how to stop sinning

“Here’s the thing. Every week I go to church and someone at the front tells me I’m a sinner and that I should stop. But no one ever tells me how.”

That’s how Nick Page opens his article, 7 Ways To Stop Sinning, in Premier Christianity the other month.

I’d not long read Sinclair Ferguson voicing much the same complaint.

“Here again it is possible to become a little frustrated with Paul. Once more we find him issuing the same directives – put on, put off, put to death. But we may feel like saying, ‘It is all very well for you to keep talking about these things, Paul, but how are we to do them?’”

That’s in his recent book, Devoted to God (Banner of Truth, 2016, p140).

Nick Page’s article takes insights from psychology to help us sin less. There are seven helpful suggestions for how to break (or at least weaken) bad habits. Of course, he says, “we need forgiveness, salvation, and all the grace we can get.” “We need prayer. We need the Holy Spirit.” But the seven pieces of advice are all to do with your willpower and how to increase it, so as to establish new habits, or break addictions and compulsions.

Admittedly this is a 2,000 word article and Sinclair Ferguson has written a 200+ page book, but the two approaches to answering basically the same question are strikingly different, and I prefer Sinclair Ferguson’s.

There is more to the Christian’s challenge than simply sinning less. There is also a need for becoming more holy – growing in specific, actual graces.

Putting our sins to death is one thing – pulling our graces into life is another thing. But Christian is called to do both. Both are impossible for a sinner acting off their own bat, but both are possible and expected for a sinner who is united to Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Sinners have to become holy.

Sinclair Ferguson explains: “whatever the precise nuance of meaning of ‘holy’, it involves not only belonging to God but being influenced by him – being claimed by him in order to be possessed by him and to become increasingly like him. In that sense holiness involves being separated off from whatever is sinful. The effect of this will be a new shining in our lives, a new brightness beginning to emerge. … This is why in the Old Testament holiness and beauty belong together.” (p11-12)

There is more, even, to the problem of sinning less, than simply adjusting problematic habits and behaviours. We also need to factor in the underlying source of bad habits and sinful behaviour.

It is obviously important to exercise self-discipline and strive against our own characteristic bad behaviours. In this struggle, insights from psychology are undoubtedly useful. We need all the help we can get. But our external behaviours have their source in the heart, in our attitudes, in our nature. The only effective way to stop sinning is for sin to be tackled at its root, by getting a new nature, a new heart. Then it will dawn on us that the goal is not really to sin less, but to not sin at all. Granting that we will never achieve sinlessness until we reach glory, there is still no excuse for aspiring to anything less than not sinning at all. We have to go and sin no more.

We do actually need the Holy Spirit for this. Nobody can give themselves a new heart. As Sinclair Ferguson explains:

“The Spirit brings us to new life and into the family of God. … He brings about a rebirth in us that creates new dispositions. … We experience not only a change of status (as in adoption) so that we belong to God’s family, but also a real transformation of our lives so that we begin to develop the characteristics of our adoptive family. … [T]he Holy Spirit who unites us to Christ for justification, in that very act of union also sanctifies us, transforming our dispositions and desires. Now we love what we once despised, and despise much that we once loved. Now, while the Christian life remains a battle to the end, we find that there is all the difference in the world between seeking to be holy when that is a burden, and seeking to be holy because we belong to the family of God and have the new family nature.” (p25-26)

“[There is a] difference between mortifying sin (i.e., putting it to death), and merely diverting it – so that it lives on in a different but less obvious guise. We are all past-masters of doing this. Social pressure, or expectations within Christian fellowship, cause us to divert obvious sin to some other less obvious sphere. Sin is not so much put to death as channelled in a different direction. … We have not made any real progress in overcoming sin as sin.” (p153-154)

There is more to our psyche than just willpower. If you take a holistic view of the human person, you also need to reference the mind, or the intellect. Maybe other things too, but at least also the mind.

In fact, the intellect is supposed to inform the will, when human beings are at their best. Which is perhaps why the New Testament, especially in the epistles, is so keen to explain things – to present truths to our minds for us to grasp and then act on – to engage our intellects and expand our intellectual horizons with always bigger and more sharply focussed truths about God our Saviour.

When Sinclair Ferguson begins to answer his own question about sanctification, ‘But how?!’ his first port of call is not the will, but the intellect. His Principle Number One is ‘Developing a mindset.’

“The Spirit does not bypass our minds and work directly on our emotions or affections. It would be both bad theology and poor psychology to think so. Rather he addresses our minds through the Word of God, simply because we are created as rational, thinking beings. How and what we think determines how we feel, will, and live. … As we have already seen, we are transformed through the renewing of our minds.” (p141-142)

So here are some things we need to understand.

For one thing, that our salvation is the work of the triune God. How the Father has loved us and what Christ has done for us and what the Spirit is doing for us. (1 Peter 1:2: “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”)

For another thing, our identity in Christ. “I am no longer the person I was in Adam; I am a new person in Jesus Christ. In Christ I am someone who has died to the dominion of sin and been raised to new life. In Christ I am someone who has been delivered from the dominion of sin and has been transferred into the kingdom of God.” (p88) “Do you know who you really are in Christ? Do you understand what it means to be renamed in Christ? Do you think of yourself each day as someone who has died to sin and been raised into newness of life and therefore cannot go on living in sin?” (p89)

For a third, the things of the Spirit. These things, Paul advises, are what we have to fill our minds with: “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.” “If we are to overcome sin we must develop the ability to fix our minds on the things of the Spirit and the glory of Jesus Christ. And that can take place only when we are being filled with the truth of Scripture. … The remedy is soaking ourselves frequently in God’s word: allowing our minds to be filled to saturation point with its truth. … There is no immediate pathway to getting to know God’s word intimately. There is no quick fix. We can only do this the old-fashioned way, by reading it often and learning it well.” (p158-159)

This isn’t a proper review of Devoted to God but I would thoroughly recommend it. Anyone who prays, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” can’t fail to benefit from its teaching.

it’s not about me

But I am discouraged from going to God for pardon, for I am unworthy of forgiveness. What am I, that God should show such a favour to me?

God forgives, not because we are worthy, but because he is gracious. ‘The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious.’ Exodus 34:6. He forgives out of his clemency; acts of pardon are acts of grace. What worthiness was there in Paul before conversion? He was a blasphemer, and so he sinned against the first table; he was a persecutor, and so he sinned against the second table; but free grace sealed the his pardon. ‘I obtained mercy,’ I was all bestrewed with mercy. 1 Timothy 1:13. What worthiness was in the woman of Samaria? She was ignorant, John 4:22. She was unclean, v18. She was morose and churlish, she would not give Christ so much as a cup of cold water, v9. … What worthiness was here? Yet Christ overlooked all, and pardoned her ingratitude, and though she denied him water out of the well, yet he gave her the water of life. Gratia non invenit dignos, sed facit. Free grace does not find us worthy, but makes us worthy. Therefore, notwithstanding unworthiness, seek to God that your sins may be pardoned.

Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, BOT p233

good news

“It would be a huge mistake, therefore, if you thought that Paul is telling us that ‘faith’ is what justifies us before God. The heart of the gospel is not, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved,’ but, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.’ It is not faith that saves you; it is the Lord Jesus Christ. Faith did not die for you as a sin-bearing, sin-atoning sacrifice. It was the Lord Jesus Christ who was made sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God! Never once does the New Testament tell us that sinners are justified before God on the ground of faith. God justifies believing sinners by Christ’s blood. Jesus Christ himself is our righteousness. Faith is what takes us into Christ, in whom God justifies the ungodly. In Christ, God’s own righteousness is counted ours, just as our sins were counted Christ’s.

This needs to be said for a number of reasons, but perhaps, above all, for this reason: the centre of the life of faith is not faith, but the Lord Jesus Christ. The focus of the life of faith is not the quality of my faith, but the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Ian Hamilton (2018), Salvation: Full and Free in Christ (Banner Mini Guide). Banner of Truth.


an incomparable union

(This is what John Brown of Haddington says about the metaphors for the believer’s union with Christ.)

In attesting the reality of this union between Christ and believers, the Scripture represents him as in them, and them as in him (John 14:20, John 6:56, John 15:4, 5, 7, John 17: 21, 26, Colossians 1:27, 1 John 5:20, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Isaiah 14:17); and having him for their life (1 John 5:11, 12, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 3:3-4); and being partakers of him (Hebrews 3:14).

This spiritual union between Christ and believers, being exceedingly mysterious in itself, is in Scripture illustrated to us by many similitudes, some of which transcend it, and others are transcended by it.

1. It is likened to that union which is between the persons of the Godhead (John 17:21, John 14:20, John 6:57). But here it falls infinitely short, not being absolutely necessary, or self-existent; nor doth it constitute Christ and believers one individual substance.

2. It is likened to the union of Christ’s two natures in his person. For as his manhood was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, we are born of the Spirit (Matthew 1:20, Luke 1:35, John 3:5, 6, 8, 1 Peter 1:3, 23, 1 John 3:9, 1 John 5:18) As Christ, by a sovereign act, assumed our nature, he by another apprehends our person (Hebrews 2:14, 16, Philippians 3:12). As in his manhood dwells all the fulness of Godhead, we, being in him, are filled with all the fulness of God (Colossians 3:9, 10, Ephesians 3:19). He, being made flesh, tabernacled with us, and we, being united to him, God dwells with us in him (John 1:14, Revelation 2:13, Ephesians 2:21-22, Ephesians 3:17). In him, as God-man, there is the grace of union, unction, and headship; and in us, as united to him, there is a gracious union, unction, and membership (John 1:14, 16, Colossians 2:19, Colossians 1:18).

Nevertheless, our spiritual union with him falls far short of the union of his two natures, as it doth not render him and us one person, nor, for a time, incapable of sin (Galatians 5:17, Romans 7:14-25, Romans 8:13). But it is indeed by that new nature which his self-uniting act forms in us that he holds fellowship with our soul (2 Peter 1:4, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:15); and which, by his gracious influence, mortifies our inward corruption, till it be utterly abolished (Romans 8:2, 13, Galatians 5:17, 24, Romans 7:14-25).

3. It is likened to the union between a king and his subjects, because he, as our brother, hath power over, cares for, rules, and protects us; and we are voluntarily subject to him, and have our eternal happiness dependent on his infinite wisdom, power, mercy, and honour (Revelation 15: 3, Matthew 25:34-40). But it is much more spiritual, close, and permanent.

4. As it imports mutual knowledge, choosing, and solemn self-dedication, and issues in mutual love, delight, and interest, it is likened to the marriage-union betwixt husband and wife (Ephesians 5:30, 32, Isaiah 54:5, Ezekiel 16:8-14, Song 2:16, Song 6:3). But here also it much transcends, as it renders Christ and believers one spirit, and can never be dissolved (1 Corinthians 6:16, 17, Philippians 2:5, 2 Peter 1:4, Colossians 3:3, Hosea 2:19-20).

5. To mark that their happy connections, support, and glory, depend on him, it is likened to the union of a building with its foundation or corner-stone (Isaiah 28:16, 1 Corinthians 3:9, 11, 17, Psalm 118:22, 1 Peter 2:4-5, Ephesians 2:20-22). But here also it far transcends, as Christ is equally near to every believer, and communicates life to every believer (1 Peter 2:5, Galatians 2:20, John 14:19, John 11:25).

6. Because through it we receive all our supporting, quickening, beautifying, and fructifying influences, it is likened to the union between the root of a tree and its branches (John 15:1-7, Colossians 2:7). But here also it far transcends, as Christ, our root, is equally near to all his branches, and not one of them can become altogether withered, barren, or broken off (Romans 7:4, Romans 6:14, Romans 8:35-39, John 10:28-29).

7. As we are enlightened, governed, honoured, and receive our spiritual, nourishment and breath through Christ, it is likened to the union between our head and other members of our body (Ephesians 4:15-16, 1 Corinthians 1:12, Colossians 1:18, Colossians 2:18-19). But it far transcends this, as Christ is equally near to every member, and none can be separated from him, or become utterly benumbed or mortified (John 14:16, 19, Colossians 3:3-4, Galatians 2:20, Isaiah 26:19).

8. As Christ enters into our soul, and is the very life of it, our spiritual union with him is likened to that of our soul, or of our food with our body (John 6:56-57, Colossians 3:4). But it is much more close, as Christ can never be separated from us, or cease to actuate us (Ephesians 4:16, Colossians 2:19, Galatians 2:28).

This union is formed in the work of effectual calling, in which Christ, by his Word and Spirit, invites, drives, and draws them to himself; and, in his powerfully applied declarations and offers of the gospel, conveys himself and his grace into their hearts. This effectual calling is the work of God (Romans 9:24, Romans 8:20, Romans 11:29, 1 Thessalonians 4:7); and is ascribed to the Father (1 Corinthians 1:9, 2 Timothy 1:9); and to the Son (Romans 1:6, 2 Peter 1:3); but, in a peculiar manner, to the Holy Ghost, as sent by the Father and Son to apply redemption to us (Romans 8:2, 2 Corinthians 3:6, Revelation 2:7, John 16:7-13, Ezekiel 36:26-27, Isaiah 44:3-5).


same and equal

‘How many persons are there in the Godhead?’ asks the Shorter Catechism in Question 6.

The answer is, ‘There are three persons in the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and these three are one God, the same in substance, equal in power and glory.’

I’ve been reading through a collection of essays called, Retrieving Eternal Generation. One of the contributors is Chad Van Dixhoorn, with a chapter on the outputs of the Westminster Assembly. He gives the background to how the eventual wording of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms was arrived at.

“Cheynell had argued that the words ‘same’ and ‘equal’ were important. ‘Same’ emphasised unity, and ‘equal,’ in order to be intelligible, assumed diversity: ‘We do usually say that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are equall in power, to note a distinction of persons; but when we speak strictly, we do not say that the power of the persons is equall, but we say the power of the persons is the same, to note the unity of their essence.’ The use of these terms, both here [in the Shorter Catechism] and in the Larger Catechism, and the insistence on the unity of substance created a crisp (now classic) Trinitarian summary.”

Which shows, perhaps, both that we are pushing language to its limits when we try to put in words who and what God is, and also that there is merit in having and learning and steeping ourselves in the most careful forms of words available.

C. Van Dixhoorn, ‘Post-Reformation Trinitarian Perspectives,’ in Retrieving Eternal Generation, ed. Fred Sanders and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 204.


RefreshI’m grateful to Shona Murray for writing this book, Refresh: Embracing a grace-paced life in a world of endless demands (Crossway, 2017). It is both sensible and scriptural. It speaks to real problems that many people struggle with, and it distils some significant theological principles so as to speak clearly and accessibly to people’s needs.

The problem Dr Murray addresses is running out of energy for spiritual things, because of overdoing it in everyday things. Surely all believers get concerned at some stage or other about their lack of spirituality. But maybe not all believers have access to the pastoral sanity that recognises the complexity of the human person and the strange interactions within a person between the spiritual, the psychological, and the physical. It’s not as if spiritual problems (lack of assurance, lack of trust, feeling far away from God or forsaken by the Lord) are always only purely spiritual – occurring entirely in a vacuum detached from problems such as anxiety, depression, tiredness, illness, or social isolation. Rather, when people are run down and worn out by earthly, temporal things, they are more vulnerable to wavering in the spiritual domain too.

Murray’s advice to anyone who is struggling in this way is, correspondingly, both spiritual and practical.

On the spiritual front, Murray talks about a ‘grace-paced life.’ The abounding grace of God motivates his people to live lives of thankfulness. The accepting grace of God delivers his people from legalistic striving to earn or maintain his approval. The rewarding grace of God frees his people to be diligent in whatever they do while safely leaving the outcome up to him. The providential grace of God means his people can accept setbacks as part of his goodness. And the giving grace of God leads his people to receive the care he provides for them in the gifts of rest and comfort. Lives genuinely informed and deeply influenced by these aspects of God’s grace would surely be lived at a calm and steady, thankful and cheerful pace. (p12-14).

These principles have implications for practice. The book imagines you doing an induction session when you join a new gym. It walks you round a series of stations, a chapter for each, with advice for a different area of life at each one.

If I can summarise this advice, not so much in the way it is presented in the book as in the way it makes most sense to me, it falls into three rough categories.

The first would be, using the means. God provides us with all sorts of means to sustain life and make life comfortable. We need to eat, sleep, exercise, and plan our schedules, for example. We can’t casually regard ourselves as able to dispense with these ordinary means and still expect our lives (including our spiritual lives) to run successfully. There is a whole chapter on rest, for instance, which insists on the importance of getting enough sleep, exposing the myth that sleep is only for the weak, and the wrongheadedness of taking pride in how little sleep we can get by on. It is a useful feature of this book that Murray includes advice about these apparently very basic things, because the most spiritually minded saint is still a frail and finite human being who needs to recognise the frame that God has given us and live accordingly.

The second category of advice would be, using the gifts. God gives us (especially, privileged twenty first century Westerners) more than the bare necessities for mere existence. For example, medicine is a gift that is available for us to use when we need to and not despise. Murray provides a careful, thoughtful exploration of the value of taking antidepressant medication. ‘Don’t rush to take antidepressants … Don’t rule out antidepressants … Don’t rely on medication alone.’ (p141-148)

For another example, it is in God’s kindness that our lives do not need to be one unremitting drudge but that we can from time to time find enjoyment and restoration. Murray recognises two aspects of many women’s experience which are not often talked about in either evangelical or Reformed contexts. One is the demands of work. It is normal for women to work, and to work in pressurised roles. The other aspect of experience is how demanding motherhood can be. There is no pretence here that motherhood is some blissful, noble calling in which every mother finds nothing but joy and fulfilment. Looking after small children is hard, frustrating, boring, incessant work, and Murray, mercifully, acknowledges this.

She makes the point that people need to build in times of relaxation or refreshment at regular intervals – she says daily, weekly, and annually (p85ff). The daily refreshment is not your daily devotions, but a time to relax and do something enjoyable. The weekly refreshment is the sabbath (‘a joyful day of rest and refreshment centred on the worship of God…’) which is certainly a gift. The annual refreshment is a yearly holiday.

As something of an afterthought, Murray adds something called seasonal refreshment, by allusion to Solomon’s seasons and times. Seasons could be times of bereavement, relocation, retirement, etc., and the advice is to identify the season and adjust accordingly. Here there is also the briefest of mentions of hormones (cycles, pregnancy, nursing, menopause). This could perhaps have been usefully expanded on, because the interaction between hormones and spirituality is not straightforward. Just as you learn not to take it as a sure sign of new found tenderness in the things of grace when it’s really only the weepy phase of your cycle, you also learn not to over-commit wildly in the high energy phase, embarking on life-changing new regimes which are simply not sustainable, or even sensible, a few days later. However, individuals can work out their own way to follow the suggestion of “accepting reality and working with it, not against it,” and to avoid thinking that “I essentially have to ignore the constraints of my [current] season” (p99-100) and carry on regardless.

The third category of advice is thinking straight. The book gives comprehensive pointers to how to think accurately about ourselves and about God.

Murray opens her book with a description of an experience of burnout which will ring true for many people. She then gives examples of how to review your whole situation to see what warning signs there might be of a looming breakdown (and how to evaluate the seriousness of these signs). The warning signs range from physical and mental, through emotional, relational and vocational, to moral and spiritual. Previous generations of Reformed believers understood the value of self-examination. Plenty sources give questions we can put to ourselves to assess our spiritual condition (unconverted? converted? backsliding believer? growing in grace?). But the special strength of Murray’s ‘Reality Check’ chapter is that it takes a holistic view and invites us to think clearly and honestly about every aspect of ourselves, body and mind included, and our situations, taking in work and relationships as well as use of the means of grace.

Murray also constantly returns to how we should think of the Lord. He is glorious in himself and he deserves that we should glorify him. He has made us this way – frail creatures of dust, frail creatures of time. He looks after us and our families and our responsibilities when we are unable to, including when we are asleep or when we are ill. This adds up to helping us think straight about ourselves in relation to God. Our lives should be a response to his mercy and kindness. Other people’s amazing feats of endurance or success do not set the bar for any other one of us. As believers, if we see that he is in total control of providence, we can give up our selfish perfectionism. If we accept his verdict that we are sinners, we must also accept his verdict that we are dead to sin and alive to Christ, and live accordingly.

Refresh is not a book for everyone. It is not particularly for unbelievers, although there is advice here that anyone could act on, because the reader is assumed to be familiar already with the grace of God. It is not perhaps for believers who have lots of time on their hands, who might feel that as they do not live life at a frantic pace they have no excuse for a low spiritual condition. But it is, oddly enough, for people who think they are at no risk of burnout and are never going to find themselves dealing with depression. Even if a reader hasn’t slipped beyond the ‘stressed’ and ‘anxious’ stages to ‘burned out -> sad -> depressed -> suicidal,’ nobody is immune to the pressures of life lived in a fallen world, and everybody can benefit from a clearer grasp of their limitations and God’s provisions.

And Refresh is certainly helpful for those who are consciously struggling, who know that something is wrong, and who want to get their lives back on track to glorify God. Here is some friendly advice from a qualified, experienced confidant. God’s people in God’s providence need to make use of God’s means and God’s gifts, and God’s revelation of who we are and who he is. ‘Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.’

pulpits, women, and consciences

90791205If you’re looking for a way to grow in grace, it’s useful to know that the Holy Spirit makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word an effective means of building believers up in the faith.

‘Especially the preaching’ gives the priority to what comes from the pulpit. For feeding, for growing, for finding closer communion with the Lord, believers are meant to find what they need primarily from the Word as it is preached, by one of the Lord’s sent servants, in the assemblies of the Lord’s people, on the Lord’s day.

On one hand, this places a huge responsibility on preachers to say things that are not only true in general but relevant to the building up of believers – to rightly divide the Word of God so that they are in fact feeding the flock.

On the other hand, this means that believers should be cautious about expecting to find blessings that genuinely help them to grow in grace from other sources.

Unfortunately, however, there are plenty of other sources competing with preaching to be the place that believers look for help in the Christian walk.

For some reason, many of these sources target women in particular. There is an astonishing variety of ministries offering to help women make better, deeper spiritual progress.

I’m not entirely sure why this would be. Maybe women are particularly disadvantaged by poor preaching and therefore feel a greater need to look elsewhere for additional help. Maybe there are particular reasons why women face barriers to receiving the benefit of even good preaching (let’s just mention enforced absence from services because of childcare, or inability to concentrate properly in services because of childcare).

Or maybe Christian women have more reasons to struggle in the Christian walk more than Christian men? Christian mothers of young children, perhaps, have to shoulder the larger part of the responsibility of the round the clock demands of early parenthood. It is entirely possible that between an unpleasantly early start to the day, the school run, the cooking of meals that no one will appreciate, and failing to keep on top of housework, opportunities to read the Bible or pray seem to slip away before they’ve barely appeared.

In circumstances where it seems that your relationship with God is the remotest it’s ever been, your appetite for the Bible is sadly diminished, and your fervency in prayer has vanished, there can be something very attractive about a women’s ministry – advice or mentoring by women for women which understands the difficulties of your situation and offers hope of a renewed enthusiasm for the things of God.

Yet too many women’s ministries are not trustworthy and cannot deliver on what they promise.

The attraction comes from seeing articulate, relatable women describe their passion for the Lord and express their desire for others to rediscover their own joy and delight in God.

The problem is when their teachings, rather than feeding the soul, work like spiritual junk food – after an initial taste explosion, the actual nutritional value turns out to be minimal.

This happens any time when:

  • the theology is shallow. This inspirational speaker mentions the name of God, Christ, and the Spirit, but can you actually tell whether she believes in the Trinity?
  • the doctrines of grace are unclear. This passionate writer just can’t help magnifying the love, grace, mercy and kindness of God, but does she convey that God’s love provided a substitutionary atonement for a definite number of sinners?
  • the concept of sin isn’t fully biblical. Here’s a challenging blog post from someone who certainly doesn’t want you to think she doesn’t struggle with these issues herself. But the issues are more about the way you fail your family and friends and let yourself be taken prisoner by self-doubt than about the law of God.
  • emotions matter more than understanding. Here’s an intelligent writer who always offers some new insight when you read. But it’s insight into how you feel, or how you respond to people and things, or how your own behaviour holds you back – rather than explaining an important part of theology, or connecting the dots between one doctrine and another.
  • the overall effect is to make you feel good, rather than be holy. Here are some powerful bible study materials from someone who really understands how women get oppressed by low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and the pressures of a hectic lifestyle. The support it offers helps you to stop feeling guilty about things you can’t change and move forward with more confidence and self-acceptance. But the concept of dying more and more to sin and living more and more to righteousness doesn’t feature so prominently.

Alongside the junk food problem is the fluff problem.

Mostly, these writers and speakers tend to be devotional, not doctrinal. This, it seems somehow, insulates them from scrutiny. When someone excitedly shares about their love for God and their heart for their sisters in Christ, inviting you to join them on a journey into a more peaceful way of living as you experience the transformative power of prayer and learn how to delight in authentic worship – how can you even hesitate?! It seems pedantic to pause and ask even basic questions like, What kind of Christian are you? Baptist? Presbyterian? Mormon? Do you identify with any recognisable statement of belief, articles of faith, creed or confession? How will I know if your spirituality springs from ideas and doctrines that are fundamentally different from mine and potentially harmful to my own spiritual exercises?

And the fluffiness, over time, clogs up the spiritual air we breathe and starts to stifle our consciences. Long term exposure to other people’s devotional output – when it isn’t modulated by the sound preaching of the Word – either has the result of making you feel inadequate, or making you feel virtuous.

Either of these results is problematic for the conscience. Any activity which involves someone comparing themselves against a moral standard so as to either accuse or excuse themselves is an activity which involves the conscience. When someone puts themselves forward as a Christian who can lead other Christians in devotional matters, their main sphere of activity is going to be the conscience. Leading people to query their standing before God and putting questions about the quality of people’s relationship with God are matters of self-examination which involve the conscience.

Since God alone is the Lord of the conscience, when someone confronts our conscience we have the right to ask what is their authority for doing so. Are you living a life that is truly devoted to God? Do you really pray with earnest wrestling prayer? Are you not, if you’re honest, enjoying other things more than the Bible? Before anyone starts examining themselves, they have the right to say in response to questions like these, ‘Who are you to ask?’

If these questions aren’t coming from the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture, or some legitimate church authority (namely your pastor or elder), you’re under no obligation to take them seriously. Because, after all, who are these people? In the worst case scenario, they’re unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, and disconnected. Unqualified in terms of any theology training. Unaccountable to you or your church, unless they happen to belong to your denomination. Self-appointed, because you don’t need any recognition or commission from any churchly authority to get blogging or start producing bible study materials. And disconnected, in the sense that you have no real relationship with them, they don’t really know you or your situation, and all that you likely know about them is the version of themselves that they choose to disclose online.

Obviously it’s not that a believer can’t chat frankly about their devotional life with a trusted friend or respected long-standing member of (say) their own church. But when someone starts putting out pointed questions for self-examination, and they’re unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, and disconnected, then, for the sake of our consciences, we need to remember that we’re under no obligation to confess our failings, and we’re certainly under no obligation to take their advice for how to put matters right.

In fact, for a believer to put themselves in the hands of someone else for assistance in their devotional life (someone unqualified, unaccountable, self-appointed, unconnected) is to run the risk of entangling their conscience all over again when Christ has set them free. If I compare my devotions with someone else’s – my level of passion for the Lord, my fervency in prayer, the authenticity of my worship experiences, the sweetness I find in the Word, the depth of my trust in God – I’m bound to acknowledge my inconsistencies and shortcomings. I’m bound to feel guilty. But Christ was supposed to have set my conscience free from feeling guilty about falling short of other people’s standards. It doesn’t matter how godly they appear, how exercised they seem, how relatable they are, or how motivating and inspiring and uplifting they try to be.

Believers are, after all, warned about the dangers of people who have an impressive appearance of godliness, but ultimately deny its power. We should really turn away from these people and have nothing to do with them, because unfortunately they have a knack of finding the believer’s weak spots and exploiting their gullibility. They look like they want to help us be better Christians, but in the end they leave us as they found us – according to 2 Timothy 3, laden with sins, led away with various passions, ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Junk food and fluff make women’s ministries a laughing stock, not to mention more hindrance than help in the Christian walk. If only we were prepared to stick more closely to the means of grace which the Holy Spirit has actually provided for our conversion and sanctification – especially the preaching of the Word.