Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald S. Whitney, Carol Stream, IL: NAVPRESS, 2014. Paperback, 304 pp.
The theme for this book on spiritual discipline is scriptural: “Exercise [or discipline] thyself…unto godliness” (I Timothy 4:7). But when we hear of a book with a title such as this, the temptation might be to dismiss the work completely. Are we not saved by grace? Why should I read a 300+ page list of prescribed activities I must participate in to apparently assure myself that I am “spiritual” or even that I am a Christian?
Though there are times where Whitney’s Southern Baptist background of experience and Puritanism are quite apparent, the work as a whole is written from the understanding that “we stand before God only in the righteousness that’s been earned by another, Jesus Christ” (3). The book does not stem from an attitude of legalism or a goal of putting restrictions on readers. Further, Whitney writes that it is only because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts that we now have “holy hungers” that we did not have prior to Christ earning us righteousness; the Spirit makes godliness our purpose (3). Whitney contends that God outlines disciplines for us in Scripture so that we might pursue holiness, grow spiritually, and become more like Christ; or to put it another way, that we discipline ourselves unto godliness (4).
As stated above, Whitney maintains throughout the book that the reason we must practice each discipline is for the purpose of godliness. In fact, each chapter that covers one of the disciplines is the name of the discipline (e.g., “Prayer”) followed by the phrase “For the Purpose of Godliness”; further, each discipline is introduced with an explanation as to why our practice of it must be for this purpose. For example, we serve others for the purpose of godliness lest we begin to serve only “occasionally or when it’s convenient or self-serving” (144).
Whitney recognizes that our natural tendency as readers is to read about each discipline, agree that the practice is important—and even admit that it’s something we should begin to practice or practice more often—but never change our habits to include regular attention to the discipline in our life. Therefore, he ends each chapter with several pointed questions that ask us whether we will adopt the discipline and whether we will become more faithful in our observance of it. So, for example, he asks at the end of the chapter on silence and solitude whether we will seek daily times of it (244). And anticipating our claim to practice the discipline when we “have time,” he asks: “Will you start now?” (246).
The first edition of this book was released in 1991. The revised and updated version which I reviewed was released in 2014. It would be interesting to compare the books to see how much Whitney updated the text. While I hesitate to call the revised edition dated, I do think Whitney’s increased years may have contributed to a somewhat cursory treatment throughout the book of the current challenges (temptations) that keep readers from becoming spiritually disciplined.
Another critique I have for this book is that it reflects Whitney’s Puritan leanings. I use the example of the discipline of stewardship: while a call for stewardship, especially of one’s time, is welcome in a blatantly self-serving society, I was disappointed that Whitney’s overall point appeared to be that we must use the time God gives us now because we are running out of time, and that we must “come to Christ while [we] still can,” (167). There is no assurance in that attitude. A better motivation for the disciplined life can be found in Rev. Barnhill’s blog series and which Whitney faithfully states in other parts of the book: as adopted children of God, we want to grow in our discipline (commitment) to serving God because we desire God’s glory and our own growth in holiness.
Despite some shortcomings that I found in this text, I would recommend Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life to Beacon Lights readers. This book is not targeted at a specific age level, but we as young people and young adults need to hear the message of this book. We are not a disciplined generation. By nature we are not interested in Whitney’s prescribed “workout” as J.I. Packer puts it in his foreword to this book (x). But we should be. As those redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, we are called to be holy even as God is holy (I Peter 1:16, 18-19). When we are disciplined we live more holily, and when we live holily, we “become the more earnest in seeking the remission of sin, and righteousness in Christ, [and we] constantly endeavor and pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that we may become more and more conformable to the image of God, till we arrive at the perfection proposed to us in a life to come” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 115).
 If you would like to read more about contemporary challenges to living a disciplined life, there is an excellent series of articles by Rev. Ryan Barnhill on the blog of the Reformed Free Publishing Association (available here): https://rfpa.org/blogs/news/tagged/spiritual-disciplines. Rev. Barnhill dedicates one of his articles to both identifying three challenges to the disciplined life—laziness, busyness, and technology—and to encouraging readers to persevere in the disciplines despite these challenges.