The Biblical and Historical Problems with Spiritual Disciplines Part 1

The Biblical and Historical Problems with Spiritual Disciplines Part 1

Let’s take a quick simple survey:
Can you name five spiritual disciplines? What do you believe is the most important discipline? What do you believe is the purpose of the disciplines?

When this survey is given to a crowd of 10 people or more, I have typically seen several different answers…though everyone’s lists are not the same, there will be some similarities. So who’s right? The last survey question is the most important of the three, “What do you believe is the purpose of the disciplines?” The most common answers I receive are:

  • To help us grow in Christ
  • To help us be more effective Christians
  • To help us meet requirements for sanctification
  • To earn God’s favor or blessing on earth

Last year I was asked by the young adults in my ministry to do a series on the spiritual disciplines (also known as spiritual formation). I spent several months working through any book or article I could get my hands on. Very early on in my study I was able to gain greater understanding about how most people develop their motivation for spiritual disciplines.

Every author I read was promoting a particular list of disciplines that if practiced diligently would provide spiritual growth. I became deeply discouraged over time as I discovered a theological thread that was not biblically or historically accurate. I have yet to find a book written on this subject that doesn’t promote external efforts as the means to spiritual growth.

I do want to clarify my last statement. There are good men who have written on this subject. They have clearly stated that we cannot grow in our sanctification without the work of the Spirit in our lives. Some with great enthusiasm promote the power of the Spirit to transform us. The confusion comes with how these authors partner the Spirit’s work with our work in sanctification.

This caused such great confusion in my own study as I worked through the mounds of books and articles. Every author I read led the reader away from a faith-centered focus on sanctification toward a self-effort system. In my opinion, Christianity has been deeply affected by this teaching. For instance, I have given the survey above to a number of people over the last year. No one has ever listed “faith” as one of their five disciplines.  Even more revealing is that no one ever picked faith to be the most important discipline. Sadly, most churches today teach that we are justified by faith alone but are sanctified through spiritual disciplines.

Before diving into the biblical and historical problems with the modern-day view of spiritual disciplines, I think it would be helpful to establish what has been taught historically on the biblical view of sanctification. Paul, in writing to the Galatians, asks a very clarifying question, 

Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh (Galatians 3:2-3)?

We are justified by faith, and we are sanctified by faith alone. This view of sanctification is not new and has been confessed by churches for hundreds of years. The 1689 Second London Baptist Confession holds that believers and “…their ability to do good works is not at all of themselves, but wholly from the Spirit of Christ.”1

The Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “…for we are not sanctified, except by faith uniting us to Christ.”2 And later on it teaches that,

The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.3

Historically, the church has objected to any type of external effort to achieve sanctification or holiness before God. Those who promote spiritual disciplines have slipped away from the traditional biblical view and have introduced a hybrid of biblical concepts meshed with Roman Catholicism and Mysticism.

From what I have observed, there are three major authors who have had the greatest influence in the church concerning spiritual disciplines: Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Don Whitney. We will examine other prominent teachers later on in the series, but for now we are going to look at how this theological perspective was ignited by these three men.

Richard Foster, who is a Quaker writer and theologian, wrote a book in 1978 entitled, Celebration of Discipline:

…inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours.4

This statement seems to align with the historical view, right? But the next paragraph demonstrates the confusion I found in how he tries to infuse the two concepts together:

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.5

To point back to historical teaching earlier, Foster has added an element to our spiritual growth. Unless we practice certain actions, we will not be receiving the grace needed to progress in our spiritual growth. This is a perfect example of hybrid theology: mixing biblical teaching with Mystic and Jesuit practice (I will explain this point later in the article). In his book, Foster provides an extensive list of various disciplines that help assist in our transformation, example: such as simplicity, solitude, submission, and service to name a few. The problem with this list is that Scripture never states that any of these actions produces spiritual transformation.

Another author/teacher that has influenced Foster greatly is Dallas Willard. In 1988, Willard wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. He states that,

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 a spiritual overseer, in an attractive light. Though still regarded by too few as essentials of Christian living, such practices are widely studied as possibly one important aid to being an effective Christian.6

What Willard openly admits is that what he was teaching has been rejected for hundreds of years. The next quote from Willard is very important because he admits that material on spiritual disciplines have only come about recently:

Lectures, seminars, retreats, and books and articles on them enjoy a popularity that was utterly inconceivable fifteen years ago [emphasis added]. They are increasingly looked to as a reliable means of growth in spiritual substance toward maturity in Christ.7

I researched Willard’s claim to see if this was accurate. Google allows you to search books by subject and date. I did a search for books that contained “spiritual disciplines,” “formation,” and “exercise” in two different date ranges. My first search was from 1400’s to 1977 and yielded  two pages of results. There were five to six books from the 1960’s that had the title but were not available to read. I then did the same search from 1978 to the present and google provided 27 pages of results. As I scrolled through the results I noticed the number of authors that have written on this subject in the past forty years has exploded.

The specific reason I chose those dates was based upon Willard’s comments and Richard Foster’s first book, Celebration of Discipline, written in 1978. In 2004, Foster openly expressed in an article that,

When I first began writing in the field in the late 70s and early 80s the term “Spiritual Formation” was hardly known, except for highly specialized references in relation to the Catholic orders.8

The rest of this series will be dedicated to demonstrating the historical point Foster just made. What is being taught today is not historical Christianity. Practicing spiritual disciplines has felt normal for years because it has been cunningly slipped into the evangelical church as biblical. What was once deemed Roman Catholic and anti-gospel is now fully accepted and taught to be necessary for spiritual growth. The end of Foster’s quote states, “Today it is a rare person who has not heard the term. Seminary courses in Spiritual Formation proliferate like baby rabbits.”9 It is shocking to most people when I bring up my objections. We have assumed what we have heard is biblical…because it sounds biblical.

The goal of these articles is to show how Foster and Willard have adopted a non-biblical view of spiritual growth and how it has spread throughout Christianity in the last 40 years. Many of the sources Foster and Willard use and encourage their readers to engage in are Roman Catholics, Jesuits, Mystics, and open theists (we will be reviewing this material closely in upcoming articles).

Sadly, in recent history, the reformed (and what is known as the Calvinistic crowd) have embraced this misleading theology as well. The most well-known and accepted book among many conservative and reformed Christians today is Don Whitney’s book Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life. Whitney wrote that, “the only road to Christian maturity and Godliness passes through the practice of the Spiritual Disciplines.”10

As stated earlier, the reformed and historical Christian faith has taught that we are saved and sanctified by grace alone, through faith alone. Whitney provides a list of disciplines as means necessary to establishing spiritual growth:

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 the Disciplines of Christian living. A survey of other literature on this subject would reveal that confession, accountability, simplicity, submission, spiritual direction, celebration, affirmation, sacrifice, ‘watching,’ and more also qualify as Spiritual Disciplines.11

It would be easy to find many of the disciplines Whitney provided in the Bible (I don’t agree with his use of them, but at least they can be found); Disciplines like Bible intake, prayer, worship, and evangelism. My next article will take a look at some of the disciplines Whitney suggests and see how  they are rooted in Jesuit and mystical religions. As stated earlier, much of Foster’s and Willard’s books promote the same type of disciplines, and I believe Whitney has been influenced by them as well.

One last observation about Whitney’s list is that he explains there are “more” than just the list he provided. Whitney has just removed any boundaries concerning what causes spiritual growth in a believer. The danger in this logic is that if it looks or sounds spiritual, it can be used for spiritual growth. Thankfully, I’m not the first to recognize the problem and danger in this logic.

D.A. Carson writes,

It is not helpful to list assorted 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 becomes a spiritual discipline.12

The danger in Whitney’s view is that it begins to create rules or laws that the Bible never promises would benefit the believer. For instance Scripture never promises if you live a simple or poor life that you will grow in sanctification. But this concept has been taught for hundreds of years in many forms. Earlier in the article Carson observes,

…some of these so-called spiritual disciplines are entirely divorced from any specific doctrine whatsoever…they are merely a matter of technique. That is why people sometimes say, “For your doctrine, by all means commit yourselves to evangelical confessionalism. But when it comes to the spiritual disciplines, turn to Catholicism or perhaps Buddhism.13

Dr. Carson’s observation aligns perfectly with what I have found written in much of these authors’ material. Dr. Carson concludes that this type of teaching,

… subtly cajoles us into thinking that growth in spirituality is a function of nothing more than conformity to the demands of a lot of rules, of a lot of obedience.14

This is why the study of historical theology is so important. Much of what is taught today concerning spiritual disciplines has been rejected for hundreds of years for biblical reasons. Modern Christianity has only recently embraced them in the last 40 years because of the ignorance concerning former heretical teaching. In my next few articles, I am going to demonstrate from Foster, Willard, and Whitney’s books that they have embraced a non-biblical view developed by Jesuit, Roman Catholic and Mystic theology. 

I want to keep clarifying my position so that the contrasts can be clearly seen throughout the rest of the articles. Faith is the only means by which we are transformed. In closing, here are a couple of quotes from the 16th century explaining the historical biblical view of sanctification. I picked these quotes because they are written by men who were fighting the very theology Foster and Willard are now embracing. The Belgic Confession of the Reformed Faith written in 1561 states,

Therefore it is impossible that this holy faith can be unfruitful in man; for we do not speak of a vain faith, but of such a faith which is called in Scripture a “faith working through love”, which excites man to the practice of those works which God has commanded in His Word.15

Therefore we do good works, but not to merit by them (for what can we merit?); nay, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not He to us, since it is He who “worketh in us both to will and to work, for his good pleasure”.16

And lastly, John Calvin in the Acts of the Council of Trent wrote,

In short, I affirm, that not by our own merit but by faith alone, are both our persons and works justified; and that the justification of works [sanctification]depends on the justification [forensic] of the person, as the effect on the cause.17

Calvin’s point is that we are both justified and sanctified by Faith ALONE.

Next week I am going to trace the concept of spiritual disciplines back to the 16th century and demonstrate why it was rejected by believers then and why there is a large gap between 16th century and 1978.

Recommended Resources:

1 The London Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 Kindle Edition, Chapter 16, point 3.
2 Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 29.
3 Ibid, question 89.
4 Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, 6. 5 Ibid, 7.
6 Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988, 17.
7 Ibid.
8 Foster, Richard J. Spiritual Formation: A Pastoral Letter.
9 Ibid.
10 Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1991, 16-17.
11 Ibid.
12 Carson, D.A. Themelios, Volume 36, Issue 3, 378.
13 Ibid, 377-78.
14 Ibid, 379.
15 Belgic Confession, article XXIV.
16 Ibid.
17 Calvin, Jean, and John Dillenberger. John Calvin: Selections from His Writings. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1971, 176.


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