Rooted in Christ

Putting the Discipline in Discipleship

The same pastoral epistles that call us to the goal of godliness also yoke us to the grace of God.

“Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” (1 Tim. 4:7, NASB)

The church nowadays bears a striking resemblance to the boneless chicken farm cartoon of Gary Larson’s The Far Side. Missing is the backbone of courage to infiltrate the culture with the gospel of the kingdom. Absent is the skeleton of Law in the inner being that enables disciples to stand upright and to walk in the way of Christ.

I’ve seen it up close as a pastor. Church members will make it to church for Sunday worship as long as a better offer doesn’t come along. Weather too nasty keeps them at home. Weather too nice keeps them outside. Marriages crumble because it’s too hard to make them work. Vows are lasting, until we don’t want them to be. Cultivating our relationship with God through reading the Bible and prayer? That sounds good in theory but we’re happy with more of a business relationship, knowing God’s got our back when it comes to escaping culpability for our sin, knowing He’s available if we need Him.

Yes, I’ve seen it up close as a pastor but I’ve seen it up closer in myself. I’ve seen myself go through the pastoral motions, honoring God with my lips while my heart is far from Him. I’ve seen a public me and a private me, a Sunday me and a Monday me. I’ve seen myself silent when an ear is open to witness, and unresponsive when kindness was called for. 

Pastor and parishioner are cut from the same cloth. For whatever reason (and we each have our own at the ready) we follow Christ on our own terms. But that is not the way of a disciple.

Jesus describes discipleship in terms of denying self in the loving deference and compliance to Him. Disciples are those who must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow the Lord to whom they have bowed the knee. The faith we walk by is to be repentant faith, turning from our own glory and righteousness to seek Christ’s glory and His righteousness. Christ is not first on the list of priorities; He is the hub in which all the spokes of life are fixed and revolve around.

Paul couches the path of discipleship in terms of discipline. “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Tim. 4:7–8). That discipline involves holding firm to what we believe (not led astray by myths or worldly fables) and holding true to a life of obedience out of love for our Lord Jesus.

But discipline is hard. We know discipline’s benefits but still our efforts are often short-lived and half-hearted. How can we discipline ourselves for godliness any better than we discipline ourselves to get to the gym or deny ourselves that piece of cake? The key is Christ.

The same pastoral epistles that call us to the goal of godliness also yoke us to the grace of God. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11–14, ESV).

Grace will never train us in self-effort but always in Christ-dependence. We are God’s workmanship. The Spirit forms Christ in us. Discipline is not a matter of grit but of drawing upon the grace of Christ, through whom we can do all things, apart from whom we can do nothing.

In the face of our lack of discipline, we pray. When we lose our resolve, we pray. When we face obstacles, we pray. When we see progress, we pray. When we lose our way, we pray. Such prayer is not in place of discipline; rather, it is in its cause.

Digging Deeper

  1. Paul speaks of “lawlessness” in Titus 2:14. How does Christ’s redemption from lawlessness relate to the need for discipline in the life of a disciple?
  2. In what way does grace more deeply root us in the law of God?                                 

Lord Jesus, forgive me for my carefree and careless attitude toward the life You call me to as Your disciple. Help me to learn the lesson of grace that leads me to depend upon You. Help me to say “no” to ungodliness by knowing You. 

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Scripture quotations marked NKJV are from The Holy Bible, New King James Version, copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved. Those marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Those marked NASB are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright ©1973 by The Lockman Foundation.

Stan Gale

Stanley D. Gale (MDiv Westminster, DMin Covenant) has pastored churches in Maryland and Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He is the author of several books, including A Vine-Ripened Life: Spiritual Fruitfulness through Abiding in Christ and The Christian’s Creed: Embracing the Apostolic Faith. He has been married to his wife, Linda, since 1975. They have four children and nine grandchildren. He lives in West Chester, Pa.