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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3 thoughts on “Donald S. Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life: Series Introduction

  1. Shawn,
    Excellent work on this! Thanks for bringing up the point about God using our spiritual disciplines to place us in the path of His grace.

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