I want to talk about something close to my heart. I've talked (ranted?) about this before (Try harder! and Try harder (Reprise)). The fact is, the majority of "ministry" I have heard and read on "Christian living" really isn't "Christian" at all.
Let's talk about that for a minute. Christianity differs from Judaism in only a few points. Or more accurately, what the New Testament teaches differs only slightly from what the Old Testament teaches. Justification by faith alone isn't really New Testament truth: it's Old Testament truth. That's a strong claim, but it's the explicit teaching of Romans 4. Romans 4 specifically teaches the doctrine of justification by faith alone from the Old Testament: Genesis 15 and Psalm 32 are the basis of the doctrine. Genesis 15 teaches God counts a man (or woman) as righteous when he (or she) believes God. Psalm 32 teaches that a forgiven man is one to whom God "will not at all reckon sin" (v. 8). So justification by faith alone is Old Testament truth.
The birth of Christ, His death, and Resurrection are all taught in the Old Testament. The Lord Jesus Himself taught these doctrines from the Old Testament (Luke 24:22–27). So we really can't consider that to be New Testament truth.
The New Testament starts (doctrinally speaking) with the Ascension. The Lord Jesus–– having been crucified, buried, and raised (1 Corinthians 15:1–8)–– has ascended into Heaven, where He has been given the highest place (Acts 2:33; Hebrews 1:1–3; 1 Peter 3:21–22). Before the Lord Jesus went to the Cross, He promised to send the Holy Spirit (John 16:7–15). John's Gospel explicitly states that the Holy Spirit couldn't come unless the Lord Jesus was glorified (John 7:38–39), and Peter's sermon in Acts 2 pointed to the coming of the Holy Spirit as proof that Christ had been exalted in Heaven (Acts 2:32–33). So New Testament truth starts out with Christ ascended, and the Holy Spirit coming down as a result.
So the Christian life is defined as the life of women and men who are justified by faith alone in Christ alone, and indwellt by the Holy Spirit as a result of Christ's exaltation at the right hand of God in Heaven. The Christian life has a goal: it's the life of those who are waiting for the Son of God to come from Heaven and redeem our bodies (Romans 8:23; Philippians 3:21; 1 Thessalonians 1:9–10). And it has a standard, it's the life of those who are to "walk even as He walked" (1 John 2:6).
But Scripture makes it clear that the Christian life is not just characterized by a goal and a standard: it's also characterized by a power. And this is where the vast majority of "ministry" I have heard falls miserably short of Christianity as taught in Scripture. Christianity as taught in Scripture is characterized by the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Scripture says we should walk sinlessly (1 John 2:1); how does one do that?
See, this is the problem with almost all the "ministry" I have found on Christian living. It consists largely of someone pressing on the audience the necessity of a sinless life. There is plenty of exhortation to a holy life, but there's no real teaching on how exactly a person can live that holy life. I've pointed it out before, reminding a bankrupt of his debts doesn't give him the money to pay them. Reminding a Christian of his or her need to walk worthy of our calling (Ephesians 4:1) without providing him or her with the power to do it is nothing more than legalism.
The epistle to the Galatians talks about this in some detail. The Galatians understood that the Christian life started "in the Spirit", but they were trying to finish it "in the flesh" (Galatians 3:3). They thought that human effort could enable someone to live the Christian life. But it can't. Fallen, unredeemed flesh is powerless to live out the life of Christ. And yet, that's exactly what Romans 8:23 says we have. We might be born of God, we might be justified in His sight, we might have eternal forgiveness of sins, but until the Lord Jesus comes from Heaven to change our bodies to be like His (Philippians 3:21), we live in unredeemed bodies (Romans 7:24). God does not see my sins, but there is sin in me nevertheless (Romans 7:23). And that sin makes me powerless to live the Christian life.
So the question is, if I'm powerless to live up to the calling, how can I do it? Does God call me to a life I have no hope of living? In a way He does. God calls me to a life that is lived in the power of the Holy Spirit. Remember the Galatians were trying to finish "in the flesh" what they had started "in the Spirit". What does Scripture present as the solution to their problem? "I say, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall no way fulfil flesh’s lust" (Galatians 5:16).
When "ministry" presses on the believer the need for walking a godly life, but doesn't offer the power to do so, it leaves the believer right where the Galatians were. It leaves him or her with a desire to walk a godly path, but with no resources actually to do it, except for the efforts of the flesh. And the person who tries it finds exactly what the Scripture warns he or she will find: the harder we try to do good, the more we find we cannot (Romans 7:18–23).
I once heard a message from a brother I respected, interestingly on "The Flesh". The brother actually suggested that setting an alarm clock to get up early and read the Bible would be an effective measure in combatting the lusts of the flesh. Um, no. That's the sort of thing Galatians 5 and Romans 7 warn against. Trying to live a Christian life doesn't work. It's not possible to walk out a Christian life in the power of the will, nor the power of the alarm clock. It requires the power of the Spirit.
As soon as I say "the power of the Spirit", it's obvious that's entirely opposite to "the power of me". I should point out that I have an awful lot to learn about "walking in the Spirit". I am not at all speaking as someone who's arrived. But I can tell you two things: I can tell you what doesn't work, and I can tell you what Scripture says.
Trying harder doesn't work. It's actually impossible to try hard enough, it's actually impossible for a person to walk the Christian life in and of himself. The Christian life is exclusively for those who are "walking in the Spirit" (Romans 8:4). If you want to live the Christian life, says Galatians, you must walk in the Spirit. This is the only path that can keep us from fulfilling the lusts of the flesh. Set out to live the Christian life, and you will find yourself fulfilling the lusts of the flesh. You'll find, like the man in Romans 7, that trying harder means failing worse. But if you walk in the Spirit, says Galatians 5:16, then you'll find you're not fulfilling those lusts.
A brother pointed out to me that the real lesson of Romans 7 is that even with all the blessings in Christ, we need the Holy Spirit's intervention. Even a justified man who's been crucified with Christ is incapable of taking on the flesh. Even a man who's rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God will find that "in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing" (Romans 7:18). Even a man in the good of all the truths of Romans 1–6 will find that he is a "wretched me" (Romans 7:24). So we still find ourselves in a place of dependence.
And that's the first lesson Scripture would teach us about "walking in the Spirit." We can't walk the Christian life on our own. We can't will ourselves into it. We can't guilt ourselves (or someone else) into it. The Christian life starts with depending on Christ. We can't trust ourselves, we must trust in the God who raises the dead (2 Corinthians 1:9). Will power isn't enough, it takes the power of the Spirit of God.
Now, it's no secret I'm a big fan of J. N. Darby. I've been accused of being a "Darbyist", and that's probably more accurate than I want to admit. I'll freely admit that I'm hugely influenced by Johnny D. on this one, but this is really important. It's not some esoteric doctrine, it's the most fundamental issue of all. If I really am to live the Christian life, if I really am to walk "even as He walked", just how can I do that? The fact is, if anyone actually pays attention to this "ministry" I'm hearing, then they're buying into a life of misery. They're heading out there trying to walk out the Christian life with advice like "set your alarm clock", or "make a solemn commitment before God". They're going to find out, just like Paul did, just like everyone does, that "in me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing."
I don't doubt the people who write and speak about this sort of thing are doing so out of good intentions, but the fact is, what they're teaching isn't Christianity at all.