I can’t think of a topic that has caused more harm and more stunted growth in the lives of Christ followers than the confusion and controversy that exists over the subject of personal discipline: How it relates to grace and how it differs from legalism. 

This volatile issue caused no end of debate in Paul’s letters to local churches and church leaders, and was also a topic that often came up in Jesus’ discourse with the religious leaders. We still continue to argue about it and discuss it today.

The value of personal discipline is clearly and unequivocally stated in I Timothy 4:7 (ESV):  “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. rather train yourself for godliness” 

Some translations render the word “train” as discipline.

We find the same concept in I Corinthians 9:24-27 (ESV):

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others, I myself should be disqualified.”  

The word translated train/discipline in 1 Timothy 4:7 is the word Gumnazo(from which we get our word gymnasium). The word carries with it the idea of exercising to train the body or mind with a view toward godliness.

It’s referring to the Greek athletes engaging in athletic exercises in the gymnasium as they got ready for competition, and (according to Strong’s Concordance) literally means to “practice naked in the games.” Sort of like the stripping down advocated in Hebrews 12:1.

The book of Proverbs is loaded with advice on personal discipline as a key to a God-pleasing life. Here is one example:

 “People who accept discipline are on the pathway to life, but those who ignore correction will go astray.” Proverb 10:17 (NLT)

The Message renders Proverb 10:17 as: “The road to life is a disciplined life; ignore correction and you’re lost for good.”

I have come to the conclusion that being self-controlled and disciplined in a number of key areas of life are critical for long-lasting and effective leadership.

Among other things it means being disciplined with my:

  • Time/schedule
  • Eyes and thought life
  • Tongue
  • Possessions/money (neither overly frugal nor overly materialistic)
  • Exercise
  • Eating
  • Sleep
  • Time alone with the Lord

Many of us admire accomplished athletes and musicians and often muse that we would like to be like them.

Oh, I wish I could_______ like________ 

Are you willing to train and discipline yourself like_______ does? If not, forget ________like he/she does. (fill in the blank with your most admired star)

And so it goes in every area of life. Excellence comes not from wishing hard but from working hard and disciplining yourself in key areas of life as you lean into and trust the power of the Holy Spirit who resides in you to give you both desire and diligence.

(As Philippians 2:13 suggests )

Discipline is encouraged in scripture, and legalism is discouraged. Jesus and Paul had some of their toughest battles with legalists, as recorded in the gospel and in Paul’s letters.

Can commendable discipline degenerate into damnable legalism? Of course it can!  Is all discipline legalistic? Of course it isn’t! 

How do you know when good discipline lapses into bad legalism.


  • Joy is replaced by fear
  • We don’t allow divine intervention and interruption in our habits/routines
  • Form replaces freedom
  • The motivation is to try to win God’s love and acceptance; not understanding that we are already loved and accepted because of the finished work of Jesus on the cross
  • We loose sight of the why behind the how and the what
  • When methods get enthroned and principles get forgotten
  • Someone turns a non-biblical method they practice into a biblical mandate for others

 “Every year I speak at Baylor University and I tell the students, ‘You will never have success in your personal life, your spiritual life, your physical life or your emotional life unless you are disciplined. The philosophy if it feels good do it will destroy us as individuals and it will destroy us as a nation.’” Mrs. Kenneth Cooper


One of the tools in the enemy’s toolbox is to confuse our thinking about discipline and legalism so that we push back on being disciplined in various areas of life because we don’t want to become, or be called, legalistic. We have bought into a lie that is keeping us from experiencing all God wants us to experience in our walk and work.

It’s like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Would I stop eating because some abuse food? Would I stop using money because some abuse the use of money?  Would I stop eating chocolate because some eat too much chocolate?  Okay, I threw that one in to make sure you were paying attention, and also because my daughter, Sara, gave me a plaque for father’s day that now sits on my desk: “I’d give up chocolate, but I’m not a quitter!

Love to hear from you on discipline verses legalism!