The Hole in our Holiness

Article by   December 2014
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Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in our Holiness. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014. Paperback. 160 pages. $11.99/₤7.99

Personalities, Polemics, and Progress

When one's theological diet consists entirely of blog posts for meals and tweets about blog posts for snacks, it can be easy to miss that real ink has been put to real paper on topics of present controversy. This potential problem exists especially in the midst of the recent controversy about sanctification involving several well-known pastors and bloggers. In case you missed it, the present debates began in 2011 when Kevin DeYoung and Tullian Tchividjian engaged in a friendly back and forth on the relationship between the Gospel and sanctification. William B. Evans and Sean Michael Lucas furthered the discussion by relating it to historical precedents within the Reformed tradition. Both of these exchanges have been helpfully rounded up here. Things flared again earlier this year when Tchividjian aggressively criticized a stand-alone piece by Jen Wilkin on the TGC site (see here and here on Liberate). A flurry of ripostes ensued (representative posts here, here and here). 

Given that the controversy remains so fresh, and has produced not a little heat, it seems an appropriate time to visit the carefully thought out books that reflect a deeper engagement with sanctification's relationship to the Gospel than what blog posts and cyber tête-à-têtes can produce. The reformed evangelical tradition has many classics on the topic that are well-worth any Christian's time, and within this recent controversy some helpful books have been published. On the historical side, last year Mark Jones addressed in Antinomianism: Reformed Theology's Unwelcome Guest the problem of antinomianism that often arises in calls for Gospel purity (see review here). Also in 2013, Jerram Barrs, with keen attention to cultural forces, published on the dangers of legalism in Delighting in the Law of the Lord: God's Alternative to Legalism and Moralism (see review here). In a more biblical-theological and practical vein, Kevin DeYoung produced The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness in 2012 (republished in paperback in 2014). Though this book was written in the midst of the current debate, and DeYoung himself has been a figure in the blogospheric discussions over the matter, the book's merit's and staying power deserve attention and consideration. 

One of the first things I noted while reading his book is, unlike the online discussions, DeYoung avoids bringing in personalities and naming specific groups. At first I wondered if his strategy was to ignore the elephant(s) in the room (evidently something Gavin Ortlund felt too, as expressed in his moderately critical review: here). I changed my mind. By not getting tangled in the distracting web of personalities and organizations, DeYoung is able to move us 'out of the room' of these debates and into a constructive consideration of how God makes us more holy. The polemical genre has its place, of course, but in avoiding polemics DeYoung allows this book to move in more positive directions and give hope in our holiness. 

'Cool', Gospel Rhetoric, and Freedom's Goal 

As his title suggests, DeYoung is nonetheless addressing a perceived problem in discipleship that is characteristic of our time: that is, for all the enthusiasm for 'Gospel-this' and 'Gospel-that' within the reformed evangelical world, there is a general lack of enthusiasm for holiness. This is the point he gets across in the first chapter. He quotes a more experienced member of the community, J.I. Packer, to provide the evidence: "(1) We do not hear about holiness in preaching and books. (2) We do not insist upon holiness in our leaders. (3) We do not touch upon the need for personal holiness in our evangelism" (p. 12). While this is a credible appeal to an authority's observations, DeYoung identifies, I think, a deeper mood behind the evidence - it is our mood of being 'cool', of seeking to put a smiley face on our faith with the hope it will attract others to it. And it is our commitment to 'cool' that makes us shrink back from talk of holiness, especially holiness that includes behavior avoidance and world resistance. We find such talk embarrassingly passé and maybe even legalistic, because we are, a priori, in the grip of 'cool'. 

Not afraid to be considered uncool himself, DeYoung makes a case for this - behavior avoidance and world resistance - being a part of what holiness demands, even spending a whole chapter on the issue of sexual immorality among Christians (chapter 8). And not wanting to be misunderstood on the proper order of things, DeYoung carefully demonstrates in the second chapter how the Bible lays out holiness not as the grounds but as the goal of our redemption (see Ephesians 1:3-4, 2:10, 5:25-27; Exodus 19:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:8-9; 1 Thessalonians 4:7). What is more, it is necessary for our redemption. DeYoung supports that striking statement from numerous biblical texts found on pages 26-27. 

What strikes us about such a statement is that it seems impossible in light of our doctrine of sin. We must do something - practice holiness - even though our nature is incapable? Later in the book DeYoung will address this tension with the theological tools Scripture provides. For now, in chapter 2, he quotes Ephesians 2 that it is God who works in us, who gives us the desire and ability to obey; and he stresses we should not "be so scared of works-righteousness that [we] make pale what the Bible writes in bold colors" (p. 30). So, in short, holiness is the goal of our redemption and good works are a necessary demonstration of that holiness. And, lest we think otherwise, God is the one working within us to produce the good works that lead to holiness. So far so good, but...

Does this demand for holiness produce a clash with the Gospel? 

It seems DeYoung recognizes that viewing holiness as the goal and good works as necessary clashes with the 'Gospel rhetoric' we have become familiar with in the reformed evangelical community. Why else would he turn such a delightful sentence as this: "Now before you sound the legalist alarm, tie me up by my own moral bootstraps, and feed my carcass to the Galatians, we should see what Scripture has to say [about redemption leading to personal holiness]" (p. 26)? DeYoung repeatedly couches holiness as a Gospel-fueled pursuit, where our guilt is done away with once and for all through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. He even stops midway through the book to again remind his readers how our good deeds are based on the good news of our forgiveness and right standing before God (p. 83ff.). Make no mistake, DeYoung has a clear understanding of the 'Gospel ground' out of which good works and holiness grow. At the same time, he also sees the danger of making the Gospel a category that swallows up all the commands of Scripture and regurgitates them as lacking taste for proper Christian living. 

Now, of course, the freedom provided by the Gospel of Jesus Christ is always relevant to the Christian, but what is the freedom for? By making Christian discipleship a continuous cycle of failure and return to the Gospel of forgiveness are we missing out on the greater, richer picture of what God intends for his people? To switch the metaphor, have we turned 'Gospel living' into a monotonous praise chorus where God intends a much more dynamic symphony of sound to encourage our walk with him? 

It is in answering these questions that DeYoung's book hits its stride. For the rest of this review I will highlight three ways DeYoung's exposition of holiness answers real questions we have about our walk with God, making this an enduring book we should take on our journey of discipleship.  

Three Insightful Answers 

The first question DeYoung's book answers regarding the Christian life and holiness is an existential one. Do we frame the Christian life and the pursuit of holiness in such a way that it "squeeze[s] out the dynamic nature of life with God" (p. 64)? When a strict Law-Gospel binary is the only framework one has for conceiving of the life of discipleship, there can quickly enter the feeling that progress in holiness is impossible. That is to say, if the Law's demands are absolute, and we can never perfectly meet them this side of heaven, failure is our constant companion in the Christian life. Therefore, we must continually flee to the opposite pole, the Gospel of grace. DeYoung rightfully understands this approach as 'flat'. 

It is flat in at least two ways. On the one hand, it is flat in its portrayal of grace. In such a way of emphasizing things, grace is only on the 'side' of the Gospel. Christianity is a 'religion of grace' we are told, and her grace is only in the Gospel. Is that true? Is there something ungracious about God's commands? It is true that the Law leads us to the Gospel, where through seeing God's standard we see our sin and need of Jesus. But, as DeYoung notes, "it's just as true that gospel leads to law" (p. 53). We see this as early as the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, where the 'Gospel message' of the exodus from Egypt sets up the divine commands. It not only leads us to obey the Law but to love the Law. There's no 'grudging' acceptance of God's commands for the Christian. Quite the opposite: there's an understanding that we are a very needy people; and while God has been gracious in uniting us to Christ and meeting our biggest need of freedom from the guilt of sin, he's also been gracious in addressing our many wounds through the fulsome variety of his medicines found in his Law. Jesus is the Great Physician, and his medicine bag does not contain just one big bottle of Gospel Formula. 

On the other hand, the Law-Gospel binary is flat in its vision of what is possible for the Christian. When we are faced with 'impossibility' we give up before trying and glorify failure. This is never how Scripture portrays our walk with God. If our doctrine or rhetoric conjures up feelings that move in a different direction than the encouragements of Scripture, then we are setting up deeper problems where a Christian's life with God and reading of the Bible begin to break apart. Rather, in line with the movement of Scripture, we must think piety possible: "The Truth is God's people can be righteous - not perfectly, but truly, and in a way that genuinely pleases God" (p. 64 - The possibility of righteousness flows out of our regeneration, John 3:3-8 and Titus 3:5, and is presupposed in such passages as Matthew 7:24; 28:19-20 and James 2:22-25. For examples of righteousness, see Luke 1:6 and Job 1:18.). In other words, our pursuit of holiness is very much like our pursuit of the knowledge of God: We will never know God perfectly - because we are always finite and He is infinite - but we can know God truly (see Deuteronomy 29:29). 

The language of Law-Gospel and failure short-circuits the hope that Scripture gives to the one genuinely seeking to be like God. It also puts emphasis on categories that flatten rather than invoking the dynamic ones of our Faith as a 'way' in which we walk and a 'family' in which we are sons or daughters. If indeed we have repented and put our faith in Jesus Christ, if indeed we know we stand before God only in the righteousness of the Son, then we are genuine members of a family, and 
[w]hat sort of father looks at his daughter's homemade card and complains that the color scheme is all wrong? What kind of mother says to her son, after he gladly cleaned the garage but put the paint cans on the wrong shelf, 'This is worthless in my sight'? What sort of parent rolls his eyes when his child falls off the bike on the first try?... [F]or those who have been made right with God by grace alone through faith alone and therefore have been adopted into God's family, many of our righteous deeds are not only not filthy in God's eyes, they are exceedingly sweet, precious, and pleasing to him (p. 70). 
DeYoung proceeds to open up the emotional and spiritual dynamism of the Christian life, where every sin is not the same, where we can do things that either please or displease our heavenly Father, and where our communion (note: not union) with God is either weakened or deepened by our obedience. Progress is possible! But, how? If we carry our sinful condition into our Christian walk, what gives us ability

DeYoung would have us turn that 'what' into a 'who', for after injecting some hope into our quest for holiness in chapter 5 he properly provides the personal reason for our hope: Christians are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit's power in the believer's life is the second helpful answer I see DeYoung providing for how it is we can be holy despite our remaining sinful nature. It is the Spirit who places us in Christ, so that we are definitively holy in him. It is also the Spirit who enables obedience within us, so that through his supernatural energy we might be progressively more like Christ in our lives. DeYoung skillfully goes through the means by which the Spirit transforms us into the image of Christ in chapter 6, including engaging our human effort. But one of the areas I would have liked to see him do more work is here. 

I have been struck by the lack of Trinitarian emphasis in our current debates over sanctification, often ignoring the person and promised work of the Holy Spirit in light of Christ's ascension. DeYoung is a breath of fresh air in emphasizing the Spirit's power. However, I think more work in John 14 and 16 is needed in order to draw out the relationship between the Spirit and Son and the role it has to play in our sanctification. 

The third answer DeYoung's book provides for the Christian struggling to find hope in his or her quest for holiness draws our attention to our present and eternal position: in Christ. Chapter 7, 'Be Who You Are', teases out the implications of our union with Christ for our sanctification. 'Union with Christ', as DeYoung notes, may be the most important doctrine you have never heard of, because it teaches that all the benefits of our salvation - including our sanctification - flow out of our union with the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. Christ is not alien to us, nor are we alien to him: he dwells within us by the Holy Spirit. DeYoung demonstrates how pervasive this doctrine is in the New Testament Scriptures and carefully clears up what it is and is not before coming to its relationship to our holiness. 

A remarkably personal picture emerges where pursuit of holiness is not checking off commands to be obeyed, nor is it an abstract theological appendage to our justification; rather, holiness is a pursuit of the person of Christ even as we live out of vital union with him. He (and not justification) is the source of our sanctification, where by grace we become like what he is by nature: "God doesn't ask us to attain to what we're not. He only calls us to accomplish what already is. The pursuit of holiness is not a quixotic effort to do just what Jesus did. It's the fight to live out the life that has already been made alive in Christ" (p. 100). 

In his closing chapter DeYoung mentions the Lord's Supper as the place where our communion with the person of Christ is deepened as we spiritually (which is no less true!) participate in his body and blood. This is another area where I would have liked to see more, fleshing out the sacraments' role in our holiness. The Lord's Supper gets less than a page (p. 133) and baptism, a sign of our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit, gets only a sentence (p. 103). Seeing as these two symbols were given to the Church by Christ himself, and are a means of grace in order to make us more holy, they deserve our focused attention in discussions of sanctification. 

The Light of Hope

Remedying my minor criticisms would, of course, result in a longer book, and one of its strengths is its brevity and focus. I think DeYoung nails the questions we bring to our walk with God - existential, personal, and positional - causing this book to emerge from the present debates over sanctification as a reliable and lasting companion in Christian discipleship. For its biblical and theological care, as well as its wise pastoral concern, it is a book to return to years hence for encouragement and direction when we grow weary in 'fighting the good fight' for holiness, or one to walk through with a new disciple who is trying to 'put together' grace and sanctification. For all the heat of the recent debates over holiness, DeYoung has provided the light of hope - hope that, even in this life, we might be more like Jesus.


Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in patristics at Durham University. He's currently a research visitor at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on twitter @dblairsmith
















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