Introductory Note:

As repeatedly as Dallas Willard visits the topic of discipleship, I’ve yet to read an article or chapter he penned on the subject that doesn’t somehow shed additional light on the with-God life. This piece, which originally appeared in the Christian Herald, is no exception. Dallas is in particularly fine form here as he helps us understand the synergy between God’s transforming grace and our active cooperation: “You have never seen people more active than those who have been set on fire by the grace of God.”

Carolyn Arends
Director of Education, Renovaré

Beware that you are not car­ried away with the error of the law­less and lose your own sta­bil­i­ty. Instead, grow in the grace and knowl­edge of our Lord and Sav­ior Jesus Christ. —2 Peter 3:17 – 18

Is there a path of steady growth in the pres­ence and pow­er of God for the one who has placed their con­fi­dence in Jesus? Should we assume that it is God’s inten­tion our lives would be increas­ing­ly per­vad­ed by the action of his hand, until all we do in word or deed” would be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, giv­ing thanks to God the Father through him”? (Col. 3:11) Is this some­thing we can arrange for, so that the com­mand to grow in grace makes sense?

We are told repeat­ed­ly by Paul to put off the old per­son and to put on the new. How does one do that? 

The answer is actu­al­ly rather sim­ple. One must intend to do it, and then one must sen­si­bly imple­ment the means. Putting on the new per­son, grow­ing in grace, is some­thing we must do. Appro­pri­ate action is the key. True, as Jesus said, With­out me you can do noth­ing.” (John 15:5) But it is also true that if we do noth­ing it will be with­out him. 

The path of spir­i­tu­al growth in the rich­es of Christ is not a pas­sive one. Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earn­ing. Effort is action. Earn­ing is atti­tude. You have nev­er seen peo­ple more active than those who have been set on fire by the grace of God. Paul, who per­haps under­stood grace bet­ter than any oth­er mere human being, looked back at what had hap­pened to him and said: By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” (I Cor. 15:10)

As to means of grace” placed in our hands, well-direct­ed action is the key. The dis­ci­plines of the spir­i­tu­al life are sim­ply prac­tices that prove to be effec­tu­al in enabling us to increase the grace of God in our lives. 

That grace is, of course, unmer­it­ed favor.” But the form it takes is the action of God in our lives and with our actions. If we wish to know more of this and see the deliv­er­ance it works in and around us, we must do the things that will bring it to pass. These things are spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines or the dis­ci­plines for the spir­i­tu­al life. 

A dis­ci­pline in any area is some­thing in my pow­er that I do to enable me to do what I can­not do by direct effort. This is the gen­er­al nature of dis­ci­pline, and there is sim­ply no area of human attain­ment – from play­ing a musi­cal instru­ment, to sports, to speak­ing a lan­guage or being friend­ly – that does not require discipline. 

The need for dis­ci­pline does not change when we come to all that is involved in walk­ing in the holi­ness and pow­er of Christ. Would we do the things that Jesus him­self did and taught? Then there is a way. It is the way of dis­ci­plined grace: dis­ci­pline under grace and grace in the midst of discipline. 

What are some of these dis­ci­plines? A pri­ma­ry one is soli­tude, which must go hand in hand with silence to be com­plete. In soli­tude I arrange to be alone, out of human con­tact, for lengthy peri­ods of time. This allows my inner com­pass to stop whirling in response to the demands of oth­ers. The elas­tic­i­ty and whole­ness of my soul is restored as I grow still and know that God is God.” (Ps. 46:10)

Only soli­tude and silence, exten­sive­ly prac­ticed at wise­ly allot­ted inter­vals, can take the world off my back and for­ev­er release me from both hur­ry and lone­li­ness. They open the door to pro­duc­tive engage­ment with oth­er dis­ci­plines. I begin to find myself increas­ing­ly before God in such a way that he can safe­ly fill me with himself. 

Study and wor­ship, fast­ing and sac­ri­fice (of time, ener­gy, mon­ey), jour­nal­ing and prayer, con­fes­sion and ser­vice are also among the dis­ci­plines. Some dis­ci­plines may be freely cho­sen. But often our cir­cum­stances will impose activ­i­ties on us which, if tak­en as such, can be mar­velous dis­ci­plines enabling us to receive extra­or­di­nary grace. Tribu­la­tion works patience” is only one illus­tra­tion of this principle. 

But there is no such thing as a com­plete list of spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines, cho­sen or imposed. Many dif­fer­ent activ­i­ties might be entered into with the aim of find­ing the man­i­fest grace of God which enables us to do what we can­not do – and be what we can­not be – by direct effort. But the ones that emerge as most ben­e­fi­cial in Chris­t­ian his­to­ry should all be con­sid­ered very seriously. 

And of course what we can­not do by direct effort” cov­ers all that Jesus taught us. We can­not keep his teach­ings on our own. He nev­er intend­ed it. But by whole life train­ing in the well-known dis­ci­plines of the spir­i­tu­al life we can become inward­ly the kinds of per­sons who nat­u­ral­ly (super­nat­u­ral­ly of course) do what he said and did. That is how the gift of a holy and pow­er­ful life comes to us. 

Now dis­ci­plines are not law, they are wis­dom. We have to learn how to do them, and we always fail at the out­set. But to fail here is not to sin. The sin would be in not adopt­ing and fol­low­ing up on a wise pro­gram of dis­ci­plines under grace. For then we are not real­ly intend­ing to do what Jesus said. We are plan­ning to fail. 

Also, dis­ci­plines are for dis­ci­ples — appren­tices — of Jesus, not for dab­blers or mere con­sumers of reli­gious ser­vices. They are for peo­ple who intend to learn from Jesus how to live their whole lives in the king­dom of God as he would live their lives if he were they. Such peo­ple are seri­ous about this and will not be denied. 

Thus they are pre­pared to exper­i­ment and learn from their fail­ures until, under their con­stant teacher, they find that dis­ci­plines tru­ly are full of grace and strength. 

Fast­ing becomes feast­ing on God, med­i­ta­tion on scrip­ture becomes cel­e­bra­tion. Reli­gion is no longer an addi­tion­al bur­den to be car­ried in an already over­bur­dened life, but is replaced by a joy­ous con­fi­dence that God is present and pre­vail­ing in every sit­u­a­tion of life and death.

Orig­i­nal­ly appealed in Chris­t­ian Her­ald (U.K.) April 2001. We grate­ful­ly acknowl­edge Dal­las Willard’s web­site for their per­mis­sion to repub­lish this article.

Text First Published April 2001

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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