When we despair of gaining inner transformation through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realization: inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside. We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God; it is a grace that is given.
In the book of Romans the apostle Paul goes to great lengths to show that righteousness is a gift of God. He uses the term 35 times in the epistle and each time insists that righteousness is unattained and unattainable through human effort. One of the clearest statements is Rom 5:17…”those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness shall reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” This teaching, of course, is found not only in Romans but throughout the Scripture and stands as one of the cornerstones of the Christian faith.
The moment we grasp this breathtaking insight we are in danger of an error in the opposite direction. We are tempted to believe there is nothing we can do. If all human strivings end in moral bankruptcy (and having tried it, we know it is so), and if righteousness is a gracious gift from God (as the Bible clearly states), then is it not logical to conclude that we must wait for God to come and transform us? Strangely enough, the answer is no. The analysis is correct—human striving is insufficient and righteousness is gift from God—but the conclusion is faulty. Happily there is something we can do. We do not need to be hung on the horns of the dilemma of either human works or idleness. God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us. The apostle Paul says, “he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8). Paul’s analogy is instructive. A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the seed and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual disciplines—they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where he can work within us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace. The inner righteousness we seek is not something that is poured on our heads.
God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us. In this regard it would be proper to speak of “the path of disciplined grace.” It is “grace” because it is free; it is “disciplined” because there is something for us to do. In The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes it clear that grace is free, but it is not cheap. The grace of God is unearned and unearnable, but if we ever expect to grow in grace, we must pay the price of a consciously chosen course of action which involves both individual and group life. Spiritual growth is the purpose of the Disciplines.
Once we live and walk on the path of disciplined grace for a season, we will discover internal changes. We do no more than receive a gift, yet we know the changes are real. We know they are real because we discover that the spirit of compassion we once found so hard to exhibit is now easy. In fact, to be full of bitterness would be the hard thing. Divine love has slipped into our inner spirit and taken over our habit patterns. In the unguarded moments there is a spontaneous flow form the inner sanctuary of our lives of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22,23). There is no longer the tiring need to hide inner selves from others. We do not have to work hard at being good and kind; we are good and kind. To refrain form being good and kind would be the hard work because goodness and kindness are part of our nature. Just as the natural motions of our lives once produced mire and dirt, now the produce “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:7)–Richard Foster