Don’t Lose Spiritual Disciplines for Fear of Legalism

This past year, I was given the incredible opportunity of participating in a 16-week course taught by Colin Smith alongside of a few other guest speakers. During one of these sessions, I was struck by a statement made by Pastor Colin. He said,

Don’t let the fear of legalism rob you of the benefits of a regular pattern of walking with God.

His words caught my attention and I began to recognize ways that I had fallen into this skewed way of thinking.

Legalism or Discipline?

Some years ago, while in a small group with other young Christian couples, someone shared that they believed we shouldn’t force ourselves to pray before each meal. “For if we did, wouldn’t that be legalism?” they asked. “If we don’t feel thankful in the moment, aren’t we being hypocritical and legalistic to pray and thank God for our food simply out of habit?” Although something seemed a bit off in his reasoning, I found myself pondering it anyway. For a while, I even tried a little of his method, only praying before I ate when I felt moved to do so. I will admit, this caused me only to grow in a spirit of thanklessness.

As I considered Pastor Colin’s challenge, I began to realize what a subtle, yet real, lie this has become in many believer’s lives. For fear of being legalistic, we can rob ourselves of the benefits of a regular pattern (or “spiritual disciplines”) of walking with God. Is this biblical or beneficial? Not at all! Paul makes it undeniably clear in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

How do we know if our habits are beneficial and necessary patterns of walking with God, or if they are driven more by a legalistic mentality? I find the definitions of legalism and disciplines to be helpful in understanding how the motives behind the two are what sets them apart.

Legalism is defined as “excessive adherence to law or formula.”

Discipline is defined as “activity, exercise, or a regimen that develops or improves a skill; training.”

The danger of confusing the two is that we can lose the important spiritual disciplines which are crucial to our growth, sanctification, protection, and intimacy with Christ. Therefore, as we consider whether our personal disciplines (or lack-thereof) are based on of legalism or the gospel, we can ask ourselves which of these seem most characteristic of us:

Legalism is being disciplined in order to live up to the law in our own strength, for the sake of achieving justification of sins. (We can resort to this way of living even after becoming genuine believers, trying to save ourselves even though we have been given the gift of salvation in Christ.)

Godly discipline is being disciplined in the strength of the Holy Spirit, with the purpose of sanctification, fully aware that justification comes only through salvation in Christ. For this reason we can say, “Christ has bought me with a price and, therefore, I will discipline myself to run the race he has set before me, ‘laying aside every weight and sin that clings so closely'”(Hebrews 12:1).

Maximize Your Running

John Piper spoke a while back about a preacher who, through his interpretation of this passage in Hebrews, had a great impact on his younger years. Here is a portion of what Piper shared:

And the preacher said — and I am the preacher now saying it — this text says, “Look to Jesus and lay aside sins for sure and lots of other stuff, too.” Now that is a different way to live. Well preacher, as a 13-year-old or 14-year-old, what question should I ask if it is not, “Is it a sin?” And the answer is, “Does it help me run?” That is the answer. “Does it get in my way when I am trying to become more patient, more kind, more gentle, more loving, more holy, more pure, more self-controlled? Does it get in my way or does it help me run?” That is the question to ask.

Ask the maximal righteousness question, not the minimal righteousness question.

You know why that question isn’t very often asked? Because we are not passionate runners. We don’t want to run. We don’t get up in the morning saying, “What is the course today? What is the course of purity? What is the course of holiness? What is the course of humility? What is the course of justice? What is the course of righteousness? What is the course of love? What is the course of self-control? What is the course of courage? O God, I want to maximize my running today.”

If you have that mentality about your life, then you will ask not, “How many sins can I avoid?” but “How many weights can I lay down so that I am fleet-footed in the race of righteousness?”

Do you find his words as convicting and motivating as I do? Do we want to live seeking only to avoid sin (which of course is vitally important), or do we desire to run the race with proactive intentionality, laying aside anything that prevents us from running well? This takes discipline! If we want to be equipped to run the race, we must prepare ourselves for it.

Three Keys to Running a Disciplined Race

If you see a runner training for a marathon, do you look at them and think, “What a hypocrite! The marathon is still six months away! He’s running for no reason!” Of course not! In fact, this person would be setting themselves up for failure if they foolishly thought they could get up the day of the race, run well, and win the prize without having disciplined or trained in preparation for it.

The same is true for the race we run as we strive to live a life set apart for the gospel of Jesus Christ. I imagine that every great Christian’s life to whom we look for an example is marked by incredible discipline!

However, because spiritual disciplines can stem from a heart of legalism, it is crucial for us as believers to evaluate our motives when creating these patterns of how we invest our time, energy, and money. But we must not go so far as to remove any semblance of spiritual discipline in fear of becoming legalistic.

What then are necessary requirements to a regular pattern of walking with God?

1. Set aside consistent time in God’s Word both in private and with other believers, even if it feels like a discipline.

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)

I’m certain that most of us would admit that sitting down in the Word, praying, or going to church has been purely a discipline, at one time or another. However, time in the Word, memorizing it, and learning to apply it, is food to a believer’s soul. Apart from it, we will be prone to drift from the truth and susceptible to being swept away when the storms of life come.

We see this in the Psalms as David spoke the truth of God’s Word to his own questioning, hurting, and fearful heart. In fact, the times we feel least like reading the Bible are most likely the times that we need it the most. If we neglect these disciplines, it will do more than keep us from legalism, it will keep us from the life-giving truth, hope, and power that we all desperately need. We need to stop making excuses for why we don’t have time to read, study, and meditate on Scripture. (This will look different depending on the season of life. However, we must continue to find ways to feed ourselves with the Word…especially in these seasons.)

We also need to be careful to not become a culture of believers who downplay the importance of church when other things we enjoy conflict with it. We have one life, one race, one chance. How we spend our time greatly reflects what we value.

2. Pray persistently and regularly in praise, thanksgiving, repentance and supplication.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

For me, prayer has been a challenge at times. There can be so much noise in my head that it can take 10 minutes just to pull my mind into focus. However, that is all the more reason for prayer. When we allow the noise of the world to fill our minds, we become susceptible to lies, burdened with anxieties, and unable to hear the Holy Spirit. We need to discipline ourselves in the pattern and importance of prayer. For me, I have found the consistent habit of journaling my prayers to be greatly effective in helping with my lack of focus, while also allowing me to look back on answered prayers.

Prayer gives us direct access to the One who created us, sustains us, and has the power to change us into his likeness. For this reason, the enemy will work very hard to keep us from an open line of communication with our Father. So we must be prepared for this battle by creating a consistent discipline of focused time in prayer, whether it be long or brief, in quiet or in chaos. This is not legalistic, but rather, wisdom to admit that our heart is prone to wander and, therefore, we must constantly be realigning it with the Spirit.

3. Be disciplined in ways that are unique to your own weaknesses.

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:14)

We each have unique areas that will require more discipline than others. For example, would we consider it legalistic for an alcoholic to keep alcohol out of their home? Is it legalistic for a someone who feels controlled by their smartphone to turn it in for a less fancy flip phone? Is it legalistic for a family to say “no” to a sport that has games only on Sunday mornings for the sake of making church a priority? No, it isn’t. It’s creating spiritual disciplines and protection for themselves in areas they know they are vulnerable.

For that reason, it is beneficial for us all to seek wisdom in prayer, counsel, and the Word to see if there are areas in our lives that may require us to put new habits and disciplines in place for the purpose of laying aside anything that does not help us run well. For each of us, this will look different, but with the same goal in mind. May we spur each other on to this! Not in a guilt-ridden, legalistic way, but as fellow racers, encouraging one another towards the upward call we have in Christ Jesus.

Let us not be deceived into a life lacking discipline. Overtime, godly discipline under the truth of the gospel will begin to feel less like discipline and more like the privilege that it is.

As Piper said,

So the point is: Don’t stroll. Don’t meander. And don’t wander about aimlessly. Run as in a race with a finish line where everything hangs on the race.

Godly disciplines are not legalistic. Rather, they are the appropriate and wise response of a chosen, forgiven, and redeemed child of God.

What spiritual discipline is the Lord leading you to pursue right now?


don't lose spiritual disciplines for fear of legalism

Sarah Walton is a stay-at-home mom with four kids under eight years of age. She is the author, along with Kristen Wetherell, of Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God’s Purpose in Your Suffering (The Good Book Company, April 2017). She writes at Set Apart: Hope on the Road Less Traveled.

Date Posted: Sep 14th, 2015