Bridges begins with asking whether we would be more likely to work through a meeting with an interested non-Christian if we had had a good spiritual day (e.g. we had a good meeting with God during our morning quiet time, felt His presence through the day, etc.) or if the day had gone badly from a spiritual perspective. The answer is that the question is irrelevant, because God’s relationship with us is not based on performance. He finds that within the Evangelical Church there is a feeling that the Gospel is to save people and that, once saved, they need discipleship to grow spiritually. This is true, but the Gospel cannot be put on a shelf after salvation, or we slowly find ourselves drifting into a performance-based relationship with God. Since we both have a desire to be holy as God is holy, and know that God, indeed, demands it, the fact that we still sin gives us the vague feeling that God is displeased with us. Without reminding ourselves that God has forgiven yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s sin through our acceptance of Jesus’ death as payment, we forget that our relationship with God is now based on love. God may be grieved by our sin, but he is no longer angry with us. Every day, though, we still sin, and every day our conscience condemns us on that basis. But we are no longer condemned by God, so we need to remind ourselves and our consciences that our sin is forgiven. We need to preach the Gospel to ourselves every day.
Having established this important point, Bridges then considers the implication of this grace that we are preaching to ourselves. Grace is essential, but equally important is discipleship. God does call us to stop sinning, to learn to be gracious and generous to others, to grow in holiness, and we cannot neglect this command. Ultimately God wants us to have the same character as He does; the rest of our Christian life must be spent effecting this transformation with His help. There are, though, some guidelines that will help us.
First we need to obey the greatest command—loving God with all our heart, mind, and soul. Loving God involves obeying Him. We cannot practice “cruise-control” obedience and merely stop doing all the obvious sins. However, obedience cannot be done out of duty, but only because of our love for God. For one thing, we will not be motivated enough by duty, but if we love Him, we will be much more willing to spend the effort to obey. Since we are thoroughly corrupted with self-centeredness, increasing obedience involves changing to become more like God. This is something that we both depend on God to accomplish, but need to work on ourselves. God changes our heart, be we change our actions.
Our pursuit of holiness should be marked by several areas of discipline. This is not discipline in the formal, fasting, daily quiet time sense, but a habitual consideration of these areas. For instance, we need to be committed to the pursuit of holiness, or there will be a strong temptation to abandon it. Furthermore, we must commit to not only the obeying negative prohibitions, “don’t steal,” “don’t lie,” “don’t gossip,” but the positive ones as well: “be generous,” “love one another”.
Likewise, we need to carefully consider our convictions, as convictions drive our actions. We will get our convictions from somewhere, either from the society we live in or from God’s Word. We are immersed in a society opposed, as all societies are, to God’s values, so there is a very strong pressure to conform to its values. Bridges observes that Christians are generally only about a decade behind in accepting societal norms. So unless we actively take our values from God’s Word, we will inevitably take them from the world around us. And as we discover areas where we have the wrong values, we preach ourselves the Gospel to remind us that that sin has been paid so that God can love us.
These convictions must be habitually enshrined in the little choices that we make every day, for our choices ultimately determine our character. Each choice to disobey weakens our ability to obey; each choice to obey strengths that ability. We must constantly watch over choices so that they lead toward holiness. This is painful, as it essentially involves denying our desires where they do not match God’s values. Inevitably we will need to remind ourselves that Jesus died for our failure to deny those desires, and that God does not hold them against us.
We should be attentive not only to our choices, but to our weaknesses, too. The world exerts a constant pressure to conform to its values, rather than to God’s, and occasionally the Devil will try to catch us off guard, but by far the strongest source of temptation is ourselves. We are fundamentally rebellious, at least until God gives us new bodies, and this rebellion is constantly seeking a means of expressing itself. The Lord’s prayer includes the phrase “lead us not into a temptation” as a recommendation that we ask God to divinely keep us from temptation, but He will not eliminate it from our lives, so we also need to be alert for possible sources of temptation. We know our weaknesses and we can use this knowledge to help avoid temptation in problem areas.
Finally, we need to have a correct understanding of adversity. Adversity is ultimately what creates Christ-like character; without the opportunity to refrain from sin and to love sacrificially, our holiness is just intention. It is the practice of holiness that changes our character and adversity is the means that God uses to accomplish this. Bridges would include very minor hardships (oversleeping, stuck in traffic, etc.) as well as obviously major adversities in this category. But it is the severe hardships that test us the most, and are most likely to cause us to feel that God is angry with us. He is not angry with us; Jesus’ death and our trust in it removes that anger. Instead, hardships are ordained to strengthen our character. Of course, some hardships may be consequences of our sin, but nonetheless God’s purpose is not that we endure them but that we strengthen our character through them.
Bridges has a keen eye for observation. Anyone who has spent time in the Evangelical church can appreciate such pithy phrases as “cruise-control Christians” and “morality by consensus,” for who of us cannot immediately identify this in part of our lives? In fact, these succinct descriptions of the contemporary Christian culture are the major strength of the book, as they are not said in condemnation but to motivate readers to something better. Much of the latter half of the book is exhortations that practicing Christians have already heard in various forms, but Bridges describes the problem so aptly that readers cannot help but recognize it in themselves. Unable to ignore the charge, we are compelled to listen to his solution more attentively than if the attitudes are less easily recognizable as our own.
The Discipline of Grace is a very practical, very relevant book. Bridges’ informal style is quite easy to read and his characterizations of Christian culture are both funny and convicting. I suspect that the first part of the book, about the necessity of preaching the Gospel to yourself every day, will be more helpful than the second part on disciplines, simply because, as he points out, the church tends to focus on the process of sanctification so readers are likely to already be somewhat familiar with this material. Despite the excellent content, the informal style allows some wandering to creep in, particularly in the second half. The Christian life is never easy to describe without lapsing into Christianese and Bridges does an excellent job of presenting in a fresh light, but the content would be more compelling if the flow were tightened up. Without his poignant observations, the second section would have little to offer that has not already been said elsewhere. And because of the cultural relevancy, I suspect that the staying power of this book is somewhat limited: when the Christian culture changes, the observations will be less relevant. While Bridges clearly has a deep theological understanding of the issues, the theology-lite presentation (which, for its part, is excellently done) is not likely to be compelling for readers of the next century. Still, the first part is quite apropos to contemporary Christian culture and with compelling insights into contemporary Christian psychology every few pages, The Discipline of Grace will fully deserves its Gold Medallion Book Award.
Writing is about an 8, but the content, particularly the insights into contemporary Christian, which are superbly worded, pushes it up. Concepts could be presented with more clarity, although since the book appears to be written more to persuade than to convince, the lack of clear argumentative flow may be understandable. While I suspect that it lacks the timelessness imparted by convincing arguments and a certain cultural independence, it is, in any case, an excellent book for the modern reader. I suspect many readers will be helped significantly by his explanation of the need to preach the Gospel to yourself every day. I also think it would be hard to read more than, at most, two chapters without being convicted of something, and, perhaps more importantly, motivated to diligently pursue holiness.