Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life

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.[1]

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).

[1] 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.

Miriam Koerner

Scripture

Article 7 of the Belgic Confession calls the Holy Scripture “the only rule of faith.” Lord’s Day 33 of the Heidelberg Catechism, when speaking of good works, describes these works in part as only those that are “performed according to the law of God,” that is, the Scriptures. Sola Scriptura, as we were reminded in the recent celebration of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th anniversary, means that Scripture alone gives us everything we need to know for life and faith. II Timothy 3:15 teaches us that Scripture is “able to make us wise unto salvation.” Scripture indeed is important and should occupy an important place in our lives.

Why is Scripture so important? First, it is God’s Word. What could ever be more important and worth our time than the Word of our covenant Father to us? By it God reveals Himself to us so that we can know Him and live with Him in sweet fellowship.

Second, God’s Word is Jesus Christ our Savior. He made the perfect sacrifice to satisfy for the sins of all His people. Therefore when we appear before God in the final judgment, we are not condemned, but have Christ’s perfect righteousness counted as ours. There can certainly be no greater gift, no more amazing grace than that Word!

Third, Scripture gives us everything we need to live and die happily: knowledge of our sin and misery, how we can be delivered from our sin and misery, and how we can show our gratitude to God for that deliverance (Lord’s Day 1). We can only know those three things through God’s Word, which shows us our sin through the law, reveals Christ’s work on the cross for us, and instructs us in our lives of thankful obedience.

Scripture is everything for the child of God. There is never an hour or circumstance in which God’s Word is not there for us. In joy, it directs us to praise the One from whom all blessings flow. In sin, it rebukes us, calls us to repentance, and assures us of forgiveness. In sorrow, it gives us the only comfort there can ever be in life or in death, that we are not our own but belong to our faithful Savior Jesus Christ. In doubt, it shows us God’s unchanging love and faithfulness and gives us hope for the future. The following poem, by Amos R. Wells, says it nicely.

When I am tired, the Bible is my bed;

Or in the dark, the Bible is my light;

When I am hungry, it is vital bread;

Or fearful, it is armour for the fight;

When I am sick, ‘tis healing medicine;

Or lonely, thronging friends I find therein.

 

If I would work, the Bible is my tool,

Or play, it is a harp of happy sound.

If I am ignorant, it is my school;

If I am sinking, it is solid ground.

If I am cold, the Bible is my fire;

And wings, if boldy I aspire.

 

Should I be lost, the Bible is my guide;

Or naked, it is raiment, rich and warm.

Am I imprisoned, it is ranges wide;

Or tempest-tossed, a shelter from the storm.

Would I adventure, ‘tis a gallant sea;

Or would I rest, it is a flowery lea.

Scripture indeed is everything for the child of God, and the study of Scripture is infinitely profitable. Let us now be faithful and diligent in our use of this great gift.

Emily Feenstra

How Great Is Our God

We often think of the Bible as a kind of “how to” to live our life. After all, Scripture is full of statements like “obey thy father and mother,” “pray without ceasing,” and so many other directions. Our devotions can become centered on this aspect of God’s word as well – often consisting of reading a passage and meditating on how we are called to live based on that passage. None of those things are wrong. We do find valuable instruction on how to live our lives in the Scripture, and we should read the Bible from that perspective and think about it often. However, something we can tend to miss with that focus is what Scripture reveals about the greatness of God.

Isaiah 40 lays out the greatness of God using many beautiful metaphors. Isaiah begins in this chapter comforting the people of Israel, telling of the deliverance God will give them from captivity. He then describes the greatness of the God who will deliver them. Reading this chapter puts awe in the heart of the child of God – our God is so great, so all-knowing, that He knows exactly how many specks of dust there are in the earth, and knows the exact measure of the heavens. Nothing man has calculated, no scientific or mathematical theorem can come close to determining those numbers. As far as our finite minds can see, the universe never ends – but God knows its exact bounds.

Verse 15 describes the magnitude of every powerful and great nation in the world to God – a drop in a bucket, or “less than nothing” in verse 17. The governments on this earth seem so sovereign and have so much authority in our eyes – laws are passed that have great effect on our daily lives, wars are declared, and taxes are required – but all their might is puny compared to the might of our God. Even the most powerful of men is as only as strong as a grasshopper in comparison to Him.

His glory is seen even more clearly when we look at creation in the proper perspective. When we realize that God is the one who “stretched out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell there in”, we can examine every aspect of creation and see His amazing design – from the inner workings of our own body, to the fish in the deepest parts of the sea, and the weather patterns that stretch across the entire globe. Wherever men stand in awe at nature, make sure you “lift up your eyes on high, and behold who has created these things.”

And now remember how Isaiah started this chapter – this is the God who will deliver His church Israel. This strong and powerful God who Isaiah has described is not some abstract higher being who really has nothing to do with us. He is our God. He is our strength when we are weary, or when we are struggling with sin. God chose His people out of all the insignificant nations of the earth, loved them with His powerful love, and used that power to deliver us from our sins through His Son. How great is our God!

Kenzie Kuiper