Donald Whitney on “Evangelism . . . for the Purpose of Godliness”

This is the fifth article in my series on Donald Whitney’s acclaimed classic, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Donald Whitney is professor of biblical spirituality and associate dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. If you missed the earlier articles in this series, please follow this link and scroll to read them. Today I will provide a brief summary of Whitney’s chapter on the spiritual discipline of evangelism. This may serve as primer for Whitney’s excellent work. All of the quotations below are also from Whitney’s book, including page references.


Whitney opens his discussion asserting, “Only the sheer rapture of being lost in the worship of God is as exhilarating as telling someone about Jesus Christ” (119). Although God does not expect us all to use the same methods, He clearly expects us all to evangelize. As Scriptural proof texts, Whitney cites Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15, Luke 24: 46-47, John 20:21, and Acts 1:8. Although these commands were given directly to the Apostles, common sense tells us that by extension they are given to us as well. Christianity simply cannot be propagated by any other method than relating the message of the Gospel. As Americans we should be aware of the fact that we would never have received the Gospel if no one obeyed the command to “make disciples of all nations.” This logic should be enough to convince us that not only those with the gift of evangelism should be telling others about Jesus. 1 Peter 2:9 makes the is clear: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (120-22). I would add that this verse and it’s context (verses 1-11) make clear implications not only for evangelism but worship as well—as neither can be sustained by mankind on this earth without the other.


Whitney addresses the many fears that plague Christians when they think about evangelism. These range from a lack of confidence in our biblical knowledge or ability to answer questions to fear of rejection for being different. (122). However, Whitney believes that the most paralyzing fear comes from the sheer weightiness of the subject—that heaven and hell hang in the balance for those who are the recipients of our message. Fear of failure in seeing those we share with receive the gospel can grip us. However, Whitney gives us a tool to irradiate this fear. We need to evaluate success in terms of  “careful and accurate delivery of the message, not by the response of the recipient.” In other words we need to see ourselves as mail persons—simply deliverers of the message (123-24).

Another fear, however, can be the mode of witness. Whitney affirms that speaking the gospel can take a variety of forms whether they be “. . . spoken, written, or recorded; delivered to one person or to a crowd” (120). I hear this as incredibly refreshing! This means that the message can even be artistic—through texted music—or through a form like you are reading now on the internet. Related to this, Whitney states, “the preconceived style of evangelism you fear may not rank among the best ways for you to help make disciples for Christ” (132).

Although a sense of personal inadequacy or lack of eloquence may make us self-conscious about witnessing, Whitney affirms that our witness is empowered in two senses. We learn of the first sense in Acts 1:8, where Jesus tells us, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Whitney affirms that as each believer is indwelled by the Holy Spirit, we are empowered by Him “in ways and methods compatible with. . . [our] personality, spiritual gift[s] opportunities, and so on . . .” to share the gospel (124-25). The second sense in which our witness is empowered is by the message of the gospel itself. Romans 1:16 tells us, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (125). This assures us that when we are faithful to share, although we do not know when or where persons will respond, we know that God’s power in the gospel will bring those whom He is calling to Himself (126).


Whitney makes this point emphatically clear, quoting Matthew 5:16, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Interpreting this for us, he says that we must see the word “let” as a command to act intentionally, “Let there be the light of good works shining in your life; let there be the evidence of God-honoring change radiating from you. Let it begin! Make room for it!” (127-28). That said, he lists reasons why people often don’t evangelize, including busy schedules, working and living primarily among believers, or the limitations of a busy secular workplace where there seems to be no opportunity for the topic to be pursued. This is precisely why Whitney says evangelism is a discipline, we have to work to find opportunities to make it happen. He points us to the instruction found in Colossians 4:5-6 where Paul states, “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (emphasis Whitney’s, 129-30). Including examples beyond the limitations of this short article, Whitney encourages us to use our creativity in coming up with opportunities and means to share our faith (131-33).


In closing, Whitey asserts that “. . . we can find long- term solutions to our inconsistency and frequent lack of witnessing if we will discipline ourselves for evangelism (135). Whitney understands that many people fear sharing the gospel, because of their own public sinfulness. He acknowledges that while a holy life certainly bears witness to the message of the gospel, we will never be perfect in this life. Also, as evidence of the gospel’s work in us, we can repent and ask forgiveness of those we have wronged. Repentance such as this sets us apart from those who don’t know Christ, opening up the door for a powerful witness (136-37). Through the very title of his chapter, Whitney affirms that obeying God by sharing the gospel leads to godliness, but he also affirms this truth with these words: “May we discipline ourselves to live so that we can say with the apostle Paul, ‘I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it’ (I Corinthians 9:23, NASB)” (139).

I recommend this excellent book that you may grow in all of the spiritual disciplines. Such growth will garner a greater witness from the impact of your life radically transformed by the gospel.

Source:  Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. Rev. Ed. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014.


Donald Whitney on “Worship . . . for the Purpose of Godliness”

This is the fourth article in my series on Donald Whitney’s acclaimed classic, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. If you missed the earlier articles in this series, please follow this link and scroll to read them. Today I will provide a brief summary of Whitney’s chapter on the spiritual discipline of worship. All of the quotations below are also from Whitney’s book, including page references.


Whitney derives his definition from biblical accounts of worship, emphasizing those seen in Revelation 4 and 5. These passages boldly proclaim God’s unsurpassable worthiness of worship. Interpreting such descriptions of  worship Whitney teaches,

To worship God means to ascribe the proper worth to God, to magnify His worthiness of praise, or better to approach and address God as He is worthy. As the holy and almighty God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, the Sovereign Judge to whom we must give an account, He is worthy of all the worth and honor we can give Him and then infinitely more. Notice, for instance, how those around the throne of God in Revelation 4:11 and 5:12 addressed God as “worthy” of so many things (103-04).

To understand God’s worthiness, unlike the heavenly creatures in these passages, we must turn to other sources than his physical presence to understand who He is and appropriately respond. These sources include God’s revelation of Himself through creation, Scripture, and the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1, 14; Hebrews 1:1-2) (104). Through the latter two of these we learn that God is holy [the summation of His character] (Rev. 4:8). In order to comprehend his holiness, Whitney teaches that meditating upon Scripture and the “person and work of Christ as found in the Bible” is essential. Furthermore, this comprehension is what in turn compels us to worship God (emphasis mine). Whitney makes this simple: “much revelation of God fosters much focus on God, which in turn evokes much worship of God” (104-05).

Whitney emphasizes that the truth of the above principle is why it is so important that “all worship of God—public, family, and private worship should be based upon and include much of the Bible” (105). Scripture teaches us the right responses to God in worship. One of the reasons Whitney calls our attention to Revelation 4 and 5 is because this passage clearly demonstrates the responses of the heavenly beings to God in worship. Their compulsion to worship prompts not only words of worship and singing, but a shift in physical posture—falling on their faces prostrate before God and the Lamb. Similarly, Whitney asserts that we should “sing biblically saturated songs as both a musical declaration of God’s truth and a biblical response (praise and thanksgiving) to the revelation of God.” In addition, Whitney cites prayer and the observance of the sacraments/ordinances of baptism as biblical responses (105).

Whitney states,

Worship often includes words and actions, but it goes beyond them to the focus of the mind and heart. Worship is the God-centered focus and response of the soul; it is being preoccupied with God. So no matter what you are saying or singing or doing at any moment, you are worshiping only when He is at the center of your attention. But whenever you do focus on the infinite worth of God you will respond in worship as surely as the moon reflects the sun. This kind of worship is not in vain. (106).


Whitney affirms, as Scripture teaches,—that only those who have become Christ’s disciples by repentance and faith can truly worship Him. This is because these are the only people who have in them the Holy Spirit. This truth is taught by Jesus in John 4:23-24 (106): “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Secondly, as Whitney teaches, “we worship God as He is revealed in the Bible, not as we might want Him to be.” Thus we worship Him according to the truth of Scripture, meaning also that “we worship God in the ways to which He has given His approval in Scripture” (107). Whitney emphasizes the richness of this enterprise, teaching (according to Mark 12:30) that worshiping in spirit and in truth “involves both heart and head . . . both emotion and thought.” Wonderfully, he further explains that these two complement one another, as a “heart for God” longs for more of His truth, and knowledge of the truth leads to a heart for God (109).


Whitney cites Hebrews 10:25 as evidence of the necessity of public worship, concluding, “[T]he core of the Discipline of worship involves developing the habit of faithfully assembling with other Christians where the primary purpose is to worship God.” Clearly we cannot be the church if we are isolated [an ever-increasing problem in modern culture]! Jesus was faithful to Sabbath worship in the synagogue (Luke 4:16) and to significant time in private prayer. Finally, Whitney cites God’s eager desire to “bless us” as one of the reasons for private devotions—the blessing that comes from seeking “the glory and enjoyment of God forever” (111-13).


True worship requires discipline of every believer (113). Whitney states, “. . . [worship] is the response of a heart evoked by the beauty, glory, and allure of the object of your mental focus—holy God.” No one can do this for us, we must discipline ourselves to worship, thus it is “a Discipline that must be cultivated” (emphasis mine). The cultivation of this discipline serves as both “an end and a means.” As Whitney states, “No higher goal or greater spiritual pleasure exists than focusing on and responding to God.” However, the discipline of worship is also a means to our own sanctification, resulting in godliness—“because people become like their focus” (114). Whitney asserts that we should not expect to be able to develop the skills of worship in isolation. He states, “The development of any Discipline, from hitting a golf ball to playing the piano, almost always requires outside help from those with more experience.” We should not shy away from seeking the help of others (115).


How can we honor and glorify God through the spiritual discipline of worship? We follow Whitney’s counsel and understand that worship requires focusing upon God through the means He has provided—the revelation of Himself through creation, Scripture, and Christ the Son. Also we recognize that worship is a response to God according to the ways that He has prescribed in his Word, understanding that worship must be done in spirit and in truth. Finally we discipline ourselves to grow in both public and private worship realizing that worship is not only an end in itself, but a means to godliness. Whitney’s instruction can help each of us in these areas. I commend to you this excellent book, that in everything the Church may deepen its practice of God-centered worship.

Source:  Whitney, Donald S. Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. Rev. Ed. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014.

Donald Whitney on “Prayer. . . for the Purpose of Godliness”

This is the third installment in my series on Donald Whitney’s book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian lIfe. You can see the other two installments by following this link and scrolling down. Again, this series may serve as a primer for Whitney’s excellent book. Whitney opens his chapter on prayer with a quote from Albert Edward Day:

We Protestants are an undisciplined people. Therein lies the reason for much of the dearth of spiritual insights and serious lack of moral power (79).

Whitney makes his point painfully clear by inciting critique on mankind’s misplaced priorities. Enormous effort has been made in the U.S. to find faint radio signals from space through the VLA, “. . . a series of twenty-seven huge satellite disks on thirty-eight miles of railways.” Whitney compares this with the equally astounding lack of effort that people make to hear from God through Scripture, his Word. We search avidly for alien intelligence that we guess might exist, when all the while, we ignore the pursuit of God, whom Scripture attests we know exists and have heard from ([Romans 1:18-21 and] 2 Peter 1:19) (79-80). Whitney argues, “But God has not only spoken clearly and powerfully through Christ and the Scriptures, He also has a Very Large Ear [VLE] continuously open to us. . . . [W]e must come to grips with the fact that to be like Jesus we must pray.” Indeed, “Prayer is Expected. . . Learned. . . [and] Answered,” as Whitney outlines in this chapter (80-99).

Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines


Whitney cites several verses from the gospels where Jesus demonstrates his expectations for us to pray, including Matthew 6:9, Luke 11:9, and Luke 18:1. As Whitney stresses, these instructions are “as much His will for you as if He spoke your name and said them to you face-to-face” (80-81). Colossians 4:2 and First Thessalonians 5:17 both command us to pray continually. In regard to this challenge Whitney admits that God certainly “expects many other things of us besides prayer, including times of rest. . . .” Albeit, he asserts:

. . . [I]f talking with and thinking of God can’t be in the forefront of your mind, it should always be just to the side and ready to take the place of what you are concentrating on. You might think of praying without ceasing as communicating with God on one line while also taking calls on another (81-82).

Whitney stresses that prayer is “. . . not only for godliness, but also for the spiritual warfare between His [God’s] kingdom and the kingdom of His enemy.” Prayer is expected because through the gospel, we as believers are now in an eternal relationship with our Heavenly Father. Prayer also is a measure of our general awareness of God: “When our awareness of the greatness of God and the gospel is dim, our prayer lives will be small. The less we think of the nature and character of God, and the less we are reminded of what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross, the less we want to pray” (83-84).


Just as we learn many things as a child, as God’s child we must learn to pray. The fact that we are not expected to be spiritually mature in our prayers as an infant is Christ is a great consolation. Though an infant’s cry for “basic needs” is all we can muster at first, we are expected to grow. Our growth then will lead us to pray for “the glory of God, in His will, in faith, in the name of Jesus, with persistence, and more.” But our learning is primarily accomplished by doing (85).

Citing several historical quotations from pious saints, Whitney emphasizes that Scripture meditation in combination with prayer is the most effective means of teaching us to pray. Although we may often read Scripture and then pray, “[m]editation is the missing link between Bible intake and prayer.” Meditation upon Scripture instructs us in the truth, and we apply this truth with conviction in our prayers. Whitney stresses the example of Georg Müller, whose needs for the orphanages he founded in England were entirely met by prayer without mention of these needs to others. Müller “clothed, fed, and educated more than ten-thousand orphans, as many as two thousand at a time—and supported mission work throughout the world.” There are “tens of thousands of recorded answers” to his prayers. Müller found that by applying the following method, he would both nourish his own soul and avoid a drifting mind in prayer. Although this might seem selfish at first, the result was most wondrous (86-92):

The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that, though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less to prayer. When thus I have been for a while making confession or intercession or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the Word may lead to it, but still continually keeping before me that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened, and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart (90, 91).

Whitney also stresses “[p]raying with others” and “[r]eading about prayer” as means to learning how to pray. Just as the disciples were with Jesus when he prayed, so we can learn “principles of prayer” through other more mature believers (93).


Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8)

Whitney asks us to contemplate these verses afresh. Although our experiences may make us doubt, God most certainly answers prayer. If our prayers seem to not be answered, either we are not seeing the answer (God is answering differently than we expect), or we are not asking rightly (according to God’s will).  Also “[b]latant sin” can block our fellowship with the Spirit, so that our prayers are not answered (94-95).


Whitney concludes this chapter with action steps for the Christian. In order to find the time to learn how to pray and to pray consistently well, we likely will need to plan. This means that most of us will need to think ahead and schedule times for growth in this area, whether this be reading the prayers of saints who have gone before us or books on prayer, praying with others, or combining Scripture meditation and prayer (96-97).

Persistence in prayer is often key to receiving God’s answer. But most importantly, we need to realize that the spiritual discipline of prayer is to be practiced “for the purpose of godliness.” Whitney affirms that “where there is prayerfulness there is godliness” (97-99). As the converse of this is also true, we need Whitney’s exhortations and instruction regarding this oft neglected discipline and the other disciplines covered in his book. For this reason, I highly recommend Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian lIfe.

Source: Donald S. Whitney. Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. Rev. Ed. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014. For the quote from George Müller, Whitney cites Roger Steer, ed., Spiritual Secrets of George Müller (Wheaton, IL; Harold Shaw Publishers; and Robesonia, PA; OMF Books, 1985), 60-62.

Donald Whitney’s Instruction on “Bible Intake. . .for the Purpose of Godliness”

My last article began a new series which may serve as a primer for Donald Whitney’s classic book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. There is no replacement in the Christian life for learning and dwelling upon God’s Word. Each of the doctrines and theological applications of the Christian faith are either directly spelled out in Scripture or may be derived systematically from it. This means that all of the specifics pertaining to faith that orthodox Christians believe—including who God is and who we are in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ—come from the Bible, God’s inspired, inerrant Word (Whitney, 22). Whitney outlines several ways in which we are to receive God’s Word. The following is a sampling of the riches of his instruction on the subject.


Whitney highlights three verses as he instructs on the importance of hearing God’s Word. The first was stated by Jesus himself in Luke 11:28: “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” The second is Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”  Although many come to faith in Christ by reading the Bible, Whitney notes that, . . . “most who, like [Johnathan] Edwards, were converted while reading Scripture are also like him in that they often heard the proclamation of God’s Word prior to conversion. Faith and the ability to apply faith in every area of life is given to us as we are equipped by the hearing of the Word. Thirdly, Whitney uses I Timothy 4:13 to emphasize the necessity of corporate worship and the importance of the public reading of Scripture. In a society where faith is largely privatized, we should recognize that as a rule, corporate worship is the only public arena in which we will hear the Word of God spoken. Therefore, “We are to discipline ourselves to go and hear the Word of God.” Whitney concludes this section with excellent suggestions regarding worshipers’ prayerful preparation for this event (23-26).


Whitney asserts, “The most critical Discipline is the intake of God’s Word. No factor is more influential in making us more like the Son of God than the Spirit of God working through the Word of God.” Quoting British preacher John Blanchard, he stresses that we should read our Bibles daily. He encourages Christians to discipline themselves to make the time for this and to establish a “Bible-reading plan.” Although a variety of plans may be found on the internet, a one-year plan is to read “three chapters every day and five on Sundays.” If we doubt we have time for this, Whitney suggests that we replace the inordinate time that many spend watching TV time with Bible reading. Last, Whitney notes that meditation—“think[ing] deeply”—on the Word of God is the key to its transformative power (27-30).


Whitney explains that “[i]f reading the Bible can be compared to cruising the width of a clear, sparkling lake in a motorboat, studying the Bible is like slowly crossing that same lake in a glass-bottomed boat” (31). In order to truly understand the fullness of meaning of any written work, in-depth study must be done. Related to this, Whitney explains that “in-depth word studies, character studies, topical studies, and book studies” as well as “grammar, history, culture, and geography” are essential for their value in plumbing the depths of Scripture’s meaning (33). I would add that developing an understanding of the way that literature and poetry function is also essential, as the form itself carries part of the Bible’s message. For references regarding this aspect, please see the sources by Ken Myers and Scott Aniol at the end of this article.



As Whitney explains, “Scripture memory is like reinforcing steel to sagging faith.” Although this may seem the least attractive of the spiritual disciplines to many, it is a mighty weapon that the Holy Spirit seeks to use in our arsenal for spiritual warfare (40). We need this weapon in our fight against our crafty enemy. Whitney states, “It’s one thing, for instance, to be watching or thinking about something when you know you shouldn’t, but there’s added power against the temptation when a specific verse can be brought to your mind, like Colossians 3:2: ‘Set your minds on things that are above, not things that are on earth.’” He emphasizes, “A pertinent scriptural truth, brought to your awareness by the Holy Spirit at just the right moment, can be the weapon that makes the difference in a spiritual battle” (39).  As we understand Scripture to be God’s Word we understand that it is a “[m]eans of God’s [g]uidance” (41). Whitney gives several excellent suggestions regarding methods for memorization (43-45). My personal favorite is writing verses in repetition, verbatim. This locks words in my memory like no other method. However, finding the method that works best for you is key.


In a day when most modern-day Christians are averse to memorizing Scripture, the practice of meditating on God’s Word doesn’t fair much better. As Whitney states, while Christians pursue Eastern or other forms of meditation in our day, Scriptural meditation suffers. This is not all. While Eastern forms of meditation call for us to clear our minds, the Scriptures call us to fill them with the words of the Bible (46). For a proof text, see Psalm 1:1-3. Also, as Whitney scrutinizes,

Worldly meditation employs visualization techniques intended to “create your own realilty.” And while Christian history has always had a place for the sanctified use of our God-given imagination in meditation, imagination is our servant to help us meditate on things that are true (see Philippians 4:8). Furthermore, instead of “creating our own reality” through visualization, we [Christians] link meditation with prayer to God and responsible, Spirit-filled human action to affect changes (46).

“In addition to these distinctives,” Whitney instructs, “let’s define meditation as deep thinking on the truths and spiritual realities revealed in Scripture, or upon life from a Scriptural perspective, for the purposes of understanding, application, and prayer” (46-47). Taken together, passages like Psalm 1, Joshua 1:8, and Romans 8:28-30 promise us success in conformity to Christ and his purposes for our lives when we meditate in this manner (46-50). Whitney offers a myriad of methods to encourage God’s work through Biblical meditation in our lives (56-68).


Regarding application, Whitney quotes the often cited passage James 1:22-25, “. . . [T]he one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing” (70). Therefore when studying the Bible, Whitney encourages us to search for applications in the text. He asserts that it is important to “. . . believe that what you are reading was meant for you—at least in some Christ-related way—as well as for the first recipients of the message.” Clarifying this statement he explains that we must understand the original application of a passage first, and then the appropriate application for today. This implies that we seek the theological principle(s) taught in each passage. For example he states, “If you take every word of God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-7 as spoken to yourself, you’ll soon be moving to Israel. But if you understand that particular call as unique to Abram, you can still discover the timeless truths within it and apply every word to yourself” (71-72).

Whitney asserts that it is meditation that yields appropriate application. Meditation requires us to consider various questions regarding the text. These questions relate to personal application with respect to our beliefs, prayers, attitudes (including thanksgiving), and decision making. Finding “specific” points of application is the key (74-75).


As Christians apply Whitney’s admonitions regarding the digestion of Scripture we can be assured that we will be different. Brief and shallow encounters with God’s Word simply are not enough if we are to be disciples of Jesus Christ. Rather, as Whitney teaches, hearing, reading, studying, memorizing, meditating upon, and applying the Bible under the leadership of the Holy Spirit are what we need to be more like Him. Whitney’s book provides wonderful resources regarding these disciplines to help us unleash the power of the Scripture—God’s Holy Word—in order that we would excel in godliness.


Scott Aniol. “Verbal, Plenary Inspiration and the Aesthetics of Scripture.” Religious Affections Ministries. Accessed November 9, 2016. Available from; Internet.

Ken Meyers. “Accounting for the Form Knowledge Takes: or What Do We Mean by ‘Meaning?’” SCL Journal 8 (Winter 2015): 7-11. Following the above link, you will arrive at the “Books and Articles” page of Then, scroll down to the bottom for a link to the journal containing this article.

Donald S. Whitney. Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. Rev. Ed. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014.


Donald S. Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life: Series Introduction

What is the significance of the spiritual disciplines in the Christian’s life? According to Donald Whitney, the spiritual disciplines (see list below) are to train us in godliness. With respect to the focus of this site, their practice is essential to ensuring God-centered worship. As the spiritual disciplines are actions which we work in the power of the Holy Spirit to foster godliness, they prepare us in holiness, the summation of God’s character, to be living sacrifices for Him. This sacrifice is our spiritual worship (see Romans 12:1-2). Similarly, corporate worship, itself one of the disciplines, incorporates several others, e.g., bible intake, prayer, serving, stewardship, and silence, and trains us in practicing them. Hence the public and private practice of the disciplines are both essential for God-centered worship. For this reason, over the coming months I will be writing on Donald S. Whitney’s book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Each installment will briefly outline a chapter of this classic book. My hope is that this series will motivate you to purchase Whitney’s book and apply it to your life.

Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines

Whitney’s first chapter outlines several concepts regarding the nature of the disciplines and how they function. Included are

1. The Motivation and Joy of the Disciplines

The motivation and joy of the disciplines are revealed in a story about a boy named Kevin. Kevin is enrolled in guitar lessons and practices daily but without any sense of inspiration. Instead he longs to be outside with his friends playing ball. Whitney contrasts this situation with another story of the same boy being approached by an angel who miraculously transports him to Carnegie Hall during a concert given by a classical guitar virtuoso. The boy is amazed at the beauty of the spell-binding sound coming from the stage. The skill of this master produces music that the boy never knew was possible. After the angel and the boy return to his home, the angel says to him, “’the wonderful musician you saw is you in a few years.’ Then pointing at the guitar the angel declares, ‘But you must practice’” (pp. 1-2)!

The motivation and joy of practicing the disciplines can only be gained through understanding what God says we will become: the glorious “image of the Son” (Romans 8:29). Although we will be transformed to be perfectly holy at Jesus’s second coming, Scripture makes it very clear that we are to pursue holiness now (Hebrews 12:14) and that this requires discipline (1 Timothy 4:7-8) (pp. 2-4).

2. Freedoms Offered by the Disciplines

Two other aspects of the motivation and joy that draw us to practice the spiritual disciplines are freedoms:

The Freedom that Comes from Proficiency

Recent research proposes that it takes ten-thousand hours to master any discipline. A payoff in becoming an expert at something is that new freedoms come with it. A violin virtuoso can play a violin concerto by J.S. Bach, while those who have not gone through his training and discipline cannot. Those who know Scripture—have memorized it—are free to recall it at any moment for their own benefit and for the benefit of others. The same is true of the other disciplines in many ways. For example, proficiencies in intercessory prayer, worship, service, and fasting work to free us from a self-centered life. Through the spiritual disciplines we gain the ability to express Christ-like character on an ongoing basis. We must remember, however, that as with learning to play an instrument, self-control and perseverance are critical to gaining godliness (pp. 18-19).

The Freedom of Knowing God and Enjoying Him

Gaining proficiency with the spiritual disciplines is not different than any other challenging skill that requires many years (or a lifetime) of practice; without a goal the work is, as Whitney puts it, “drudgery.” The goal of godliness may be restated as “closeness to and conformity to Christ.” As we practice the disciplines, we must keep this in mind. We are given the perfect model of discipline—Jesus. Therefore we count it a joy and privilege to center ourselves upon knowing and enjoying Him in faith as we seek to be His disciples (pp. 19-20).

The Spiritual Disciplines

These are the disciplines which I will summarize from Whitney’s Book:

  1. Bible Intake
  2. Prayer
  3. Worship
  4. Evangelism
  5. Serving
  6. Stewardship
  7. Fasting
  8. Silence and Solitude
  9. Journaling
  10. Learning
  11. Perseverance in the Disciplines (p. v)

Below are some characteristics of the spiritual disciplines outlined by Whitney:

  • both personal and interpersonal” – While the biblical disciplines are practiced in private and in public, Whitney’s book focuses on the private disciplines acknowledging that both are equally important.
  • activities, not attitudes” – The spiritual disciplines require action.
  • “biblical” – Those in Whitney’s book are based upon biblical teaching.
  • “sufficient for knowing and experiencing God, and for growing in Christlikeness.”
  • “derived from the gospel, not divorced form the gospel” – The gospel is not only something that changes us when we are saved, rather, we are drawn more deeply into the transforming power of the gospel through the disciplines.
  • “means, not ends” – The disciplines themselves are not the goal. Godliness is the goal (pp. 5-9)

Whitney encourages us with a long list of heroes of the Christian faith who were trained by the spiritual disciplines, e.g., “Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Bunyan, George Whitefield, Lady Huntingdon, Johnathan and Dawson Trotman, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.” None of these known for their godliness came to this state without disciplining themselves for it (p. 10). Whitney stresses that “the efforts of a Christian and the work of God—can occur simultaneously in a person indwelled by the Holy Spirit.” As Paul said, “For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:29). We need to remember that this process is not natural; rather it is spiritual and requires our own concentrated effort. We should think of spiritual disciplines, “as ways by which we can spiritually place ourselves in the path of God’s grace and seek Him, much like Zacchaeus placed himself physically in Jesus’ path and sought Him” (pp. 11-13).

The following is from the back cover of Whitney’s book:

Donald S. Whitney changed how Christians approached the Spiritual Disciplines with the original release of his classic, bestselling Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life. Whitney draws from a rich heritage of godly believers from Christian history, guiding readers through a carefully selected array of disciplines . . . . He shows how the Spiritual Disciplines, far from being legalistic, restrictive, or binding as they’re often perceived, are actually the means to unparalleled spiritual liberty.

Source: Donald S. Whitney. Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life. Rev. Ed. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2014.

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Turning from Worshiping Self to Worshiping God

One of the biggest challenges to God-centered worship has been and always will be self-centered worship, or put more plainly—worship of self. This was the great sin of Lucifer (Satan) that got him thrown out of the presence of God forever. Biblical worship of God involves fear and reverence for Him leading to prostration—falling on our knees before Him. But what does prostration—a gesture of humility, imply for us in all things? Repeatedly, Scripture teaches that in order for our worship to be genuine we must depend upon, or place our trust in God.

We live in a culture of self-reliance. This philosophy is taught to us in our schools, in the popular media, in the world of business, by many parents, and is championed by what the bible calls “the flesh.”  Because this is our natural tendency—reliance or dependence upon God is supernatural. One of the great obstacles to trusting in God occurs in our mind. We know that we live in a world of cause and result. Each action we take has direct results and consequences. Yet as Scripture teaches, God is working simultaneously in every thought and action to ultimately bring about His results (consider Joseph’s life, Genesis 50:20).  Although we are very limited in our understanding, abilities, and existence, God is transcendent or infinite in His. Therefore, God alone is ultimately worthy of our trust and dependence.

Although we may know this, the turn from worshiping self to worshiping God is ultimately life-long and can be very challenging. However, I want to share today how God has and is working in me to accomplish this. Notice that I did not say, this is how I learned to worship God, OR here is what I did to get my worship right before God. No—God is the agent that produces this change and it is never of any merit of our own that we learn it.

For many of us, when we encounter trials in life our first thoughts are not of James 1:2-4. Instead we wish that things were different and tend to compare our lives to those whose lives seem to be going much better. Only now at 44, am I really learning to take James seriously—that joy can really be our response to trials.

Back in 1996 God called me to attend seminary, and the call was joyfully confirmed through abundant financial assistance. My plans after seminary? To serve full time in church and build a thriving Christ-centered music ministry. However, life can offer some bumps in the road, right? And so I was let go from my first position due to some advice from a church-growth expert. My second go at this dream was incredibly tough as well, but I initiated the departure in obedience to God’s leading. Then it hit me—I was falling into the statistic that everyone talks about—most ministers only last two years in a given church.  How could this happen? I thought I had so much promise—my scholarships, grades, and encouragement from others all seemed to say so. I thought that God had chosen me for service to him through music and worship ministry.

It was then 2004. The next year, as the result of a spiritual gifts and temperament test and much prayer, I sensed that God was calling me to teach. He told me to go back to Southern Seminary and earn my doctorate. Here God would begin teaching me that it was by His merit and hand that any success  would come, not my own. Fast forward—in 2012 after much work, further trials, marriage, and a baby along the way, the D.M.A. program was finished.

So, I began vigorously applying for teaching positions in music at universities across the country. Well, by the time 2015 rolled around, I began to really be concerned. These events just didn’t make any sense to me at all. I knew I had followed God to seminary the first and second times. I knew that He must be up to something—something that couldn’t be experienced without these events unfolding the way that they had in my life. I also knew that up to this point I had not really trusted God with the main events of my life. Sure, I had trusted him for my eternal salvation, but death was a long way off, right? How could I trust him now to make a substantial difference in my life where I could see him moving? How could I better experience the transformed life that Christ promises?

Then a shift began to happen. I have a family member who is a Christian counselor. I was talking with him on the phone one night and I told him, “I don’t know how to trust in God.” He simply responded, “Ask God to teach you how to trust him.” So I did. The Holy Spirit led me from then on to tell God that I trust him whenever a difficult situation would arise. He also told me, “Shawn, when you do this [and mean it], it frees me to bless you.”

I started noticing that there was a direct response from God when I initiated trust. What I mean is that God was meeting me with his provision in some way in each situation when I would express trust. Not only would he equip me with peace—oftentimes there were events (sometimes several) that took place surrounding a given situation that made it very clear that God was at work. So what was I learning? Simply what I mentioned earlier—that God is the only one worthy of our ultimate trust. I was also learning the kind of existence that should be normal for the Christian—experiencing His presence in concrete ways—walking in the Spirit. I was learning to be aware of Him day by day in the fabric of life, not just during corporate worship or time set aside for personal prayer and Scripture reading.

Not only do we live in world of self-reliance, we also live in a world that is very product oriented. In other words, in the marketplace what matters is not how much homework, footwork, or blood, sweat and tears that you pour into something—results are what really count. The problem with this system is that it literally trains us to think that results are all that matter. In the Christian life, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Proverbs 3: 5 and 6  us:

    Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

These verses clearly teach us that it is our dependence upon God that matters—upon what Scripture teaches and what he reveals to us through prayer—and the two never conflict. The principles taught in Scripture always align with what the Holy Spirit speaks to our hearts. When we rely upon God in this way, in our heart we are bowing to him as King of the universe. When we worry or anxiously strive for results in this life, then we put ourselves on the throne—as if this can be done. John 15 reminds us of how to cultivate the proper relationship with God—that it is abiding in Christ that we bear fruit for the kingdom. Biblical worship of God is all about process. The results are up to God himself.

Although God is clearly the one who deepens trust in the heart of the disciple of Christ, there are a few things that I want to encourage you to remember:

  1. Praying and asking God to teach you how to trust him, is of the Spirit, not the flesh. This would never happen if God did not initiate the desire for greater trust in your heart.
  2. Trust is surrender, never manipulation. I believe that as I began the turn to rely upon God in the events of my daily life that he chose to encourage me greatly in the first steps I was taking. Trusting God can feel like jumping off into an abyss—it is scary at first, so God was encouraging further trust with quick results. Sometimes we may have to trust God with things that we will never fully understand or see resolved until we get to heaven.
  3. Anxious striving takes humility to overcome. We must turn away from our worrying, and still our minds in God’s presence. This should happen in increasing frequency throughout the day, as we place our trust in him. Consider Psalm 46:10, “Be Still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”
  4. When trials come, remember that these serve as James 1 teaches, to test our faith and make us “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”
  5. Trust God at all times, remembering that when things don’t make sense to us—this is because God is God and we are not. Only He can see the master plan!
  6. Becoming aware of God’s presence and his work through you is a big part of worshiping him.
  7. Remember that the process of life lived in relationship with God according to Scripture is what really matters.
  8. Meditate often on the Psalms to remind yourself that when we are thinking and living rightly then God is at the center of everything we do. I love Psalms 46, 62, 27, and 131.
  9. Question: What else is involved in worshiping God rather than ourselves?