Slave trader turned pastor and hymn writer, John Newton, wrote,
I am not what I ought to be. Ah! How imperfect and deficient! I am not what I wish to be. I abhor what is evil, and I would cleave to what is good. I am not what I hope to be. Soon, soon, I shall put off mortality, and with mortality all sin and imperfection. Yet, though I am not what I ought to be, nor what I wish to be, nor what I hope to be, I can truly say, I am not what I once was—a slave to sin and Satan. And I can heartily join with the apostle, and acknowledge, ‘By the grace of God, I am what I am.”
Newton was changed by the grace of God. A slave trader to a pastor. All godly change is only by grace. Paul writes of his own calling as an apostle in 1 Corinthians 15, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” Paul knew that all that he did for the Lord has a gift from his hand, but that does not mean that Paul did not work hard. We are usually familiar with the first half of verse 10, but listen to the whole verse, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul was an apostle by grace, but he labored hard to grow in grace.
I pray this morning that you will be challenged to labor hard to grow in grace. Grace and work. It may seem like a contradiction, but I pray you will see how grace fueled effort will lead you to Christ.
The Why of Spiritual Disciplines
Discipline is to train someone to obey rules or a code of behavior or using punishment to correct bad behavior. Discipline is often viewed through negative lenses today. The reason people do not like discipline because they forget the purpose of discipline. Discipline can be hard, challenging, and tiresome, but it can produce something wonderful. Paul wrote to a young Timothy while he was serving as his representative to the people of Ephesus on what to avoid and how to live. He wrote in 1 Tim 4:8, “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” There were false teachers in Ephesus who were encouraging abstinence from marriage and extreme ascetism. Timothy was to avoid these silly myths, but to train himself for godliness. Godliness is referring to a God-honoring life. Life of righteousness and upright living. Godliness implies a close relationship with Jesus Christ. To be godly is to know Christ. Godliness comes through growing in one’s relationship with Jesus Christ.
As we approach the topic of spiritual disciplines (the practices found in Scripture that promote spiritual growth among believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ), it is important to remember the purpose. We labor to grow in godliness. We labor to grow in the knowledge and love for Christ our Savior. Jesus died for us. He saved us from hell. We must realize how glorious the hope offered in Christ is. Octavius Winslow writes,
The obedience and death of the Lord Jesus laid the foundation and opened the way for the exercise of this great and sovereign act of grace. The cross of Jesus displays the most awesome exhibition of God’s hatred of sin, and at the same time the most august manifestation of his readiness to pardon it. Pardon, full and free, is written out in every drop of blood that is seen, is proclaimed in every groan that is heard . . . . Oh blessed door of return, open and never shut, to the wanderer from God! How glorious, how free, how accessible! Here the sinful, the vile, the guilty, the unworthy, the poor, the penniless, may come. Here too the weary spirit may bring its burden, the broken spirit its sorrow, the guilty spirit its sin, the backsliding spirit its wandering. All are welcome here. The death of Jesus was the opening and the emptying of the full heart of God. It was the out gushing of that ocean infinite mercy that heaved and panted and longed for an outlet. It was God showing how he could love a poor, guilty sinner. What more could he have done than this?
There is nothing more glorious than the gospel and the Savior who brings it. And if we want more of Jesus, than we should train ourselves for godliness. If we forget the purpose, and make spiritual disciplines an end rather than a means to end, they will become hard, tiresome and drudgery. But if we keep in sight the glory of our Redeemer, we will find joy in the journey. Friend, Jesus is worth it. The grace fueled labor it takes to know Jesus is worth it.
The What of Spiritual Disciplines
Spiritual Disciplines are activities and habits that God uses to grow people in grace. Grace is a gift. We cannot earn it. Although we can’t earn it, we can place ourselves in its path. As Zacchaeus climbed the tree and Bartimaeus was on the road, we must place ourselves in the path of God’s grace. We cannot expect to grow and become like Christ without labor. God is knowable, but he has provided us means to know him. We must exercise the spiritual disciplines if we are going to grow in godliness.
The God of the Universe speaks to us in his Word. God creates new life with his Word. His Word brought forth life in creation and now he creates new life through his Word. God speaks, and life happens. One of the greatest resources for our spiritual growth is the Word of God. The challenge for us today is we because we have unfettered access to God’s Word, numerous study bibles, different versions, a plethora of electronic options that we are “tragically tempted to take it lightly.” We too easily and too often neglect the Word of God. Now, we do not want to create some sort of legalistic Christian mandate that we must read the Bible every day, but when we neglect the word of God, we are turning our backs on a wonderful means of God’s grace. What do we do with Bible?
Read – D.L. Moody’s mother gave him a Bible and on the inside cover it was inscribed, “The Bible will keep you from sin and sin will keep you from the Bible.” If we are honest, all of us have fallen into the sinful neglect of the Word of God. Too often we simply blame busyness, but our busyness reveals our heart. We do not make time for God’s Word because we do not desire to know the Lord. We may “want” too, but we all know we make time for things we really want. Maybe this morning, the first thing we need to do is to repent of our neglect and turn back to the Lord. Remember, discipline yourself for godliness. Do not let guilt keep you from the Word. Confess your neglect today and ask God for help by the Spirit to prioritize the Word of God.
There are a number resources that can aid your bible reading (reading plans, new Bibles, apps, reading groups, etc.) But I think David Mathis is right when he says, “At the end of the day, there is simply no replacement for finding a regular time and place, blocking out distractions, putting your nose in the text, and letting your mind and heart be led and captured and thrilled by God himself communicating to us in his objective written word.” There is no substitute for unhindered time in the Word. Set a time and put your nose in text.
Study – I enjoy raking my backyard. In about 30 min with relatively little effort, I can make my back yard look amazing. Simply removing the leaves to the side beds does wonders to the look of the yard. Raking is easier, but grabbing a shovel and digging out a tree stump is a different story. There are times we simply rake over our Bibles. We read for breadth, but there are times we must dig for diamonds. Digging takes a lot more effort, but it is necessary if we want to penetrate the surface of our study. Spend an hour reading the cross reference to different verses. Get a good study Bible and read all the footnotes. Trace a Biblical theme from Genesis to Revelation. The greatest truths are the ones you discover yourself.
Meditate – The first birthday where Ellen and I knew each other she made me a homecooked meal and then treated me to a Dulce de Leche crepe at this fancy D.C. restaurant called, The Saint. The crepe arrived, and the presentation was beautiful. It was warm and perfectly made. I grabbed my fork and started digging in. My wife was shocked. She stopped me, “Dave you don’t eat this kind of dessert like that!” I was not savoring the dessert. I needed to slow down and taste all the different flavors and textures to truly enjoy its beauty. The same is true for the Word of God. We must learn to meditate, and savor is beauty with all its different textures and nuances to fully appreciate its beauty. Don Whitney defines meditation as, “Deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture for the purposes of understanding, application, and prayer.”
God commands Joshua as he takes over for Moses to be strong and courageous. How will Joshua be strong and courageous? By taking the Word of God and meditating on it day and night. (Joshua 1:8). The blessed one is Psalm who prospers how? By meditating on the Word of God day and night. Psalm 1:1–2
Blessed is the man
who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the LORD,
and on his law he meditates day and night.
Remember the Word of God is not an end, but a means to an end. The Word leads us to God. The reason we slow down and ponder, chew on, think hard on the Word is so that we would know Christ and become like him. Thomas Watson says, “The reason we come away so cold from reading the Word is, because we do not warm ourselves at the fire of meditation.” In our frantic, busy world, imagine the immense spiritual benefit by slowing down and savoring the beauty and majesty of our great Savior in the Word of God.
Memorize – One way to meditate on God’s word is to memorize it. Write the Word of God on your heart. I have found no greater practice for my own heart than to take the time and effort to memorize the Word of God. I do not have the time here to offer details on how, but simply take a verse read it aloud ten minutes emphasizing a different word each time. Then recite it ten times. After you get that verse, repeat. You will not regret the time you take to put God’s Word on your heart.
The Word is God speaking to us while prayer is us speaking to God. We pray to have more of God. We pray so he takes our will and bends it to his will. We pray so we can help spread the greatness of his name in all the earth. We pray to talk to God, to relate to him, to hear from him, and to make him our highest joy. And here is the most amazing thing about prayer; God is listening. God inclines his ear to his people. He delights to hear and answers the prayers and petitions of his children. He is a good, good Father. The God of the universe has a ready ear and willing heart. I am ashamed at how many times my own children come to me and I am distracted from their words with other things. I must fight to focus on every word and be present. God is not distracted or preoccupied when we come to him in prayer. He is present, and we have his ear.
Pray in Private – Private prayer is an important test to our sincerity with God. It is so easy to impress with our prayers or to use prayer as a tool to get what we want. Jesus said, “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” What does your private prayer life reveal about you? Do you take time to pray? J.I. Packer says how we pray, “is as important a question as we can ever face.” Our prayer life reveals our relationship with God. If our prayer life withers, so to does our walk with the Lord. Neglect at your own peril.
How do we grow in our prayer life? Here are few tips. First, plan to pray. Find a time and a space where you spend dedicated time in prayer. Of course, we are to pray without ceasing and are to be praying throughout the day, but it is good to set aside a time for dedicated prayer. Susanna Wesley, John and Charles’s mother, would throw a blanket over her head to create her own mini prayer closet. Whatever and however, find a time to prayer. Second, pray as the Lord taught us to pray. One method in using the Lord’s prayer is ACTS: (Adore -Hallow Be Thy Name, Confess – Forgive us our debts, Thanksgiving – thank God for his grace and mercy and that you have been brought into his kingdom, Supplication – ask God for specific requests for yourself, family, church, nation, world, etc.) It is a one way to order our prayer life.
Third, be real with the Lord. Share your anxieties, fears, anger, desires, passions, joys, etc. Approach him with reverence and honor, but also as a caring Father who delights in your prayers. He knows what you need before you ask him. He knows your heart’s struggle. He desires to offer help. He wants to bend your will to his will. God can handle whatever you bring, and he will not turn his love from you. Fourth, pray the Scriptures. Take different passages of Scripture and pray them over yourself and others. Take the prayers of Paul for example and pray them over yourself. For example, Colossians 1:9-13,
Father, fill me with the knowledge of your will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding so I may walk in a manner worthy of you. Help be bear fruit in every good work. Lord, help me increase in the knowledge of you so that I may be strengthened with all power according to your glorious might for all endurance and patience and let me do so with joy. Thank you for qualifying me to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. I am humbled that you have delivered me from the domain of darkness and brought me into the kingdom of your Son, where I have redemption and the forgiveness of sins. Oh Father, thank you for your redemption in Christ. In His precious name I prayer.
This is one way we let the word of God dwell in us. And one way, we know we are praying according to his will and if we pray anything according to his will he hears and if we know he hears us we know have what we ask for. (1 John 5:13-15)
Pray with People – We are also called to pray with others. One of the sweetest times we have together is Wednesday evening prayer time. We pray for our physical needs and our evangelistic efforts. We also spend time just thanking God for his work in our lives and the lives of others. It is a rich time together. Let me offer a few tips when you get together and pray with others. Take turns and keep your prayers shorter. I get distracted when someone is praying for 4 minutes straight, but it is easier to focus if each person prays for 30 seconds. Take less time sharing about prayer concerns then actually praying. Praying can be the way you learn about what is happening in people’s life.
Corporate prayer was a clear mark of the early church. It is interesting that the least attended services in most churches is the prayer gatherings. Prayer is an essential ministry in the life of the church. It is powerful and fruitful work. I pray we would be a church that is devoted to prayer.
Keeping the Heart
We pursue spiritual disciplines to help us grow in Christ. We desire to be mature. Spending time in God’s Word and prayer are essential for keeping our heart in Him. There are other spiritual disciplines that can protect our hearts. We want to keep our heart in Christ. The world wants us to drift from Christ, so we have to intentional use the disciplines of the Christian life to keep our hearts steadfast in Him. Here are a few practices that could benefit you in protecting your affections in Christ.
Solitude – In a busy world, it is paramount that we spend time alone and in silence. Slowing down and getting away can reveal things about our life that can help us grow in Christ.
Reading – There are power in words. In an image driven society, the word of great saints can help us deepen our walk. If you want to grow in your knowledge of Christ, a good book can do wonders.
Learning – There are plethora of resources that can aid in your spiritual growth. Podcasts, sermons, free online classes, and good Christian articles can all be very helpful in setting your mind on the things above.
Journaling – Journaling is a wonderful tool to apply what you are learning to your life. I have found that I retain a lot more of what I write down than what I don’t. Journaling can be a tool to help you meditate and retain the things you are learning.
Fasting – Fasting is a wonderful tool to teach you self-control and reveal the lusts of your heart. Giving up food or television or social media for a day, week or month can expose your hearts longing after things. We do not live on bread alone but on every word out of the mouth God. We may be leaning too heavily on the things of this world and fasting helps to expose those crutches.
Whatever disciplines are helpful for you, remember the purpose is for you to keep your heart on fire for Christ. We do not want our love to grow cold, but we want to fan the flame of affection for our great Savior. We want to grow in godliness and be like Christ.
One of the failures in the conversation of spiritual disciplines over the last twenty years is that it has neglecting the gathering of the saints as a discipline. The fellowship of the saints is a wonderful means of grace to help us grow in Christ. I would say the benefits of the body of Christ to our walk with Christ are incalculable. Acts 2:42–47
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
The early disciples devoted themselves to the fellowship. We do not merely come to the church for preaching of the Word, but for the fellowship of the saints. We come to stir one another up to love and good deeds as the day is drawing near. Hebrews 10:24-25, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” God wants to use you for the good of your brothers and sisters. When we gather together, God wants us to be the means of grace to encourage others to hold fast to Jesus Christ.
Can I encourage you to make the gathering of the saints a priority? We gather Wednesday nights to pray. Sunday morning in Sunday School to meet around the Word and for discussion. We worship our great God together in song, prayer and the proclamation of the Word of God. We gather Sunday night for fellowship, to hear testimonies and grow more in the Word of God. Life is busy. Kids get sick. Families visit. Many of you can’t drive at night. All caveats aside, we know there are a lot of things that are important in life, but there is nothing more important that growing in godliness. Godliness holds promises for the present life and the life to come.
The church was purchased by the blood of Christ and is given as a means of grace to all the saints. It is a precious gift. We should not neglect the gathering of the saints, but make it a top priority in our lives. I am so grateful how many of your sacrifice for this body. It is so encouraging to see how you consider each other and learn how to encourage each other to hold fast to Christ. And although I am encouraged by many, there are others that I believe could benefit more and grow more in godliness if they spent more time in the gathering of the saints. If the church is a means of grace, what would your spiritual life look like if you attended all our gatherings? How much more would you grow in godliness if you prioritized the gathering of the saints? My intent is not to guilt you to come to church, but to see the beauty and the value of the assembly of the saints. Remember your gathering with the saints may not primarily be for you, but for others. Your gathering may be to encourage others to hold fast to Jesus.
As pastors, when we get together and think through how we can best disciple our people to grow in godliness, every service has its function. Tonight, for example, you will hear a testimony from a new couple in the life of the church, hear a young man lead worship, and learn about the uniqueness of the Baptist church all the while our kids are learning God’s truth through great hymns of the faith. And that is not including the 20 minutes of conversation and encouragement before the service and the 30-40 minutes following the service. There is no mandate that you must attend every service of the church, but the gathering of the saints is a means to godliness. I want to encourage you to take advantage of the incredible gift of the gathering of the saints.
We are pilgrims on our way to glory. Jonathan Edwards once wrote a sermon titled, the Christian Pilgrim, where he writes of the highest good of all Christians,
The enjoyment of him is our highest happiness, and is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here: better than fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of any or all earthly friends. These are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean.
How can we arrive at the ocean of God? We must take the highways built by God, spiritual disciplines, that lead us to Christ, the true essence of godliness. Paul told Timothy to, “train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.” My dear believing friends, set your hope on the living God, toil and strive for godliness for it holds promises for the present life and the life to come. Use the spiritual disciplines so you can drink from the fountain of Christ.
 Quoted in John Whitecross, The Shorter Catechism Illustrated (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), question 35.
 Whitney, Don. Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.
 Octavius Winslow, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul (London: Banner of Truth, 1962) 183-84 as quoted in Gospel by Ray Ortlund.
 Watson, Thomas. How We Read the Scriptures with the Most Spiritual Profit. Dir 8.
 Edwards, “The Christian Pilgrim,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses, 1730-1733, [Yale University Press, 1999], 437-438)