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Part V. New Nurture – The Gospel and New Disciplines

This entry is part 45 of 54 in the series

"One Thing Have I Desired"

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The Place and Purpose of Discipline

When God told Israel to love Him wholeheartedly, he followed up that command with the command to create structures, routines and rituals that would remind, reinforce and reflect that commandment at every corner of an Israelite’s life.

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deu 6:5-9)

While Israel over-literalized his words and created physical boxes containing Scripture to wear on the forehead or stick on the doorpost, God’s command was simpler and simultaneously more demanding: create structures in your life that will teach and enable love for God; make these structures prominent, conspicuous, repetitive and natural; create routines, habits, rituals, and ways of life that direct the wandering heart back to loving God. In other words, nurture love for God through discipline.

This is the purpose of the spiritual disciplines. The spiritual disciplines are the structures that nurture communion with God. The disciplines are not communion with God itself, but they are means to that communion. Many disciplines have been suggested: private prayer, meditation on the Word, memorization of the Word, wider reading of devotional or theological writers, journaling, silence and solitude, fasting, corporate worship, giving, service of others, evangelism, and others. Most of these come from either Scriptural example or direct command. So, in many ways, the spiritual disciplines are a matter of plain obedience, or the better part of wisdom. But they are much more than that. The disciplines provide the greenhouse in which desire for God thrives. How so?

First, they provide the opportunity for communion with God to occur. The spiritual disciplines, rightly used, are the moments when we can give clearest attention to communing with God, confessing our sins, consecrating our loves, and conforming our lives. It is no wonder that some have mistaken these means as the end itself, for they provide the stage upon which communion often takes place. They are not communion itself, but few other times and places provide us with as concentrated an experience of communion.

Second, they give our souls practice at bringing together nature, posture and exposure in one. Like many tasks in life that require us to combine and co-ordinate several actions at once, we need practice. We are clumsy when we first ride a bicycle, or try to ice-skate, or drive a car. We are too conscious of the separate actions, and we fumble, fall or stall. As we keep practising, something marvellous happens in our brains, as we combine these actions more and more seamlessly, until we can do them ‘without’ thinking.

Remembering our new natures and what they enable, remembering the postures of humility and repentance, and seeking and submission, and remembering the cycle of communion can feel cumbersome, abstract and frustrating. We learn to combine nature, posture and exposure by acting upon our faith in a practical discipline. We must do something to commune, and the disciplines provide those embodied actions.

Third, they teach and develop the abilities, attitudes and actions fundamental to communion. A discipline is an act of ordering what is chaotic. To cultivate communion with God, the chaotic nature of our spirits must be subordinated so that beauty and order can come out of the chaos. Communion often requires habits such as sustained attention, reflective thought, a perceptive eye, and these habits strengthen and shape such abilities through use. Communion often requires using the religious imagination, saying or writing words of praise, gratitude, admiration or adoration to God. These abilities lie dormant or even defective until regular use begins to carve, shape and polish them into abilities fit for communion.

Fourth, they structure and shape the life so that its rhythms, routines and rituals shape the overall imagination and sensibilities. For the Israelite, his daily routine involved reciting the Shema in the morning and in the evening. When he ate his meals, his restricted diet reminded him to put a difference between the holy and the common and he thought on God. His very clothing had a border commanded by God.When he worked the land, there were laws regarding the animals, laws regarding sowing, tilling and reaping, which caused him to think on God. If he went to transact business, there were laws about money and equity. When he went home, there were laws about ritual cleanness, touching skin diseases, bodily emissions and even the presence of mould on the walls. Once a week, he was to cease work, for God’s sake. If he was anywhere near the Tabernacle, or later, the Temple, he would have seen a routine: a burnt offering twice daily, and a meal offering twice daily – one in the morning, and one in the evening – when the day’s activity began and when it ceased. There would have been a sacrifice every Sabbath, and a sacrifice at the beginning of each month. There were sacrifices at the special feasts of Passover, Pentecost, Day of Atonement, and Tabernacles. He was to go to the Tabernacle or Temple three times a year.

What did this routine communicate to him? God is at the centre of life. God is the ultimate reality. God is the One we love ultimately, because he is ultimate reality. 1 The repetition of actions, the structured patterns of obedience, the limits and restraints on our actions, the prohibitions and prescriptions shape attitudes and feelings, while these keep reinforcing the value of the disciplines. So it is with New Testament disciplines.

Finally, the disciplines shape and sharpen our sense of discernment and judgement. We have said that part of ordinate affection is loving what God loves and hating what he hates. We can only do this if we judge correctly: if we evaluate all things are see them as God does – lovable or hateful. We must judge rightly, weigh rightly, discern correctly. We are told that this discernment only comes through use:

But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil. (Heb 5:14)

Through obedient participation, judgement is shaped. The disciplines of the Christian life afford the believer the opportunity to develop discernment.

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (M.A.T.) and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

5 Responses to Part V. New Nurture – The Gospel and New Disciplines

  1. David, I have been reading this series with great interest.

    I recently finished reading “Satisfy Your Soul” by Bruce Demarest where he advocates mixing Evangelical Theology with Roman Catholic Mysticism as represented specifically by John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. It seems you are taking a similar approach.

    I think there are some problems with that approach and the one you advocate here. First, it seems you are misunderstanding the purpose of the law. After listing many of the ritualistic practices of the law you say “What did this routine communicate to him? God is at the centre of life. God is the ultimate reality. God is the One we love ultimately, because he is ultimate reality.” This was not what the law was primarily intended to do. Paul writes in Gal. 3, “What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made.” He continues, “Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.” The law was given to show the seriousness of sin and to show how sin separates us from God. It was “our tutor to bring us to Christ.”

    Second, my greatest concern with Demarest’s book and your article here, is the absence of the Holy Spirit. Deep and abiding love for God is not the result of “spiritual discipline” but the quickening work of the Holy Spirit. In Gal. 5 Paul states that love is the fruit, not of spiritual disciple, but of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s warning in Gal. 3 is instructive, “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?”

    The writer of Hebrews also makes clear that spiritual disciple is God initiated. “My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the LORD loves He chastens, And scourges every son whom He receives.” If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten?”

    These are just a few examples where I believe the NT is leading a Christian in a different direction. It has been my experience in ministry that the fundamental difference between someone who has a deep and abiding love for God and one who does not is not the presence or absence of spiritual disciplines, but the presence or absence of the Holy Spirit.

  2. Christopher,

    Two other articles may allay your concerns. The first is the one previous to this one, where I make the case that the process of exposure to the glory of God may rightly be called the Spirit-filled life. The Spirit is essential to the process of communion, conviction, cleansing, and deeper communication of Christ. No growth, no illumination and no experience comes without Him.

    The second is the next article in this series, where I speak of the ‘ditches’ of discipline, one being the idolization of discipline itself, the other being a naive belief that spontaneous desire ever proceeds Christian discipline.

    My approach to discipline is a lot more like the views of Jerry Bridges, A.W. Tozer, or even some of the nouthetic counselling fellows. Discipline is a structure that we must have in place,upon which the Holy Spirit will conform us to Christ. I appreciate what some of the older writers say about discipline, but some of it leans towards the ‘will-worship’ of Colossians 2, which Paul warns is actually ineffectual against the flesh.

  3. Hi, Chris. I’ve wrestled with exactly what you mention in my work on the formative nature of liturgy. Your comments have further motivated me to be sure to integrate a thoroughly biblical theology of the work of the Holy Spirit into my thinking in this area.

    However, I agree with David as well. How does the Holy Spirit work? How do you know that he is working? He doesn’t somehow “zap” a Christian with spirituality; he works through the means of the biblical disciplines.

    So thank you for your emphasis. But I don’t think what David is saying (especially in light of last week’s post) is contradictory to a robust understanding of the need for the Holy Spirit to work!

  4. David,
    The previous article was the one that originally sparked my concern. Again, I believe scripture places a larger emphasis on the work of the Holy Spirit in our spiritual development. You mention a “naive belief that spontaneous desire ever proceeds Christian discipline.” I would tend to call it “born of God,” “new creation,” “made alive.” Our conversion should most certainly produce spontaneous desire as demonstrated in our faith in Christ.

    Heb 12 is still important to consider. Do you have to have a discipline structure in place before God brings spiritual discipline? I would see the main emphasis in scripture being primarily God’s action followed by our response rather than our action resulting in God’s response. We love Him because He first loved us.

    I’m looking forward to the next article.

  5. Brilliant article,David.I fail to see Christopher,s line of thought concerning the place of the law in a believers life.Ps 1,Ps119 97. A lamp to my feet and a light to my path.GOD bless your ministry,beloved brother in the Lord.

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