Spiritual Disciplines and Legalism

This month we start up our small discipleship groups at my church.  One of the things we emphasize and hold group members accountable to is their commitment to spiritual disciplines like consistent time in God’s Word, prayer, and Scripture memorization.  Also, this year I have been putting a monthly challenge before my church to commit one day a month to the discipline of fasting and prayer.  The question has been posed to me both in person and through some recent reading as to whether doing spiritual disciplines is a kind of legalism.  It is a legitimate question, but I also find it to be a convenient excuse.

Of course doing spiritual disciplines can become legalistic.  Any “spiritual” activity can become that.  Legalism believes I can win God’s approval and gain standing with Him by what I do. Sometimes it is rooted in pride (think Pharisees). Sometimes it is rooted in the mistaken idea that my behavior earns me standing with God.  Anything I do out of a sense of acquiring standing with God is legalism because that is contradictory to grace.  Grace is entirely premised on God dealing with me in ways I absolutely do not deserve and could never earn.

If I do the spiritual disciplines thinking God or others will be impressed with my spirituality, I’m being legalistic. If I do the spiritual disciplines simply so I won’t feel guilty for not doing the disciplines, I’m being legalistic because my guilt exposes my belief that behavior wins merit or demerit with God.   It may be true that it impacts what others think of me, but if I do the disciplines in order to shape people’s opinions of me, well then, I’m being a hypocrite.

The problem is not the spiritual disciplines, nor disciplining myself to do them.  The problem resides in my heart because that’s where legalism is conceived.  If the guys in my discipleship group do the spiritual disciplines simply to make me happy or to keep the other guys from getting on their case, they are missing the point and are caught in either legalism or hypocrisy, or both.

I get the impression that those who deemphasize spiritual disciplines and opt for a more random “as the Spirit leads” approach, think that theirs is a more “authentic” spirituality.  I don’t agree.  Rather than promoting a greater authenticity, randomness actually results in a greater vulnerability because there is a battle raging in my heart every single day of my life (Gal. 5:16-17).  Randomness is not the solution because as a believer, I have two contrary passions battling for control of my heart: the flesh and the Spirit.  The flesh hates discipline and wants what it wants when it wants it.  The Spirit, on the other hand, wants the things of the Lord and is working to fill the believer up with all the fullness of Christ.  The chief obstacle to that taking place is my flesh, which makes it all the more significant that one part of the fruit of the Spirit is self-control (Gal. 5:23).

The flesh, if left undisciplined, will run wild.  Disciplining the flesh is not legalism, unless we mistakenly think that disciplining the flesh impresses God and makes us more righteous.  Not disciplining the flesh quenches the work of the Holy Spirit and giving into the flesh grieves the Spirit, both of which impede spiritual growth.  So, it is not legalism to put disciplines in place that will help me discipline my flesh. For example:

  • I schedule a time to spend with the Lord and set an alarm to help me get up early enough in the morning to have that time because I know I need it, and if I don’t do it in the morning, it won’t happen that day.  Getting up in the morning doesn’t make me godly, but it does create the time I need to be alone in the presence of God.  Scheduling time for the disciplines and then keeping to the schedule doesn’t automatically make them rituals.  What makes them rituals is doing them only to do be able to say I did them.
  • Disciplining myself to fast does not make me godly.  But passing up a meal or fasting from some pleasure in order to pursue God affords me an opportunity to say no to the flesh and yes to the Spirit.

If my flesh is to be subdued, I must discipline myself to that end (1 Cor. 9:24-27).  One of the functions of the body of Christ is to “stir each other up” to spiritual ends (Heb. 10:24).  That sounds like accountability to me.

Apart from disciplining myself to engage with God personally through the means He has provided, I cannot nurture my relationship with Him.  If I was free from the flesh, discipline would not be needed for spiritual pursuits would be automatic.  But I’m not and therefore I need to discipline myself to engage in that which I need to do.  God wants my attention and time, regular time, quiet time, to minister to my soul, for me to hear Him and respond to Him.  Because my flesh wants none of it, and my randomness will generally yield to the flesh’s influence, I remain committed to spiritual disciplines.

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