Do we play a part in our spiritual formation and growth?

A New Year dawns and with it a determined resolve to get our spiritual lives in shape. Echoes of 1 Timothy 4:7 come to mind, perhaps, when Paul told Timothy, “Train yourself to be godly.” Ah yes, we say to ourselves, it’s time to get rid of those embarrassing spiritual cobwebs and get back into spiritual training again, back to the spiritual disciplines of prayer and Bible study, turn over a new leaf, make a plan for spiritual improvement and get serious about our spiritual growth, etc, etc.

But is that what Paul’s talking about in 1 Timothy 4:7?

No, it isn’t. There are many Christians of late who say it is, however, who use that verse to prove that spiritual disciplines are necessary for all Christians as our part in our spiritual growth and formation. But the context says nothing of the sort. In context, Paul is not issuing a general command to all Christians to discipline themselves for spiritual formation, he’s specifically advising a young minister, Timothy, in how to conduct his ministry.

He’s talking to Timothy, mentor to student, advising Timothy to “be diligent” (15) in both his life and teaching to help protect the people in his care from being deceived. He’s encouraging Timothy to be a “good minister of Christ Jesus” (6) by sticking to the “truths of the faith” and the “good teaching” he’d received to combat “deceiving spirits” (1) that were influencing people into believing and teaching “godless myths and old wives’ tales” (7).

This is an older minister’s personal advice to a young minister facing some real challenges in his churches. “So, watch your life and doctrine closely,” Paul tells Timothy in verse 16, “persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” – “save” in context here meaning protect the Christians in his care from deception by demons. Paul knows what Timothy is up against, so he’s encouraging Timothy to keep his life well-grounded at all times in the truths he’d been taught, because that’s what Timothy had been gifted as a minister for, to inspire the church by his example (12), his teaching (13) and his progress (15).

Unfortunately, 1 Timothy 4:7 – just like 1 Corinthians 9:27 – has been used to create the idea that we play a part in our spiritual formation and growth, and that it’s necessary for us to discipline ourselves to make ourselves godly. But that is not what Paul is talking about in either of these verses, and if it was it would contradict what he wrote in Galatians 2:16, “that a man is not justified by observing the law” – or any other discipline – “but by faith in Jesus Christ.”

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