Holiness: More Than Middle-Class Family Values & Checklist Spirituality

Today I finally received my copy of Kevin DeYoung’s new book, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Go0spel Passion and the Pursuitof Godliness.  I have been waiting on this book since late Spring when I watched his presentation “Spirit-powered, Gospel-driven, Faith-fueled Effort,” which he gave at this year’s Together for the Gospel Conference, in which he provided a heads-up that this book was forthcoming. His presentation, which you can watch by following the link provided, is a small snapshot of what he deals with in the book – his fear that the current trend of emphasizing gospel living is leading people away from a serious pursuit of holiness.

Passionate exhortation to pursue gospel-driven holiness is barely heard in most of our churches. . . . My fear is that as we rightly celebrate, and in some quarters rediscover, all that Christ has saved us from, we are giving little thought and making little effort concerning all that Christ has saved us to. Shouldn’t those most passionate about the gospel and God’s glory also be those most dedicated to the pursuit of godliness? I worry that there is an enthusiasm gap and no one seems to mind, (p. 10-11, emphasis in original).

Later, he goes on to say that, “Any gospel which purports to save people without transforming them is inviting easy-believism,” (p. 30). So, DeYoung points out that it is good that theologians and pastors are emphasizing gospel-centered faith that rests in Christ – but he also highlights the need to also emphasize how the gospel fuels and empowers a radical pursuit of holiness.  So, DeYoung desires to help correct the ship that he believes has drifted into antinomian waters.

One of the things I have most appreciated so far with DeYoung’s treatment of the problem is that he is not “over-correcting.” Church history is filled by theological positions and movements that were the development of reacting against a particular problem, only to create a new problem or return to an old one. When there is a situation where the gospel is being emphasized to the detriment of a serious effort at the pursuit of holiness, one would be tempted to correct the ship by emphasizing effort at the pursuit of holiness apart from an emphasis on the gospel, turning the Christian life into a life of rule-keeping. Not only does DeYoung avoid this mistake, but he specifically identifies that approach as not being a pursuit of holiness.

In Chapter 3, “Piety’s Pattern,” he states that holiness is not mere rule keeping. Now, this is not to say that holiness does not include keeping rules, for don’t forget, God did provide us the ten commandments as a summary for us to follow in order to be holy as he is holy. Jesus told us that if we love him and his Father that we will keep his commandments.

However, the problem I have seen is that people do not rightly approach the ten commandments. The ten commandments do not begin with the first command, but with the declaration that Yahweh has delivered his people from bondage and slavery. The ten commandments have not been given as a list of bare commands that we are to follow in order to be moral and nice. Rather, they are ways to express our gratitude for what God has done within us through Jesus Christ, who frees us from bondage and slavery to sin and death. When we divorce the gospel from the law we end up with a bare list of do’s and don’t’s. And the problem with this? It leads people to strive for godliness through their own strength, with a focus on outward behaviors while neglecting internal desires and motivations. It robs the pursuit of holiness of the power of the Holy Spirit and the patient endurance of grace and turns holiness into something that even the moral unbeliever can desire and achieve. DeYoung puts it this way,

It’s all too easy to turn the fight of faith into sanctification-by-checklist. Take care of a few bad habits, develop a couple good ones, and you’re set. but a moral checklist doesn’t take into consideration the idols of the hearts. it may not even have the gospel as part of the equation. And inevitably, checklist spirituality is highly selective. so you end up feeling successful at sanctification because you stayed away from drugs, lost weight, served at the soup kitchen, and renounced Styrofoam, But you’ve ignored gentleness, humility, joy, and sexual purity. God has not really gotten to your heart. I could probably sell a lot of books if I demanded that Christians read their Bibles two hours a day, throw away their TV’s, sell their possessions, adopt three orphans, and move into a commune. We like getting lists. some of us like getting beat up and then being told exactly what needs to be done to become a true spiritual giant. This sort of exhortation seems promising at first, but it proves ineffective in the long run. Mere rule keeping is not the answer because holiness cannot be reduced to a little ethical refurbishment.

Holiness is more than pursuing middle-class family values – it is about more than following a list – unbelievers can do that (and do do that). Pursuing holiness through the lens of striving for American middle-class family values through a checklist spirituality leads you away from God, not deeper into him. It leads you to view God as being wholly other, rather than intimately present through the indwelling Holy Spirit. It leads you to see God as one who merely watches you, rather than one who is at work within you. It leads you to see holiness as the pursuit of trying to be like Jesus, rather than seeing holiness as you reflecting the Christ who is being formed in you. It leads you away from a life of faith expressed through the gratitude of obedience, to a life of self-effort, which will inevitably lead to self-loathing or self-righteousness. Worship is no longer about serving God and glorifying and enjoying him, it becomes focused on giving people motivation to continue in their self-effort. Preaching is not about proclaiming Christ and one’s life hidden in him, it is about making people feel bad about their paltry efforts at holiness so they will try harder, and then providing them lists of things to do along with helpful techniques for getting them done.

And what does this produce? Spiritually anemic Christians who do not know how to and are scared to walk by faith, who become co-dependent on the one who has been giving them their lists. You see, faith requires us to live in Christ, grasping hold of things not seen – lists don’t encourage that, they hinder it. Lists don’t encourage prayerful dependence on God for our holiness, they encourage self-dependence. Lists don’t require faith, or encourage faith; and you see, without faith, we cannot please God. Faith is necessary and integral to the pursuit of holiness.

Holiness is about being holy as God who saved us is holy and has saved us so that we would be reflections of him as those renewed according to the image of Christ. God’s laws help us in knowing how to express holiness – but it does not provide the ability to express holiness. Lists don’t enable and deepen devotion to God – the grace of the gospel does. Holiness pursued through lists leaves out the gospel. And so we don’t want to divorce the gospel from the pursuit of holiness any more than we want to divorce the pursuit of holiness from the gospel.

Yes, there are some who are emphasizing a gospel that saves while not emphasizing that it transforms – but let us not over-correct. We must hold the two together so that rather than giving anemic, checklist, self-effort that leads to self-loathing or self-righteousness, let us pursue Holy Spirit-empowered, Gospel-driven, Faith-fueled effort that leads to a deeper devotion to God and ever-growing reflection of his righteous character.

If you would like help in doing this, then in what I’ve seen so far, you would do well to read this book!


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