Jerry Bridges says that God disciplines Christians by grace. It may strike us as an oxymoronic statement that discipline is grace, that it may be done out of grace. After all, “Discipline suggests restraint and legalism, rules and regulations, and a God who frowns on anyone who has fun. Grace, on the other hand, seems to mean freedom from any rules, spontaneous and unstructured living, and most of all, a God who loves us unconditionally regardless of our sinful behavior.” But Bridges wants to push back. “Such thinking reflects a misunderstanding of both grace and discipline. In fact, … the same grace that brings salvation also disciplines us as believers.”
This is the heart of one of the chapters of The Discipline of Grace, that God disciplines us in grace and by grace. Now this is not necessarily discipline as punishment, but discipline as “all instruction, all reproof and correction, and all providentially directed hardships in our lives that are aimed at cultivating spiritual growth and godly character.” Discipline is simply whatever God chooses to use to help us grow in godliness. God disciplines us much as a parent disciplines his children, but with one important difference: “Though in the physical realm children eventually reach adulthood and are no longer under the discipline of their parents, in the spiritual realm we remain under God’s parental discipline as long as we live.”
The fact is that salvation and grace are inseparable. “The grace that brings salvation to us also disciplines us. It does not do the one without the other. That is, God never saved people and leaves them alone to continue in their immaturity and sinful lifestyle. Those whom he saves he disciplines.” The beauty of this is that we see that it is God who superintends our spiritual growth; he is actively involved and guiding not only in salvation but also and equally in sanctification.
Sadly, many Christians have an improper understanding of God’s discipline. What Bridges wants the Christian to understand is this: “All of God’s disciplinary processes are grounded in His grace—His unmerited and unconditional favor toward us. We tend to equate discipline with rules and performance standards; God equates it with firm but loving care for our souls.” God’s discipline is a kind and loving discipline that is meant for our good and our godliness. However, while this is true, many Christians come to believe that God’s discipline is far more about law than grace.
Bridges illustrates by saying that when he first became a Christian he was given a list of seven spiritual disciplines that he should practice every day—things like reading the Bible and praying—and before long he came to believe that God’s favor toward him depended upon him performing these disciplines well. When he was faithful to have a quiet time, God was then inclined toward him; when he skipped his quiet time, God was opposed to him. He quickly slipped into thinking that God disciplines through law rather than grace. Here’s the remedy to that all-too-common thinking: “All our effort to teach godly living and spiritual maturity to others must be grounded in grace. If we fail to teach that discipline is by grace, people will assume, as I did, that it is by performance.”