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Are spiritual disciplines legalistic?

| by Jonathan Hayashi

During a recent conversation at church one person said, “Well, all that you mentioned about spiritual disciplines seems like the Pharisees—legalistic. I’m set free in Christ so people can’t tell me how to live my life!” 

I don’t want to be legalistic or in the same category as the Pharisees! Who would? 

Are spiritual disciplines focusing Christianity into a checklist of rules? Are these tasks weighing down Christians with unnecessary guilt?

Here are a few pointers about the formative power of spiritual disciplines. 

What are spiritual disciplines?

Spiritual disciplines are activities that are rooted in attitudes. For example: 

• Reading the Bible 

• Praying with one another 

• Meditating on Scripture 

• Fasting 

• Worship 

• Service 

These are rooted in “being” rather than “doing.” It is in “being like Christ” or “being with Jesus” that becomes the focus of these activities. These disciplines are some of the best ways to biblically grow and be conformed to His image. 

As we speak of spiritual disciplines, I hear two responses: reactive or proactive. 

1. Reactive response

Sadly, many Christians and churches are in this category. This response has no plan to choose the disciplines. As Tim Keller said it well, “Everyone says they want community and friendship. But mention accountability or commitment to people, and they run the other way.” 

Many times this response happens when circumstances or a life-change—whether positive or negative—causes stress.

2. Proactive response

This involves developing a structure of discipline and accountability. 

A disciple works to build a structure that supports a disciplined life. As Dallas Willard said, “A life of self-control is a steady capacity to direct oneself to accomplish what one has decided to do or be even when you don’t feel like it.”

We find a command in scripture to “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7).

Spiritual disciplines are a lot like physical exercise. You and I know they're important, but some days it's hard to get excited about cardio and leg lifts. 

Recently, I woke up on Sunday morning and said, “I don’t feel like going to church today.” (And I’m one of the pastors!) However, similar to a workout, when I discipline myself to do what I know I should do, I say at the end of the day, “I’m so glad I went!”

Some may say, “Well, that’s legalism! You felt guilty.” No, I believe it is grace that spurs us toward God. He never forces us out of bed to go to church. Grace creates within us the desire to better know Jesus. 

Grace doesn’t mean we coast spiritually until we get to heaven. Grace give us the disciplines.

Choose the disciplined life

A disciplined life is a grace-driven life that we receive requiring structure, planning and effort, “Daniel prayed three times a day,” which was a pattern and structure he followed (Daniel 6:10). 

Spiritual discipline is not a spectator-sport. There is a joy that is deep and satisfying through this process of self-control, that ultimately leads to godly habits. 

Maturity is developed through intentional training in the spiritual disciplines and there are no shortcuts to this. In 2 Peter, we find Peter encouraging the believers to “Make every effort to respond to God’s promises” (2 Peter 1:5). We have been entrusted with the profound truth of the gospel of Christ and we should, therefore, do all we can to develop our lives around and utilize God’s gift for His kingdom. 

Photo source: istock 


Jonathan Hayashi

Jonathan Hayashi (B.A. and M.A., Moody Theological Seminary) is a Pastoral staff at Troy First Baptist Church in Troy, Missouri. He is also a Doctoral student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Prior to that, he served at an inner-city church in Chicago, Illinois for six years and taught Apologetics/Philosophy at the PGM center. He is married to Kennedi and a father to two beautiful daughters.



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