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Sanctification: Are Christian’s made Holy Through the Practice of Spiritual Disciplines?

The practice of Spiritual Disciplines as a means of advancing a Christian’s growth in grace or sanctification have recently made a come-back in the United States of America. Their rapid propagation and widespread acceptance can partly be attributed to the vast number of Bible Colleges and Theological seminaries throughout America who are now teaching Spiritual Disciplines for the purpose of Spiritual Formation, (the preferred term for sanctification commonly used by advocates of Spiritual Disciplines). As is often the case, this seemingly new phenomenon has made its way across the Atlantic Ocean and is now being imbibed by many churches across the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

Spiritual Disciplines were introduced into the early Christian church in 300 AD by The Desert Fathers; monasticism and mysticism ensued and as a result deep spiritual darkness descended across Europe with the establishment of Roman Catholicism, a false religion that places great importance on tradition, rituals, human effort and papal authority; subsequently God’s Word became greatly suppressed resulting in a diminishing of gospel light.

However, God in His great mercy, brought about a revival of true religion with the Reformation in 1517AD; thereafter, Protestants held firmly to ‘Sola Scriptura’, rejecting extra-biblical Spiritual Disciplines for the purpose of growth in grace as the product of the vain imaginations and traditions of men. This makes it all the more shocking that this erroneous teaching seems to have been widely accepted by many who profess allegiance to Reformed Theology!

The renaissance of Spiritual Disciplines amongst denominations can largely be attributed to the Roman Catholic priest and mystic Henri Nouwen and a Trappist monk called Thomas Merton, whose beliefs were shaped by his deep interest in the mystical eastern religions like Buddhism,Taoism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Sufism.

Quaker Theologian Richard Foster, was greatly influenced by Merton’s teachings along with his comrade in arms, Dallas Willard, an American philosopher who had a background in the pseudoscience of psychology. The origin of the term ‘Spiritual Formation’ can be traced to a book written by Willard.

Acceptance of the Roman Catholic practice of Spiritual Disciplines and other mystical practices by so many Protestant denominations can be attributed to the determined efforts of Foster and Willard to disseminate their teachings. One such effort emerged in 1988 when Foster and Willard formed a deeply ecumenical organisation called Renovaré, which encourages all denominations to return to the practice of Spiritual Disciplines, including mysticism, for the purpose of Spiritual Formation.

Willard, along with Foster, imbibed the false Quaker teaching that every person has an innate divine light; although dimmed by sin, the Quakers taught that this light can be reignited by God; thereafter the enlightened person is helped to grow in grace and mature through the practice of Spiritual Disciplines. However, the Scriptures teach the very opposite of this by declaring that everyone is born spiritually dead in trespasses and sin; just as the dead person has no capacity to help themselves, so the spiritually dead sinner is unable to do anything or contribute anything towards their salvation.

(Ephesians 2:1-2; Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 3:10-18.) "O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps". Jeremiah 10:23.

A sinner’s dire circumstances can only be remedied when the Holy Spirit awakens them to see their sinfulness and to feel their need of God’s salvation upon the hearing of the gospel; furthermore, only the Holy Spirit can impart to the sinner the grace needed to repent from their sin and the faith needed to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as their own and personal Saviour.

“And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but have shewed you, and have taught you publickly, and from house to house, Testifying both to the Jews, and also to the Greeks, repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ.” Acts 20:20.

Willard propagated many questionable beliefs, too numerous to be considered within the confines of this article, but it is enough to consider the most serious error he made in respect of the substitutionary atonement, (i.e. the Lord Jesus Christ suffering on behalf of sinners by bearing the punishment for their sins and by providing a covering for their sin through the shedding of His blood and death).

Drawing on statements regarding substitutionary atonement within Willard’s book, 'The Divine Conspiracy', the arch-heretical teacher Brian McLaren makes the following statement:

Dallas Willard also addresses this issue in “The Divine Conspiracy.” Atonement-centred understandings of the gospel, he says, create vampire Christians who want Jesus for his blood and little else. He calls us to move beyond a “gospel of sin management” – to the gospel of the kingdom of God. So, rather than focusing on an alternative theory of atonement, I’d suggest we ponder the meaning and mission of the kingdom of God. Source:

Rejection or an undermining of the absolute necessity of Christ’s atoning sacrifice at Calvary on behalf of sinners is a very predictable conclusion to draw if one chooses to believe the foolish notion that everyone possesses a divine spark; why would there be a need for Christ's substitutionary atonement if sinners can be ‘reconnected’ with God via their innate ‘divine spark’? Interestingly, New Age proponents also hold to the belief that the 'divine' is in everything and everyone (i.e. pantheism).

Having made gross error in respect of the substitutionary atonement, it should not be surprising that Willard went on to teach the necessity of practicing a set of man-appointed Spiritual Disciplines in order to grow in grace! Since the fall of man in the Garden of Eden, men have always sought to justify themselves before God through their own works and to make themselves holy in His sight; this is the height of folly as it robs God of the glory due unto Him alone and it is grossly offensive to the Lord as he has already made full provision for everything we need through His only begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. (1st Corinthians 1:30-31).

Willard also stressed the need for Christians to live their lives in the way they believed Jesus would live, thus making the same foolish mistake that so many have made; following a personal opinion on what Christ would do in any given situation is highly subjective and could result in each of us living out our lives in vastly different ways and in all probability, contrary God’s Word; in actual fact, Christians are required to live their lives in accordance with what God has commanded within His inspired Word, not according to their personal opinions and definitely not by acting according to the mystical instructions of an ‘inner voice’, which Willard and others have also strongly recommended, including Reformed Theologian Donald Whitney! (see below)

Add to the above mix the writings and teachings of a seemingly godly man like Donald Whitney and a most potent concoction is produced. Whitney appears to be correct on so many fundamental points of doctrine and expresses his disagreement with mystical practices, yet he has gone on to produce a book entitled ‘Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life’ and in doing so, has introduced leaven into multitudes of otherwise doctrinally sound churches. This is because throughout his book Whitney has favourably referenced Richard Foster and Dallas Willard (at least 12 times) without any word of caution or condemnation of their ecumenical agenda and heretical beliefs. Whitney promotes the Spiritual Discipline of 'journaling' and also recommends the practice of listening to the ‘inner still, small voice of God’, a practice widely used in Spiritual Formation circles, but neither of these practices have any Scriptural validation.

Whitney’s teachings are potentially more toxic than those of Willard and Foster because his book contains so much truth that the undiscerning Christians could easily fail to recognise the leaven contained therein.

“Truth mixed with error is equivalent to all error, except that it is more innocent looking and, therefore, more dangerous. God hates such a mixture! Any error, or any truth-and-error mixture, calls for definite exposure and repudiation. To condone such is to be unfaithful to God and His Word and treacherous to imperilled souls for whom Christ died…” Harry Ironside. (emphasis ours)

The following list contains some examples of Spiritual Disciplines:

  • Meditation

  • Prayer

  • Fasting

  • Simplicity

  • Fellowship

  • Journaling

  • Chastity

  • Stewardship

  • Submission/Obedience

  • Study

  • Evangelism

  • Contemplation

  • Confession

  • Gratitude

  • Self-Examination

  • Silence & solitude

  • Celebration

Many of the above practices are recorded in the Scriptures but with the exception of just a few of them, there is no commandment to say that they should be practised by Christians for the purpose of growth in grace. The extensive number of these disciplines may explain why monasticism developed as secluded living would have been an absolute necessity to facilitate the completion of so many tasks!

In order to make them more acceptable to Christians, some advocates of Spiritual Disciplines have produced shorter lists by omitting controversial disciplines like silence and solitude, which are very closely associated with the Roman Catholic mystical practice of Lectio Divina and its contemporary equivalent, Contemplative Prayer.

The Westminster Confession of Faith provides an unambiguous definition of sanctification: "Sanctification is the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.” (emphasis ours)

Sinners are saved by grace (the unmerited favour of God) through faith (a God given gift); at the very moment of their conversion, the sinner is justified before God and is set apart (Hebrews 10:10) because they have been taken out of the devil’s grasp and adopted into the family of God.

“Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins:” Colossians 1:13. From then on they are forever indwelt by the Holy Spirit and this is referred to by the Apostle Paul as the earnest or pledge/surety of the Spirit. (2nd Corinthians 5:5.)

The newly saved sinner is filled with joy and delights greatly in their redemption from sin; they immediately begin to feel the influence of the Holy Spirit within their lives as He leads them in the paths of righteousness and prompts them to forsake previously held sinful practices and habits; before long, they become aware that they still have the capacity to sin as temptations arise from the world, the devil and from their greatest adversary, their own sinful flesh, which has not yet been brought into the enjoyment of its redemption. This battle with the flesh will rage until physical death releases their soul and spirit into the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ; their body is then laid into the ground awaiting its redemption upon the Second Advent of the Lord Jesus Christ, when their body will be resurrected, incorruptible and immortal, to be reunited with their soul and spirit.

“And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. Romans 8:23.

“Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.” Colossians 3:21.

Whilst salvation provides a sinner with immediate justification in God’s sight, sanctification is an ongoing process whereby the saved sinner is enabled by the Holy Spirit to die more and more to self and is conformed more and more unto the image of Christ. (1st John 3:2-3).

God has made clear in His Word that He desires His children to be set apart (sanctified) and has explicitly commanded that they should be holy.

“For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God:” 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5.

“But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation; because it is written, be ye holy; for I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:15-17.

Where God commands our obedience within His Word, He also provides us with the means whereby we are enabled to obey but these means can only be made effective with help of the Holy Spirit, who only infills obedient Christians.

“And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.” Acts 5:32.

The Christian who is infilled with the Holy Spirit will produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and therefore will have the faith that is required to make their partaking in the means of grace effective.

“for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” Romans 14:23.

“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Hebrews 11:6.

A good ministerial acquaintance of the author aptly described the process of sanctification: “Holiness is not attained by good works but good works are the evidence that holiness is advancing in the soul and manifesting itself in the actions and behaviour of the believer, just as good health after illness comes not from self-effort but is the outworking of God’s mercy whereby the illness is overcome and strength and vigour is recovered and advancing.”

As with every blessing the Christian enjoys, God’s grace and power is supplied exclusively through the merits of our Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ; as we grow in the knowledge of Him we are provided with all that we need to live a godly life:

“Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord, According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue:” 2nd Peter 1:4.

The Scriptural Means of Grace:

The Reformers, with their experience of Rome’s unscriptural inventions, were very careful not to perpetuate the use of Rome’s Spiritual Disciplines as a means of grace; they managed to do this by employing only those things which were explicitly commanded in the Scriptures as a means under God to aid a Christian’s growth in grace.

The following are the explicitly commanded means of grace whereby Christians are enabled, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to grow in grace and in the knowledge of their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ:

  • The Word - (read, studied, meditated upon or preached) In His High Priestly prayer, Christ asked His Father to sanctify His people through the Word of God: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth.” (John 17:17-19) As the truth is communicated through the Word, the Holy Spirit enables the Christian to hear it and to understand; He also provides them with the desire and ability to conform every aspect of their lives to His Word.

  • Prayer – prayer is instinctive for the newly born child of God and it is a natural response when the Word is rightly understood, believed and applied to the heart with the help of the Holy Spirit. Christians are clearly commanded to pray and it is God’s appointed means for obtaining the infilling of the Holy Spirit, without Whom, we can do nothing. (John 15:5). “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” Luke 11:13; “And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;” Luke 18:1.

  • Baptism“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:” Matthew 28:19.

  • The Lord’s Supper “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.” 1st Corinthians 11: 23-26.

Christians who are benefited by partaking in God’s appointed means of grace have been enabled by the power Holy Spirit to learn more about the Lord; this knowledge enables them to grow in grace and to be conformed more and more to the image of His Son, which is the epitome of sanctification. “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.” 2nd Corinthians 3:18.

However, Christians are not sanctified by merely attending the appointed means of grace; if this were so then every Christian attending the means of grace would be progressing in holiness; as we probably all know from personal experience, there have been times in our lives when, despite faithfully partaking in the means of grace, we have not been benefited; this may be because we have sinned and grieved the Holy Spirit, forcing Him to withdraw the sense of His presence and His power.

Martin Luther’s opinion on the practice of ‘Spiritual Disciplines':

“Idolatry is all manner of seeming holiness and worshipping, let these counterfeit spiritualities shine outwardly as glorious and fair as they may; in a word, all manner of devotion in those that we would serve God without Christ the Mediator, his Word and command. In popedom it was held a work of the greatest sanctity for the monks to sit in their cells and meditate of God, [solitude] and of his wonderful works; to be kindled with zeal, kneeling on their knees, praying, and having their imaginary contemplations of celestial objects, with such supposed devotion, that they wept for joy. In these their conceits, they banished all desires and thoughts of women, and what else is temporal and evanescent. They seemed to meditate only of God, and of his wonderful works. Yet all these seeming holy actions of devotion, which the wit and wisdom of man holds to be angelical sanctity, are nothing else but works of the flesh. All manner of religion, where people serve God without his Word and command, is simply idolatry, and the more holy and spiritual such a religion seems, the more hurtful and venomous it is; for it leads people away from the faith of Christ, and makes them rely and depend upon their own strength, works, and righteousness. (emphasis ours)

Calvin also expressed his contempt for ‘Spiritual Disciplines’ religiously practised by monks:

“….Moreover, I maintain that in astricting themselves to many perverse and impious modes of worship, such as are exhibited in modern monasticism, they consecrate themselves not to God but to the devil. For why should the prophets have been permitted to say that the Israelites sacrificed their sons to devils and not to God merely because they had corrupted the true worship of God by profane ceremonies; and we not be permitted to say the same thing of monks who, along with the cowl, cover themselves with the net of a thousand impious superstitions?”

In conclusion it must be said that Christians should be disciplined in respect to their daily walk with the Lord, humbly submitting to even

the very least of His commandments. Many of the so called Spiritual Disciplines such as fasting, good stewardship and evangelism are perfectly legitimate if carried out with the right purpose (i.e. To the glory of God); however, they should not be undertaken for the advancement personal holiness as this would be contrary to Scriptural authority and an affront to the finished work of Christ on behalf of His people.

“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.” 1st Corinthians 10:31.

The recent re-emergence of Spiritual Disciplines may be due to the fact that so many Christians are walking in the flesh and becoming worldly to such an extent that their love for the Lord is quenched and they become disobedient; as a result, the Holy Spirit is compelled to withdraw to a distance but the indwelling Spirit of God affords the backslidden Christian no peace or joy; perhaps in an effort to salve their guilty conscience and restore their broken fellowship with God, they feel compelled to employ man-made solutions such as Spiritual Disciplines; However, without the Holy Spirit’s help to walk in submission to God’s Word, no amount of human effort expended on spiritual exercises can afford the rebellious Christian the enjoyment of close communion with God.

The practice of Spiritual Disciplines did not produce holiness of life in The Desert Fathers; contrariwise, they contributed to the ‘Spiritual Formation’ of Roman Catholicism, whose monasteries and convents developed into cesspools of gross immorality and wickedness. Spiritual Disciplines will also fail to produce sanctified Christians in the 21st Century and using them for such a purpose will undoubtedly contribute to the great falling away that must take place prior to the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

May the Lord be pleased to use this article to expose the foolishness of practising man made Spiritual Disciplines for the purpose of growth in grace. We earnestly appeal to Christians who have become entangled in this particular yoke of bondage to repent and separate themselves from this erroneous extra-biblical practice.

“But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.”. 1st Corinthians 1:30-31.

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