Freedom of Discipline

Sometimes I get a Protestant guilt-complex. We have done a thorough job critiquing the guilt that can come from the Medieval Catholic practices and its complex system of sin and penance and indulgences and purgatory, which led rise to the Reformation. Any system that flirts with a works-righteousness is certainly bound to lay a lot of guilt on people. 

But my Protestant beliefs sometimes hand me a big pile of guilt too. 

When I’m not growing in my faith, and I don’t see myself becoming more like Jesus, I start to get worried.  And when I get worried, I pray. And when I pray, I ask God to come down and fix me. 

And sometimes, when I’m listening carefully, I hear Him tell me ‘you’re going to have to do your part.’ 

No, sir, Lord. I’m a good Protestant. I know better than this. All this stuff is a work of grace, it’s something I can’t do on my own. I can’t earn salvation, and I can’t earn sanctification. Grace alone, remember? So just zap me to holiness and get on with it. Please. 

‘Suit yourself, Johnson.’ 

And things go on as before. 

And I get guilty; guilty that I’m not growing, not changing, not learning, not healing. What am I doing wrong? I must not be receiving enough grace. I’m not praying for grace enough. Or I’m praying enough, but I don’t have enough faith. How do I get more faith? I run for my bookshelf. “DARN IT MARTIN LUTHER, HOW DO I EARN MORE FAITH?”

 Ok, fine, maybe I do need some discipline – to carve out more room in my life for spiritual disciplines. But if I do that, it must mean that I’m failing to receive enough grace, it means I’m doing something wrong.

And besides, I don’t want to be disciplined. I need to want to be disciplined. So, Lord, please come zap me and make me want the things I should want. Certainly you can’t be expecting me to just do them out of routine or obligation. That’s bondage. 

But the ‘zap’ never comes. And nothing changes. I must certainly be doing something wrong, I surmise with anxiety and gloom. It must mean I’m not doing the right things. 

It means I’m not good enough. 

And that’s when I realize my view of grace sounds an awful lot like works-righteousness. 

And so, I’m learning that there is a beautiful grace in discipline. 

“We claim liberty from all legal compulsion, from self-martyrdom and mortification, and play this off against the proper evangelical use of discipline and asceticism; we thus excuse our self-indulgence and irregularity in prayer, in meditation and in our bodily life. But the contrast between our behavior and the word of Jesus is all too painfully evident. We forget that discipleship means estrangement from the world, and we forget the real joy and freedom which are the outcome of a devout rule of life.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer


We are beings who have lived in slavery to sin, and to Satan. He has dictated to us a life of misery and servitude. We have spent our whole existence in chains. But Christ, in His mercy, has offered us a way out. He has brought us from death to life, from slavery to freedom. But this freedom is not a passivity. Passivity is the sort of life we lived as slaves, where all autonomy and self-control and true self-determination were forbidden. Christ offers us the grace of freedom. We can choose to walk in His ways, out of slavery, or we can choose to stay put.

My fellow Calvinists, please take a seat before you get too upset, I’m not necessarily talking about the big picture of salvation – but our everyday life in Christ. And Calvin’s good friend Augustine is on my side here, I think. He writes in The City of God: “this last freedom of will shall be superior, inasmuch as it shall not be able to sin.” The freedom we have in Christ is a freedom from the bondage of the will to sin. In other words, we are given the freedom to choose God. We are returned to a state of freedom. 

From paukrus on Flickr
From paukrus on Flickr

The very act of accepting God for ourselves, of consciously and actively walking in the path of Christ, is itself a deliverance, and a freedom. The path of discipline is, quite literally, a path of freedom and grace. Think of a wife being beaten by her husband – all freedom of choice, all autonomy, is a threat to his power and so cannot be pursued by her without incurring his manipulative, abhorrent, wrath.  This was our state in sin. Christ, however, gives us the dignity of choosing Him for ourselves, of walking freely again. We can step along the path for ourselves, which we could not do before.

This means having to take steps, when our feelings haven’t quite caught up. Our feelings are still longing to return to bondage, to return to Egypt, where things were ‘easier.’ Or so they seemed. To walk, even through the wilderness of discipline, is a walk into freedom that we must walk for ourselves, or else we have not truly been freed.

That is the bizarre paradox of it all: We are not truly free until we are doing. 

God won’t do the work for us because He loves us too much. He wants us to be truly free. This is not to be a heavy burden, or a discouragement. He is with us each step: Guiding, helping, empowering, encouraging. He picks us up when we are too weak. But like a Father who wants to see His child walk, He will let us go. He feeds us so we can grow strong. He loves us so we know that we’re safe. He’ll pick us up when we fall down. But He wants us to walk. He desperately wants us to walk. 

The door to our new life is locked from the inside. We have not been allowed to touch the knob until now. And if it were opened for us, it would not be a true healing from our slavery, it would not be a rescue from our passivity.  We are now free to unlock the door. And the ability to do so for ourselves is a Divine grace beyond comprehension. He wants us to know true freedom, true autonomy, true self-determination in Him. And for that reason, He does not force us out. He does not let us turn Him into the slave-master we are still wont to return to. He will not let us turn Him into an idol who merely satisfies the dysfunctional habits of the old, enslaved, being we once were. He wants to show us real grace. True grace. 

We are now free, indeed. His yoke is easy, and His burden is light. 


If the soul is vigilant and withdraws from all distraction and abandons its own will, then the spirit of God invades it and it can conceive because it is free to do so. -Abba Cronius, Sayings of the Desert Fathers




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