Where God Looks First

By Sinclair Ferguson

Who are you behind closed doors? This three-fold test reveals the true index of your spirituality.

You may have heard these words (or some variation on them) quoted before:  “What a man is in secret, in these private duties, that he is in the eyes of God and no more.” The most frequently quoted version is usually attributed to the young Scotsman, Robert Murray McCheyne. But other masters of the Christian way have echoed these sentiments. Perhaps they borrowed unconsciously from one another; more likely, they all learned the same lessons the hard way—by personal experience. In any event, they all came to see the same three elements to be vital for right Christian living.

First, they learned that it is in secret, not in public, that what I really am as a Christian becomes clear. It is not visible service so much as my hidden life of devotion that is the index of my spirituality. That is not to despise my public life, but to anchor its reality to the ocean-bed of personal fellowship with God. I may speak or pray with zeal and eloquence in public; I may appear to others to be master of myself when in public; but what happens when I close the door behind myself an only the Father sees me?

Is it insignificant that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus warned his disciples against hypocrisy before men, and encouraged them to be transparent before God? How easily in our culture we are deceived into thinking that it is what is seen in public that really matters. How curious it would have seemed to the apostles that the services of worship in which we can so easily be visible spectators are so much better attended than our meetings for closed–eye prayer. Will the bubble of our visible success ever burst? 

Occasionally the statistics indicate how great the gap is between the image we present as evangelicals and the reality that we mask. We do not always exercise “sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5—unhypocritical faith, faith that does not need the actor’s mask). Life has a way of ripping off the mask, to reveal what is really there. Just as abuse of or inattention to the body reveals itself in older age, so with the abuse of the spirit. Inevitably it manifests itself in stunted, ill-disciplined, or twisted character. The Father has a way of rewarding us openly—one way or another (Matt. 6-5-6). Therefore, live well in secret, be molded by Scripture; learn to pray; control your thought life by God’s grace.

Secondly, these past masters learned that the Christian life is not lived on the basis of our feelings, but in fulfilling duties. Sanctification is not a glandular condition, but the submission of our wills to the will of God. 

Twentieth-century Evangelicalism has been so sensitive to the heresy of “Boy Scout Christianity” (“I promise to do my best, to do my duty . . . “) that it has truncated the Christian gospel to half-Christ  (Savior, but not Lord) and a half-salvation  (blessings, but not duties). How foolish we have been, when so much of the New Testament catalogues the specific duties that arise out of our relationship to Jesus Christ. 

A survey of only a few passages in the Epistles will exorcise the ghost of thinking that duty is alien to Christian living. Just look at Romans 12:1–15; Galatians 5:13-6:10; Ephesians 4:1-6:20; Philemon 4:2-9; Colossians 3:1-4:6; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-5:28; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15; James 1:19-5:20; and 1 Peter 1:13-5:11. Doubtless some scholar somewhere has counted the number of imperatives (‘Do so-and-so”) in the New Testament. Every one of them matters; every one of them grows out of God’s grace.

Are we frightened that fulfilling our duties will overturn the grace of God? Look at the busy housewife whose entire life is governed by her multi-faceted responsibilities. While her husband enters his own world (often exciting and challenging), she makes the lunches, drives the children to school, shops, cleans, washes, irons, mends, prepares the meals, cleans up, and gets the children to bed. And why? Duty. Love for God and duty are two parts of the same thing. How foolish we have been to separate them, and to regard “duty” as a bad word. It is the essence of Christ-likeness (Jn. 4:34). Therefore, know your Christian duties, and fulfill them.

Thirdly, these masters learned to live visibly, even in secret; they knew they lived coram Deo (before the face of God). That one principle is enough to transform the whole of life, and to rid us of all deception—of others, of God, of self. Nothing is hidden from the eyes of him with whom we have to do. Has that thought sufficiently gripped my mind and begun to dominate my every action, producing the quality of transparency in my life? It is the one sure way to enjoy liberty from the pressures of the world to conform to its mold, and to overcome the fear of man.  Those who make it their aim to have a conscience void of offense before God are Christ’s free men. Therefore, live the whole of your life as in the presence of God.

Here, then, are three things that provide a good measure of where I am, spiritually: What am I really like in secret? How do I react to the word “duty”? Am I living with a sense of how visible my life is to God? 

Incidentally, the version of the evangelical dictum quoted above is John Owen’s. He suggests that to fail to deal with these issues in the heart is like leaving “a moth in a garment, to eat up and devour the stringed threads of it, so that though the whole hang loose together, it is easily torn to pieces.” Wise word indeed!

This article was previously published in Eternity Magazine, February 1987