B.B. Warfield has gone down in history as one of America’s great theologians, and for good reason. He was a bulwark of orthodoxy against the rising tide of liberalism. Even a century after his death, many of his works are as powerful and relevant as the day they were written. Yet while he is known for his keen intellect and profound theological insights, he was also a man of tender affection.
Soon after his marriage to Annie, the young couple journeyed to Europe together. During this trip, Annie underwent a terrifying experience that resulted in a kind of nervous trauma she was never able to overcome. She returned home an invalid whose condition continued to deteriorate for the rest of her life. Warfield responded to these tragic events by diligently committing himself to her care. For the duration of their marriage, he rarely left her side for more than a couple of hours at a time, and never for longer than necessary. A friend recalls, “I used to see them walking together and the gentleness of his manner was striking proof of the loving care with which he surrounded her. … During the years spent at Princeton, he rarely if ever was absent for any length of time.” Warfield was not only a great theologian but also a great husband.
There are few virtues more powerful than devotion. There are few character traits we honor more highly than this one. In this short series, we are considering the 10 duties of every Christian, and among these is the duty of devotion.
The Purpose of Devotion
Christians often speak of devotion. We speak of “devoting ourselves to God” and, more commonly, of “doing our daily devotions.” This word is familiar to every believer, but I wonder how often we consider what it means and what it entails. What is this devotion we offer to God? And what’s the connection between devotion to God and personal devotions? What is its purpose of our personal devotions what do we hope to gain from them?
In both uses, devotion is an expression of love and loyalty rooted in both duty and delight. B.B. Warfield owed his wife certain duties by virtue of being her husband, and his devotion flowed out of his duty. God expected no less than what Warfield offered, for his devotion was an expression of obedience to the vows he had made to her on their wedding day. Yet his devotion was also an expression of delight. He loved his wife and found joy in her, and it was out of this delight that he was devoted to her. It would be unfair to disconnect his long devotion to his wife from either duty or delight.
Similarly, the Christian’s devotion to God is both duty and delight. It is an expression of the love we have for God and the loyalty we long to express to him. It is the overflow of the joy we have in him and our commitment toward him. Our devotion to God leads to certain habits or disciplines. We devote ourselves to God by devoting ourselves to practices that inform and enhance our relationship with him. Among these practices is the one we know as “personal devotions.”
The Pattern of Devotion
God has created us to be creatures of habit. While we are certainly more than our habits, we are not less. Our habits shape us and make us who we are. The activities we repeat soon become ingrained in the fabric of our lives so that after a time it is more difficult to skip a habit than to perform it (which is exactly why it is so important to develop good habits and to repent of harmful ones). Much of our struggle with sin can be traced directly to our failure to develop good habits and our inability or unwillingness to destroy bad ones.
Habits are one of the ways we experience God’s refreshing and renewing grace. David Mathis says, “Our God is lavish in his grace; he is free to liberally dispense his goodness without even the least bit of cooperation and preparation on our part, and often he does. But he also has his regular channels. And we can routinely avail ourselves of these revealed paths of blessing—or neglect them to our detriment.” One of the key habits every Christian ought to begin is the habit of personal devotions. This is certainly not the only means through which God blesses us with his grace and certainly not the only meaningful habit. Yet it is a crucial one that benefits all who diligently pursue it.
In most cases the habit of personal devotion is expressed in a daily quiet time, a time committed to hearing God through his Word and to speaking to God through prayer. In this way our devotion is conversation between two people—God and ourselves. While the Bible instructs us to “pray without ceasing,” it also models the importance of setting aside particular times for deliberate and even planned prayer. Though Jesus lived in constant communion with God, he still escaped from his responsibilities and followers to spend time—even long hours—alone with God. And while the Bible commends those whose thoughts turn regularly and naturally to God’s Word, it also tells of the importance of diligently studying it. If we are to live for God, we must live with God. If we are to honor him, we must know him, and we know him through this habit of devotion.
Such devotion requires the diligence and discipline that will build the habit and improve upon it. Most Christians find they must set aside time every day and train themselves to maintain it. After some time of building the habit, they soon find themselves naturally opening God’s Word and praying to him. That habit is then used by God to build relationship, to teach godly character, and to compel obedience.
The Danger of Devotion
I once lived in a town that became the scene for a film set during the Second World War. For the film to be successful, the town’s Main Street needed to have all traces of the 1990s removed and replaced by the 1940s. It was fascinating to watch work crews sweep over the town. Within days they had transformed it. As I stood at the end of town and looked down Main Street, it was like I was looking into the past. Yet when I walked through the town my deeper look revealed that this transformation was only skin-deep. The crews had merely covered the modern buildings with false fronts and filled store windows with old-fashioned merchandise. Yet behind each false front were the common, modern storefronts, and just behind the front windows was the regular merchandise.
Even something as good as devotion can be misused. Religious deceivers and hypocrites put on a “false front” when it comes to devotion. They want to maintain the outward appearance of faithful followers of God when they are in public but remain unchanged in private. Jesus warned of people who behave like this: “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:5). The only reward they have is the fleeting accolades of the easily-impressed. They know nothing of the reward God dispenses to those who truly love and seek him. Such people are devout when they are in the congregation but destitute in private; they are saints in the church but atheists in the home.
Even as true Christians, we face the danger of interpreting our standing with God through our diligence in devotions. We can measure our obedience and our walk with God solely by how often we devote time to Scripture and prayer and how we feel about the time spent. This can lock us into a pattern of depending on our works to be right with God, of thinking that our standing before God depends upon our performance. Jerry Bridges reminds us, “Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.” We must never forget that the duty of our devotion is founded in Christ’s initiating devotion toward us on the cross.
The Duty of Devotion
As Christians, we are devoted to God. We have a deep love and loyalty to him, and we express and foster this by what we refer to as “personal devotions.” “Thus says the Lord: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me” (Jeremiah 9:23). The discipline of personal devotions is one of the key means through which we come to understand God, to know God, and to be known by God. It is our delightful duty.