Say you have a friend whose approach to the Christian life seems somewhat extreme. Too strict. Overly disciplined.
You heard him say something the other day about beating his own body — figuratively (you think), but still. In fact, the way he talks often makes you squirm a little bit. Strain, agonize, struggle, labor, strive — these are common words for him. Maybe too common for someone saved by grace.
Then again, he does regularly celebrate God’s grace — more than you do, actually. He’s a joyful, worshiping man, not gloomy or obsessive in the typical sense. His seriousness is almost always tinged with something merry, and for all his drive he seems marked by unusual peace. He’s warm toward you, friendly.
But still, the man never seems to let up. He reads his Bible, and prays, and speaks of spiritual things with an earnestness that embarrasses you. He talks of fighting sin as if he had a sword strapped to his thigh. He denies himself many innocent pleasures (without expecting you to do so) because, he says, they “slow his pursuit of Christ.” You can’t help but feel a touch kittenish in his presence, your Christianity more purr than roar. So you wonder.
Is this legalism? Asceticism? An attempt to be superhuman?
And then, once again, you remember that this friend is the apostle Paul.
Now, if the apostle himself had overheard our concern, he may have sympathized, at least a little. For Paul had known the dangers of discipline. Hebrew of Hebrews, law-keeping Pharisee, zealous persecutor, Paul ran harder and faster than most (Philippians 3:5–6; Galatians 1:14). Yet his disciplined feet only carried him farther and farther from Christ (1 Timothy 1:13). He was rigorous, precise, self-denying, and lost.
Yet, remarkably, when Paul lost his legalism, he did not lose his discipline. Not even a little bit. God transformed him, instead, into a stunning apostolic paradox: He preached justification by faith alone, and he pursued holiness with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12–13). He worshiped God for his grace, and he “worked harder than any” (1 Corinthians 15:10). He boasted of Christ’s sufficiency, and he beat his body lest somehow he should fail to finish the race (1 Corinthians 9:27).
We struggle to live such paradoxes. The grace of God, for many of us, seems to produce a more casual Christianity, a faith without a sweat. But when Paul’s own discipline passed through the fires of grace, it emerged on the other side not consumed but refined — free from the dross of self-righteousness, aglow with the Spirit’s flame.
Mentions of discipline lace Paul’s letters. We could consider his toil in teaching (Colossians 1:29), his striving in prayer (Romans 15:30), his refusal to use his full apostolic rights (1 Corinthians 9:12), or that startling statement already mentioned: “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NIV). But we may hear the heartbeat of Paul’s discipline most clearly in Philippians 3:12–14 and its context:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Paul the persecutor died on the Damascus road — and in his place arose a man who pressed and strained for Christ. A mighty discipline still drove him forward, but a discipline far different from the one he had known. A new power, new purpose, and new pleasure now gripped him.
Paul had known something of power in his pre-Christian life, but it was power “from a self-strength,” as John Owen puts it (Works, 6:7). The source of Paul’s unredeemed power was Paul; he relied on self, not the Spirit, for his strength. Not only did such power prove powerless against sins of the heart (Romans 7:7–8), but also, being an offspring of the flesh, it could never please God (Romans 8:8).
But then, Paul says, “Christ Jesus . . . made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). And with Christ’s presence came Christ’s power — power from above and beyond him, and yet power now dwelling within him. And so, Paul saw former sins, once unconquerable, fall dead at his feet (Romans 8:13). He “pressed” and “strained” with a new kind of strength (Philippians 3:13–14). And he worked as one who knew “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
With Paul, disciplined Christians do not run on the strength of self-resolve; they know and fear the manufactured power of the flesh. But they also take seriously those four familiar, radical words: “God works in you.” God works in you — and therefore you are not bound to the narrow limits of your self-strength. God works in you — and therefore laziness is not a celebration of his grace but a tacit denial of his presence. God works in you — and therefore every resistance is an opportunity to prove his power.
The power behind Paul’s discipline, then, was decidedly different after Damascus. And so too was the purpose or aim of his discipline. Once, Paul ran to attain “a righteousness of my own that comes from the law” (Philippians 3:9). But then, blinded by the risen Christ, he realized there was only one righteousness worth having, and it was one that discipline could never win: “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Philippians 3:9). So, in a moment, Paul stopped running for righteousness.
But he did not stop running. For though he already wore the robe of Christ’s righteousness, another robe still awaited: the robe of resurrection. “The resurrection from the dead” was the “it” he pressed on to make his own, the “prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:11–12, 14). By discipline, Paul reached to share his Lord’s undying life.
Paul knew, of course, that discipline could not earn his resurrection — nor was he ultimately uncertain about reaching that land beyond death. He could already feel the hand of Christ upon him; he could already say, “Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12). And yet, Paul also knew that God-empowered discipline — pressing on, straining forward — was Christ’s way of bringing his people to glory. In a world where many professing Christians give up after making a good start, discipline keeps the righteous running till resurrection.
By discipline, we throw off every hindrance that slows our pace toward heaven. We shake off every hand that wraps around our ankles. We set our gaze ahead, where Christ himself awaits us. And with holy resolve we say, “By the power of God within me, I won’t allow sin to keep me from him.”
Perhaps Paul once saw discipline as many of us have: as a purse-lipped virtue, a grim necessity, a healthy fruit with sour taste. Discipline is an alarm at 5:00am; it is wind sprints and diets and long hours over dull books. Yes, Paul may have seen discipline as such. But then he saw the face of Jesus, and discipline became filled with new pleasure.
What spark lit the fire of Paul’s resolve? What gunshot sent him racing toward resurrection? This spark, this shot:
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3:8–9)
Christian discipline may press and strain. It may rise early to read and pray; it may fast and go willingly without; it may say many a painful no. But not from any barren sense of oughtness. Rather, the surpassing worth of Christ has captured our hearts, calling forth our own surpassing work.
Not that we always feel the same sense of Christ’s worth. Sometimes, discipline is the song of living longing; other times, it is the prayer of longing lost. But whether discipline moves mainly from desire or for desire, its sights remain set on him whose presence is our pleasure. Out, then, with any thoughts of stern and frowning resolve. The only discipline worth the name runs under the banner of delight.
From ‘Done’ to ‘Do’
So, say you have a friend whose approach to the Christian life seems somewhat extreme. Too strict. Overly disciplined. So you wonder. Doesn’t the gospel cry “Done!” rather than “Do!”?
Indeed it does (John 19:30). But as you watch your friend more closely, you realize that on the other side of the gospel’s “done,” there is another kind of “do”: not the doing that strives for God’s favor or adds anything to Christ’s cross, but the doing that rises from fresh power, resurrection purpose, and a new and deep pleasure in God.
So, by grace, you start running harder. You pray and press on; you trust and strain forward. And you begin to discover that God’s grace is a bigger wonder than you once thought. Not only does grace grant our forgiveness and win our worship, but it works — hard. And to top off the paradox, it keeps us happy while we work.