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Discipline is Essential by Maxie Dunnam

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In my previous article I made the claim that in our going on to salvation, struggle is normal and discipline is essential. I want to elaborate on my claim that discipline is essential.

Scripture, especially the New Testament, is replete with calls to a disciplined life. This is the process of sanctification, or we may call it spiritual formation.

Through spiritual discipline, opening ourselves to the shaping power of the indwelling Christ, we grow into the likeness of Christ. It was one of Wesley’s primary concerns and a distinctive emphasis of the early Methodist movement – that the mind of Christ grows in us.

Wesley preached an interesting sermon in 1778 entitled, “The Work of God in North America.” In it, he sought to describe the various dispensations of divine providence in the American colonies as far back as 1736. In the sermon, Wesley commented on the preaching of George Whitefield, which was one of the major contributing factors to the First Great Awakening in America.  The preaching of Whitefield played a significant role in that Awakening.

On his last journey to America, Whitefield lamented that many of his converts had drawn back into perdition. Taking note of that, Wesley sought to account for this “falling away.” This was his telling statement:

And what wonder? For it was a true saying, which was common in the ancient church, “The soul and the body make a man; and the spirit and discipline make him a Christian.” But those who were more or less affected by Mr. Whitefield’s preaching had no discipline at all. They had no shadow of discipline; nothing of the kind. They were formed into no societies. They had no Christian connection with each other, nor were they ever taught to watch over each other’s souls. So that if they fell into luke-warmness, or even into sin, he had none to lift him up. He might fall lower and lower, yea into hell, if he would; for who regarded it? (Sermon, ‘The Works of God in North America” Jackson, Works, 7:411).

Wesley put a great emphasis on proclaiming the gospel, as did Whitefield. He never diminished preaching and teaching the Word. But he insisted upon the discipline of gathering with a class or a band. As the Methodist movement became more established, Wesley noted the deterioration of this discipline, and he warned against it:

Never omit meeting your class or band; never absent yourself from any public meeting. These are the very sinews of our Society; and whatever weakens or tends to weaken our regard for these, or our exactness in attending them, strikes at the very root of our community. The private weekly meetings for prayer, examination, and particular exhortation has been the greatest means of keeping and confirming every blessing that was received by the word preached and diffusing it to others… Without this religious connection and intercourse the most ardent attempts, by mere preaching, have proved no lasting use” (Jackson, Works, 11:433).

There are some warnings to be sounded. We must guard against turning our disciplines into an end. To be disciplined is not the goal; the goal is to stay close to Christ, to keep our lives centered in Him. We must guard against falling into a salvation-by-works pattern. Grace and faith are still the key. We are not saved by disciplines; we are saved by grace through faith.

Spiritual disciplines are channels through which God’s grace is conveyed to us, “outward signs, words or actions, ordained by God, to be the ordinary channels whereby He might convey to man, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.” Regularly attending to these disciplines means a life of discipleship, a life full of God’s grace.

Discipline is essential for our growth as disciples of Jesus.

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