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Revisiting the So-Called “Spiritual Disciplines”


Several months back I posted about the problem with spiritual disciplines, including excerpts from Bob DeWaay and links to his articles about it.  More and more I see the term “spiritual disciplines” showing up, even in local churches that supposedly hold to the Reformers’ beliefs — such as a Sunday School class in which “spiritual disciplines” is being taught — perhaps from a more biblical view than the extent to which some take the idea, yet the term is still being used.

Last week the Sunday School topic was about meditation, and “is meditation a spiritual discipline?”  A handout included several Bible verses about people who meditated, and a “checklist” for people to look through, counting up how many hours per week they spend on various activities, of which work/business, sleeping, eating, reading, doing laundry, and even Facebook and texting, were on the list — and the suggestion to look at one’s priorities and what they spend time on.  Again I am reminded of Bob DeWaay’s point, that the problem with spiritual disciplines is that it conveys the idea that we can become holy by “doing” these things, rather than focusing on what God has promised and using “the means of grace.”  The checklist and verses (just single verses, not passages) certainly promotes that attitude.

From the biblical view, this is the wrong approach.  Instead we recognize the “means of grace,” and the public and private “means of grace” spoken of by the great preachers of the last few centuries:  the things through which God gives grace, as promised in His word.  Meditation is not an end in itself, something we do to become more holy, in which we decide to spend a certain amount of time “meditating” and looking up specific Bible verses and thinking, “what does this mean to me?”  Meditation always has as its object God’s word; in reading and understanding God’s word we are promised blessings, as specifically mentioned in Revelation 1:3 as well as in the book of Proverbs.  We spend time in God’s word, reading it and studying it, pondering what it means — not just certain verses (often out of context), and not according to some set scheduled discipline, but throughout our daily lives as we read, pray and listen to or read sermons.  Meditation is part of that overall studying process, as we think upon the things that God has revealed to us in His word — rather than something forced and planned.

FInally, some observations from J.C. Ryle, concerning the “means of grace” (not “spiritual disciplines”):

From Holiness, chapter 6

One thing essential to growth in grace is diligence in the use of private means of grace. By these I understand such means as a man must use by himself alone, and no one can use for him. I include under this head private prayer, private reading of the Scriptures, and private meditation and self–examination. The man who does not take pains about these three things must never expect to grow. Here are the roots of true Christianity. Wrong here, a man is wrong all the way through! Here is the whole reason why many professing Christians never seem to get on. They are careless and slovenly about their private prayers. They read their Bibles but little and with very little heartiness of spirit. They give themselves no time for self–inquiry and quiet thought about the state of their souls.

and (from Holiness, chapter 2):

The “means of grace” are such as Bible reading, private prayer, and regularly worshiping God in Church, wherein one hears the Word taught and participates in the Lord’s Supper. …They are appointed channels through which the Holy Spirit conveys fresh supplies of grace to the soul and strengthens the work which He has begun in the inward man.

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