Faith and Discipline—Reflections on Albert Edward Day, Part 2

The power of a life, where Christ is exalted, would arrest and subdue those who are bored to tears by our thin version of Christianity and wholly uninterested in mere churchmanship.

We have talked much about salvation by faith, but there has been little realization that all real faith involves discipline. Faith is not a blithe “turning it all over to Jesus.” Faith is such confidence in Jesus that it takes seriously his summons, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

We have loudly proclaimed our dependence upon the grace of God, never guessing that the grace of God is given only to those who practice the grace of self-mastery. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling for God is at work in you both to will and to work his good pleasure.” People working out, God working in—that is the New Testament synthesis.

Humans, working out their salvation alone, are a pathetic spectacle—hopelessly defeated moralists trying to elevate themselves by their own bootstraps.

God, seeking to work in a person who offers no disciplined cooperation, is a heartbreaking spectacle—a defeated Savior trying to free, from sins and earthiness, a person who will not lift his or her face out of the dust, or shake off the shackles of the egocentric self.

Real discipline is not a vain effort to save one’s self. It is an intelligent application to the self of those psychological principles which enable the self to enter into life-giving fellowship with God who is our salvation.

We must recover for ourselves the significance and the necessity of the spiritual disciplines. Without them we shall continue to be impotent witnesses for Christ [emphasis added]. Without them Christ will be impotent in his efforts to use us to save our society from disintegration and death.

—From Discipline and Discovery by Albert Edward Day

Last week, I noted the richness of Day’s writing and reflected on what a Christ-exalted life might look like. Today, I want to consider Day’s assertion that God’s grace is only given to those who practice the grace of self-mastery. What does that mean exactly? In my readings of the great devotional masters, a common theme is quite apparent. In every case, I read of a disciplined life that enables them to be fully open to God’s presence. Wesley, for example, referred to this as partaking in the “means of grace.” That is why we see him arising each morning at 3:30 to begin a lengthy time of Bible reading and prayer. That is why we see him retire early each night so that he can get up at that early hour. That is why we see Luther plunging deeper into prayer during those times of his life he found to be the most distressful and demanding, precisely because the nature of the events demanded it.

Having the discipline (Latin disciplina ‘instruction, knowledge, from discipulus ‘learner,’ from discere ‘learn’) to partake in the means of grace (Bible reading, prayer, the sacraments, worship, Christian fellowship) enables us to be open to God’s grace and to respond to it. It also demonstrates our willingness to truly make Jesus our Lord and makes us better equipped for God to work in us. Make no mistake. I’m not talking here about works righteousness where we delude ourselves into thinking we can earn our salvation. Rather, I’m talking about doing the things necessary for God to work fully in us because God never forces himself on us. It is not unlike passing someone we know on the street and being completely oblivious to his presence. We know of our friend’s reality and existence but at that given point, we are too occupied with other things to take note of his presence in the moment. A disciplined devotional life helps us become aware of “Christ in [us], the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) so that we don’t miss his presence or his will for us in our lives and in the moment.

Moreover, discipline takes work and effort on our part and if I’m at all representative of the human race, this is never easy. Discipline requires “mortification,” the idea that we must put to death our sinful, slothful selves and surrender entirely to Jesus. Personally, I’d rather sleep in or feel free to do whatever I want to do at any given moment. Yet if I let my slothful nature override my need to live a disciplined life, I cheat myself out of the chance to grow in my relationship with Jesus and thus hinder my ability to grow to his full stature (Ephesians 4:15). I also prove myself to be a liar when in prayer I ask that Jesus’ will be done, not mine.

No, if we intend to be faithful Christians and profess Jesus as Lord by our words and deeds, we can’t just sit back and let it happen. Life, and especially the devotional life, just doesn’t work like that. If we fail to be disciplined in our faith, we fail to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” because we cut ourselves off from Jesus’ saving grace and power by failing to respond to his ever-present availability. And so while I sometimes balk at submitting myself to needed discipline, I also realize it is for my own good that I do so, not just with my devotions but with every aspect of my life. You see, I also have to deal with sloth and gluttony (among others) and the remedy for them is the power of Christ working within me; on my own, I do not have the strength to conquer my sins. Consequently, when I refuse to be disciplined, I deny myself that power and exalt myself, not Jesus. I hate it when that happens. 🙁

What about you? Do you believe discipline is an essential part of faith? If so, what prevents you from partaking in a disciplined life of faith? What do you do to help you establish a discplined devotional life? If you do not see discipline as essential to living a life of faith, then what are your essentials? Share your insights and examples with us so that together we might gain the necessary discipline to grow in grace.