This is the kind of piece that begs misunderstanding, so allow me to begin by saying that I myself maintain a time of daily personal Bible study and prayer, and have no intention of ever giving it up. I am humbled that my God and King asks me to come regularly (unceasingly, actually) into his presence with my meager requests (though prayer is by no means limited to supplication). I consider it a great privilege to have, read, and meditate on the Holy Scriptures. We serve a great and benevolent God, and we were made to commune with Him. This is something for which I am very grateful.
Moreover, I have promised my fellow church members that I will maintain “family and personal devotions” in the covenant which unites us as a Christian church. I have no intention of throwing off what our assembly (along with many other Baptist assemblies) has determined to be an important mark of a follower of Jesus Christ. To be sure, meditation on (not merely reading!) the Scriptures and prayer are imperatives of personal piety. I’ve heard messages (or a message) diminishing devotions because they are not in the Bible, and I disagreed with it. I am not fond of hearing a preacher giving me and others an excuse to neglect daily personal Bible study and prayer.
Having given these important qualifying remarks, I have sensed a trend among fundamentalists to place what I believe to be too great an emphasis on “personal devotions” as a way of sanctification. Again, to be sure, Christians should personally study the Bible. We teach our children to read in order that they may read and know the Bible (not the Bible qua Bible, but because the Bible is the ‘only rule God has given to direct us how we may glorify God and enjoy him’).
A while back I was speaking with an older fundamentalist friend who lamented that a mutual acquaintance was no longer faithfully attending any assembly. The reason for this collapse, he explained, was that this young man was “no longer in the book.” I have heard many Christians speak of the importance of personal devotions in one’s daily walk, almost as the litmus test for their spiritual maturity. Sometimes I get the impression that many view personal devotions as the most important means of sanctification. Others tend to view it as a key mark of having reached spiritual maturity. These two views are related, yet differ slightly. Both are incorrect.
Although personal prayer and meditation on the Scriptures are necessary elements of the Christian walk, they are not the most important ingredient of spiritual growth and sanctification. Although today’s mature Christians typically have some kind of “personal devotions”, it is not the sign, or even the best sign, that one is spiritually mature. Here, briefly, are my reasons:
- We must remember that the phenomenon of the personal Bible is a relatively recent development in the Christian church. Even today, many Christians throughout the world do not own their own copy of the Scriptures. And, certainly, in the earliest days of the church, and before the invention of the printing press in general, having a personal copy of the Scriptures was a privilege afforded to only the wealthiest Christians. It goes without saying that the ubiquity of Bibles we have today in America is nowhere near the experience of generations of believers before us. One can only imagine of their observations concerning this development and how we utilize it. Certainly, we should take every available opportunity to capitalize on this wealth, but, at the same time, we should not transfer the expectations we have developed alongside this phenomenon over to our ancestors who had no such luxury. That is, if we make personal Bible reading (an essential of ‘personal devotions’) either the chief mark or chief means of sanctification, we are essentially saying that Christians before us had no opportunity to obtain spiritual maturity.
- With respect to personal devotions being the chief means of sanctification, God has stressed other means whereby Christians grow spiritually. For example, Ephesians 4 stresses the role of ministers and their imparting the ‘knowledge of Christ’ in the believers becoming ‘a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.’ 1 Timothy stresses the word proclaimed and taught in the church’s public worship by which the pastor “will save both yourself and your hearers” (4:11-16). Although this does touch on the importance of the Word in sanctification (and the Word, to be sure, is an indispensible element of the corporate worship of God’s people!), it is important to note that this is in the context of the corporate body, not the individual members off on their own. Here one thinks of the command of the apostle to the Colossian believers to teach, admonish, and sing when they are together. My point is that, indeed, the Word is important for the spiritual growth of the body of Christ, but that when the New Testament thus stresses the role of the Word, it is most often in the context of the gathered church. It is no accident that singing and giving thanks in the assembly are a couple ways in which Paul says believers are “filled by the Spirit.”
- If I may take this a step further, the ‘personal devotions’ of individual believers should not seen as a way of believers individually by themselves taking their spiritual development in their own hands. Instead, it should be a supplement to the most important means of sanctification, which are observed when the body is gathered together. When it comes to the church, we should all as a body be fostering the spiritual growth of all of us, not looking at spiritual development as the sole responsibility of the other individual members in their daily private time. This is in part the thrust of Hebrews 10:24-25: “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
- As to personal devotions being a sign of genuine spiritual maturity, this too begs Scriptural validation. I suppose that we as believers gravitate toward devotions as a sign of spiritual maturity because it is so easily quantifiable. Furthermore, since we often believe personal devotions are the ‘key to sanctification’ (see above!), we suppose that those who have them every day are growing by leaps and bounds. (Again, this may be true, but I would once more stress that the Scripture places more weight on the activities of the gathered assembly of believers as a means of sanctification rather than each separate individual “rolling their own at home.”) The truth is that meditation on Scripture and prayer are important marks of a mature believer, but that they are not the only marks, nor are they chief marks. Sincere love for God and other believers trumps 20 minutes daily skimming 3 chapters of the Bible and sleepy prayer. Indeed, meditation on Scripture and prayer are the “law of Christ” that flows out of this sincere love for God and other believers that mark mature believers. So Paul says “the aim of our charge” is “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” Elsewhere he notes that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). It is better both to cultivate unceasing prayer as well as spend 30 minutes in prayer in the morning (oh, how well I know this struggle!). Those who have been daily reading the Bible and praying many of years of their lives know that it can quickly become duty and drudgery, fained and hypocritical, which is the opposite of Christian maturity. Again, I stress that this does not nullify the importance of prayer and Bible reading. Christians must cultivate these disciplines, and in faith persevere in them even when the flesh wars against the faithful practice of them. My point is that they are not, in and of themselves, the chief sign of spiritual maturity.
Again, I want to be clear. I am not condemning person prayer and meditation on Scripture. Far from it! I believe we must do it. But what I want us to do is keep it in perspective. It is neither the chief means of sanctification nor the sine qua non of spiritual maturity.