“The Disciplines of Disciples” (I Timothy 4:7-10 sermon)

(Preahed at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, 4-19-15)

When I served as interim at First Baptist Pauls Valley, Oklahoma, I had the opportunity to go up to the high school during their summer band practice.  I was impressed with the quality of what was going on there, and I really enjoyed watching the directors work with the band on their numbers: not only on just “getting the notes right”, but on all the little details.  After he had finished his part, one of the directors came and sat by me in the auditorium where I was watching, and we visited for a while. He told me about the practices they were putting in during the summer, and how they were going to practice during the school year as well. I told him, “You know, I don’t think people realize all the work that goes in to putting together a band performance of this quality.”  It doesn’t just “happen”; it takes a lot of discipline, practice, and work. Those of you who are involved in our church choir, and the big Pleasant Ridge Christmas program, know how true that is!

What we need to realize is that the same thing is also true in the Christian life. That band doesn’t just “show up” and play these great numbers during halftime, and do so well at contests. It takes daily discipline and practice to get there. And the same thing is true with the Christian life. You can’t just “show up” for an hour a week on Sunday mornings, and think that you are going to have a great and victorious Christian life. Showing up on Sundays is part of it, but not nearly all. Just like with the high school band — and really any other worthwhile endeavor in life — it takes some basic disciplines to succeed.

Last Sunday we looked at how Jesus called us to be “disciples” and what that means. We were not saved just to come to church and sit, but to make Him the Master of our lives, and to follow Him.  But what does that look like? HOW do we follow Him?  Our passage for this morning gives us an introduction to what I am calling, “The Disciplines of Disciples” — basic discipline of the Christian life which we must each employ if we are going to be effective disciple of Jesus Christ.  Just like in the band, it takes discipline to be a good disciple, as we see in our text, I Timothy 4:7-8,

“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.”

This morning I want us to look this morning at what this passage teaches us about the importance of Christian disciplines in general, and then over the next few weeks, we’ll look at some of those disciplines individually.

I. The Command to Spiritual Discipline

:7b  “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.”

This is a very interesting verse in the Greek: the word “discipline” here is the Greek “gumnazo” — we get our word “gymanastics” from it. So the picture of this word “discipline” here is like that of a person going to the gym to work out.  Only it’s not a physical workout he’s talking about, it is SPIRITUAL discipline: “for the purpose of godliness.”  “Eusebeia” means “good/practice towards God” and refers to the duties we owe to Him. (We might almost translate it “religion”, if we used it in the best sense of that word).  So he is saying, “Discipline — work out; train yourself — in your duties towards God.”  And, significantly, this is not a “suggestion”; it is a command!

What he’s saying is that there are things we can discipline ourselves to do, which will help us draw closer in our relationship with God: disciplines such as reading and studying and memorizing His word; worshipping Him and praying for ourselves and others; attending worship services and fellowshipping with other believers; being involved in discipling relationships; serving in ministry, and others.  Most if not all of these things take discipline on our part, and so He commands us: “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.”

Now, I know that a lot of people object to the whole idea of “Christian disciplines”, saying that they don’t want to become “legalistic” about Christianity, like some kind of modern Pharisees.

We need to understand that there is a difference between discipline and legalism:

— Legalism is doing something because you think it will give you salvation or make you right with God.

Let us make it clear right off: we are not to employ these Christian disciplines in order to justify us before God. The Bible teaches us that we have all indeed sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And it says that all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags. You can read your Bible all day every day and you cannot wash away a single sin. You can pray and fast until you wither away to nothing, but you will not by doing so make yourself right with God. There is only ONE thing which can make you right with God: faith in the death of Jesus on the cross for you. It is just like the old hymn says: “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” The only way you can be made right with God is by faith in Jesus. Performing the disciplines we are going to cover the next few weeks will not reconcile you with Him. They help us grow in Him, but they do not make us right with Him. So don’t be “legalistic” about doing these things, as if they make you right with God; they don’t.

— So legalism is doing something because you think it will make you right with God. But godly disciplines are not legalism. Godly Discipline is doing something — often when you don’t feel like it — because you know that it is good for you and others. It is NOT wrong to discipline yourself to do something that is good for you spiritually. That is NOT being “legalistic”; it is being DISCIPLINED!

It is the same way with your physical body:

— If you need exercise (and most of us do!) it is not “legalistic” to discipline yourself and get out and walk, or go to the gym, or whatever, when you don’t feel like doing it. It is not “legalistic”; it is good for discipline yourself to do that.

— If you are supposed to take some medicine for a physical problem you have, it is not “legalistic” to be very diligent about taking that medicine every day, or several times a day, or whatever regimen you have. It is for your good; it is not “legalistic”; it is “discipline.”

— The same thing is true of the spiritual disciplines. It is not “legalistic” to read your Bible every day, or to discipline yourself to pray, or to go to church when you don’t feel like it, or any of the other spiritual disciplines. It is good for your spiritual growth and to deepen your relationship with God to do those things. You are not being “legalistic”; you are being disciplined!  And God commands us here to be disciplined spiritually.

I read recently where Don Whitney, who teaches on the spiritual disciplines at our Southern Baptist Seminary, and who has a great book on the Christian disciplines, said that although there is a danger of Christians becoming legalistic about the disciplines, that in his experience (and he has much experience in the field) that for every ONE person who becomes too legalistic about discipline in their Christian life, there are TEN who NEED discipline. The problem for most of us Christians is NOT legalism; the problem is it is that we are not obeying God’s command to discipline ourselves as disciples of Jesus.

Think about your own spiritual life. Are you disciplining yourself for the purpose of godliness?

— Do you make yourself get up early enough to read your Bible and pray in the morning before you get out and start your day?

— Do you have a list of people and things that you are praying regularly for, and do you pray for them, whether you feel like it or not, because you know they need it?

— Are you committed to go to church, again whether you feel like it or not?

— Are you working on memorizing some scriptures, even if it is difficult for you to do so?

— Are you committed to a place of service in the church, whether or not you feel like it, and are you as consistent to God’s work as you are to your secular employment?

Some of us would have to admit that we are much more disciplined in other areas of our lives than we are in our spiritual lives. You are much more consistent at your running, or weight lifting, or walking, or on the job, than you are with the things of God. God says it should not be that way.  He commands us here to “discipline (ourselves) for the purpose of godliness.”

II.  The Effort of Spiritual Discipline

:10 “For it is for this we labor and strive”

The Greek Bible word for “labor” means to work until you are “”worn out, depleted, exhausted.” The word for “strive” is “agonizomai” — we get our word “agony” from it!  Needless to say, these words indicate that the Christian disciplines are not “easy.” They take work. They take … discipline! That is why we call them “disciplines”, because they are not things that you are just easily going to “fall into.” You have to WORK at them, and work HARD at them — “agonizing”; working until you are “worn out”!

I think a lot of us as Christians think that somehow being “spiritual” should be easy; that if we are really “godly”; we will just always want to do the right thing all the time.

It is kind of like the picture that a lot of people have about marriage. They think you should just find the right person, and “poof!” — you just “live happily ever after.” But that is not so. Even in the best marriages you have to work at it. An older pastor said not long ago that the best advice he’d ever gotten when he was getting married was from an older man, who told him when he was getting married that “marriage is good — if you work at it.” But that last phrase is the key: you have to work at it; it is not just going to “happen.” Don’t be disappointed if you have to work at your marriage; virtually all of us do. You have to do the hard, daily work of putting aside your own selfish desires, and putting someone else ahead of yourself, and sometimes ignoring your “feelings”, and exercising forgiveness and showing grace. It takes work!

And it is the same way with your Christian life.  We have the world, the flesh & the devil all working against us; it is NOT going to be easy. You don’t just “get saved” and then “live happily ever after” with the Lord. Just like in marriage, you have to work at the Christian life, by doing the hard, daily work of the disciplines.

Jesus’ disciples found it difficult to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Could you not watch with Me for one hour?”, Jesus asked them. It was hard work, and the enemy was working against them. His same question could be repeated to Christians all over the country today: “Could you not watch with Me one hour?” Can you not spend an hour a day with Him in His word and prayer? It is not easy to do; it is not just going to “happen”; it takes hard work to be a disciplined Christian disciple.

Now, this is not going to happen all at once. I know a guy who wanted to pray for an hour, and he got down to pray, and started praying for everything he could think of, and he looked up, and 5 minutes had gone by! It is hard to pray for an hour when you haven’t been praying that much.  But you can build up to it over time.

It’s just like running, or any other exercise. It can be HARD to get out there and do it. After I had a POTS flareup a year ago, I was unable to exercise for a number of weeks, and I got out of shape. One day after I got better I knew I needed to get back out and start exercising again, but it was hard. I was out of shape, I was overweight, and I could barely lift my feet off the ground. In fact, when I got to the end of the parking lot and started on the trail, there was an exposed root that I tripped over, and fell hard on the packed ground, and scraped my knee open. I lay there for a moment, just stunned.  (I have to admit, reluctantly, that my first thought after I “came to” was to look around and see if anyone saw me!:-)  But then, although I really “felt” like going back to the condo, I just made myself get up and finish that mile.  It was slow; and it was hard; it was like pulling teeth! But I have gradually worked my way back up to 2.5 miles at a time, and over time I’ll be back to where I want to be — IF I keep up the discipline.

But it is hard to discipline yourself. It is hard to discipline yourself physically; many of you know that. It involves those little moments of “agony” — well, we need to understand that the same thing is true spiritually as well. Just like it’s hard to get up in the morning to exercise; it’s hard to run in that heat; it’s hard to do those exercises — it is just as hard to discipline yourself spiritually:

— it’s hard to get up to have your quiet time when you haven’t had enough sleep. (In fact, I would assert that it is even harder getting up to pray than it is to get up for exercise: the devil doesn’t care if you get up to exercise; in fact, he would prefer you to exercise than to pray! But he will do everything he can to drag you away from your morning time with the Lord, because he knows what a difference it will make in your life and in those for whom you would pray!)

— it can be hard to read and study your Bible

— it can be like pulling teeth to memorize and review verses.

— it can be hard to discipline yourself to serve in the ministry God calls you to.

But just because it is difficult does not mean that God has not called us to do it; He has. “It is for this we labor and strive.” God has commanded us to discipline ourselves, and He tells us up front that it will not be easy. Jesus never said that being a disciple was going to be easy; He said it would involve denying ourselves, taking up a cross and following Him — and the disciplines of disciples are not going to be easy. It will involve “labor” and “striving.”  But as we will see next, the effort involved in Christian discipline will be worth it!

III.  The Goal of Spiritual Discipline

:7b “… for the purpose of godliness”.

We need to remind ourselves about this as we commit ourselves to the Christian disciplines in the months and years ahead. What are we doing these things FOR? What goal do we have in mind? Nobody just goes out to run or lift weights for no reason! They have some end in mind. Maybe they are running because they have a goal to run a marathon. Or maybe they are running because they want to lose weight. Or perhaps they are lifting weights so that they can bulk up to be a stronger football player. People discipline themselves because they have some end, some goal in mind.

The same thing is true of the Christian disciplines. The Bible tells us here that we are to have an end goal in mind. What is the goal of the disciplines?

First, we need to be sure we know why we are NOT doing these disciplines:

— we are NOT doing them as an end in themselves; rather they are a means to an end.

— we are NOT doing them so that we can become proud of ourselves, and so that we can look down on other Christians who are not as “spiritual” as we are, who do not do them.

— we are NOT doing them in an effort to make God love us more. He cannot possibly love us more than He does; He has already given Jesus for us; nothing you can do can make Him love you more than that!

So what IS the end goal of the Christian disciplines?  It is “for the purpose of godliness.” That is:

— that we might know God better as we spend time with Him in prayer and in His word, and the other disciplines

— that through the process of His Spirit using His word and the disciplines, that we might become more like Jesus Christ (God’s end goal for each of us, as Romans 8:29 teaches)

— and so that we might be fruitful in our ministries, better able to teach and witness and minister.

The goal of the disciplines is godliness: in knowing God, in becoming like Him, and in being fruitful for His kingdom purposes.  We need to make sure that we do not lose sight of this, lest we become like the Pharisees. The Pharisees EXCELLED at spiritual disciplines.  In Matthew 23, Jesus tells us that they were very disciplined. They made “long prayers” (:14), they tithed everything they got, even down to the smallest herb (23:23); “fasted twice a week and paid tithes of all they get” (Pharisee & the Publican, Luke 18:12) and talk about scripture memory, historians tell us that they had memorized the whole Old Testament Law!  These men had the  spiritual disciplines down — but Jesus’ harshest words were reserved for them, because they lost sight of what these disciplines were FOR: for godliness, not for pride and self-aggrandizement.

We need to make certain that we do not become like them; that we don’t lose sight of what the disciplines are for.  If we start being legalistic and proud about them; if we start practicing them for their own sake; if we become the kind of church where people say about us: “Those people are really disciplined; they all carry around Bible study notebooks, and they have a lot of verses memorized, and they spend hours in prayer, and they even fast!” then we will not have succeeded, but we will have failed. Our goal is not just to excel at some “disciplines.”  Our goal is to know God, and to become like Jesus Christ through spending time with Him in these disciplines.

IV.  The Reward of Spiritual Discipline

:8  “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.”

Here in :8, the Bible says that although exercising Christian discipline will be difficult, it will also be worth it. It compares bodily discipline with spiritual discipline. It says that “bodily discipline is only of little profit.” It doesn’t say that physical discipline is “bad” (the word “only” is not actually in the text; it says it “IS of small profit”) — but it is only of limited value. No matter how much you exercise, you will still one day die. But it’s of some value; do it. It may improve your physical condition; it may help you to live longer, or have a better quality of life, or help your blood flow to your brain and help you to think better, etc.  Do not misapply this message and say that I preached against physical exercise!  It IS of value.

But as much value as bodily discipline may be, it says that godly discipline is of MORE value.  It will help you in “the present life and also for the life to come.”  When you learn to walk with God through the spiritual disciplines, it helps you in your life here on earth — give you wisdom and insight and a better walk with God, as well as the ability to help minister to others here and now —  AND it will continue to be a blessing, not only in this life, but for all eternity!

Whenever you run, or do any cardiovascular exercise, it expands the capacity of your cardiovascular system (your heart and lungs) and gives you greater potential for taking in oxygen and stronger blood flow. When you exercise yourself spiritually, you do the same thing for your “spiritual cardiovascular system.”  It helps you have the capacity to learn more about God, and to enjoy Him and walk with Him better. As we saw a few minutes ago, it doesn’t make you any more saved — that is only by faith in Jesus — but it does expand your capacity for knowing and fellowshipping with God.

And many theologians believe it will effect our eternity in the same way. The more we grow here on earth, the more we will be able to appreciate the glory of God in heaven.  Heaven will be heaven for everyone who is there — but those who have disciplined themselves and have grown spiritually are rewarded with an even greater capacity for knowing and appreciating the glories and pleasure of God in heaven. You will thus profit eternally from exercising yourself in godliness.

Not only that, but others will profit eternally from your commitment to the Christian disciplines. When you walk with God in a disciplined way, and read your Bible, and pray, and serve consistently, you will impact others. Their lives will be changed: some will be saved, and will be in heaven for eternity because you were disciplined in your Christian walk. Others will grow and be taught and discipled by you, and they will be impacted for eternity as well.

When you discipline yourself spiritually, you are impacting both yourself and others for eternity!  So as difficult as spiritual discipline may sometimes be, it will be worth it all — not only now, but forever in heaven.


But the profit only comes as we discipline ourselves first. And at first, we may not get that much “profit” or “pleasure” out of reading our Bible, or praying, or other Christian disciplines. But if we will persevere in them, we will discover the profit and pleasure later.

C.S. Lewis once shared an analogy of the work that Latin & Greek students have to put in for learning their languages. He said that memorizing those languages can be difficult: learning the vocabulary, and all of the grammatical tables and rules. At first, he said, it is just a bunch of work; they have to just discipline themselves to do it. But, he says, there comes a time, once they have put in the disciplined daily work of learning those languages, when they are rewarded with the ability to read the great ancient literature in the original languages, which is purportedly an incredible pleasure and delight. But he said it is not delightful at first; at first it is a discipline — and later it becomes a delight.

So it is with the Christian disciplines. At first it may not be that “fun” to read your Bible, or pray, or go to church, or do some of the other Christian disciplines. It may be a lot like work!  But if you are genuinely a Christian, and God’s Spirit is in you, and you will stick with the discipline, over time it will become more and more of a delight, as you learn to walk even more closely with God. But it only ever comes as you discipline yourself to walk with the Lord every day.

And that’s why God commands us here:

“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.”

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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