In Christ’s parable of Dives and Lazarus, we are told that between paradise and hell “there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.” An analogous gulf seems to separate Christians of our day from the great saints and devotional writers in the Church’s past. Approaches to life such as those advocated or described in the following quotations could hardly be more foreign to the actual life pattern of the average American Christian—be he layman or pastor:

Flee the company of worldly-living people as much as thou mayest: for the treating of worldly matters abateth greatly the fervour of spirit: though it be done with a good intent, we be anon deceived with vanity of the world, and in manner are made as thrall unto it, if we take not good heed.… Therefore it is necessary that we watch and pray, that the time pass not away from us in idleness. If it be lawful and expedient to speak, speak then of God and of such things as are to the edifying of thy soul or of thy neighbour’s (Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans., Richard Whitford, p. 17).

I looked then, and saw a man named Evangelist coming to him, who asked, “Wherefore dost thou cry?”

He answered, “Sir, I perceive by the book in my hand, that I am condemned to die, and after that to come to judgment; and I find that I am not willing to do the first, nor able to do the second.”

Then said Evangelist, “Why not willing to die, since this life is attended with so many evils?” The man answered, “Because I fear that this burden that is upon my back will sink me lower than the grave, and I shall fall into Tophet. And, sir, if I be not fit to go to prison, I am not fit to go to judgment, and from thence to execution; and the thoughts of these things make me cry.”

Then said Evangelist, “If this be thy condition, why standest thou still?”

He answered, “Because I know not whither to so.” Then he gave him a parchment roll, and there was written within, “Flee from the wrath to come.”

The man, therefore, read it, and looking upon Evangelist very carefully, said, “Whither must I fly?” Then said Evangelist (pointing with his finger over a very wide field), “Do you see yonder wicket gate?” The man said, “No.” Then said the other, “Do you see yonder shining light?” He said, “I think I do.” Then said Evangelist, “Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto: so shalt thou see the gate; at which, when thou knockest, it shall be told thee what thou shalt do.” So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now, he had not run far from his own door, when his wife and children perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and Tan on, crying, “Life! life! eternal life!” So he looked not behind him, but fled toward the middle of the plain (John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, pp. 8–10).

Article continues below

I found in myself a spirit of love, and warmth, and power, to address the poor Indians. God helped me to plead with them to “turn from all the vanities of the heathen to the living God.” I am persuaded the Lord touched their consciences for I never saw such attention raised in them before. And when I came away from them, I spent the whole time, while I was riding to my lodgings three miles distant, in prayer and praise to God.

After I rode more than two miles, it came into my mind to dedicate myself to God again; which I did with great solemnity and unspeakable satisfaction. Especially gave up myself to Him renewedly in the work of the ministry. And this I did by divine grace, I hope, without any exception or reserve; not in the least shrinking back from any difficulties that might attend this great and blessed work. I seemed to be most free, cheerful and full in this dedication of myself. My whole soul cried: “Lord, to Thee I dedicate myself! Oh, accept of me and let me be Thine forever. Lord, I desire nothing else; I desire nothing more. Oh, come, come, Lord, accept a poor worm. ‘Whom have I in heaven but Thee? and there is none upon earth, that I desire besides Thee’ ” (Jonathan Edwards, ed., The Life and Diary of David Brainerd, 1744; newly ed. by Philip E. Howard, Jr., Moody Press’ Wycliffe Series of Christian Classics, 1949, p. 169).

The reading of the Word and meditation on the promises have been increasingly precious to me of late. At first I allowed my desire to acquire the language (Chinese) speedily to have undue prominence and a deadening effect on my soul. But now, in the grace that passes all understanding, the Lord has again caused His face to shine upon me.…

I have been puzzling my brains again about a house, etc., but to no effect. So I have made it a matter of prayer, and have given it entirely into the Lord’s hands, and now I feel quite at peace about it. He will provide and be my guide in this and every other perplexing step (Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret, pp. 38–39).


It is natural to ask why such passages as these breathe an atmosphere almost totally different from that in church life today. Several contributing factors can be cited, all of which must be taken into account for a full explanation. First of all, one must note what Andrew Dickson White termed “the warfare of science with theology” which, since the middle of the nineteenth century, has resulted in the growth of a mechanistic, reductionist attitude on the part of both scientist and nonscientist. Scientific method presupposes a closed universe governed by invariable law; in such a universe, religious devotion and prayer for specifics seem archaic and meaningless. “Among the professional and scientific classes it has been the inability of traditional religion to justify itself in the light of modern science … that has led to the rapid growth of a tolerant indifference, a skeptical agnosticism, or a dogmatic atheism” (John Herman Randall, Jr., The Making of the Modern Mind, p. 535). Secondly, and more important, we have the secular “success philosophy” which has turned generations of Americans (church members included) from seeking God to seeking personal achievement and recognition by society. “The major influence affecting religious beliefs and attitudes has been the growth of our manifold secular faiths and interests.… Though men repeat the old phrases their real concern has turned elsewhere” (Ibid., p. 538). In the secularistic activism of modern life, few find time or motivation for devotional exercises. Thirdly, observation of the churches themselves reveals that organized religion has shifted its goals to accord more fully with the modern temper. “The main stress of religious energy [has been turned] away from the supernatural to the social, from transcending the human to the serving of human needs.… It is not that the churches practice a conscious hypocrisy about Christian teachings but rather that religious doctrines have been turned into counters in a game men play to bring their consciences to terms with their universe. It is less a question of what the pastors say than the fact that they are no longer listened to. Having lost the capacity for belief, they have lost also the power to instill belief.” (Max Lerner, America As a Civilization, pp. 708, 711. The Rev. Mackerel is a fictional example of the suburban modernist clergyman; he receives a salary raise when he makes the stirring sermonic point that “It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us”). But this is not the only way that the church has widened the gap between the ideal and the real in Christian devotional life.

Article continues below
Article continues below

In their writings, not a few twentieth-century theologians have (in many cases unwittingly) encouraged the trend away from Christian devotional exercises. I refer not merely to publications by religious liberals who would justify an anthropocentric religion (e.g., Curtis W. Reese, The Meaning of Humanism) nor solely to works by those who would interpret prayer largely in terms of introspection or meditation (e.g., William Adams Brown, The Life of Prayer in a World of Science, especially pp. 13–15) influential as such writings have been. What concerns me more is the doctrinal emphasis characteristic of some of the foremost theologians within the Reformation framework of belief.


For several decades, Karl Barth and the so-called “neo-orthodox” school of Christian thought have excessively stressed the sovereignty and transcendence of God. The work of Rudolph Otto (cf. Walter Leibrecht, ed., Religion and Culture; Essays in Honor of Paul Tillich, pp. 6, 10; also Barth’s recent work, The Humanity of God; and note especially Otto’s Idea of the Holy), and the Kierkegaard revival (cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, Pools for Christ, 1955, pp. 1–27), have likewise moved the gravitational center of theology. Nygren’s Agape and Eros (Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros, trans. by Philip S. Watson, see especially part I) has sharply distinguished God’s unmotivated, selfless, unconditioned love from all varieties of human desire. Now obviously no Christian who subjects his theology to the testimony of Revelation would deny the great contribution which this transcendence movement has made. In an era of watered-down, man-centered, social-gospel liberalism, Barth’s Commentary on Romans came as a clarion-call to a Reformation re-emphasis on justification by grace alone. However, the neo-orthodox and Lundensian movements do not seem productive of a positive attitude in the devotional realm. In his Basic Christian Ethics Ramsey writes:

One has to go in heavily for analogy, or even commute back and forth from one meaning to another, ever to suppose that “love,” or any other single term, can adequately convey the meaning of a Christian’s response to God and also his love for neighbor. The words “faith,” “obedience,” “humility,” and—to indicate greater intimacy and warmth—the words “gratitude” and “thankfulness,” and—to keep the distance between God and man—the expression “to glorify” are preferable, singly or as a cluster, for describing how Christians think of themselves standing in relation to God.… Strictly speaking, the Christian church is not a community of prayer, but a community of memory.… Strictly speaking, Christians are not lovers of God; they are theodidacti, “taught of God” (Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics, pp. 129, 132; cf. Nygren, op cit., pp. 212–14, 219).

Article continues below

When such radical stress is placed upon the “otherness of God,” and when one observes the frightening extent to which Christian devotional writers have sometimes slipped into eros-synergism (examples of synergistic error in Christian devotional classics may be found in such works as Francis de Sales’ Introduction to a Devout Life, ed. by Thomas S. Kepler, and John Wesley’s Christian Perfection, ed. by Thomas S. Kepler. A precedent for all such eros-related devotional literature was Augustine’s De quantitate animae, where Augustine “distinguishes seven aspects of the Soul, or rather seven steps, gradus, by which it climbs to its perfection” (Edward Kennard Rand, Founders of the Middle Ages, p. 260), and thus downgraded if not degraded the ideal of the saint’s true devotion, it does not seem strange that the present-day Christian pastor-finds it easy, amid his hectic and activistic responsibilities, to rationalize a very loose attitude toward the “quest for holiness.” And the clergyman’s personal reticence in this regard has as a logical consequent a laissez-faire approach to the devotional lives of his parishioners—out of whose homes come a good number of the church members of the next generation. If one assumes that this situation is not the ideal one, can a Revelation-based theology present a more balanced approach?


Not all great exhibitions of Christian devotion are to be found in the distant past. The following is a 1951 diary entry by James Elliot who, in January, 1956, was killed while attempting to bring the Christian message to the Auca Indians in Ecuador.

I walked out to the hill just now. It is exalting, delicious. To stand embraced by the shadows of a friendly tree with the wind tugging at your coat tail and the heavens hailing your heart—to gaze and glory and give oneself again to God, what more could a man ask? Oh the fullness, pleasure, sheer excitement of knowing God on earth. I care not if I never raise my voice again for Him, if only I may love Him, please Him. Perhaps in mercy He shall give me a host of children that I may lead them through the vast star fields to explore His delicacies whose finger ends set them to burning. But if not, if only I may see Him, smell His garments and smile into my Lover’s eyes—ah then, not stars nor children shall matter, only Himself (“Excerpts from Jim Elliot’s Diary,” His Magazine, Apr., 1956, p. 9).

Article continues below

How have such modern saints of God reconciled a life of personal devotion with the Reformation principle of sola gratia? The basic answer is, I believe, that they have given proper weight to the two other cardinal watchwords of Protestant theology: sola scriptura and sola fide.

One of the most remarkable—and to many in our day, most irritating—characteristic of the great Protestant Reformers was their insistence that the Bible be allowed to speak for itself, that its message be not limited either by existing cultural conditions or by predetermined religio-philosophical conceptions. To Calvin, for example, it would have been inconceivable to allow the low spiritual state of the city of Geneva to influence biblical teaching as to how people ought to live. Calvin’s problem, as he saw it, was not to fit the biblical message to the time but to discover precisely what the Bible teaches, and then to conform the culture to that divine message. Luther, in dealing with the scholastics, was not impressed by the flawless logic of the medieval synthesis, for he saw it as a substitution of human categories for the revelational basis of Christian theology. If the Bible, taken on its own ground, opposed the whole idea of human merit by which the medieval church justified its practice, then the problem was not to engage in finer casuistry in biblical interpretation but unequivocally to conform church life and theology to God’s Word.

The Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura which grew out of the precise position just described asserts that “the prophetic and apostolic writing of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged.” (Formula of Concord, epitome, part 1; cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. 1, part 10: “The Supreme Judge, by whom all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture).” The question with regard to the devotional life, viewed from this perspective, is simply this: What does the Bible say on the matter? And the answer is no less clean-cut. The New Testament contains literally thousands of explicit commands with regard to growth in Christian life. Moreover, it has been frequently noted that the Pauline writings, which comprise such a large portion of the New Testament, typically employ an outline consisting of “doctrine,” then “response” (e.g., Romans, where the ouv of 12:1 divides the book into two such sections. Sanday and Headlam comment on this verse: “We now reach the concluding portion of the Epistle, that devoted to the practical application of the previous discussion. An equally marked division between the theoretical and the practical portion is found in the Epistle to the Ephesians (chap. 4); and one similar, although not so strongly marked, in Galatians (v. 1 or 2); Colossians (3:1); 1 Thessalonians (4:1); 2 Thessalonians (3:6). A comparison with the Epistles of St. Peter and St. John will show how special a characteristic of St. Paul is this method of construction” (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 5th ed., p. 351). And over against the Lundensian suspicion of agape-love directed toward God, we have Jesus’ crucial summation of the Decalogue in the words “Thou shalt love [agapāseis] the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength” (Mark 12:30; cf. Matt. 22:37; Luke 10:27).

Article continues below

But biblical teaching in this matter goes beyond the sphere of command. It relates the devotional life directly to the central truth of justification. Man is not commanded to love God because his salvation is unsure—in order to obtain merit in God’s eyes. To the contrary, the command comes because the Christian has already been saved, and a life in communion with God is the only consistent possibility in light of so great salvation. “We love him,” John says, “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). “Every good tree bringeth forth good fruit,” was one of our Lord’s frequent emphases. The central theme of James’ often-misunderstood epistle is that “faith without works is dead.” Adolf Köberle has made this point with telling effect:

The justification of prayerlessness has never been derived from the article of justification. It was the age of the Illumination that first brought about that weakening of fervor and of discipline in prayer which our race has not yet succeeded in overcoming.… Properly understood the use of such discipline can never endanger the nature of the Gospel but, on the contrary, will only demonstrate and strengthen it.… That the suppression of our self-love requires unrelenting self-discipline certainly deprives us of every basis for self-satisfaction, every idea of meritorious action, and sternly directs the one who is fasting to seek the forgiveness of sins.… The admonition of Scripture to the disciples and the congregations to crucify the flesh with the affections and lusts thereof, to mortify our members, to strive to enter in through the strait gate, to fight a good fight, to strive to attain the goal—all these admonitions after all only testify how easily the believer may still be lost and what full measure of grace is needed if any one is to be saved (Adolf Köberle, The Quest for Holiness, trans. from the 3d German edition by John C. Mattes, Augsburg, 1938, pp. 174, 184–85).

Article continues below

Thus the very nature of God’s free, unmerited grace, as revealed in the Bible and expressed on the Cross, necessitates a devotional response of the whole man to God. Only if this is understood does the Reformation concept of sola fide—with fides seen both as faith and as faithfulness—carry its proper theological weight. The Word of our God is unique in that it alone “stands forever” (Isa. 40:8), and that its first and great commandment is still to “love the Lord thy God.” If the testimony of Holy Writ is rendered ineffective through attempts to make God’s revelation fit predetermined categories, the result will always be heresy and weakness. God grant then, where the devotional life is concerned, that we (clergyman and layman alike) may pray not only “God be merciful to me a sinner” but also “Lord, increase our faith.”

Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.