Toward the end of the 19th century, J.C. Ryle wrote, “There has been of late years a lower standard of personal holiness among believers than there used to be in the days of our fathers. The whole result is that the Spirit is grieved! And the matter calls for much humiliation and searching of heart.”
Ryle’s concern is just as true in our day as it was in his own. Regardless of our role in our congregations, many of us are aware of an uncomfortable presence in our churches. An almost apathetic, perfunctory approach to our faith—a spiritual funk. We go to church at least a couple times a month. We (maybe) sing a few songs while we are there. We read our Bibles as much as two to three times a week. We pray before our meals and when something big happens…
And in our honest moments, we recognize we’re all prone to this sort of apathy. This feeling of being fake. It’s not an “out there” problem. It’s not an issue for someone else, but not me. It’s something each of us personally has to deal with.
A while ago, I was reading a book offering a solution to the problem. And it’s answer was personal piety. Read your Bible, sing songs, pray, share your faith, listen to expository preaching… that kind of stuff. And I think these things have their place, certainly. I’m all for reading the Bible regularly, praying, singing, evangelizing and sitting under faithful preaching. (And I hope you are, too.) But I have to wonder if it’s not that simple—if the answer isn’t just being more personally pious.
At least, not entirely.
Maybe the reason so many seem apathetic is because we have a flawed understanding of what a past generation called “religious affections.” Jonathan Edwards, for example, carefully considered genuine vs questionable evidence of our love for God. And he found that many of the things we point to as evidence might be—but they might be fake.
- A desire to speak of spiritual realities and the Bible may be evidence we love Christ, but it may not.
- A desire to sing songs may be evidence, but it may not.
- A desire to pray may be evidence, but it may not.
But Edwards went on to say that if we want to know if our claim to love Christ is true, we need only look at one thing: our love for one another. And this makes sense because, as Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). And elsewhere we are consistently told this same thing: to love one another. To pursue each other and spur one another on in love and good deeds.
And this is much harder to do, in many ways. There are ways we can fake it till we make it in our expressiveness in worship gatherings. However, the height of our hands is rarely a solid evidence of the internal realities of the heart. A smart person can talk a big game for a while on Bible stuff, too. But what we can’t fake—at least not in the way we think—is love.
So what does this have to do with the quote from Ryle? Perhaps this: A lower standard of personal holiness is only concerned about our personal emotional response. But personal holiness does not execute personally. True holiness—and true love or zeal for Christ—is always concerned with love for others. We live it—we practice it—day by day.
And we’re going to get it wrong. We’re going to act unloving at times, or struggle to actually want to love others. But if we desire Christ, we will grow to love those he loves. And that’s something you can’t fake.