Drawing Near

A Pastoral Perspective on Biblical, Theological, & Cultural Issues | The Personal Website of James B. Law, Ph.D.



November 2015



Spiritual Sweat

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From the age of five until I was twenty-two, I spent most of my time either on a ball field or in a gymnasium.  Through my youth, I was involved in hundreds of practices and games.  Athletics was very much at the center of my life, and from those experiences I learned the importance of commitment, teamwork, and discipline.

When I came to saving faith in Jesus Christ at the age of 20, I discovered that what was true in athletics was also true in living the Christian life, namely that to live for Christ is a call to discipline and training.  I knew that I could never work to earn salvation or even to contribute to it, for salvation comes by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone (Ephesians 2:8,9). I understood that God would not love me more if I prayed more, or gave more, or went to church more.  However, as I read the Bible, I discovered straightforward commands and disciplines that believers were to embrace into their lives. If I was going to grow in my walk with Christ, then I needed biblical intake on a daily basis. I needed daily times of God-connecting prayer. I needed personal and corporate worship. I needed to share my faith regularly. I needed to give of my time, money, and resources for Kingdom advancement. I needed to serve others and be united in a local body of believers.

In this fourth post on pastoral reflections, I come to I Timothy 4 which underscores the need for every believer to embrace spiritual discipline as a means of grace to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ. In this chapter, the Apostle Paul gives a directive to Timothy, which comes to every believer. The Christian life is described in athletic terms as the New Testament describes a race (Hebrews 12:1-3) and a battle (2 Timothy 4:7; Ephesians 6:10-17).  For this contest, followers of Jesus Christ are called to “discipline themselves for the purpose of godliness” (I Timothy 4:7).

Interestingly, in this verse, the Apostle Paul uses the word gumnazo, which is where we get the word gymnasium.  In I Timothy 4, believers receive a strong challenge to give their most intense effort to live their lives for the glory of Jesus Christ.  This is not a casual conversation. Paul is not describing the Christian life as a stroll, but rather the most consuming of all contests.  At the heart of Paul’s command, is a call to spiritual rigor for the purpose of joyfully running the most important race of our lives, a race that ends at the feet of our Savior.

With the smell of the gym, Paul is really talking about what R. Kent Hughes referred to as “spiritual sweat.” Paul states to Timothy that physical exercise “is of some value,” however “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (I Timothy 4:8).  Spiritual discipline has a glorious purpose and that is for every believer to grow in godliness, and thereby become more and more conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:29-30).

I have found spiritual disciplines to be a recurring theme in my pastoral journey, and I guess that is because of the widespread neglect of teaching on this subject in the church. We accomplish little in this life without discipline, and that certainly applies to our spiritual growth.

Two books that have made a big splash in my life with regard to spiritual disciplines are R. Kent Hughes’ book Disciplines of a Godly Man and Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.  I have read these books a number of times over the years and have received challenge and encouragement every time.  Both Hughes and Whitney identify spiritual disciplines from the text of Scripture (biblical intake, prayer, worship, work, evangelism, giving, serving, fasting, church membership, journaling, learning, leadership, etc.). Not only are these disciplines identified, but both authors give helpful teaching on how to bring these disciplines into our lives.

Spiritual disciplines are given to the people of God as a means to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ. We ignore them to our detriment.  As we move toward a new year, I would challenge you to evaluate the spiritual commitments of your life and embrace these disciplines as a way of running the race that ends in the presence of Christ.

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