A Return to Disciplined Spirituality

– April 2012

A Return to Disciplined Spirituality

The Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement’s Article V is a call to return to the principled piety that was fundamental to historic Methodism’s success in spiritual formation. John Wesley’s approach to the cultivation of holy character was nothing more than the methodical application of the ordinary means of grace that the Bible says are central to spiritual health and growth.  Wesley defined the means of grace as the instruments appointed by God to “convey to men, preventing, justifying, and sanctifying grace.”  Wesley’s list of these means included: Scripture, prayer, the Lord’s Supper, fellowship and fasting.

For some in the CHM, a call to reach into the treasures of our past is a call in the wrong direction.  The assumption is that “everything has changed” therefore new approaches to the development of spiritual life are needed. I would dispute both parts of that equation.  I readily acknowledge the constant change in the culture around us but I firmly assert that basic human nature has not changed.  Thus the fundamental human problem has not changed. Neither has the Biblical solution to that problem changed nor has the effectiveness of that solution changed. Faith still comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.  The ordinary means of grace are just as effective in today’s 21st century church (if given a chance) as they were in those first Mediterranean house churches established by Paul centuries ago.

The CHM should not let go of its historic approach to the development of spiritual character.  What it does need to do is to work on applying it with a better balance between discipline and dependence.  It is easy to slip into the extreme of either approach.  The extreme side of discipline is to overemphasize the role of what we do to cultivate spiritual life.  This position is characterized by the mentality of striving.  It emphasizes knowledge, rules, re-dedication efforts, and human activity while virtually ignoring God’s grace extended through the enabling power of His Spirit. Its emphasis on “what-do-I-need-to-do” can lead to the bondage of legalism. On the other hand, the extreme side of dependence is to overemphasize God’s role in our spiritual development to the neglect of any human initiative.  This position is characterized by a “Jesus-did-it-all passivity.”  It stresses experience, the supernatural, and the person of the Holy Spirit to the neglect of human endeavor.  The one side rolls up its sleeves and says, “God helps those who help themselves.”  The other side responds with, “It’s all by grace.”  The CHM has generally fallen into the ditch of the former but is now showing signs of falling into the ditch of the latter.

The Biblical answer to this imbalance is that spiritual formation is both human and divine.  Kenneth Boa stated it succinctly when he said that “discipline should work in concert with dependence, since grace is not opposed to effort but to earning.”  Paul places these elements back to back in Philippians 2:12-13:  “So then, my beloved, …work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”  Paul makes it clear that working out our salvation is not the same as working for it.  He is also careful to balance this with the fact that God is active within us, accomplishing what all our learning and labor cannot.

The CHM must also guard diligently against the danger of just practicing the means of grace as an end in themselves.   The “doing” of certain spiritual practices can create a subtle carnal smugness. The means of grace are never an end but merely the instruments through which God administers His grace.   The means of grace were not given to satisfy our sense of “doing” but to transform us from the inside out!  One can read the Bible faithfully yet fail to demonstrate the character it commends. One can be meticulous about his prayer time yet fail to ever really pray or experience the oneness of true intercession.  One can kneel at the altar to receive the elements as ritual only and completely miss the reality of His presence. Wesley warned about following the outward signs only without our hearts being renewed and enabled by the Holy Spirit.

Alan Redpath wisely noted that the conversion of a soul is the miracle of a moment, but the maturing into a great saint is the task of a lifetime.  Our Methodist Fathers understood this and modeled for us the art of disciplined spirituality like no one else in the last 100 years.   It’s our heritage – it should be our practice—it may be key to our renewal!

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