THE TITLE OF this chapter may seem like an oxymoron. Discipline may suggest restraint and legalism, rules and regulations, and a God who frowns on anyone who has fun. Grace, on the other hand, seems to mean freedom from any rules, spontaneous and unstructured living, and most of all a God who loves us unconditionally regardless of our sinful behavior.
But such thinking reflects a misunderstanding of both grace and discipline. Consider, for example, Titus 2:11–12: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” As we can see from this passage, the same grace that brings salvation to us also disciplines us as believers. I referred briefly to this verse in chapter 1, but now we need to look at it more in depth if we are to understand the relationship between God’s grace and our practice of spiritual disciplines. The verses actually read, “the grace of God … teaches us.” The word translated as “teach,” however, means much more than the usual idea we assign to it of imparting knowledge. Originally it was used as a term or the rearing of children and included not only instruction, but also admonition, reproof, and punishment, all administered in love and for the benefit of the child. The apostle Paul used the same word in Ephesians 6:4 when he charged fathers to bring up their children in the training (that is, discipline) and instruction of the Lord.
Used in a spiritual sense, discipline includes all instruction, all reproof and correction, and all providentially directed circumstances in our lives that are aimed at cultivating spiritual growth and godly character. And though in the physical realm children eventually reach adulthood and are no longer under the discipline of their parents, in the spiritual realm we remain under God’s parental discipline as long as we live.
So we see that the very same grace that brings salvation also trains us to live lives that are pleasing to God. All of God’s disciplinary processes are grounded in His grace—His unmerited and unconditional favor toward us. We tend to equate discipline with rules and performance standards; God equates it with firm but loving care for our souls.
When I was first introduced to the idea of Christian discipleship, I was given a list of seven spiritual disciplines I should practice every day—things such as a daily quiet time, Bible study, Scripture memorization, and prayer. All of those disciplines were very helpful to me, and I am grateful for every one of them. They gave me a structure for my spiritual growth. Indeed, we will examine some of these disciplines in later chapters.
However, while learning those disciplines I came to believe that my day-to-day relationship with God depended on how faithfully I performed them. No one actually told me that God’s approval of me was based on my performance. Still, I developed a vague but real impression that God’s smile or frown depended on whether or not I did my spiritual exercises. The challenge to be faithful in my quiet time, while good in itself, probably contributed to this impression.
My experience is not unusual. A friend of mine who ministers on a university campus told of a student who was exceptionally diligent in having his daily quiet time. My friend asked the student why he was so rigid in his practice, and the young man responded, “So nothing bad will happen to me.” He was not being disciplined by grace but by fear.
We are performance-oriented by nature, and our culture, and sometimes our upbringing, reinforces this mindset. All too often a child’s acceptance by his or her parents is based on the child’s performance, and this certainly tends to be true in our society. We carry this same type of thinking into our relationship with God. So, whether it is our response to God’s discipline of us or our practice of those spiritual disciplines that are so good and helpful, we tend to think it is the “law” of God rather than the grace of God that disciplines us.
Paul said, though, that it is the very same grace, God’s unmerited favor, that brought salvation to us in the first place—that disciplines us. This means that all our responses to God’s dealings with us and all our practice of the spiritual disciplines must be based on the knowledge that God is dealing with us in grace. And it means that all our effort to teach godly living and spiritual maturity to others must be grounded in grace. If we fail to teach that discipline is by grace, people will assume, as I did, that it is by performance.
That is why we must continue to emphasize the “bookends” of Christian growth, which I wrote about in chapter 1. Once we begin to grow we have just as difficult a time believing that God relates to us every day on the basis of grace as a person has believing that God saves by grace instead of by works. So we must continue to come back to God’s grace every day. And we must continue to teach it and preach it to those whom we may be discipling in some way, whether in a Sunday school class or Bible study we are teaching or in a one-to-one mentoring relationship. Spiritual growth must be based on God’s grace.
SALVATION AND DISCIPLINE ARE INSEPARABLE
Another truth we see in Titus 2:11–12 is that salvation and spiritual discipline are inseparable. The grace that brings salvation to us also disciplines us. It does not do the one without the other. That is, God never saves people and leaves them alone to continue in their immaturity and sinful lifestyle. Those whom He saves, He disciplines. Paul said this thought another way in Philippians 1:6: “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
This thought is both encouraging and sobering. It is encouraging because it assures us that our spiritual growth is not left to our initiative, nor is it dependent upon our wisdom to know in which areas and in which direction we need to grow. Rather, it is God Himself who initiates and superintends our spiritual growth. This is not to say that we have no responsibility to respond to God’s spiritual child-training in our lives, but it is to say that He is the one in charge of our training.
Of course, God will use others, such as our pastors and other mature Christians, as His agents, and He will use various means, primarily His Word and circumstances, to discipline us, but He is the one who takes the ultimate responsibility. And as the one who is infinite in wisdom, He knows exactly which means to use in our lives at any given time. Our response then should be to trust Him and obey Him, and, to use words from the writer of Hebrews, to pray that He will “work in us what is pleasing to him” (13:21).
At the same time this inseparability of God’s grace and spiritual discipline is a sobering truth. One has only to look around at Christendom, particularly in the United States, to see that there is a vast multitude of people who claim to have trusted in Christ at some time but do not seem to have experienced any of the discipline of grace. They may have walked an aisle, signed a card, or even prayed a prayer, but grace is not teaching them to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions, let alone to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives. Essentially, their lives are no different today than they were before they professed to have trusted Christ.
As I think of these people, I am reminded of the words of Hebrews 12:8, “If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons.” And Jesus Himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). It is not those who have merely made a profession, but those in whose lives there is evidence of God’s fatherly child-training who are the inheritors of eternal life.
This sobering truth should be reflected upon by each of us. Is God’s grace disciplining me? The apostle Paul said, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Corinthians 13:5). And the apostle Peter exhorted us to “be all the more eager to make [our] calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). Are you truly trusting in Jesus Christ alone as your Savior without mentally adding something of your own goodness? Is there any evidence that you have died to the reign of sin through union with Jesus Christ (see chapter 9)? And is the grace of God at work in you to discipline or train you so that you are growing spiritually? If your honest answer is “no,” I urge you to come to Him believing His words that “whoever comes to me I will never drive away” (John 6:37).
Let me be clear at this point. We do not pursue spiritual growth or the evidences of God’s discipline to attain salvation. That would be salvation by works. Rather, God’s discipline in our lives and the desire to grow on our part, be it ever so faint, is the inevitable result of receiving God’s gift of salvation by faith. As Martin Luther is so often quoted as saying, “We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone.”
Bridges, Jerry. 2004. Growing Your Faith: How to Mature in Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.