I've noticed a real rise in "try harder theology" in the messages I've been listening to. What do I mean by "try-harder theology?" I mean that line of teaching that would tell us that a holy life is the result of will power and effort. I suppose we might use terms like "law" or "legalism" too. I refer to it as "try harder" theology, because it seems we always need to try a little harder. That's because it fundamentally doesn't work: you can't actually try hard enough.
People who teach this sort of thing like to offer advice that should work, but it doesn't. They'd tell us what we need to do is make covenants, perhaps we need to exercise our will more, or maybe what we really need to do is to fast and pray. But in the end, we find what Paul found:
I find then the law upon *me* who will to practise what is right, that with *me* evil is there.
For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man:
but I see another law in my members, warring in opposition to the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which exists in my members.
(Romans 7:21–23, JND).
There are all sorts of nice theories out there about how we can live more godly lives. And they seem to make a lot of sense, but the Scripture is very clear: there is a law of sin in our members. That law says, when I want to do what is right, evil is right there with me. We can't escape this law as long as our bodies are unredeemed. We are new creatures in Christ, but we live in the old creatures' bodies. And as long as we're in the unredeemed body, the law of sin is there. And the harder we try to do right, the more we find that law of sin working against us.
Law---any law---can't help us. The problem is not that we lack laws, the problem is that the whole purpose of law is to point out what we're not. Law can't make us good, it can just tell us we're not. The Law of Moses is a perfect law---the only perfect law---and it can't make us good. If the perfect law is powerless to make us good, surely any other law is equally powerless.
So when we put ourselves under law---any law---to make us more godly, we find that we merely prove what God has already said: we are not.
This was the error of the Galatians. They began in the spirit, but they thought they could be made perfect in the flesh (Galatians 3:1–3). They thought they could get life through faith, but live it out by works. This is not Christianity, the just shall live by faith. The Colossians were told, "as therefore ye have received the Christ, Jesus the Lord, walk in him" (Colossians 2:6, JND). We are to walk as we received; by faith.
I spent many years trying harder. I memorized my Bible, I fasted, and I prayed. But in the end, I found exactly what Paul found: there is sin in my flesh. As long as I live in an unredeemed body I'll carry sinful flesh around with me. And like Paul, I found not only was it there, but I was powerless over it. I wanted to do what was right, I found myself doing what was wrong. So I assumed I needed to try harder. And I tried very hard, but it was never hard enough.
Paul gives us the answer in Romans 7:24, "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me out of this body of death?" (JND). The problem is not that I need to try harder, the problem is that I need someone to deliver me.
J. N. Darby said it wonderfully:
Nor can you get out of the difficulty until you have come to the personal consciousness, the self-knowledge, which finds out that you cannot get the victory over sin. It is a terrible thing to see; but it is learning this, that I have no power, and not merely that I am guilty. "To will is present with me, but how to perform that which is good I find not"; and until you are brought to the conscience of "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me?" I cannot succeed; sin is too strong for me; I am not brought to the point, where alone the deliverance is got. I may or may not have the knowledge of forgiveness. This modifies the form, but not the substance, of the experience. It is always essentially under law, that is, a claim upon us to be in a given state. But you say "I must try." "Very well," I say, "Try away, try away." Why? Because then he will learn that he cannot, and presently he will say, not "How shall I do better?" but, "Who shall deliver me?" He is then in such a condition that another must take him out of it. He finds he is not only ungodly, but without strength; he has learned what he is, not merely what he has done; and then he sees Christ there in power, and the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus makes him free from the law of sin and death. This is not a question of non-imputation, nor of cleansing, but of making free. Then I find it settled in seeing the truth and ground of it in the cross of Christ, and not in my personally obtaining of purity at a given moment.
("Cleansing and Deliverance", Collected Writings, Vol. 23)
Read those first two sentences carefully. The problem is not only that we have sin in our flesh, but that we are utterly powerless to overcome it. Until we learn that, Darby says, we will try to be better instead of looking for deliverance.
This is closely related to the teaching of Romans 6, although it's not the same thing. We are crucified with Christ so that we are dead to sin. Not so that we can die to sin, but so that we have died to it. The basis of our deliverance is, we have died to sin. But Romans 7 tells us something more: sin is still there in our flesh. We are new creations, but we live in old bodies.
God never meant for us to duke it out with sin. We've been crucified with Christ to be freed from sin (Romans 6), and we need to be delivered from the sin we find in ourselves (Romans 7). In both cases, it is God's work to rescue us. But "try harder" Christianity takes us from our Deliverer and throws us back into the conflict to fight it out for ourselves. It is foolishness. It is the opposite of faith.
I've been down that road; there's nothing good down there.
A particularly egregious example is a message from the 2005 Shepherding Conference at Greenwood Hills in Pennsylvania, "A Critical Need" (MP3). Here we have a speaker addressing leaders from several "open" assemblies in the USA and Canada. He addresses the problems of moral purity in leadership, focusing mainly on Internet pornography and so forth. It's uncomfortable, but probably necessary. And it's commendable that he speaks openly about it. But around 13 minutes into the talk he presents his "solution"... from Daniel 1:8 and then later from Job 31:1.
Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not pollute himself (Daniel 1:8, JND)
I made a covenant with mine eyes; and how should I fix my regard upon a maid? (Job 31:1, JND)
And then he spends the rest of the message urging the brethren to enter into covenants to avoid this sort of sin.
It is utterly appalling. This brother points out a very real problem, but he offers no solution. His solution is law. I can't repeat it enough, the solution to lawlessness isn't law. That's the whole point of Galatians: the Law was given to demonstrate that we need a Saviour. Once we come to Christ, the Law has done all it can:
But before faith came, we were guarded under law, shut up to faith which was about to be revealed.
So that the law has been our tutor up to Christ, that we might be justified on the principle of faith.
But, faith having come, we are no longer under a tutor;
for ye are all God’s sons by faith in Christ Jesus.
(Galatians 3:23–26, JND)
This is exactly what Romans 7 is talking about: law doesn't actually empower us to live lawfully. Law can tell us we're bad, but it has no ability to make us good. We don't need law, we need deliverance. The problem of lust isn't to be conquered through purpose of heart, strength of will, or a covenant with or eyes (or anything else). What does Romans 7 teach? There is sin in the flesh and you are powerless over it. You can't beat this thing, it's stronger than you are. There is a law of sin in your members and the harder you try to be good, the worse you're going to find you are. And what is the result? The result is we realize we are "wretched" and we look for the Deliverer.
This sermon is putting Christians under law, plain and simple. It is the opposite of the teaching of the New Testament. It is opposite to the faith of the Apostles. The Epistles uniformly present not law nor the power of the will (because really, that's all he's offering in this sermon), but new life in Christ as the power for our walk down here. Christ has been crucified and I have died with Him. He was raised from the dead, and I am to walk in newness of life. I have died with Him: this is fact. I am to act on this fact by reckoning myself to be dead to sin. And when I find that law of sin in my members; when I recognize that I am a new creation in the old creation's body, then I am to look for my Deliverer. That is the teaching of Romans 6 & 7, Galatians 2, Colossians 2 & 3, and Ephesians. The Epistles don't tell us how to deal with this problem, they tell us how Christ has already dealt with it. They don't tell us to make covenants or put ourselves under law: on the contrary, they warn us that these attempts will merely exacerbate the problem.
This sermon offers as a solution the very thing Romans 7 tells us doesn't work. I don't know how I can say it more plainly than that.
And what I'm proposing ought not to be "strange doctrine" to these brothers. It was the settled doctrine of "brethren" from their beginnings in the 1820s until very recently. Darby might have said it best, but it was taught by W. Kelly, C.H. Mackintosh, F.W. Grant, George Mueller, etc. Literally all "brethren" for more than a century held that sanctification is by grace, not law. I am not proposing anything new: I have many books on my shelves more than 100 years old that all insist on the same thing.
Not everything on VoicesForChrist.org is bad. Indeed, there is some very good ministry there. In fact, there is a series on Romans by William McRae that's just excellent. And there is a lot of solid stuff by Neil Dougal, John Phillips, and Colin Anderson, as well as many others. But I'm finding "try harder" theology is becoming more and more prevalent there.