Many of us start off the New Year with resolutions that we hope will improve our life in some way. Too often, however, our commitment to what we have resolved doesn’t make it past March. That’s an odd thing considering that we nearly always pick the resolution because we know it will be good for us in some way, whether it’s losing weight, getting in shape, eating healthier, etc. So, what is our problem? It’s usually a matter of discipline, or the lack thereof. Scripture recognizes that “the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew:26:41). The flesh may also have gotten us into the trouble that we are attempting to correct, and the correction could involve a major struggle because the troubling condition may have been habitual. The solution should be obvious: counter a bad habit by implementing a good habit—one that will eliminate the bad habit. Obvious? yes. Easy? no. Here again, the stumbling block is a lack of self-control. Although there are some people who are amazingly disciplined, most of us need help.
One necessary source of help is to recognize the discipline issue: we need to say yes to some things and no to others. In other words, we need to make the right choices. That may also seem too obvious, but “obvious” today is often clouded by excuses that have been conjured up by psychotherapeutic myths, like psychic determinism or so-called addictions. No, it all boils down to choice. We can choose to eat healthier or not, to exercise or not, to smoke or not, to drink or not, or to submit or not to submit to any other activity that may create health problems.
Another potential source of help is our motivation. What might motivate us to make the right choice? The world’s answer is self. Although some have had limited success by “believing” in themselves, at least for a time, that ultimately leads to self-preoccupation and other forms of self-indulgence. The biblical way is to be motivated by a love of others rather than a love of self. If we desire to get healthier because we know that potential health risks can create all kinds of difficulties not only for ourselves but also for our family members, our concern and love for them could be strong motivation for making the right choices healthwise.
Hopefully, most will find the simple truths presented above to be of value in addressing the physical issues that plague many of us. However, other than in principle, this article is far more concerned about the discipline that is related to the spiritual side of life rather than the physical; the former has both temporal and eternal consequences, whereas the latter is tied primarily to our brief time on this earth. The Apostle Paul writes that we are to exercise ourselves “rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise” is of some profit “but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy:4:7-8).
In some Bible versions the term “discipline” is used rather than “exercise.” In other words, we need to discipline ourselves unto godliness. That is the best 2013 (and beyond) resolution we can possibly make. In fact, it is critical for spiritual fruitfulness and protection (and even for spiritual survival, in some cases) as the apostasy overtakes professing Christianity and even seduces true believers (Matthew:24:24) in these last days prior to the Lord’s return for His bride, the church.
How do we “exercise,” or “discipline,” ourselves to godliness? The good news is that it is quite simple: we read the Word of God and do what it says. Better yet, God provides the grace to help us to do those very things. In Matthew:26:41, quoted in part above, Jesus exhorted His undisciplined disciples to “Watch and pray.” They failed at both. All activities of godliness must begin, continue, and conclude in prayer, not as some legalistic methodology but simply as a personal communication to the Lord, asking for His help. If prayer is missing, the result is a work of the flesh at best—and complete failure at worst. The prophet Zechariah’s word of the Lord to Zerubbabel indicates the way that believers should approach every godly act: “This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts” (Zechariah:4:6). Zerubbabel had the task of rebuilding the Temple during very difficult times, and the Lord communicated to him through Zechariah that he would be able to accomplish it through the power of the Holy Spirit. God is more than able to enable us in every task, even regarding our discipline in reading His Word.
If there is any one thing that could be identified as the grease that has caused the slipping of Christianity into the pit of the apostasy, it is ignorance of the Word of God. That is stunning because it is taking place at a time in which there are more Bibles and greater access to the Scriptures than anytime in history. Yet most Christians are functionally biblically illiterate—they know how to read, and they have Bibles, but they are not serious about reading them. Too many fall into the “spoon fed” category, relying on what they get secondhand from a church sermon or a radio or TV preacher rather than studying the Bible for themselves. When believers gather for “Bible study” in small home groups, they often study books by popular Christian authors, or they might study the pastor’s latest sermon. That’s not to say that there is no value in such activities, but for many believers it displaces the direct study of the Scriptures. In Revelation:21:4-5, the Apostle John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, gives insights into what believers will experience in the “holy city, new Jerusalem”: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.” God’s words are indeed “true and faithful.” There is no guesswork involved, neither do the Scriptures contain the speculations and opinions of mankind. Many Christians have picked up ideas about heaven, for example, from popular books and preachers—some of which seem to be, and may even be, correct, while others might be dead wrong. The dilemma for a believer who has lapsed into getting his biblical information secondhand is that he has put himself into a situation of not being able to discern man’s ideas from God’s truth.
How critical is such a condition? Twice in Proverbs we find this exhortation: “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (14:12;16:25). We can take a clue from Scripture that when the Holy Spirit repeats something in the Bible, we need to give it special attention. The repeated “ways of death” referred to isn’t necessarily physical death. Death is separation. In physical death, the soul and spirit are separated from the body. Both proverbs may also be understood as teaching that those things that seem “right to a man” involve a separation from God’s truth. That inevitably leads to what Jesus warned the disciples about concerning the apostasy in the end times: “And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you” (Matthew:24:4). If believers are relying on someone else for what they believe rather than studying God’s Word for themselves, their faith will be vicarious, that is, not their own. The consequence is that they will be ripe for being deceived and are being conditioned to follow men rather than what the Lord says in His Word. Furthermore, they cannot be Bereans.
It’s interesting that when Jesus wanted to chide the Jewish religious leaders, He pointed to the faith of certain Gentiles (the Roman centurion [Matthew:8:5-10], the woman of Canaan [Matthew:15:22-28]) as having faith not found in Israel. On the other hand, in Acts:17:10-11, Luke commends the Jews in the synagogue of the Greek city of Berea to exhort Christians to emulate the Jewish Bereans’ response to the teaching of the Apostle Paul: “And the brethren immediately sent away Paul and Silas by night unto Berea: who coming thither went into the synagogue of the Jews. These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so.” The reason why those who are being spoon fed the Bible by others cannot be Bereans should be obvious: they aren’t reading the Bible for themselves, so they have no biblical basis for questioning what they are being taught. Moreover, that will be the case even if a false teaching is rather blatant. They simply are incapable of discerning biblical truth from error.
Without a disciplined study of the Scriptures, there is nothing to prevent one’s being seduced spiritually, and there is no protection for true believers from being seduced by the apostasy and even unwittingly contributing to the developing religion of the Antichrist.
The Apostle Paul issued this warning regarding a condition that we have seen manifested to such a degree in our day that it boggles the mind: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine…” (2 Timothy:4:3).
Sound doctrine is simply God’s instructions found in His Word. All of the concerns written above have contributed to what Paul prophesied, and the disregard for sound doctrine today pervades the entire church. How can Christians “endure sound doctrine” if they lack a disciplined, consistent, prayerful study of the Scriptures? How can those who do not read the Bible and therefore do not obey its instructions even have a clue as to what constitutes sound doctrine? They can’t. The consequences are many, and they are all spiritually destructive. Ultimately, they cannot please the Lord. He asked, “And why call me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?” John adds, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments [i.e., doctrines]. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected” (Luke:6:46; 1 John:2:3-5). Dare we answer, “Sorry, Lord, I don’t really know the things that You said, aside from what others have told me”?
All who have been born again, who have understood the gospel and put their faith in their Savior Jesus Christ who paid the full penalty for their sins, begin (or began) their new life in Christ as spiritual babies. They need spiritual nourishment in order to grow in the faith. The food they need is not that which is “processed” by man but rather “every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Matthew:4:4). That growth also involves developing a personal, intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. Personal, intimate relationships are not vicarious; they do not require a third party to mediate or facilitate them. The relationship is strictly between Jesus and the believer, and it develops as the believer grows in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior through His Word. Jesus said, “If you continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (John:8:31). How can anyone grow in his relationship with Jesus if there is no communication, no getting to know Him firsthand? The Bible provides the direct communication on our Lord’s part as well as the knowledge of Him. The Apostle Peter writes, “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” (2 Peter:1:3).
Living one’s life as a biblical Christian is not complex, nor is it so difficult that only someone with certain attributes, great intelligence, or other qualifications can abide in it. On the other hand, as noted, it does involve a commitment to the person of Jesus Christ. It involves a willingness to do that which pleases Him. Yes, we may say, our spirit is willing, but our discipline is lacking. Nevertheless, just as the father cried out for the healing of his child, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark:9:24), Jesus will also help us to overcome our lack of discipline, if we are indeed willing.
Therefore, as we resolve to spend time in the Scriptures daily in the year ahead, the strategy is quite simple: I recommend reading through the New Testament a couple of times and then begin reading through the Old Testament. The time and pace of one’s reading each day can vary; it’s the consistency that is most important. The goal is to make our daily reading a habit that compels us to keep it going. The objective is familiarity: the more we read, the more familiar we become with the Lord and what He wants us to know and do. The more we read, we find that Scripture interprets Scripture, and that increases our understanding of God’s Word. Once again, there is no better resolution for the year ahead (and beyond!). TBC