners around the world.
We’ll see you next week.