Engaging the Disciplines
“We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities He engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities He Himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of His Father.” -Dallas Willard
Where would we be if Martin Luther hadn’t nailed his ninety-five theses (a list of questions and propositions for debate) to the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenburg some five hundred years ago? God’s plan for redemption would prevail, but what if Luther had altered the course of history without the guidance of the Holy Spirit? There would be many doctrinal differences in our churches today. One of them might have been faith in the church. Luther’s primary contention with the Catholic church of his day was their belief that justification depends on faith that is laden with charity and good works. However, Luther’s understanding of the Gospel was that nothing could make us white as snow except “the grace and favor which confers the forgiveness of sins.”
Luther was able to speak about grace because he received it himself and was subjected to the discipline of those who Christ calls into His family. Still, people of his day took hold of this idea and said “Great! Since it is faith that saves us, we have no need of true repentance or discipline. Only faith bestowed by God’s grace can save me!” In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “It is terrifying to realize what use can be made of a genuine evangelical doctrine. In both cases, we have the identical formula–‘justification by faith alone.’ The misuse of the formula leads to the complete destruction of its very essence.”
James 2:17 proclaims, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James’ admonition seems to stand in opposition to the teaching of Luther. How can good works and church disciplines be necessary AND unnecessary? It is true that works alone cannot save us, but God’s grace is enough. Yet, in the same way that steam rises from water that is already boiling, works arise from a faith that is already present and a sinner that is already justified. We are saved by faith, but our faith is shown by the good works flowing from our lives. One cannot exist without the other. If so, we must rethink our entire understanding of this doctrine, for faith is not truly faith if it is not accompanied by good works and church discipline.
When God saves us by grace, our calling is not to the cheapest form of devotion that can be purchased by Christ’s work on the cross, so much as the highest level of discipline, rigor, and zeal.
A fear of working for one’s salvation has recently emerged in the church, which has caused people to ignore the importance of discipline. This epidemic stems from an ignorance of the benefits of partaking in holy disciplines. Discipline is the result of salvation just like good works is a result of faith. A believer is disciplined only if the Spirit convicts them to be. After all, what power do we have within ourselves, apart from Jesus, to do good in the world?
If you are spiritually disciplined, know that you are not purchasing your salvation but living out what the Spirit is doing inside of you. Have no fear of salvation by works, but merely remember why you are doing them. Do not try to accomplish good deeds on your own strength but by the power of the Spirit that God generously bestowed upon you. Take up the mantle of solitude and silence, simple and sacrificial living, prayer, intense study of God’s Word, and service to others; not because you are strong enough, but because of God living inside of you.