Poisonous grace: an exercise in discernment...

Here's an exercise in discernment.

Greg Johnson is a graduate of my denomination's seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and this article he's written strikes me as typical of the sort of poisonous grace talk I've run into too often, recently, including among men from Covenant. Because the error is so common, it might be good for us to critique this particular piece as a means of warning others away from these errors.

Note well: I am not saying everything in this article is bad. There are things here worth saying, some of which are downright helpful and good. But the admixture of truth and error ultimately renders this piece unsalvageable except as an exercise in the practice of that most-neglected-of-all-spiritual-gifts, discernment.

So would you please take some part of this article and, quoting it, show how it is contrary to Scripture? Don't worry if your work is duplicated by someone else. I'm hopeful we'll have thousands of words written about this piece, permanently deposited here in our comments section to be read by others. Of course, it's proper to note the good points Johnson makes, but my principal concern is to see the errors exposed as a warning to all.

Feel free to argue against another reader's critique. The goal here is to grow our discernment quotient, making us all more useful in defending the church against false teaching--particularly false teaching hiding behind the cover of "grace."

Freedom from Quiet Time Guilt: The rare beauty of Weakness Christianity

by Greg Johnson

1. The Diagnosis: Quiet Time Guilt

I recently watched as a congregation I love was spiritually raped. A Christian ministry came into the church for a three-day program whose purpose was to encourage believers to pray more. During one of the breakout sessions, a man expressed his frustration with unanswered prayer. He had faithfully prayed with and for his daughter for years, and still she was not walking with God. He was broken, depressed, perhaps more than a little ashamed. How does God in his grace speak to this man? A bruised reed was crying out for help.

"You need to try harder. You need to pray more." That was the message he was given. I was enraged. Having known this church for many years, I was horrified. What I was hearing was what one seminary professor calls sola bootstrapa. Self-reliance--we pull ourselves up by our own spiritual bootstraps. The teachers who said such things surely meant well. The problem was not a lack of sincerity on their part. The diagnosis is far more severe. The problem was heresy. Any heresy wounds the soul.

When I look upon the evangelical world today, I see millions of sincere believers who are loaded down with false guilt by teachers who fail to grasp the basics of biblical prayer. To sharpen the point slightly, Christ's sheep have been lied to. They have been told that prayer is a work that we must perform in order to get God to bless us. As heresies go, this one is often subtle. Prayer has become a work rather than a grace. The result has been a loss of joy in prayer.

And prayer is not the only grace we've turned into a work. Personal Bible study has become a source of bondage as well. A whole generation of Christians has been told that God will bless them if they read their Bibles every day, as if the act of reading the Scriptures were some kind of magic talisman by which we gain power over God and secure his favor. This is not the religion of the Bible. This pervasive belief that God gives us grace as a reward for our devotional consistency is antithetical to the religion of Jesus Christ. Prayer and Bible study--what evangelicals for the past century have called the "quiet time"--have become dreaded precisely because they have been radically misunderstood.

It's ironic, but the Quiet Time has become the number one cause of defeat among Bible-believing Christians today. At one time or another, nearly every sincere believer feels a deep sense of failure and the accompanying feelings of guilt and shame because he or she has failed to set aside a separate time for Bible study and prayer. This condition is called Quiet Time Guilt. And it's a condition with many repercussions. The shame of Quiet Time Guilt manifests itself in even deeper inability to fruitfully and joyfully study Scripture. Prayer becomes a dread; Bible study a burden. The Christian suffering from Quiet Time Guilt then despairs of seeing God work in his or her life, until finally he or she simply gives up. He may continue outward and public Christian commitments like church attendance, but secretly he feels a hypocrite. What is the root of Quiet Time Guilt?

2. The Culprit: Legalism

The root of Quiet Time Guilt is legalism. Often when we think of legalism, we think of the petty man-made rules that have so often strangled the churches--rules against dancing or drinking or makeup or 'secular' music. But these legalistic rules are merely an outward sign of a deeper legalism of the heart. When prayer and Bible study are thought of primarily as duties ('disciplines') rather than as grace, both prayer and the study of Scripture become unfruitful in our lives...

Click here to finish reading Johnson's article, "Freedom from Quiet Time Guilt."


I thought he had a lot of great things to say in this article. The part where I think he was wrong was when he started talking about the Quiet Time being optional. Yes, it is optional for justification, but I think we're not going to get very far in sanctification without it. He said "We have so many options today, why do we get hung up on the quiet time? Listen to Christian teaching tapes. Invest your time in a small group Bible study. Have friends over for coffee and Bible discussion. Sing and listen to Scripture songs. Read good theology. Tape memory verses to the dashboard of your car. And pray throughout your day."

It sounds like he's getting away from Sola Scriptura. All the things he mentioned are good things, but we need to be in the word of God. I'm reminded of Deut 8:3, which Jesus also quotes in the gospels. "man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. "

Ut-oh. I actually posted Johnson's article on my blog and recommended it. Maybe I took a wrong turn somewhere.

The first thing I noticed was rhetorical errors; use of hyberbolic language (rape, lie) where no one would reasonably infer intent to harm or deceive, something of a "straw man" argument against the "quiet time" (which is not really defined), and a failure to acknowledge that the Reformation began as much (or even more) with Gutenberg as it did with Luther.

What seems to me to be the most egregious theological error is telling people who are not praying or studying the Word that they are indeed children of the King. Maybe, maybe not, but doesn't James tell us that faith without works is dead? A lack of consistent worship is one sign that something is lacking in a person's faith.

Another big theological error is to assume that "quiet time guilt" is rooted in legalism instead of justifiable guilt over not approaching the throne of grace regularly. Just as husbands who ignore their wives feel guilt, so do (ought) believers who ignore their Savior.

And finally, the author errs in asserting that reading the Word is only one way we may meditate on it. Historically, the fact is that reading the Scriptures is the primary way we are led into meditation--it is again no accident that the Reformation broke out soon after Gutenberg.

Well, I tried to comment, but your spam filter didn't like what I wrote. I don't know why, since as far as I could tell, I hadn't used any of the typical red-flag words. Perhaps you should figure out a way to have a real human being moderate your comments.

[what Robert said, plus:]

Boy, this sounds familiar. I'll take a stab gladly---at the risk of painting myself a bloodhound, I've been looking for something as definitive as this to pinpoint this odd definition of legalism that abounds in some PCA circles.

A wise man recently counseled me not to look to the narratives in the gospels primarily for doctrine, since their main purpose is to put forward Christ so that people may "see" and believe, in a sense. Quoting the parable of the Pharisee and the justified tax collector here seems to me a relevant example of what not to do. Yet we could easily counter this parable with another before we even go to see what Paul or Peter (or Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount, where the purpose is to teach plainly, as contrasted with parables intentionally meant to hide the truth therein) have to say about prayer. On the very face of it, the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18 sure seems to advocate a gritty perseverance in prayer---a "holy importunity," as I heard one pastor call it. But the author is suggesting quite forcefully that consistency breeds Pharisaic self-righteousness, if the cultivation of it is not itself a sign of legalism.

Then, addressing the idea that we pray in order for God to bless us with "Prayer is a means of grace, not a work to merit grace" betrays an oversimplified definition of merit. God does not reward obedience outside of faith. God does reward obedience (though we all agree blessings come disguised quite often). Scripture is clear on both counts. Why must we assume that all expectation of blessing is illegitimate?

"The pride of devotional consistency" may well exist, but a persevering commitment to robust prayer and serious Bible study (also accompanied by humble prayer for illumination and wisdom) is not at all a statement about our own strength. It is the acknowledgment that our great God delights in the welfare of his servants, and for no other reason than his own glory and our enjoyment has he ordained the typical elements of an admittedly abused "quiet time" as such means of grace. But God's work to give grace does not preclude ours to use the means diligently! My friends and I have talked about and lamented for some time this sort of move toward antinomianism that happens to be expressed in all the standard Reformed language. It's very sad. Doesn't all of our present theological confusion boil down to an inability to see justification and sanctification as "distinct, but not separate" (to quote my pastor)?


At a general level, there is a serious disconnect between what I see in the church and what Mr. Johnson sees. He seems to think that the modern church is under attack from latter day Judaizers who are adding to the gospel through an insistence that we need Christ + Quiet Time.

But for every man I see (in our local body and in elsewhere) who has succumbed to such teaching, I see 20 men who don't even think the Bible is relevant to their lives or who ignore its clear commands. I see men shipwrecked by pornography, unwilling to lead their homes, unwilling to help/lead in the church, slaves to TV, movies, and sports, absent from their children, etc. Do these sound like men who are slaves to Quiet Time? Or, rather, are these men who do not fear God but presume upon His grace?

Francis Schaeffer once said that, if we are not speaking against the spirit of the age, then we are not speaking effectively. I'm afraid many in the PCA--in this case, Mr. Johnson--are seriously misdiagnosing the spiritual battles that are being waged in the midst of our churches and therefore not speaking effectively. The spirit of our age is one of lawlessness, not legalism. Does legalism beget abortion on demand, gay marriage, women in the pulpit, adultery, the prosperity gospel, a 50 percent divorce rate, a 4 percent tithing rate, etc. etc.? Or are these things a result of a loss of confidence in (or outright rejection of) God's Word and a people who want to do what is right in their own eyes?

Finally, our Bible teaches us that God requires much from those who are given much. We are blessed to live in an age where the Bible is readily available to those that desire it. But Mr. Johnson says that "the concept of sitting still before sunrise with a Bible open would have been very foreign" to Christians alive before the printing press. I believe that they would have viewed a personal copy of the Bible as nothing less than manna from heaven. Does Mr. Johnson honestly think that those who would write Biblical teaching on their sleeves would not devour the Bible if they had their own copy? Does he believe that there is more Biblical literacy in the laity today than in years past, before Bibles were commonly distributed? I'm afraid we all know the answer to this question, and it is very much an indictment of our rebellious hearts and our willful ignorance of God's Word--not a result of a legalistic approach to Bible study.

In sum: I don't even see most men studying their Bibles, so I can't agree with Mr. Johnson that they are trying to justify or sanctify themselves before God by doing so.

Denise, I'm sorry for the trouble you're having, but please understand that I have no access to the servers or the software running on them. This blog is hosted by "World" magazine and everything about the spam filtering is under their control. But you can tell what prompted your comment to be rejected by looking at the report you get when it's rejected, and noticing what it says is the cause. Whatever set off the spam filter will be pointed to in the text, and put in between two sets of quote marks. Something like this: "Your comment is being rejected because of this "..." text."

In this case, what is rejected is my use of three periods instead of a true ellipsis. So, look at what's in the quote marks and try again, removing the offending puncutation or word. And if you still are having trouble, send the text to me at tbayly at earthlink dot net and I'll see if I can post it for you.

Thanks for trying.

Tim Bayly

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Excellent comments! Please keep them coming, even if others already said something similar but in a different way. There's still much that needs dissecting.

dale_atkins: Interestingly enough, Pr. Bayly said the same exact thing to several people this morning regarding the spirit of this age. We aren't overly legalistic. We are largely antinomian, even those who are officers. And I condemn myself for that before anyone else. I fear that I have no fear of God before my eyes, something of which I repent and pray God to rescue me from!

As for the article: 1. Prayer is both a work and a grace. It strikes me as odd that we have to view prayer as either a work or a grace, not both/and. Of course, like all things in the Christian life, God grants us the grace to do them (pray, take communion, engage in fellowship and public worship, etc.) These things, however, do not preclude our involvement in doing them! We must engage in these things by faith (knowing that all our efforts are tainted with sin-whether legalistic or antinomian) and trust that God in Christ will be pleased with us.

2. Just because we fail doesn't mean we give up. I agree with the author that we have in our evangelical culture a big emphasis on the "Quiet Time" and that a lot of times when we fail at our devotions, we are told to try harder and harder. Many times we are encouraged to do better without being given the Gospel. Now if we fail at our devotions (or we fail with our wives, at our work, etc.), we shouldn't think "Well, it don't matter anyway!" Our actions do matter. We should, however, repent of our sins heartily and then heartily believe that the Father overwhelmingly loves those who have repented and believe in His Son. This perspective does not absolve us of our duty, but does not put us over the barrel if we fail, either.

3. Lastly, I have used the "Well, people before the printing press wouldn't have been able to read the Bible every day" article to condone my lack of reading/meditating on God's word. However, this is codswallop. Who cares if they couldn't read the Bible every day? dale_atkins is right: believers before the press would have done backflips if they could have been able to read the Scriptures with regularity. God has given us a great boon to the Christian mission: the Scriptures are available to all. And, of course, Bible literacy is at an all-time low, especially within the church.

Let me also add that believers today are regularly imprisoned and beaten just so they can have a copy of the Scriptures in their own language. They also bear the weight of persecution in attempting to get the Bible into the hands of others.


Spot on comments. My own experience in the PCA and yours seem similar, with the exception that I did see many who knew their bible reasonably well.
However, this only seemed to breed a relative "comfort" and almost smugness that "we're all alright." Since we had sound doctrine, nothing else really mattered. Theology and smiles is enough. Doxology was optional, and the hard work of hands on faith was for the professionals or officers, and even then, you just pay someone to do the actual front lines work for you.
Nothing else needed to get in the way with the life of comfort we'd all carved out for ourselves in the U.S. Therefore, anything seen as an impediment to that comfort and lives of relative ease, like the toil and pain of actually carrying one's cross daily and the Godly disciplines we are to practice, could be branded as legalism.
I do not want to be too harsh on the PCA. I still consider myself PCA and do not exclude myself from the above observation. I have seen it in myself as well. I just hope we, PCA, will take its cues? I believe it has become an obese man living on the fat of the land and a bit sluggish. We have come to the doctor who tells him he is obese and needs some excercise and a different diet if he wants to live. What is the PCA feeding itself these days? I think a diet less on the fat of the land that feeds only the flesh and some healthy exercise and exertion perhaps is needed?

When I first read Mr. Johnson's piece, I had just sat down at the monitor after coming from observing what we Anglicans call "the daily office." Is this providence or what?

The church has practiced a daily office of Scripture reading, singing of psalms and canticles, and prayers since the beginning. In so doing, they continued the practice of godly Jews, who had followed their own canonical hours of prayer, following their own lectionaries of the Old Testament, long before monastic orders of Christians took up the practice. So, there I was, having finished what moderns want to call "a quiet time," looking at the writing of a Christian who labors to encourage others to avoid doing what Mother Kirk has taught them is good to do for centuries and centuries.

But, it's worse than that. It would be bad enough to find a scoundrel telling you that your Mother's instruction to eat your broccoli was just so much hooey. Mr. Johnson, however, wants us to repudiate everything Mother Kirk tells us about our spiritual diets. And why? Because her notions about prayer and Scripture reading are what he calls "legalistic;" because consistency, discipline, and perseverance in these activities create pride (or, possibly despair), leading to spiritual deadness and sin.

In a further ironic display of providence, the Psalm appointed for the day I read Mr. Johnson's screed was Ps. 119:49-72. For those unfamiliar with lectionaries, they are an ancient form of your Mother telling you to eat not only the broccoli, but also the carrots, potatoes, lettuce, tomatoes, asparagus, corn, brussel sprouts, cabbage, and a host of other beneficial vegetables. Only a wildly deranged Mother would set all of these before her children at every meal; so she doles them out over time, ensuring her children get regular provision of green, red, and leafy vegetables, with the appropriate starches and fibers, vitamins and minerals, dispersed throughout the diet. The same strategy informs the lectionary, an appointment of passages from the Scripture to read, to ensure (at a minimum) that one doesn't binge on the Psalms, or the Proverbs, or the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians.

So, what is still ringing in my ears as I read Mr. Johnson's subversive tract? Things like this:

�49 Remember the | word to | Your | servant, *
Upon which | You | have | caused me | to | hope.

�50 This is my comfort in | my | af- | fliction, *
For Your | word | has | given | me | life.

�52 I remembered Your judgments of | old, | O | LORD, *
And | I | have | comforted | my- | self.

Mr. Johnson, I suppose, would say these are true words, so long as we meditate on them, being very careful not to read them with any regularity or devotional purpose in mind. Let's REMEMBER God's word, but let's SCRUPULOUSLY AVOID reading it, ESPECIALLY with any design, or purpose, or schedule in mind.

�54 Your statutes have | been | my | songs, *
My songs | in | the | house of | my | pilgrimage.

I wonder what Mr. Johnson would say to SINGING Scripture? I wonder if he has ever tried what a few gazillion saints have practiced for ages and ages - singing the Psalms? I wonder if he'd recommend quietly reading the lyrics his hymnal (avoiding any purpose or design in this, of course) as preferable to singing those lyrics. I suppose he'd happily sing the songs of men and refuse to sing the songs of God. The latter, for crying out loud, might lead him into sin, pride, and despair! Horrors!!

�55 I remember Your name in the | night, | O | LORD, *
I remember your name | and | I | keep | Your | law.

�62 At midnight I will rise to give | thanks | to | You, *
Be- | cause of | Your | righ- | teous | judgments.

These verses are among those that inspired the canonical hours of prayer known as Matins - the prayers offered at midnight, or at 2:00 A.M. By Mr. Johnson's lights those were foolish monks indeed! And how pathetic are those decieved saints who mimicked them all these centuries! Those legalistic Jews, thinking their prayers and meditations on Holy Writ would avail them anything. Why just look at what some poor, deluded sap penned when he wrote the 119th Psalm. Go read the entire deplorable Psalm and see how deceived, perverse, prideful, despairing, and sinful that idiot was. And, who knows what kind of spiritual depravity placed this odious ode in the Psalter? Disgraceful!!

Mr. Johnson's poisonous tract contains far more toxins than I have time to delineate here. I will wait to read which poisons others identify. For me, and for now, I'd simply point to a class of toxins in Mr. Johnson's poison pill:

1. False dilemmas, which in Mr. Johnson's hands render prayer and Scripture reading to be sin.

2. Arrogance that does not blush to promote values that expressly contradict the precedents, patterns, and prescriptions of God in His Word.

3. Condescension toward an innumerable host of saints, known and unknown, whose confidence in Christ, whose holiness in His service, sprang from the things Mr. Johnson dismisses as folly and sin.


Excellent thoughts. It is, of course, possible to be legalistic about any spiritual discipline. But, it seems to me the answer is never to abandon or denigrate the spiritual discipline, but rather to hold such things forth as the means of grace. Do you want to be close to God? Do you want to enjoy the benefits of relationship with him? Do you want to experience the peace and joy he promises, irrespective of life's irksome circumstances? Then undertake to use diligently the means he has given you to do that. Worship with a whole heart, as often as opportunity is given publicly, and always when alone. Pray without ceasing. Pour over the Bible --it is God's Word, and it is God's Word to and for you. The more you know it, the more you will understand God and his ways, the more effective you will be for him, and the more clearly you will see his face, even in the sorrows and sufferings of life.

I think we are in the midst of a generation of weak Christians precisely because we have begun to see the means of grace as optional things, not as the life-giving things they are. People absent themselves from worship regularly, Sunday evening services are empty or canceled, prayer meetings are almost things of the past, and the sacraments lack the high and holy esteem they once held in the minds of Christians. Why? Because we have told people a lie --these things don't really matter all that much. They're there if you want them. But, we have neglected to tell people how much they NEED them, and how much benefit they will derive from them.

The means of grace strengthen faith. One of the primary means is, of course, communing with God in his Word and in prayer. Call that a quiet time, or devotion, or whatever you will, just do it, with a whole heart! Legalism? No. Grace, pure and full.

Aren't legalism and antinomianism just different branches on the same tree? They are both a rejection of God's standards, substituting man's standards instead. And if someone's not doing quiet time, but would honstely like to, what is your solution? Is to try harder, or to feel bad enough until you change, or is it something else?

Mr. Johnson says, "It's not a work, but a grace!" and "Prayer is a means of grace, not a work to merit grace."

I agree with part of his statement, prayer is a means of grace. Baptism is a means of grace. Communion is a means of grace. Sexual purity is a means of grace. Godliness with contentment is a means of grace. Preaching is a means of grace. Holding fast to your confession in the face of the gallows is a means of grace.

Ultimately, everything done in faith is a means of grace. Everything done in faith must also be done. In this sense it is a work, it is an act of obedience. While it is not meritorious, it is nevertheless obligatory. While obedience does not earn it is the only conduit for blessing. Obedience can only be accomplished through faith. Anything done without faith is disobedience and unbelief. For this disobedience (refusal to act) the unbelieving generation of the exodus was condemned. Prayer is a means of grace but only if you pray.

Mr. Johnson is correct about there being no direct command in scripture concerning a "quiet time". This does not mean that guilt over neglect of prayer and Bible reading is automatically legalism. I would say that quite the contrary is true. The honest believer feels guilt because he knows that his disobedience through the neglect of godly disciplines signifies coldness in a relationship that is meant to be intimate and vibrant. Using his theology of grace, Mr. Johnson suggests that the best way to 'jump start' the anemic spiritual relationship is to understand that the disciplined maintenance of that relationship, while commanded, is somehow not obligatory because, after all, devotional legalists do exist. Like the Pharisees, the true legalist would be the least likely to feel the pangs of guilt.

(Matthew 23)
1Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples,
2saying: "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses;
3therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them.

Jesus' command here is to "do and observe".
The dangerous doctrine that Mr. Johnson is intimating is that somehow disobedience (non-action) can be done in faith, that 'not praying' can be a means of grace instead of a sin.

Wouldn't my wife be overjoyed if I determined only to fulfill my vow to "forsake all others" when I was not feeling the pressure of my obligation to cling to her alone? I could dismiss the guilt associated with any adultery because, after all, there do exist those legalists who say one must buy flowers every week and have a regular date night.

I apologize if this is off topic, and for my ignorance, but what exactly is legalism? Of course most of time I hear the word used it simply means being stricter about something than I am. But amongst people trying to have more careful discussions I seem to hear it used in at least four distinct ways:
1) works-righteousness or similar
2) a hyper concern with the letter of the law at the expense of the spirit of the law (note that this works both ways: obsessing over tithing ones mint and cumin as well claiming oral *** isn't really *** since ... (sorry only example I can come w/ at the moment))
3) proclaiming as a biblical mandate that which is not mandated biblically
4) a "preaching" of the law while omitting the gospel (while not denying the gospel and usually unintentionally, thus distinct for #1 in theory if not practice).
Clearly there is some overlap here. I've always used to take it to mean #2, but recently someone told me that #1 was correct and I've never really been certain.

Interesting article . . . this is the 2nd time I've read it.

It seems to me that Johnson is speaking against the form of Christianity that I grew up with - the one that says that you must read your Bible and pray every day, in the morning, for a decent amount of time if you don't want to have an awful day and if you want to call yourself a Christian. And you should really do it before breakfast. It doesn't matter if you're the sort of person who concentrates better in the evening - and so wants to do their Bible study then, when they can think - you still need to do it in the morning. And getting to work early and doing it then doesn't count either.

The way I read the article, it seems as if he's speaking against self-righteous, laundry-listing Christianity.

I think he's right in doing that - but how he does it is what I'm not so sure about.

As I've struggled with my "laundry-listing Christianity", my elders have told me a couple of things over and over. God's standard is far above my laundry list. Instead of "read my Bible, pray, don't yell at my roommate, tell someone about Jesus", God says "love Me with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbour as yourself". I can pretend to fulfill my laundry list - occassionally, when I'm not being that honest with myself. But there is no way that I can even pretend to keep God's standard. But that is why Christ came. He perfectly kept God's law - for me. And so Christianity is not about keeping a checklist - it is about trusting in Christ's finished work, looking to what He has done, seeing that because of Him you are already righteous - and then living to become what you already are.

But that's not how I see Johnson approach this. Yes, he ends up saying "you're okay" - but it's not "you're safe because of what Christ has done for you" but "you're okay because it's not that important".

And in the end, Johnson just leaves me with my own works. He tries to tell me that they're good enough - but deep down, I know that they're not. And so he doesn't really do anything to take care of the despair that I feel when I stop looking to Christ. So while I sincerely appreciate what he has tried to do - I think that he has done it the wrong way, in not speaking about Christ.


Dan L,

The way I understand it, legalism is thinking that what you do in some way gives you standing before God. For example - you need to have a quiet time so that you'll have a good day (as if having a quiet time earned you brownie points with God, so that He would then bless you). It tends to work out in precise nit-picky law-keeping - think of the Pharisees.

But I'm sure someone can give you a better definition! :)


I think legalism is an end-product of finding or inventing loopholes in the law in order to make adherence to it more attainable.

Tim, I can't tell you what the server thought was spam, because (1) it didn't give me anything in quotes, as far as I can remember, it just said my post was spam, and (2) that was yesterday, so I don't remember exactly what I wrote. I guess I'll watch out for ellipses. . .

Anyway, my first reaction to the article was that the author was quite judgmental. Apart from his overblown rhetoric, which another post mentioned, I find him extremely uncharitable to leap to the conclusion that the "heresy" of "sola bootstrapa" (cute phrase!) has been committed by telling the man to pray more, when the speaker could just as easily have been encouraging the man to follow the pattern of the persistent widow and throw himself on God's grace.

But then I clicked through to the rest of the article, and found something that bothered me more: "Jesus condemned the Pharisees for this very attitude about Bible study. 'You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me' (Jn 5:39). Yes, that's what Jesus said. Bible study can be a sin." Jesus most definitely did not say that the Pharisees' Bible study was a sin! Self-righteous arrogance that blinded them to the truth of Scriptures was a sin, but not the study itself. If the author cannot properly interpret such a simple statement, why should I trust anything else he says?

As far as the overall thrust of his article, he reminds me of the prophets who said, "Peace, peace." He preaches, "That's okay, don't feel guilty," when Scriptural and doctrinal ignorance among professing Christians is surely one of the most glaring sins of our day. A "quiet time" may be optional, but diligent study of Scripture is definitely not optional for anyone who wants to be a disciple of Christ. And teaching tapes, group discussions, Christian music, out-of-context memory verses, or coffee and chat with a friend--while all fine in their places--are not legitimate substitutes.


1. TERMS: Of course prayer is a "work." So is Bible reading. It may sound spiritual to call a work a 'grace", but the irony is that here we have a man decrying legalism, and his very terminology tries to redefine works as graces -- which is the same thing as defining grace as a bunch of works. There's nothing wrong with works, but call them works.

2. The cure for legalism is not doing-no-works. The cure for legalism is doing your good works by faith.

3. There were already two sensible answers to that father's question: (a) You might be asking in a spirit of unbelief; (b) Your daughter is fixed in an attitude of rebellion.

Of course, some Calvinists might have a problem with answer "b", because their misunderstanding of how sovereignty works leads them to (nearly) deny human intractibility.

But even God lamented His own people's failure to have a heart to heed His commands and so be blessed (Dt. 10, I think). If God Himself can blame sin on human intractibility, and He felt free to do that without a long, abstract, metaphysical explanation of the complex interplay between eternity and time, then we can.

The problem of unanswered prayer is one of those pastoral questions that tests how well you grasp the interplay of divine power and human responsibility as taught in the Bible.

Anyway, that poor Dad got one extra bad answer, the bad answer being in this essay. On one hand, it's true that the efficacy of our prayers isn't tied to their quantity (Peter only yelled, "Help!" one time, and Jesus fished him out of the sea). But not praying at all as a wrongheaded expression of freedom from guilt isn't right, either.

newcovenantliving @ blogspot

I think this article illustrates a number of aspects of the spirit of the age. Here are four popular, pernicious, ideas that are very common nowadays.

1. If something isn't fun, it's bad.

2. Do what works for you. Religion is a very personal thing, and nobody can tell another person what to do.

3. In the difficult balance between antinomianism and legalism, the problem for American Christians now is legalism, overattention to their personal behavior and excessive zeal in telling other people how to follow God.

4. Sincerity is one of the principal virtues. If you are going to sin, sin openly and publicly. The proud and unashamed scoffer is more admirable than the guilty hypocrite who tries to cover up his sin.

A Wolf in Girl's Clothing?

The black gown Presbyterian ministers wear is to help show authority; it's not a dress. If what Greg encountered was the "raping" of the bride of Christ by the teaching of "heresy," and he was "enraged," and "horrified," why didn't he do anything to stop it? We (though maybe not the law, I'm no legalist) would consider a man who stood by and "watched" the raping of a woman to be an accomplice. Yet apparently, Greg was neither moved to dissuade the rapist, nor moved in this post to tell others the name of this "ministry" which jumps from church to church each weekend "raping" and "wounding" as they go. Covenant Seminary, we need strong protective men, not girly men.

For my part, I'm glad he did neither. I'm not convinced that what he encountered was heresy or rape. For that matter I'm not convinced that this ministry is teaching legalism.

Here's how I see it.

The Problem: Broken homes and grieving parents
Cause: The curse of God on all mankind
Solution: The grace of God through Jesus Christ
Means of Grace (Solution): Preaching, teaching, prayer, Bible study, Eucharist, baptism (etc.)

I think one of the fundamental problems with Greg's post is that he considers prayer and Bible study to be grace. In other words, instead of seeing Bible study as the means to healthy homes, relationships (etc.), he seems to be seeing Bible study as grace. It may be a grace to him, but it is excruciatingly hard for the rest of us. To sit down day after day and mine the riches of God's grace out of his word is not easy. To kneel down and plead with God for the healing of broken families is not grace, it is the means by which God has promised to pour forth his healing.

Though grace is by definition a gift, believe it or not, it comes through trusting in the promises of God, and a lot of hard work. This is not sola bootstrapa, it's sola fide. By faith we take God at his word and do the work (hard work) he has promised will heal broken families.

I'm afraid Greg never did offer a better solution to the man in his church who was crying out for help. The grace he mentions seems (at least to me) to leave the man in his misery. Man of Greg's congregation, trust God's promises, and embrace the means of grace that God has offered and you will (I promise) begin to see that gracious peace of God cover your life. Oh, and by the way, it never gets easy. No coasting. Yet Jesus has also promised that his burden is easy. When you trust him to work though the means he has given, he will also support you and make you strong to work hard.

Therefore the Lord said,

Inasmuch as these people draw near with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but have removed their hearts far from Me, and their fear toward Me is taught by the commandments of men

Tim said,
But souls following the lead of either(Greg Johnson) of these men are likely to end up presuming upon God's grace and having no place for the fear or law of God--no place at all(emphasis mine)

Can someone point specifically for me in Scripture where Jesus taught these disciplines or in the didactic teaching of the Apostle as being THE means to having a fear of the Lord?

Thanks in advance!

Please note I'm not defending anyone here, simply asking a question

Savon, I think you're asking the wrong question. It is not whether these disciplines are "the" way of coming to fear the Lord, but rather whether they are necessary methods.

And necessary? Yes. All of the ages of the church have put a high premium on periods of prayer and study in the Scriptures. When either is withheld, we get major problems--indulgences, Crusades by criminals, and so on.

Which flows from the very nature of the Scriptures. If they are truly the Word of God, we should get to know Him be reading (or hearing for the illiterate) them and asking him (praying) to explain them to us, no?

"Exercise in Discernment": Big Tim hangs up a target and bids you all let fly at it. First, however, your pompous associate is careful to let you know that Greg Johnson's piece is "poisonous," "false," and "unsalvageable"--perhaps because he fears his readers might otherwise miss his point entirely. We even learn later that Johnson is "a pawn in Satan's hands" (!)

After receiving this avuncular guidance, you all joyfully and obediently comply--the results to be archived for the edification of future generations.

That said, I leave you to your "exercise," demonstrating as it does how theology no longer attracts the best or brightest minds.

I must preface this comment by noting that I found many aspects of Mr. Johnson's essay to be insightful and well-stated. My impression on reading this article is that its author probably is acting out of mostly good intentions, namely, to discourage believers from regarding prayer and Bible study as wearisome tasks to be dreaded and rather to encourage them to enjoy these activities as blessings from God. I say this because most of what is written below concerns the problems rather than the virtues of this paper. Nevertheless, I must ultimately concur with Tim's assessment that the article is at its core deeply flawed in its attempt to completely separate grace from discipline in the Christian life.

First, permit a few stylistic observations. Johnson seems to have learned well the adage to begin one's essay with a striking statement; unfortunately, the fact that nearly every paragraph begins this way becomes quickly tiresome and ultimately excessive. Beyond the ridiculous hyperbole of "I recently watched as a congregation I love was spiritually raped," we are then met with the following:
"Christ's sheep have been lied to";
"And prayer is not the only grace we've turned into a work";
"It's ironic, but the Quiet Time has become the number one cause of defeat among Bible-believing Christians today."
The list goes on, but it quickly becomes evident that, as others have noted, the essay knocks down a straw man (even a "straw title," i.e., "Quiet Time Guilt") set up by one generalization after another, most of which are delivered in the passive voice, of course. Honestly, were it even possible to settle on the "number one cause of defeat among Bible-believing Christians," surely there are other candidates than the "quiet time" that are more deserving of this label. To be sure, simple, pithy statements such as Johnson's can be effective, but in this case I think their abundance masks a lack of substantive analysis of the issue at hand.
There are a number of other minor formal problems, but one in particular has (I think) been unmentioned thus far. Whether out of conviction, compulsion, or ignorance, Mr. Johnson has tailored his language to suit feminist notions; thus we find rejection of the generic masculine pronoun "he" in favor of the weak, clumsy, and unnatural hybrid "he or she":
"At one time or another, nearly every sincere believer feels a deep sense of failure and the accompanying feelings of guilt and shame because he or she has failed to set aside a separate time for Bible study and prayer...The Christian suffering from Quiet Time Guilt then despairs of seeing God work in his or her life, until finally he or she simply gives up."
I hope (but not confidently) that this stems from ignorance on the writer's part rather than compulsion on the part of faculty at Covenant.

As to the substance of the essay, the following are my negative reactions (which undoubtedly mirror many of the excellent comments above):
1. As others have noted, I find the rigid distinction Johnson continually makes between a "work" and a "grace" to be fundamentally flawed. To be sure, the two words occupy opposite ends of the semantic spectrum, but this in no way requires that the two be mutually exclusive. Indeed, as Dave Curell suggests above, any act done in faith can be considered a "means of grace," and yet that act inevitably requires action. Nor is it correct to suppose that discipline and duty, both of which the author treats similarly, cannot also be means of grace. God instructed Abraham to take himself, his family, and his possessions and move to a far country; Abraham's obedience in this matter certainly qualifies as both a work and a duty, and yet it was also a means through which God dispensed immense grace to Abraham by making of this undeserving man a great nation. God graciously granted Abraham the faith to act, but his obedience was still not automatic, and the commendation given to him (and the other saints) by the author of Hebrews explicitly notes that his was a faith of action. Church discipline rightly administered certainly qualifies as a duty (and, as I'm sure many would also add, a work), yet it also is a means of grace inasmuch as it aims both to preserve the sanctity of the church and to promote repentance on the part of the disciplined. Indeed, at root, the word "discipline" means simply "instruction," and is not learning and being a "disciple" a means whereby God graciously sanctifies us?
Now, it must be said that the author does narrow his conception of work in certain parts of his essay, stating that prayer is not a work whereby we achieve merit before God, or that "Prayer was the means of grace, not a work I offered for reward." Statements such as these are less objectionable, but they are used so infrequently and so often mixed with broad, pleasant-sounding maxims that they are not particularly helpful.
Furthermore, what is one to make of a statement such as the following?:
"[Christians] have been told that prayer is a work that we must perform in order to get God to bless us."
If by this the author means that we achieve no meritorious standing before God by our prayers, one can probably agree. On the other hand, James tells us that we have not because we ask not. Is not prayer, then, something that we do in order to get something that we desire? Obviously God does not bless us with every one of our desires, even if they be godly desires, but neither do we ask for curses to be brought upon us. We, the psalmist, Jacob, etc., all ask for God to bless us, and prayer is both a means of grace and the work that God is pleased to use as one of his means of blessing.
2. My general belief that the primary current in evangelicalism today is toward antinomianism and not legalism causes me to be suspicious when anyone attributes a large-scale problem to the latter, particularly when it is coupled with a treatment of guilt that reminds me more of psychology than of theology. Indeed, we're told that "The shame of Quiet Time Guilt manifests itself in even deeper inability to fruitfully and joyfully study Scripture." Now, I must say that I find a phrase such as "the shame of Quiet Time Guilt" somewhat humorous, but besides that, is this statement credible? I risk oversimplification here, but there seem to be two basic types of guilt: (1) that which is legitimately felt because of some sin, and (2) that which is unjustifiably felt because of some perceived, but ultimately uncommitted, sin. Now, guilt that occurs from a Christian's failing to read his Bible on a particular day may fall into the second category, since (as the writer says), there is no explicit mandate for a Christian to have a "quiet time" every day. But this is not the situation treated by this essay. Rather, the author describes a person who feels guilt for not setting aside "a separate time for Bible study and prayer." Given that the Christian's delight is to be in the "Law of the Lord," given that he is to meditate thereon "day and night," given that Scripture is the instrument through which the man of God is to be completed and furnished for every good work, and given that we are to "pray without ceasing," I think one can legitimately ask whether the Christian who neglects to set aside time for the Word and prayer ought not to feel appropriate guilt at this disregard for these means of grace in his life. It is true, I'm sure, that perception of Johnson on this matter depends upon whether one has experienced the situation that Johnson describes, but in a culture such as ours that often scoffs at the need for any guilt whatsoever, I find it difficult to believe that vast numbers of evangelicals are wallowing in guilt that is undeserved.
3. Johnson's poor interpretation of the John 5 passage has been discussed in the comments above, so I'll not comment further on it, except to note the difficulties of the following statements:
"The quiet time can drive you far from God if you fail to understand that the Scriptures are a story about grace. The Scriptures are a story about Jesus Christ, the man of grace. His works--not our works--are the center of the biblical story. "
I'm not sure what to make of the vague first statement (Scripture and prayer can "drive us far from God"?--where?), but more than that, it's difficult to conceive of a better way to understand the gracious content of Scripture than to read that Scripture on a regular basis. I must again say here that I believe Johnson very much wishes Christians to read more, rather than less, Scripture, but I find his logic uncompelling. It's always possible for sinful men to be hearers of the Word and not doers, but do we really think that hosts of evangelicals suffer from unwarranted guilt because they fail to see that the Scriptures are about grace? I find it more likely that they see the grace of God in Scripture but forsake His law, or that, if indeed they fail to see this grace, it is because they fail to read to any significant degree.
4. Once again, I find Johnson's division of Christianity into "Strength Christianity" and "Weakness Christianity" to be forced and unsatisfactory. And, while I greatly appreciate his emphasis on the believer's need to recognize his own weakness and inability, this section once again makes an unwarranted division between work and grace in its discussion of prayer:
"Prayer is not something we do--a performance designed to get something from God...When you stumble upon Weakness Christianity, you realize that true religion is all about God's grace, not about our devotional consistency."
Well, it seems self-evident to me that prayer is something we do, and that, while not a performance, it is designed to "get something from God." Secondly, I can't help contrasting Johnson's second statement with that of James, who tells us that true religion is to visit widows and orphans and to "keep oneself unspotted from the world." Both of those activities involve a certain amount of work, not simply a vacuous discussion of grace.
5. The author's observation that, compared to children, adults tend to rely more on the flesh and less on the grace of God probably has some merit. Likewise, his pinpointing of evangelicalism's tendency to reverence Christian jargon rather than the underlying truth is certainly instructive. How many times have we heard about the "relationship with God" and little about how Scripture describes such a relationship?
Even so, much of this section is unconvincing. It is simply not credible to suggest that the injunction to meditate on the Word "day and night" requires less from us than would an explicit command to read Scripture every day. Sure, meditation does not necessarily require reading, but it is difficult to imagine a more basic or comprehensive way of meditating on the entire counsel of the Word than daily reading of that Word. Such a practice is surely far more than simply "a good idea." In today's world, with Bibles so abundant and available, it is rather the best application of a biblical mandate. Indeed, though accurate, the author's observation that most Christians throughout history owned no Bibles carries little weight unless we're ready to claim that contemporary Christians have, for example, memorized anywhere near the amount of Scripture that saints of the past did. Unless we can claim that, we better keep reading.
6. Lastly, I can't leave out mention of a paragraph which (I think) drips with postmodern sentiment:
"But if the quiet time doesn't work for you, that's okay...The quiet time is an option, a good idea--not a biblical mandate. If the quiet time isn't working for you, there are other options as well. All of them are good ones. The key is to rely on God to accomplish his plans, a reliance expressed in prayer and fed in Scripture. You have all kinds of opportunities to call upon God in prayer and to meditate upon his word. He loves you and delights in your expressions of weakness and dependence. He is glorified in your weakness."
How wonderful it is that we have options! After all, all options are equally valid and useful, aren't they? To each his own, after all. I must strongly disagree. I have no problem agreeing that evangelicals are "hung up" on the lingo of the "quiet time" (although no one more than Johnson himself, it seems) and its format, and so on; it is quite another thing to suggest that all options are equally useful and valid for meditating on the Law of the Lord. No "Christian teaching tapes (even those by Sproul)," no theology text (even be it Calvin's "Institutes"), and no hymn (even one by John Newton) can substitute for the reading of Scripture and prayer. They are the fundamentals of the Christian's diet--accept no substitutes! God undoubtedly delights in our "weakness and dependence," but not in our intentional ignorance.

Finally, I must note once again that I actually found a number of the author's points to be well-taken, and, as I stated at the beginning, I have no reason to doubt his good intentions. Legalism can be an easy trap (I find) to fall into, and the church must be on guard against it. It is also true that criticism of a paper such as this is far easier than attempting oneself to address the same issues. But in my judgment this essay posits a false (or at least an overblown) illness, misdiagnoses it, creates false dilemmas, incorporates traces of the postmodern spirit of the age, and does this all in an oversimplified, immature, and sometimes annoying manner. It is well-intentioned, but ultimately flawed in its attempt to soothe the collective conscience of an evangelical community that needs more acquaintance with Scripture than with the workings of their own guilt.


Please. If you think most of us here are afraid of disagreeing with the Baylys, then you haven't been reading for very long.

Josh, that was nicely done and well stated.

I've posted an Augsburg Evangelical response at my blog ThreeHierarchies (at blogspot dot com). Contrary to what you might think, this Augsburg Evangelical agrees that Greg Johnson's article is an unsalvageable mess, but not for the reason the commenters here think.

Thanks Robert!

Does this prove that these disciplines aren't explicitly taught in scripture as it has been suggested by many? Even in Josh post, which is superb, brilliant, balanced, however, no scripture mentioned anywhere. I'm just asking for the teaching on it from Scripture. Ex: If I would have posed the question in the same manner, however, asking for explicit teaching concerning the Sovereignty of God, Election, etc. from my experience the scriptures references would have poured come in abundance by now, no making points from what's neccesary or incredible reasoning, simply scriptures would have been given, names from church history would have been thrown out with their commentary on the scriptures, etc. You know(John 6, Eph. 2, Rom. 9 and so on). So could one safely assume that the arguments are sort of based on pragmatism, because the disciplines work or produce something then we should make them a biblical mandate?

Please note, I find Johnson article flawed in part, however, I want to be safe from my perspective as well. The pendelum generally swing hard in the opposite direction and hardly ever in the middle.

A number of commenters seem to think that having daily Scripture reading is important, or even necessary. Of course it isn't. Through most of history, Christians have been too poor to have access to a Bible. Even now, it's use is merely prudential, and person X spent an hour a day praying while Y spent half an hour reading scripture and half an hour praying, I wouldn't know who to commend more.

No-- the Quiet Time is just an example of a more general defect Johnson has--- the idea that if a believer thinks activity X is pleasing to God, but doesn't enjoy X himself, then the believer shouldn't be concerned about not doing X. You can plug in "Quiet Time" for X, or "Chastity", or "Churchgoing"-- the principle is the same.

Savon, I would suggest that you'd be correct to note that Scripture never says explicitly that one must perform a "quiet time" consisting of a portion of prayer and a portion of Scripture reading and meditation. However, you'd be just as correct to infer that such a thing is necessary from the overall context of the Scriptures and historical record. Israel was commanded to have constant reminders of the Torah, Paul commends it to us for all of life, and whenever the Word has been denied or ignored, the result has been an outbreak of heresy and apostasy that is corrected when the Word is provided.

(which would be my response to Eric as well; yes, for long periods, the Scriptures were unavailable..and the church proceeded directly into heresy)

Thanks Robert, I absolutely agree, however, I didn't get the impression that the point of the article was that believers should ignore prayer or Bible reading though.

Ex: "But don't misunderstand what I'm saying. My goal isn't that we pray and read the Bible less, but that we do so more--and with a free and needy heart"

The daily "quiet time" in evangelicalism has a history, and Greg is exploring that history in his in-progress dissertation. To respond to a few earlier points, the daily office is not comparable to the quiet time because it is a churchly office where the scriptures are read and an implicit interpretation from a minister exists because of the way the lectionary is organized and the prayers are made. Further, the Psalms are the public hymnbook for the people of Israel; anything about "I" or "me" in there is meant to be on the lips of the whole congregation. All that just to say, Greg is not downplaying the reading of scripture; I think he's trying to get at a prescription that is often dispensed in modern church life but which has not always been dispensed in this particular package. What is it about a "quiet time" that makes it unique? Are we turning the quiet time into a phylactery? Into a spiritual tassle?

And James, when he says that faith without works is dead, is not talking about hunkering down for a quiet time. If the plowman ends his exhausting day by reading from the scriptures to his children, praying a prayer together, and then hitting the hay, I hardly think his lack of a personal quiet time is evidence of any deficiency in his faith or his spiritual discipline.

Sure, Greg's article has some rhetorical excess, but we could say that about a few others.

Just remember that for the biggest part of the church's history since Christ ascended, no one could read the Bible in their homes. Bibles weren't available. Back in 1400, a "quiet time" would mean prayer and reciting memorized Scripture to oneself or one's family or perhaps reflecting on the homily of the previous Lord's Day. The PUBLIC reading of Scripture and communal listening to Scripture meant a lot more in those days than we can even imagine now.

I remember reading Mr. Johnson's article and breathing a big sigh of relief. (What a fool I had been for applying myself to means of grace.) I stopped reading my Bible for months. Thank God He brought me back.

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