Discipline and Dependence

Is the Christian life about grace or effort? Is it about working hard and being disciplined, or about living in dependence on the power of the Holy Spirit?

I love the following illustration from Jerry Bridges:

Think of yourself as seated in a jet passenger plane flying 35,000 feet above the earth. Suppose (I know this can’t happen in real life) the pilot were to say through the speaker system, “Folks, we’re in real trouble. One of our wings is about to break off.” Which one of the wings would you rather lose, the left one or the right one? It’s a silly question, isn’t it? No plane can fly with just one wing… Both are absolutely necessary.

Bridges suggests you visualize looking down on the plane from above:

“You see the fuselage, where you are sitting, the two wings, and the tail assembly. As you look at the two wings you see the words dependence on the left wing and discipline on the right wing. This airplane illustrates one of the most important principles in the Christian life. Just as the airplane must have both wings to fly, so we must exercise both discipline and dependence in the pursuit of holiness.

Bridges concludes:

The point of the airplane illustration is that we must not try to carry out our responsibilities in our own strength and willpower. We must depend on the Holy Spirit to enable us. At the same time we must not assume that we have no responsibility simply because we are dependent. God enables us to work, but He does not do the work for us.
— Jerry Bridges

All of this reminds me of the apostle Paul’s own testimony in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

The Christian life is not a choice between being active or passive, working or praying, etc. It is about living in dependent discipline.

Christless Change

There is a difference between gospel-centered change and self-reformation. David Powlison describes it this way in his book Seeing with New Eyes:

No one can truly change who does not know and rely on gifts from the hand of the Lord. Since Christ is both Giver and Gift, attempts to change without grace are barren of the very purpose, power, and Person that change is about. Self-manufactured change does not dislodge almighty me from the center of my tiny self-manufactured universe. Still in the futility of my mind and the hardness of my heart, I only act a bit different.

Successful living without grace describes mere self-reformation: get your act together, save your marriage, get off your duff and get a job. Failure in living describes failed self-efforts: when you can’t get a grip, you despair. Christless, grace-less attempts at change conclude either with the praise of your own glory or with your shame.

I love the language of dislodging “almighty me” from the center of the universe. Whether you succeed or fail in your attempts at self-reformation, you are still focused on yourself. The one thing that is necessary for true and lasting change hasn’t happened: “He must increase and I must decrease.” (John 3:30)

Fruits of the Gospel

Here is a great comment by theologian Graeme Goldsworthy:

All the fruits of the gospel are just that: fruits of the gospel. Regeneration, faith, sanctification, and final perseverance are all fruits of the gospel. They can grow on no other tree. Legalistic demands, cajolery, and brow-beatings for ‘deeper commitment’ and ‘total surrender’, when cut loose from the grace of the gospel are but wretched weeds which can produce only despondency, disillusionment and rebelliousness.

This is essentially what Jesus means when he says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The Christian life is rooted in the good news of being united to the crucified and risen Redeemer.


I appreciated these comments by Iain Provan about Cain’s shameless question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:9). Provan notes:

The question is never explicitly answered, because it does not need to be. From the perspective of biblical faith, the answer is obvious. Yes, if you have been created to work the garden and take care of it (literally to “keep” it, Hebrew shamar; Genesis 2:15), you are certainly also to “keep” (shamar) your brother. Just as the good God “will keep you [shamar] from all harm — he will watch over [shamar] your life” (Psalm 121:7), so also a righteous image bearer of God will watch over the life of his fellow image bearer. That is the core of right relating to my various neighbors: to “keep” them.

What is amazing about the story of Cain and Abel is that God continues to “keep” Cain even though Cain did not “keep” his brother. Instead of putting Cain to death, God sends him into exile with the promise that he won’t be overtaken by bloodshed (Genesis 4:14-15), the very blessing that Cain denied to Abel. God watches over and protects Cain even though Cain does not deserve it.

If neighbor-keeping is being “like God” and reflecting his image and imitating the way he keeps people, then we should think about the way God treats Cain. It teaches us that we are to be our neighbor’s keeper even when they don’t deserve it, even when they’ve acted like an enemy, even when they can’t see their own hypocrisy (after all, what is more hypocritical than Cain complaining to God that someone might kill him?). God’s “keeping” is always rooted in grace and not in the worthiness of the recipient of his care.

Know Your Friend

I came across these interesting comments on grace and repentance in a book of letters called Heart of a Servant Leader by Jack Miller. He wants to make the point that grace leads us to deeper repentance.

Miller describes two different theological emphases when it comes to sin and repentance. He says that often in the English Puritan tradition the emphasis looks like this:

  1. Know your enemy — understand sin, the flesh, the devil, etc.
  2. Know your personal limitations — understand your own particular fleshly characteristics and habits and temptations
  3. Know your Friend — understand the grace of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit

Here’s his problem with this approach: “I find myself overwhelmed when I pick up a 320-page book by Owen and find 308 pages devoted to points 1 and 2, and only 12 pages given to point 3, grace and the gospel.” (Okay, this might not be entirely fair to poor, dead Owen but it certainly is a tendency.)

Here is the emphasis Miller prefers:

  1. Know your Friend
  2. Know your enemy
  3. Know your personal limitations
  4. Keep point 1 up front, even when you are talking about points 2 and 3

Some people might worry that emphasizing grace will lead to becoming “soft” on the seriousness of sin and the requirements of the law. Here’s Miller’s response to this objection/fear:

I do not think that an emphasis on grace leads to a soft ministry on sin and the severe demands of the law. Actually, it seems to me that such grace teaching makes it possible for sinners like us to hear the hardest things said about our sin patterns, and that can lead into healthy sorrow which leads back to sanity, i.e., repentance.

The Meaning of Grace

I came across an interesting little story in the book Worship, Community, and the Triune God of Grace.

The most well-known controversy in the early church is Arianism. Arius was a priest in the fourth century who came into conflict with the church because he denied that Jesus was divine. One of his arguments went like this: Jesus cannot be God because Jesus prays to God. He prays on the mountain, he prays at the last supper, he prays in Gesthemene, and he prays from the cross. What could be more obvious than the fact that Jesus cannot be God (who receives prayer) if he is a man (who offers prayer)?

Athanasius, who opposed Arius, responded, “Arius, you don’t understand the meaning of grace!”

Why did Athanasius immediately point to grace? James Torrance answers:

The God to whom we pray and with whom we commune knows we want to pray, try to pray, but cannot pray. So God comes to us as man in Jesus Christ to stand in for us, pray for us, teach us to pray and lead our prayers. God in grace gives us what he seeks from us—a life of prayer—in giving us Jesus Christ and the Spirit. So Christ is very God, the God to whom we pray. And he is very man, the man who prays for us and with us.

That is the nature of grace. Both the divine act and the human response are given to us in Christ, and we participate in what Christ has accomplished by faith.