Reviewed by Kirk Miller
In February of this year, Crossway released Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines, by David Mathis, pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, executive director at Desiring God, and adjunct professor at Bethlehem College & Seminary.
As is readily apparent from the title, Mathis’ book is about those Christian practices often referred to as the spiritual disciplines, e.g., scripture intake, scripture meditation, prayer, fasting, etc.
Mathis’ purpose in writing the book is both to introduce (or reorient) the reader to these habits of grace as well as to simplify one’s approach to these disciplines, i.e., to provide a more realistic and focused model of making use of these “pipelines” to God’s grace (13).
This later purpose correlates with what may be the most significant, unique feature of Mathis’ approach to the disciplines. Mathis depicts the various disciplines (e.g., mediation, journaling, fasting, memorizing scripture) as facets, dimensions, versions, or expressions of what he understands to be three primary spiritual discipline categories: (1) hearing from God through his word, (2) responding to and communing with God in prayer, and (3) enjoying the blessings of his community. To put things into Mathis’ preferred language, there are three primary means of grace; and these means take expression in the form of various, practical habits of grace. Notice how he has organized the book according to these three categories in parts 1-3:
Introduction: Grace Gone Wild
Part 1: Hear His Voice (Word)
- Shape Your Life with the Words of Life
- Read for Breadth, Study for Depth
- Warm Yourself at the Fire of Meditation
- Bring the Bible Home to Your Heart
- Memorize the Mind of God
- Resolve to Be a Lifelong Learner
Part 2: Have His Ear (Prayer)
- Enjoy the Gift of Having God’s Ear
- Pray in Secret
- Pray with Constancy and Company
- Sharpen Your Affections with Fasting
- Journal as a Pathway to Joy
- Take a Break from the Chaos
Part 3: Belong to His Body (Fellowship)
- Learn to Fly in the Fellowship
- Kindle the Fire in Corporate Worship
- Listen for Grace in the Pulpit
- Wash in the Waters Again
- Grow in Grace at the Table
- Embrace the Blessing of Rebuke
Part 4: Coda
- The Commission
- The Dollar
- The Clock
Epilogue: Communing with Christ on a Crazy Day
Habits of Grace is like other evangelical books on the spiritual disciplines in that it surveys commonly recognized disciplines. The chapters normally begin by surveying the specific discipline under consideration and then conclude by providing specific practical suggestions for implementation. However, the outflow of Mathis’ three-fold conception of the disciplines is that, rather than proposing constant engagement with each and every possible discipline under the sun, Mathis simply advocates regularly involving oneself in each of these three broader means of grace through a variety of available, specific habits of grace.
The means of grace are the various channels God has appointed for regularly supplying his church with spiritual power. The key principles of the means of grace are Jesus’ voice (word), his ear (prayer), and his body (church). The various disciplines and practices, then—our habits of grace—are ways of hearing him (his word), and responding (in prayer) to him, in the context of his people (the church)” [pp. 179, emphasis original].
This is a much less intimidating—and, in many ways, more focused—approach. And I think it demonstrates a lot of pastoral sensitivity. It brings with it an air of simplicity and realism—this in contrast to identifying extensive lists of spiritual disciplines and leaving people feeling overwhelmed, inferior, guilt-ridden, and defeated when they (quite understandably) can’t complete them.
A second major characteristic of this book is Mathis’ emphasis on understanding the spiritual disciplines as means of accessing more joy, of experiencing more enjoyment in Jesus. It is an approach to the disciplines fueled by delight rather than mere duty. On this point, Mathis is very Piperian (i.e., John Piper-like), which is no surprise given his ministry context (see above).
Along these lines, throughout the book Mathis prefers the term habits of grace over spiritual disciplines. He wants to emphasize the nature of the routines as channels through which we continue to experience God’s grace and enjoy Jesus. Presumably this language also safeguards against misunderstanding the disciplines as practices by which we somehow earn God’s favor or achieve (merit) spiritual growth.
On this point, I find Mathis’ emphasis rather refreshing. And its importance seems to be underscored by a comment by D.A. Carson from his recommendation of the book: “If the so-called ‘means of grace’ are laid out as nothing more than duties, the hinge of sanctification is obligation.”
A final unique characteristic of Mathis book is the space and emphasis he gives to what might be thought of as communal disciplines, such as participation in the sacraments (see Part 3 in the table of contents above). I would have appreciated if Mathis had engaged with the spiritually formative role of the church’s liturgy (cf. contributions by James K.A. Smith on this subject such as Desiring the Kingdom). Nonetheless, I greatly appreciate Mathis emphasis on the communal nature of the Christian’s progress in grace. Such concerns all too often get neglected, period—no less the case when considering spiritual disciplines, which can involve lots of solitude and introspection.
In closing, I would recommend this book as a valuable resource for lay people as well pastors looking to find books to put in the hands of lay people. At a mere 240 pages—and, note, it’s an easy 240 pages—it’s one of the shortest introductions to the spiritual disciplines from an evangelical perspective (compare that to Donald Whitney’s 354 page book or R. Kent Hughes’ slightly shorter 304 pager). This brevity, along with its unintimidating approach, its aim of delighting in Jesus, its attention to practical implementation, and its consideration of the role of the church and her sacraments make it a top choice in its field. One would certainly find it valuable for individual reading, personal discipleship, or small group study.
For more information on this book, check out Justin Taylor’s interview with David Mathis below.
As with many of their other resources, Desiring God has generously made this book available free for download as a PDF. The book can also be purchased at an affordable price in a variety of formats including hardcover, kindle, and audiobook. Additionally, a study guide (for either individual or small group purposes) as well as a five-part video “course” is available (note: the above review did not take into consideration the content of these companion materials).
Kirk E. Miller (M.Div. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is a bivocational church planter of South City Church in Milwaukee, WI. He blogs at kirkmillerblog.com. You can follow him on Twitter @KirkMiller_.