David Mathis provides the church with encouragement and tools for spiritual growth in his monograph, Habits of Grace. Mathis highlights three principles of ongoing grace: hearing God’s voice (Scripture), having God’s ear (prayer), and belonging to his body (fellowship) (p. 15). His goal is to help the Christian see “how realistic and life-giving it can be to integrate God’s means of grace into daily habits of life” (p. 18).
Mathis, David. Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines. Wheaton: Crossway, 2016. 238 pp.
Part 1 (chs. 1-6) focuses on God’s Word. Mathis exhorts that “Without the Bible, we will soon lose the genuine gospel and the real Jesus and the true God. For now, if we are to saturate our lives with the words of life, we must be people of the Book” (p. 40). He encourages his readers to read for breadth, and study for depth. He illustrates Bible reading at a swift pace as “raking,” while slow Bible study is “digging” to unearth diamonds. Both are necessary. Then meditation is marveling at the jewels (Josh. 1:8; Ps 1:1-2). Regarding application, Mathis correctly warns,
The Bible is gloriously for us, but it is not mainly about us. We come most deeply because of whom we will see, not for what we must do.”p. 65
Part 2 (chs. 7-12) is on prayer. Mathis points out that prayer is a conversation we did not start—prayer is not merely talking to God, but responding to him. Prayer is not about getting things from God, but about getting God himself (p. 95). Prayer begins in secret, but it is also taken out of the closet to continue with other Christians. Practical helps include discussion on fasting (ch. 10), journaling (ch. 11), and practicing silence (ch. 12).
Part 3 (chs. 13-18) is about fellowship, where Mathis argues that “true fellowship not only labors to win the lost, but serves to keep fellow saints saved” (p. 146). He draws this from Hebrews 10:24-25 and 3:12-13 where believers are commanded to stir up one another to love and good works by not neglecting the church gathering and to exhort one another daily so that none may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Mathis correctly asserts that
private worship is not the pinnacle of our Christian lives. We were made to worship Jesus together…. We were made for corporate worship.”p. 155
Controversially, he asserts that
corporate worship is the single most important means of grace and our greatest weapon in the fight for joy, because like no other means, corporate worship combines all three principles of God’s ongoing grace: his word, prayer, and fellowship.”pp. 156-57
Further chapters discuss listening to preaching (ch. 15), baptism (ch. 16), the Lord’s Supper (ch. 17), and embracing rebuke (ch. 18).
Here are my five takeaways from Habits of Grace.
First, I find Mathis’ illustration very helpful concerning the relationship between the disciplines of grace and the grace itself that comes from God:
I can flip a switch, but I don’t provide the electricity. I can turn on a faucet, but I don’t make the water flow. There will be no light and no liquid refreshment without someone else providing it. And so it is for the Christian with the ongoing grace of God. His grace is essential for our spiritual lives, but we don’t control the supply. We can’t make the favor of God flow, but he has given us circuits to connect and pipes to open expectantly. There are paths along which he has promised his favor.”p. 25
Second, Mathis also distinguishes between the means of grace and the end of the means. For Mathis, the greatest grace is at the end of the path—Jesus himself (p. 30). The means of grace are ultimately about knowing and enjoying Jesus (cf. Phil. 3:8; John 17:3; Jer. 9:23-24).
Practically, he suggests caring more about communion with Jesus than checking boxes on a Bible reading plan. This creates flexibility in morning habits. Here is the quote:
Try to create a routine that can expand into more than an hour if you have it, or collapse into just ten minutes, or even less, when love requires it.
For example, you might consider a simple pattern…: Begin with Bible reading, move into meditation, polish with prayer. On days when you have extended time, you can read and meditate longer, and include journaling, and take time to put some rich passage to memory, and linger in prayer, from adoration to confession to thanksgiving to supplication. But on a crazy morning, you can get through the reading-meditation-prayer sequence in just a few brief minutes if needed.p. 221
Third, Habits of Grace encourages Christians to pursue joy in Christ through the God-ordained means of the Word, prayer, and fellowship. There is no guilt-tripping. Here is how Mathis carefully motivates believers to read Scripture:
Reading your own copy of the Bible daily is not a law that every believer must abide; most Christians have not had this option. But the habit of daily Bible reading can be a marvelous means of God’s grace. Why miss this bounty and blessing?p. 47, emphasis mine
Fourth, Mathis provides practical helps throughout the book concerning pursuing the Word, prayer, and fellowship. He also includes other topics like evangelism, finances, and managing time. Here are some examples:
- Regarding Bible reading plans, he wisely counsels, “Don’t let the push to check boxes keep you from lingering over a text, whether to seek to understand it (“study”) or to emotionally glory in what you understand (“meditation”). (p. 45).
- Regarding application, he sets up the essential procedure, which reminds me of the Clowney Rectangle: “Seek to understand first how God’s words fell on the original hearers, and how they relate to Jesus’ person and work, and then bring them home to yourself” (p. 62).
- Regarding private prayer, Mathis recommends to: 1) create your closet; 2) begin with the Bible; 3) adore, confess, thank, and ask; 4) divulge your desires and develop them; and 5) keep it fresh.
- Regarding receiving rebuke (an aspect of fellowship): “Even when it’s a rebuke poorly delivered, and the timing and tone are poor, and the motivation seems suspect, we’ll want to ransack it for every grain of truth, and then repent and thank God for the grace of having people in our lives who love us enough to say something hard…. When a brother or sister in Christ goes to the inconvenience to have the unpleasant conversation that brings correction into our lives, we should be floored with thanksgiving” (p. 187).
Lastly and above all, Mathis approach is solidly biblical. Each chapter, though not without practical suggestions, is replete with passage after passage from Scripture that is either quoted, cited, or explained.
I highly recommend Habits of Grace by David Mathis. The chapters are short and easy to read. You can even get a free pdf copy here (as of April 2020). Mathis will stir up your soul to go to Jesus and enjoy him through the avenues that God has ordained: the Word, prayer, and fellowship. The whole book can be summarized in this quote:
The Christian life, from start to finish, is utterly dependent on the grace of God. Not only do we come into spiritual life by sheer grace (Acts 18:27; Rom. 3:24; Eph. 2:5), but it is in divine grace that we continue on (Acts 13:43). It is by God’s grace that our souls survive through many trials (2 Cor. 12:9; Heb. 4:16), are strengthened for everyday life (2 Tim. 2:1; Heb. 13:9), and grow into greater maturity and health (2 Pet. 3:18).
And it is God’s grace that enables us to make choices and expend effort to seek more of God (1 Cor. 15:10). It is a gift that we would have the desire for and take action to avail ourselves of the means of God’s grace–his voice (the word), his ear (prayer), and his people (fellowship)–with the most basic principle of grace being the immersing of our lives in his word.”p. 37