Discipline and Godliness: Don’t Confuse the Two

by J. R. Cuevas

I honestly can’t count the number of times I’ve sat in Bible studies or small group circles where the question, “What are the marks of a growing Christian?” After some awkward silence and you-answer-before-me glances, someone says, “Reading your Bible everyday.” Another says, “Attending Bible studies regularly.” Another says, “Making prayer lists.” Another says, “Morning devotions.” Another says, “Being in a one-on-one discipleship relationship.” Another says, “Listening to sermons on the way to work.”

All these things are good practices, for sure. But the original question was, “What are the marks of a growing Christian?” The problem with the answers above is that there are many people who read the Bible everyday, make prayer lists, consistently do morning devotions, regularly meet with an older person for “discipleship” meetings, and listen to sermons on the way to work who, to be frank, are spiritually immature and are stunted in their growth. The problem with these answers is that those who give them are often equating disciplines with godliness. And that is no small mistake

I don’t deny that implementing spiritual disciplines is an important practice. It’s true in every realm of life. Goals are achieved through discipline. And every person who desires to obtain a particular goal must learn how to discipline himself and engage in specific disciplines. This is true in the realm of scholarship and academics. It’s true in the realm of sports and athletics. And it’s true in the realm of spiritual growth. Lazy, undisciplined Christians who simply insist on doing whatever they want whenever they want simply won’t grow. No discipline, no growth (see Prov 13:4). 

But there is no set of specific prescribed practices as to how we as Christians ought to discipline ourselves in order to grow. There are traditional practices. There are perhaps some wise practices. There may be some proven practices. But when it comes to actual disciplines, there are no mandated practices.

Are We Commanded to Read our Bibles Everyday?
Take reading the Bible for instance. There is no mandated number of chapters that a Christian is prescribed to read from the Bible everyday or in a certain amount of time. There’s no mandated time and place that a Christian is called to regularly do his devotions. In fact, although we are called to meditate on the Word continually (Ps 1), and although the Berean Christians are described as those who examined the Scriptures daily (Acts 17:11), the New Testament never requires Christians to read their Bibles everyday. That’s because in the first century, most Christians didn’t have personal access to a copy of the Scriptures. The same goes for how we set up our prayer schedule (if we even have a schedule). The same goes for Scripture memory. The same goes for how we choose to engage in Christian literature and Christian media (online sermons, podcasts, etc). 

Within particular principles, there are a variety of acceptable practices before God as to how Christians choose to implement disciplines to carry out those principles. Take the biblical principle of humbly receiving the Word of God into one’s heart, as James 1:21 prescribes. A Christian may indeed choose to regularly read their Bible—even on a daily basis. He may choose to, as friend of mine did, get up at 3:00am everyday to memorize the book of Romans. He may choose to read ten chapters of the Bible each day. He may choose to read a verse a day and listen to a sermon on that verse in the evening. He may choose to skip daily Bible reading but instead take good notes from the Sunday sermon and Sunday school, and journal daily as to how he applied the Sunday sermon and Sunday school lesson for that particular week. He can choose to listen to thirty minutes of his audio Bible while going for a jog. He can join a weekly Bible study. Within the principle of humbly receiving the Word, there are a variety of disciplines to carry this out. 

And there should be variety. That’s what Paul reminded the church of in Romans 14. Whether it’s how one chooses to eat for the Lord or how one chooses to treat the days of the week for the Lord, the way Christians choose to discipline themselves will vary. Thus, Christians should not place an emphasis on the implementation of a particular spiritual discipline, because specific disciplines were never meant to be a mark of spiritual growth or maturity. 

The Goal is Godliness
This is not to say that we can’t advise or counsel certain people to particular practices that have proven themselves effective. It would be wise of us to learn from the lives of those who have walked before us and imitate the way they disciplined themselves (Heb 13:7) both principally and practically. Personally, I cannot think of a single practice or discipline that I regularly engage in for the sake of spiritual growth that I didn’t to some degree learn from someone else. But it’s not because of the glory of the discipline itself that I chose to imitate it, but because I shared the same goal with the person I was imitating. I also have no problem sharing what I do to discipline myself with others who ask, so long as they’re after the goal of the discipline and not the discipline itself. 

And that goal is godliness. 

Godliness. Christlikeness. Holiness. That’s the goal. Spiritual disciplines are the means to godliness, but godliness—not discipline—is the goal. This is what Paul means when he exhorts Timothy to “discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness” (1 Tim 4:7). The athletic analogy is impossible to ignore, since the Greek word for “discipline” here is the word gumnazo from where we get the word “gymnasium.” The picture is of—you guessed it—athletic training.

Spiritual disciplines are the means to godliness, but godliness—not discipline—is the goal.

For the competitive athlete, performance is the goal while training is the means to it. For the body builder, muscle growth and symmetry is the goal; resistance hypertrophy training is the means to achieve it. For the cross-country runner, running a 5K under a particular time is the goal; quarter-mile interval training mixed with long-distance runs are the means to achieve it. For the Christian, godliness is the goal; the spiritual disciplines—and let him choose what those may be for himself— are the means to gain it. Paul does not say, “Discipline yourself, because this is godliness.” He says, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” Literally, “toward godliness.” Doing the disciplines in and of itself is nothing. But what the disciplines bring one to is everything. 

And what exactly is godliness? It’s not reading the Bible everyday. It’s not having twenty different prayer lists. It’s not fasting every month. It’s not listening to sermons or joining five different Bible studies. Godliness is character. It is the consistent and increasing exhibition of particular character qualities that are consistent with the very character of Christ. And we need to go nowhere else than Scripture to find them.

What We Should Be Aiming For
Consider Galatians 5:22-23 and the fruit of the Spirit. Ponder over 1 Corinthians 13 and the qualities of love. There’s 2 Peter 1:5-7 and the description of various godly qualities. Think of Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3 and the portrait of the new self. Then there’s 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 and the description of elders and pastors we’re called to imitate.

The holistic portrait that these portions of Scripture paint is what it is that we, through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:3), aim for. How exactly we choose to discipline ourselves to get there is a matter of both personal conviction and proven wisdom and will vary from one Christian to another. But the ultimate goal of godliness is the same for all, and must look the same for all. 

And if this godliness is not gained, the implementation of disciplines is indeed in vain. In other words, it doesn’t matter how many Bible studies and Greek diagrams I do on passages related to patience if I can’t stop losing my temper with my children when they make mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many Bible studies and accountability groups I attend if I can’t stop looking at pornography. It doesn’t matter how many books and sermons on self-control I read and listen to if I keep giving into road rage and gluttony. It doesn’t matter how many anger-management techniques I choose to implement if I don’t stop giving into road rage when I’m stuck on the freeway. It doesn’t matter how many hours a day I spend exegeting Philippians 4:13 and how many prayer lists I send to an accountability partner concerning the things that “I need to be thankful for” if I can’t stop complaining about my life to others. 

So read your Bible. Attend Bible studies. Do morning devotions. Go on prayer walks. Get disciplined. But remember not to confuse discipline with godliness. For if Christ is not formed in you (Gal 4:19), what does it matter how you disciplined yourself? 

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