In order to engage in the spiritual disciplines, we must become self-disciplined people. In this message, Pastor Brian explains what self-discipline is, why it is important, and how it differs from Biblical holiness.
The Self-Discipline Of The Christian – Pt. 1
1 Tim. 4:7-8; 1 Cor. 9:24-27
We are beginning a new series of sermons this morning. The topic is The Spiritual Disciplines. I trust it will be an immensely practical and helpful series. We will be dealing with such things as our devotion to Scripture, Prayer, Fasting, Service, Worship, Giving, among others. However, the more I thought and prayed about this series, the more I realized that we need to begin, not with the Spiritual Disciplines, but simply with Discipline.
Americans, by and large, lack discipline. Let’s just look at 3 areas – Morality, Health, and Economics. First of all morality. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified twenty-five STDs and estimate that each year in the United States more than 15 million people become infected with at least one. 65 million people in the United States are infected with an incurable STD, such as HIV or genital herpes. The most common STD today is Human Papillomavirus which causes 90% of cervical cancers. At least 50% of sexually active people will have genital HPV at some time in their lives. So, how are we trying to deal with HPV? We are vaccinating 11 and 12 year old boys and girls, so that when they become sexually active, they won’t get infected. The CDC states that the only sure way to prevent STDs is abstinence. If young men and women were taught and expected to be self-disciplined about their sexuality and to remain celibate until marriage, and then to be faithful to one another for the rest of their lives, we could eliminate STDs. But that takes self-discipline, which is a virtue that very few people possess.
Let’s consider our nation’s Health. Currently we are facing an epidemic of Type 2 Diabetes. There are currently 79 million people in the U.S. who have prediabetes, who are at high risk of developing Type 2 Diabetes. This disease is found among the obese and inactive. It costs our nation $100 billion a year. So, why is it at epidemic proportions, when diet and exercise can control it? Parents who lack self-discipline themselves find it easier to let their kids eat what they want (calling them “picky eaters”) and do what they want (“At least I’m getting some time to myself”) rather than setting down rules that are good for our children, and enforcing them. But disciplining ourselves and our children consistently, no matter how tired we are, takes self-discipline, and any doctor will tell you that’s the biggest hurdle he faces with his patients.
What about our nation’s Economy? Our economy is struggling to rebound after years and years of undisciplined spending at all levels, both in our homes and at the highest levels of finance and government. Giving loans to anyone and everyone, with no money down, discourages saving — which takes self-discipline. Believing that we’ll have Social Security to take care of us when we retire discourages saving as well, and now, as the numbers of senior citizens grows, our country is facing a disaster of unbelievable proportions. Rather than teaching our populace the value of financial self-discipline — being frugal, saving a large chunk of income from each paycheck, staying out of debt — many of us are still demanding that the government figure out a way to take care of us.
I think it’s pretty clear that a lack of self-discipline is at the root of many of our troubles as a nation. The disturbing thing is that we find a lack of self-discipline, not just out in the world, but also in the church. In a recent study of 2,900 Protestant church members, 90% desire to please and honor Jesus in all they do, and yet only 19% read the Bible daily. The average Christian prays less than 5 minutes a day. The average pastor prays less than 7 minutes a day. On top of that, respectable sins like gluttony and laziness are just as common in the church as in the world.
Jay Adams has written, “The word discipline has disappeared from our minds, our mouths, our pulpits, and our culture. We hardly know what discipline means in modern American society. And yet, there is no other way to attain godliness; discipline is the path to godliness.”
I think it is safe to say that discipline is what every Christian needs the most but wants the least! So, how do you know if you lack self-discipline? Well, let’s take a little test.
- Are you late for appointments or for church meetings?
- Do you overeat?
- Do you eat junk foods and high sugar snacks?
- Do you drink alcohol to excess?
- Do you use non-prescription drugs recreationally?
- If you are not married, are you sexually active?
- Are you careless with your speech? Do you say whatever comes into your head?
- When you are frustrated or upset, do you let it keep you from your doing your duty?
- Do you oversleep? Do you allow yourself to lay in bed longer than is needful for your rest?
- Do you find yourself giving your time to things that you want to do and neglecting those things that are more difficult or more important?
- Do you spend money you don’t have, or make unwise spending decisions?
- Do you leave your bed unmade and leave your clothes lying around rather than hung back up in the closet?
- Do you indulge in recreation when you should be working?
- Do you say you are going to do something and then neglect to do it?
So, if you answered “Yes” to several of those questions, it probably indicates that you lack self-discipline. Since we will never become mature Christians without self-discipline, this is an important issue we need to address. I have 5 questions I’m going to ask and seek to answer from Scripture. I don’t think we’ll make it any farther than the first 3 questions this morning.
1. What Is Self-Discipline?
In the New Testament, we find the word “discipline” used in two different senses. Sometimes we read of God disciplining His children. In that sense, the word “discipline” means “chastisement” or “spanking”. However, at other times the Bible speaks about Christians disciplining themselves. In this sense, the word “discipline” refers to the believer forming godly habit patterns. In 1 Timothy 4:7, the word “discipline” is the Greek word gymazo. We get our English words “gymnasium” and “gymnastics” from it. It means to exercise or put yourself through training. The KJV renders it “exercise thyself rather unto godliness.” So you might think of self-discipline as putting yourself through rigorous spiritual training.
Kent Hughes has written, “The word discipline is a word with the smell of the gym in it – the sweat of a good workout. It is an unabashed call to spiritual sweat.”
How many of you have ever joined a gym, or started an exercise routine of some kind? It’s kind of fun and exciting to begin, but right along day 4 or 5, it’s not so fun any more! Pumping those weights, walking that stairmaster, and jogging around the block have become just hard work and lots of sweat. It’s not easy. In fact, to stick with a training regime will take a lot of effort. You’ll have to make yourself stick with it when you don’t want to. Disciplining ourselves in the Christian life is just like that. It won’t be easy, fun, or convenient, but it will be profitable.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, discipline and self-control are very closely related. In verse 27 Paul gives us the meaning of discipline. It is to subordinate our fleshly desires to the will of God. It is to control your body, so that you make it do what it ought to do, rather than what it wants to do. So, to sum up, discipline is training yourself to do the right thing when you don’t feel like it.
Author Jerry Bridges
writes, “As we become soft and lazy in our bodies, we tend to become soft and lazy spiritually. When Paul talked about making his body his slave, so that after having preached to others he himself would not be disqualified, he was not thinking about physical disqualification, but spiritual. He knew well that physical softness inevitably leads to spiritual softness. When the body is pampered and indulged, the instincts and passions of the body tend to get the upper hand and dominate our thoughts and actions. We tend to do not what we do, but what we want to do, as we follow the craving of our sinful nature.”
Tom Landry, the football coach for the Dallas Cowboys once said, “The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don’t want to do in order to achieve what they’ve always wanted to be.” That’s exactly what we must do in the spiritual realm. We must make ourselves do what we don’t want to do in order to become what we’ve always wanted to become.
2. Why Is Self-Discipline Important?
The first reason cultivating self-discipline is important is because God commands it. 1 Timothy 4:7 says “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” In the Greek, this is an imperative. God doesn’t give us 2 options – discipline yourself or don’t discipline yourself, it’s up to you. No, the sovereign of all creation has given His children a command – discipline yourself. Now, what is it called if we disobey a command of God? It’s called SIN of course. You and I need to remember that when we refuse to discipline ourselves, when we indulge ourselves, and pamper ourselves, instead of disciplining ourselves we are sinning. That right there is really all the reason we need to begin today to discipline ourselves. But there’s more.
The second reason is given to us right in the text, “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” Godliness is another word for “holiness” or “Christlikeness.” This text is teaching us that discipline is the path to holiness. No man can sanctify Himself apart from the working of God, but God will not sanctify anyone without their active cooperation. Now, tell me, Christian, do you want to be holy? If you have been born of the Spirit, of course you do! More than anything, you want to be like Jesus Christ. God has placed that desire within the new spiritual DNA He implanted within you when you were born again. “Therefore we have as our ambition to be pleasing to Him” (2Cor.5:9). You want to be pleasing to the Lord, and you know a life of holiness pleases Him, so you want to be holy.
Imagine me telling a 10 year old boy, who loves baseball, “If you just follow this path about 2 miles, over the creek and through the gate, on the other side, you’ll find a baseball signed by Babe Ruth! I just saw it as I was walking this way.” The boy, initially starts jumping up and down with excitement and says, “Are you sure? Are you really sure it was signed by Babe Ruth?!” But then he says, “Wait a minute. I’m not walking down no stupid path for 2 miles to get no ball. No thanks!” What would you think of a kid like that? He’s crazy, right? Well, he’s just like us when God says, “walk down this path of discipline, and you’ll find godliness.” Initially, we’re excited about the prospect of godliness, but give up before we start when we realize it’s going to cost us some effort.
John MacArthur has written, “Godly character is not the result of good intentions, wishful thinking, some mystical “zap,” or even sheer Bible knowledge. It’s developed through the self-disciplined application of God’s Word at a very basic level, enabled and empowered by God’s Spirit.”
Discipline without direction is drudgery. I’m a musician. I play the five-string banjo. I’m sure that if when I was first learning to play the banjo my teacher told me I had to practice the same 4 songs every single day, I would have looked at it as perfect drudgery. I may have done it for a while, but I would have hated it. However, in the Fall of 2004 I began to practice for the 2005 National Banjo Championship. I knew that I needed to play 2 songs at the beginning, and if I got through the first round, I would need 2 more songs at the final competition. So, what did I do for that entire year? I practiced, and practiced, and practiced again the same 4 songs! I must have played them hundreds and hundreds of times during that year. I practiced them so much that I had an exact arrangement worked out for each song. I knew every note that I would play. I could almost put myself on auto-pilot and play the song without thinking. Every time I practiced the songs, I tried to get a little better tone out of my instrument, I tried to get my timing a little more even, and my playing a little more clean. So, what made the difference between my practice being drudgery and it becoming a delight? My vision, my goal. I wanted to win the national championship, and the thought that maybe, just maybe I could, changed everything.
Listen friends, you can become godly! It is what you want in your heart of hearts. The only obstacle that is keeping you from it is yourself. It is a lack of willingness to put forth the effort to discipline yourself. As long as you and I can keep our goal in view (godliness), self-discipline need not be a negative. Rather it is a very positive path that leads us to where we’ve always wanted to go. It’s like that jogger that keeps running because he sees himself 50 pounds lighter. Or it’s like the high school athlete who gets up at 4 in the morning, every morning so he can do his swimming work out for three hours before school starts, because he has a vision of winning an Olympic medal. You need a goal, a vision, and God has already provided the greatest one imaginable – godliness.
Godly people are disciplined people. Read the biographies of giants of church history like Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Bunyan, Owen, Whitefield, Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Spurgeon, George Muller. In every case, you will find that these were disciplined men. They never could have accomplished all that they did without being disciplined. I think this is probably the main reason I find a so much deeper, richer Christianity when I go back and read the writings of those that lived in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The concept of discipline was woven into their lives from birth. It was a virtue that they strove toward and took very seriously. Let me give you an example taken from a letter Susanna Wesley, wrote to her son John Wesley concerning how she raised her children:
“When each child turned a year old (and some before), they were taught to fear the rod and to cry softly; by which means they escaped abundance of correction they might otherwise have had; and that most odious noise of the crying of children was rarely heard in the house, but the family usually lived in as much quietness as if there had not been a child among them… They were never suffered to choose their food, but always made to eat such things as were provided for the family… Drinking or eating between meals was never allowed, unless in case of sickness, which seldom happened… They were so constantly used to eat and drink what was given them that when any of them was ill there was no difficulty in making them take the most unpleasant medicine: for they durst not refuse it, though some of them would presently throw it up. This I mention to show that a person may be taught to take anything, though it be never so much against his stomach.”
Let me give you another example of self-discipline from a Puritan by the name of Joseph Alleine. I’m going to quote from his biographical introduction at the beginning of his book, An Alarm To The Unconverted”:
Alleine’s whole life was an illustration of his saying, “Give me a Christian that counts his time more precious than gold.” When the week began he would say, “Another week is now before us, let us spend this week for God.” And each morning he would say, “Now let us live this one day well!” His wife wrote, “All the time of his health he would rise constantly at or before four o’clock, and on the Sabbath sooner. If he awakened he would be much troubled if he heard any smiths, or shoemakers, or such tradesmen, at work at their trades before he was in his duties with God; saying to me after, ‘Oh how this noise shames me! Does not my master deserve more than theirs?’ From four till eight he spent in prayer, holy contemplation, and singing of psalms, which he much delighted in, and did daily practice alone, as well as in his family.
Indeed, Donald Whitney his classic book on the spiritual disciplines, “I’ve never known a man or woman who came to spiritual maturity except through discipline.”
Think about it this way. God basically uses three things to make us holy: people, circumstances, and spiritual disciplines. He uses people. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Sometimes God will use your friends to exhort you, or inspire you, or motivate you to Christlike living. Sometimes He will use your enemies to reveal sin in your life that must be confessed and forsaken. He also uses circumstances. As God takes us through trials, tribulations, sufferings, illnesses, and financial pressures in order to develop character in our lives. But God also uses the spiritual disciplines. However, the spiritual disciplines are really the only one that we have much control over. We usually don’t control much about our circumstances and the people in our lives, but we can control whether we will engage in a disciplined life or not.
3. Is There a Difference Between Self-Discipline And Holiness?
Yes, holiness and discipline are two entirely different things. They are related to one another, but they are not the same.
In the first place, an unsaved man can discipline himself. However, he can never be holy. An unregenerate person can discipline himself to stop smoking, or lose weight. The U.S. military are very good at taking immature, undisciplined youth, and disciplined young men. However, they can’t produce holy men. A man will never become holy unless God Himself supernaturally works in him.
True holiness begins and ends with living for the glory of God, whereas discipline can, if we are not careful, begin and end with living for the glory of self. Only God can make us holy. Self-discipline causes us to be brought to God on a regular and consistent basis so that He can sanctify us.
How does holiness take place? It begins when a sinner is born again. God plants His nature within Him. The Holy Spirit comes to dwell within him. He is united to Jesus Christ. The very life of Christ now becomes His life. He is now a new creation. Old things are passed away, and everything has become new. He has new desires, affections, and longings. God changes his heart, and brings from spiritual death to spiritual life. He desires above all things to please and glorify God and become like Jesus Christ. That is how it begins.
How do we make progress in holiness? The Holy Spirit, who now indwells us, reveals our sin and the beauty of Christ. When we see our sin, we repent. When we see His beauty, we believe the gospel again. The more we mature in our faith, the greater our sin becomes in our own eyes, and the greater Jesus’ glory appears to us. As the Holy Spirit reveals to us areas of sin, we fight it by applying God’s Word to that specific sin, and then, as we submit to the work of the Spirit, we begin to obey God’s Word. This progress is painful, and slow.
However, this progress in holiness is not the same as discipline. Self-discipline is immensely important, because without it, we will not be putting ourselves in the path where we will meet God, who alone can sanctify us.
Friends, the reality is that we will never attain spiritual growth and maturity unless we walk the path of self-discipline. Listen to the words of Richard Halverson, “There is a discipline involved in Christian growth. The rapidity with which a man grows spiritually and the extent to which he grows, depends upon this discipline.”
Do you want to become a strong, mature believer? Then you must discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness. There are no shortcuts. No one will ever become godly who will not discipline himself. So, I challenge you this morning to begin to discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.
Next week we will ask 2 more questions, “What are the Dangers of Self-Discipline?” and “How Do We Become Self-Disciplined?” That last question is probably the one you are wanting me to answer, right? Sorry, you are just going to have to discipline yourself to wait! However, this morning what I’m wanting to do is to create in you a longing and a desire to be a disciplined man or woman. If the Lord has birthed a desire in you to be a disciplined man or woman, cry out to Him. Pray without ceasing that He would work in you to will and to do of His good pleasure.
© The Bridge
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way and do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred. Any exceptions to the above must be approved by The Bridge.
Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Brian Anderson. © The Bridge. Website: www.TheBridgeOnline.net