Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Old Testament saint Daniel prayed three times a day. It was his daily spiritual pattern (see Daniel 6:10). And apparently everyone knew it was his daily pattern (see Daniel 6:13). John Piper picks up this point in a 1991 sermon, and addresses whether consistent spiritual discipline is legalistic. Have a listen to what he said.

Daniel’s prayer was a testimony, not just to the glory of the Lord, but to the fact that his life was built on prayer. He was making a statement, not just about God, but about his relationship to God. Had he not prayed, God would be the same, probably his relationship would have been the same, but one thing would have been different: what the satraps thought about Daniel’s relationship to God: “Oh, I see. When it is dangerous, he doesn’t pray anymore.”

And Daniel knew that his testimony was at stake, and therefore he got down on his knees on the second floor before the open window three times a day, and he prayed. He lived by prayer. He consulted what God thought and he asked God to act.

Disciplined Prayer

Daniel’s prayer was disciplined and regular. When the time for a demonstration came, he didn’t have to do anything different than what he was already doing. He had disciplined himself for years, probably, at that window, three times a day. And he simply asked, “Will I maintain my discipline, or will I forsake my God-given discipline?” And he said, “I will not forsake it — at the cost of my life I will not forsake it.”

I wonder if it strikes you as strange, like it does me, that very few Christians in the American evangelical church pray like this: statedly, disciplined, three times a day. Does that strike you as strange that nobody prays that way these days?

And I think there are a lot of people who would say, “That’s real good, because it shows that we have discovered a new freedom from legalism.” Now I might believe that if I saw people who did not have Daniel’s discipline as powerful in prayer as Daniel was. But I don’t believe it. In fact, as I analyze the American evangelical church today, the creeping legalism that I see is not Daniel’s disciplined prayer three times a day. I do not think spiritual discipline is the Trojan horse in which legalism is making its way into Troy, the church.

No way, José. We are not in a thousand years in danger of becoming legalists through spiritual discipline in the American evangelical, meet-my-need, cushy, Christianity.

Misplaced Fear

In fact, I think that the kind of legalism that is creeping in today is virtually the opposite of spiritual discipline. It has two sides to its coin. On one side is the fear of anything that comes close to sounding or looking like biblical discipline, expressed in sentences like:

  • Train yourself in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7).
  • Strive to enter by the narrow gate (Luke 13:24).
  • Take up your cross daily (Luke 9:23).
  • Work out your salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
  • I pummel my body and subdue it (1 Corinthians 9:27).
  • If your right eye offends you, gouge it out (Matthew 5:29).
  • Strive together with me in prayer (Romans 15:30).

Anything that comes remotely close to sounding like discipline is feared in the new legalism. For centuries, the disciplines of the Spirit have marked the great saints. And today they are feared.

Biblical Discipline Forsaken

The other side of the coin of the new legalism is a demand for psychologically correct speech — not politically correct speech. We all know what politically correct speech is, but I am talking about psychologically correct speech. If you don’t use certain language to describe morality, ethics, duty, and the commandments of God that are psychologically correct, you are a defective people-helper and do more harm than good.

There is a new list of taboos in the legalism that I am talking about, and the new list of taboos is:

  • Thou shalt not use must.
  • Thou shalt not use should.
  • Thou shalt not use ought.
  • Thou shalt not use warnings like those who do such things shall not enter the kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9; Galatians 5:21).

This is the new legalism and the new list of taboos — “You must not say must.” They are simply not psychologically correct ways of talking about reality.

The creeping legalism in American evangelicalism today, I believe, is not the spiritual discipline of Daniel who prayed three times a day. I urge you to consider whether some of our weakness rather in cushy, self-indulgent, so-called spontaneous, meet-my-needs, American Christianity is owing not mainly to bondage to legalistic lists of dos and don’ts, but rather to the fact that we have forsaken biblical discipline.