The Discipline of Choices
It’s funny where life’s little defining moments can come from. It’s so often through words that are so obvious to other people, but somehow they’ve just never stood out to you. As a young man Jerry Bridges was at a Bible study group and heard this: “The Bible was not given just to increase your knowledge but to guide your conduct.” This was a brand-new thought to him. He headed home and that night prayed a simple prayer: “God, starting tonight I want You to use the Bible to guide my conduct.” Just like that. This transformed his whole approach to the Scriptures and his whole understanding of the Christian life. Any of us who have heard him speak or read his books have benefited from this epiphany.
In chapter eleven of his book The Discipline of Grace, Bridges writes about “The Discipline of Choices” and says, “the practice of putting off sinful attitudes and actions and putting on Christlike character involves a constant series of choices. We choose in every situation which direction we will go. It is through these choices that we develop Christlike habits of living. Habits are developed by repetition, and it is in the arena of moral choices that we develop spiritual habit patterns.”
That could easily sound moralistic, like if we just choose the right choice over a period of time, we will eventually train ourselves to do what is right. This has been exactly the approach of many Christian books which, without reference to the gospel or the work of the Holy Spirit, train us to replace old behaviors with new ones (Every Man’s Battle comes to mind). And to some degree it is possible to do that. But Bridges goes to Scripture to show that a retraining of habits is not enough.
It is through righteous actions that we develop holy character. Holiness of character, then, is developed one choice at a time as we choose to act righteously in each and every situation and circumstance we encounter during the day.
We do not become more holy either by discipline or by dependence. Neither do we become more holy by committing ourselves to God, or by developing Bible-based conviction. We become more holy by obedience to the Word of God, by choosing to obey His will as revealed in the Scriptures in all the various circumstances of our lives.
The choices we make, and therefore the habits we develop, are formed by obedience to the Word. “It is only through making the right choice to obey God’s Word that we will break the habits of sin and develop habits of holiness. This is where we desperately need the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to make the right choices. So cry out to God every day for His help for that day, and then cry out again each time you are confronted with the choice to sin or to obey.”
This leads Bridges to a discussion of mortification, that old word that refers to putting sin to death. “To mortify a sin means to subdue it, to deprive it of its power, to break the habit pattern we have developed of continually giving in to the temptation to that particular sin. The goal of mortification is to weaken the habits of sin so that we do make the right choices.” While I’ve thought a lot about mortification, I find what Bridges says about the New Testament word particularly helpful. He shows that of the eleven uses, nine of them refer to literally putting a person to death. Then he says:
[Jesus] was not put to death because of who He was but because of what He stood for. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was put to death because of his bold, uncompromising witness for Jesus Christ (Acts 7).
Now apply that sense of hostility toward the sin you wish to mortify. See it for what it is and for what it stands for—a rebellion against God, a breaking of His law, a despising of His authority, a grieving of His heart. This is where mortification actually begins, with a right attitude toward sin.
And finally, the missing key from so many of the Christian books that go no further than replacing old habits with new ones: “Only the grace of God revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ will give us the courage to get up again and keep on going even after we have failed for the umpteenth time.” It is only grace that will allow us to rightly deal with our sin and only the gospel that will properly motivate us.
For next Thursday please read chapter eleven (assuming that you are reading along with me).
The purpose of this program is to read these books together. If you have something to say, whether a comment or criticism or question, feel free to use the comment section for that purpose.