Editor's 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.

We’re glad you’re here!

Help­ing peo­ple like you abide with Jesus is why we post resources like this one. Always ad-free, Ren­o­varé is sup­port­ed by those who know soul-care is vital. Would you join us?

Donate >

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

Originally published April 2001