Are Spiritual Disciplines Practice or Legalism?

Christian “A” and Christian “B” both have a daily quiet time of prayer and Bible reading. Each attends, serves, and gives financially in their local church. Both are disciplined with what they look at, say, eat, and in how they use their time. Christian “A” is a legalist, and Christian “B” isn’t. What’s the difference? What makes one a legalist and the other not?

On one hand, we are encouraged to practice activities sometimes called spiritual disciplines. The words “discipline” and “disciple” go together. Activities like prayer, Bible study, worship, service, confession, fasting, silence, and solitude are a few spiritual disciplines Christians throughout history have typically practiced.

Spiritual disciplines help us develop spiritually in ways summed up in 2 Peter 1:5–8, “But to obtain these gifts, you need more than faith; you must also work hard to be good, and even that is not enough. For then you must learn to know God better and discover what he wants you to do. Next, learn to put aside your own desires so that you will become patient and godly, gladly letting God have his way with you. This will make possible the next step, which is for you to enjoy other people and to like them, and finally you will grow to love them deeply. The more you go on in this way, the more you will grow strong spiritually and become fruitful and useful to our Lord Jesus Christ” (TLB).

On the other hand, we fear that if we are strict and disciplined in practicing spiritual disciplines we are being legalistic or appear to others as legalists. We fear being like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day or the Judaizers of Paul’s day who were strict about law-keeping. And we know both Jesus and Paul rejected these people and their lifestyles.

This rejection by Jesus and Paul gets at the heart of the difference between discipline and legalism. They rejected the Pharisees and Judaizers because they were hypocrites adhering to external law-keeping but ignoring the internal matters of the heart. Jesus said, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship is a farce, for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God’” (Mark 7:6–7).

Their motives were all wrong. They wanted to appear godly and spiritual but did not follow God with a pure or loving heart. Their faith was in themselves, believing their efforts and abilities earned them God’s favour.

That is the essence of legalism. It’s mindless, heartless, and fearful adherence to a law or prescription. Legalism is fake spirituality focused on doing the right things with the wrong motivation. It’s at odds with true faith, because it’s faith in oneself and one’s own abilities to earn God’s favour.

But for fear of legalism should we avoid regularly practicing spiritual disciplines or being disciplined in our Christian behaviour? Not at all! That’s one of the enemy’s biggest lies. Paul writes, “So run to win! All athletes are disciplined in their training. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run with purpose in every step. I am not just shadowboxing. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27).

We know hard work is necessary in athletics but when it comes to our spiritual life, we hesitate. If you got up every day at 5:30 a.m. to train for a marathon, no one would tell you to stop running every day because it’s legalism. So, why we do we think this when it comes to something far more effective for our souls like practicing spiritual disciplines?

The words “discipline,” “train,” and “exercise” may sound like legalism but they aren’t necessarily. Legalism is always self-centred, whereas the disciplines are always God-centred. The heart of a legalist thinks, “Doing this will help me gain merit with God.” The heart of the follower of Christ thinks, “I want to do this because I love God and seek to please Him.” A disciple will train themself with spiritual exercises to achieve godliness.

If you practice spiritual disciplines because someone told you that you had to, because you think God will love you more, or because that is impressive to others, then you are a legalist. If you practice them to know God better, to be transformed inwardly because that is pleasing to the Lord, and to do His will in every way, then you are a true disciple training to win the marathon of a godly Christian life.