This article adapts one that originally appeared in Tabletalk magazine and is republished here with permission. For more on this topic, check out Donald Whitney’s updated and revised work Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (NavPress, 2014).
As you’ve surely noticed, everyone is “spiritual” today. Some years ago I came across a USA Today survey where even a majority of atheists consider themselves “spiritual” people. Come to think of it, I’ve never heard anyone say, “You know, I’m just not a spiritual person.” Perhaps for many spirituality simply means spending time occasionally in personal reflection. For others maybe it means consciously trying to live by certain principles, or attempting to be thoughtful on important issues like the environment or homelessness.
However, the common perception of spirituality is not the biblical one. I’m writing from the perspective that spirituality includes—but transcends—the human spirit, and involves the pursuit of God and the things of God, through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit in accordance with God’s self-revelation (that is, the Bible).
Spirituality and the Gospel
This kind of spirituality is not self-generated; rather it is one result of the new spiritual life that God creates in the soul as he works through the gospel. In other words, Christian spirituality is part of living in response to the gospel. In theological terms, spirituality is an aspect of the sanctification that necessarily begins at and follows justification.
Think of it this way: we come to God through the gospel, and we live for God through the gospel. The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him” (Col. 2:6). Through the gospel by faith we receive Christ, and through the gospel by faith we walk in Christ.
The gospel—in a word—is Jesus. In a phrase, the gospel is the person and work of Jesus Christ. That’s why we can speak of the Christian life as a gospel-centered life. We come to God initially on the basis of faith in who Jesus is and what he has done for us. And we continue to come to God and to live a life pleasing to him on the same basis. To paraphrase Paul in Galatians 3:3, having begun by the Spirit through the gospel, we are perfected (that is, sanctified; made like Christ) in the same way—by the Spirit through the gospel.
Role of Spiritual Disciplines
Although the Holy Spirit gives a believer the desire and the power for a biblical spirituality, some reformatting of life and habits must also take place to practice a gospel-centered piety. Thus Paul also wrote, “Train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7). This doesn’t refer to physical training, for mere bodily activity—despite its health benefits—does not by itself build godliness, as the next verse makes plain. Rather, the kind of training or exercise that promotes godliness (that is, Christlikeness) is spiritual training.
No Christian coasts into Christlikeness. Godliness, according to this text, requires training. Some Bible translations render “train” as “exercise” (KJV) or “discipline” (NASB). Thus the biblical and practical ways in daily life of living out this command to “train yourself for godliness” have often been termed “spiritual exercises” or “spiritual disciplines.” (Note: some false teachers have also used these expressions, but that doesn’t invalidate such biblically derived terms any more than a heretic’s use of the word Trinity nullifies our orthodox use of that term.) What was true in Paul’s day is still true: by means of the spiritual disciplines found in Scripture we are to pursue godliness.
Of course, legalism is always a danger in spirituality. Anything a Christian can count, measure, or time can be twisted into something that falsely assures a person that by this—instead of the sufficiency of the life and death of Jesus—he is more spiritually secure or favored by God. But just because the disciplines of godliness can be misused doesn’t mean they should be neglected. “Train yourself for godliness” is God’s command, therefore it must be possible to pursue obedience to it without legalism.
Disciplines in Practice
So how do Christians practice a gospel-centered spirituality?
First, practice the right disciplines—those personal and interpersonal spiritual disciplines found in the Bible. A gospel-centered spirituality is a sola scriptura spirituality. For individual practice, the most important personal spiritual disciplines are first, the intake of Scripture, and second, prayer; all the others relate to these two. The interpersonal spiritual disciplines we observe are primarily those biblical practices related to life together in a local church.
Second, practice the right disciplines with the right goal. Consciously practice these disciplines with Jesus as the focus—pursuing intimacy with Christ and conformity (both inward and outward) to Christ. To put it more succinctly, by means of the biblical spiritual disciplines seek to be with Jesus and like Jesus.
Third, practice the right disciplines the right way. Emphasize the person and work of Jesus in each one. Through them, learn from, gaze upon, and enjoy Jesus—who he is and what he has done. Let your soul be restored by the truths of the gospel.
Engage in the spiritual disciplines given by God in Scripture so that you are continually shown your need for Christ and the infinite supply of grace and mercy to be found by faith in Jesus Christ.