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Review of A Hole in Our Holiness

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The following is by Rev. Andrew Compton, associate pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA. Rev. Compton is one of the bloggers at The Reformed Reader


I recently read Kevin DeYoung's latest book, The Hole in our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness. I had two reasons for doing so. First, I like DeYoung's writing. His is a popular writing style that embodies a winsome presentation of the Reformed tradition. Second, I have been reading and studying piety and the pursuit of godliness for the past year or so. In addition to various Puritan works and books by Jerry Bridges, DeYoung's book was a logical addition to my growing shelf of books focusing on Christian piety.


In general, I really enjoyed this book. I share DeYoung's belief that the gospel as described in the Reformed confessions not only supports training oneself for godliness (1 Tim 4:7) and growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ (2 Pet 3:18), it is the only gospel that can lead people to a true and noble pursuit of godliness. Apart from the careful distinction between justification and sanctification, a firm affirmation of the imputation of Christ righteousness, and a confident embracing of sola fide, any so-called pursuit of godliness will be only a pursuit of civil decency (at best) or a pursuit of salvation-by-works (at worst).


DeYoung seems on track in noticing that there is a younger generation of Christians who have been liberated from the shackles of legalism and isolationism when they encounter the Reformation's recovery of the biblical gospel. They find freedom in the Reformation's bold assertion that vocation and cultural engagement (e.g., the arts, music, sport, etc.) are things that bring great glory to God. And yet they wind up pursuing any and all cultural endeavors with little to no critical reflection about whether the "lawfulness" of their actions overrides their "helpfulness" (1 Cor 10:23). This new-found liberty slips from its moorings in Christian gratitude and becomes a perceived liberty to neglect worship, prayer, sexual purity, humility and the like.


Positives


In a book that could easily become an overly prescriptive list of do's and don'ts, DeYoung is modest and careful with what the pursuit of godliness will look like. He reminds us that God is a loving father to his children, delighting in even our most crude and remedial steps of godliness. He draws a nice parallel between the love a father has for the homemade birthday card his daughter makes, and the love our heavenly father has for our far-from-perfect good works (pg. 70). He notes that there are numerous "cheap imitations" of godliness (e.g., rule keeping and generational imitation; pgs. 33-38) which do not begin to plumb the beauty and delights of true godliness.


DeYoung does an exceptional job of expounding the difference between our union with Christ and our communion with him. He shows that our union with him, whereby we receive all the blessings of salvation, is infallible and unbreakable (pgs. 73-74). Our communion or fellowship with him, however, can ebb and flow, sometimes due to misplaced priorities, other times due to outright sinful behavior which is not befitting of God's children and brings about his fatherly frown (cf. Heb 12:7-11). This distinction provides the categories for Christians to cultivate a closeness with God without seeing their works as gaining or sustaining their right standing before him. His "four practices for oneness with Christ" (pgs. 128-133) avoids the individualism that the spiritual disciplines usually breed and focus on several very corporate activities: prayer, reading/hearing the word, the fellowship of believers, and the Lord's Supper.


Finally, DeYoung drives a stake in the heart of holiness and perfectionist movements, reminding believers that their growth in the grace of Christ happens over the long haul. He explains, "when it comes to sanctification, it's more important where you're going than where you are. Direction matters more than position.... So cheer up: if you aren't as holy as you want to be now, God may still be pleased with you because you are heading in the right direction" (pg. 138).


Once the book got rolling, it steamed along delightfully. Chapters 5-10 were wonderful. They were pastoral, sensitive and encouraging, even as they exhorted Christians to strive against the world, the flesh, and the Devil in their pursuit of godliness. Their concrete suggestions for the exercise of godliness were reasoned and biblical. And what was most refreshing was the reminder that God intends the pursuit of godliness to be a joyful goal of our Christian life, not
a chore for us to slog through grudgingly. God has not only saved us from something, he has saved us to something and he is in the business of conforming us to the likeness of our glorious savior Jesus Christ even now!


Negatives


Though as a whole I recommend this book, I am not wholly pleased with how DeYoung navigated these shoals. The ship did not run aground, but it did scrape bottom on a couple of occasions.


The first four chapters did not strike me as being as careful and nuanced as they ought to have been for a topic as easily misunderstood as this. Though my copy does have marginal notes reading "yes," "n.b.," and "nice!" in these chapters, I found myself writing "hmmm," "yes & no," and "needs nuance" more often than I would have liked.


While I do not believe that DeYoung is a biblicist (one who uses explicit language of scripture even though such language can be misunderstood apart from careful distinctions ) the way he articulates several points in chapters 1-4 sound biblicistic. In chapter 2, for example, DeYoung emphasizes that good works are "necessary" for salvation. He does not, however, parse out the different kinds of "necessity" that exist and the different ways in which we can speak of good works as being "necessary" for salvation. (E.g., our good works are a necessary fruit of our salvation, but not necessary as the ground for our salvation.) While he is careful to note that the "necessity" of personal holiness should not undermine our confidence in our justification (pg. 28), he still plays a bit fast and loose with expressions that have a long history of misunderstanding.


A few other topics have a biblicistic ring to them. When DeYoung says that "holiness is a possibility for God's people" (pg. 65), he relies on the bare biblical assertion that Zechariah, Elizabeth and Job could be called this even though we know they weren't sinless. And yet scholars in the past have written carefully of these three figures, noting in what sense they can be called "holy." (Francis Turretin notes four kinds of "perfection" that are predicated of Zechariah, Elizabeth and Job. See his Institutes of Elenctic Theology 17.II.IV.)


Likewise, chapter 4, "The Impetus for the Imperatives" does not, in my opinion, tread carefully enough when using expressions like "there is grace in getting law" (pg. 53). Again, older theologians often used grace both to mean "unmerited favor" and "demerited favor," but they were careful in doing so not to confuse the "grace" that God shows when giving good things to unfallen man (better described as benevolence) and the grace that God shows to fallen man when he gives them the opposite of what they have merited. And though DeYoung is right that as Christians, we begin to view God's law as a precious gift to his children, calling the law "gracious" begins to muddy the categorical waters.


Conclusion


In spite of these criticisms, after reading The Hole in our Holiness, I was quite pleased with the book. I believe that DeYoung has written a fine book on the topic of the Christian pursuit of Godliness, though I don't think that he has written the final word. To be fair, I'm pretty sure he didn't intend to. And though I would recommend it to people interested in studying the topic, I'd be quicker to recommend Jerry Bridges' books Growing Your Faith and Respectable Sins for a popular and gospel-centered approach to godliness and piety.


Lest this review sound too tepid, let me conclude by expressing my gratitude to Kevin DeYoung for his efforts on behalf of an oft neglected topic. He's absolutely right; in many circles, holiness is the new camping: "It's fine for other people. You sort of respect those who make their lives harder than they have to be. But it's not really your thing" (pg. 10). What is sad is that a good many Christians enjoy the benefits of their union with Christ, all the while bearing the misery and discomfort of a sickly communion with him. They neglect to strive against besetting sin. They are inconsistent in availing themselves of the means of the grace. They wallow in their desires or frustrations, all the while missing out on the glorious gift of comfort and contentment that God is holding out to them in Christ.


In The Hole in our Holiness, DeYoung reminds us that justification and sanctifications are not two extremes in need of balance, but two equally wonderful truths - two equally exciting parts of our salvation. He is in good company. The Apostle Paul certainly seemed to think this too: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that on one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them" (Eph 2:8-10).

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  • Guest - Mitchell Hammonds

    DeYoung's work sounds more or less like David Platt... that isn't a compliment. Coming from a background in the SBC, newly converted to Lutheran, when I read DeYoung I feel I should've stayed within the pietistic world of the Southern Baptist circles. Just my opinion.
    However, his Monday Morning Humor can be quite good!

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  • [...] our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness has been posted over on the White Horse Inn Blog. ________________ Andrew Compton Christ Reformed Church Anaheim, CA Share [...]

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  • Good review Andrew. Mitchell, I agree with you. I thought I was alone in feeling that way.

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  • Dear Rev. Compton,

    Thank you for your review of this book. I must confess that I was turned off by the title of the book. It communicated to me, "here's another book barking at me to get with it and that the gospel is not enough." Your review shows me that the book seems to be better than this.

    Have you read Jerry Bridges' new book, "The Transforming Power of the Gospel"? It is wonderful and gives such clarity and simplicity on God, the gospel, grace, gratitude. A ninth grader could understand it, yet a Ph.D. in theology would also benefit by it. The book is meant to be a summary of all Dr. bridges has taught and believed for decades. It is his life message, distilled in one book.

    Just wondering if you have read it yet... and if so, if you had any thoughts about it.

    Thank you again.

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  • Guest - Rayn

    Regarding chapter 4,

    Deyoung's emphasis on other motivations for holiness seems very different from the standard reformed theologians I read and listen to. I was wondering, is gratitude really the only or most important motivation for holiness? Is fear as a motivation to be rejected altogether? I haven't really read anyone comment on this, and yet it seems like one of the main things Deyoung is trying to contribute. More commentary on this part of Kevin's work would be much appreciated.

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  • Guest - Mitchell Hammonds

    Good question Rayn. I have wondered myself exactly how fear plays into the equation. I think maybe it is another paradox. I read the other day of the reality that we can speak of God in paradoxical terms - He is both beautiful and frightening or loving and wrathful as well. So maybe our relation to him is both of fear as well as confident that there is no condemnation for us (on account of Christ) with the emphasis on the confidence that we can have - period. I don't know though - great question. Maybe Horton will chime in. Deyoung seems to, on one hand, talk of God's sovereignty but then wants to get one to "do" some "gospel imperative" or else question the validity of their salvation. At least that is my take on DeYoung - slanted as it may be.

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  • Chuck,

    Thanks for the note. I tend to be skeptical of most books emphasizing sanctification and the pursuit of godliness, even though I've been trying to read more books on the topic! But as I've been praying for God to help me to delight in godliness more, I've just tried to dive into anything that looks potentially promising. DeYoung's book was one I was optimistic about, but still read with a careful eye.

    I have not read Bridges' book - I'll add it to my wish list!

    Andrew

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  • Rayn and Mitchell,

    Thought I'd lump your comments/questions together as they touch on similar things.

    I was actually a bit uncomfortable with chapter 4's motivations for good works. On the one hand, yes, DeYoung is just citing scripture which lists different reasons for good works. It's hard to argue with that. But on the other hand, this ties in with that sort of "biblicistic" critique I had. I wrote something in my margin along the lines of - "yes, but what is the overarching and/or theological tie that binds *all* these together."

    I think that Q&A 86 of the Heidelberg Catechism does a nice job of providing an over-arching rubric for understanding passages like this. It says that we do good (1) because the Holy Spirit is renewing us to be like Christ, (2) in order to show that we are thankful, (3) that God might be praised through us, (4) that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and (5) that our godly living might heap burning coals on our neighbors.

    DeYoung is right, of course, that gratitude is not the only thing cited in scripture or the Reformed confessions that motivate our good works. And yet meditation upon the unspeakable beauty of the gospel seems to drive us toward *gratitude* produced good works! When I contemplate the depths of my sin and the even greater depths of Christ's love for me, my first response is not to make my neighbor jealous of my joy or to seek to avoid God's displeasure (albeit fatherly) - it is to burst forth in praise and thanksgiving! Hallelujah, what a savior!

    As for fear ... I've always been a bit uncomfortable about this as a motivation for good works, although perhaps it is worth considering. (With great care, of course.) After all, Hebrews 12:7-11 does speak of the Lord's discipline. But it is a discipline that is fatherly, a loving way to train us to yield up the peaceful fruit of righteousness. And yet is is painful - yes, only for the moment (v.11) - but painful and unpleasant nonetheless. I never like those times and frankly, the fact that I don't like them does make me want to avoid them. It's not that I fear that those times place my soul in jeopardy or mean God loves me less, but the times of close communion with Christ bring such contentment, that there is a degree of "fear" of having that contentment replaced with sorrow.

    I'm sort of thinking out loud here, but it's something I've thought about on and off in light of Heb 12.

    Thanks for your thoughts, perhaps I'll take up Chapter 4 sometime over on the Reformed Reader when things slow down!

    Andrew

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  • Thank you, Rev. Compton, for taking the time to read and respond to my comment.

    I am very much like you re: books on godliness. They almost always end up melding into moralism or "hitch up your britches" Christianity, where the author says about being committed, "I am doing it... my friends are doing it... and my church is doing it. You can do it. Sell all, give to the poor and get committed." Or, a flattening of the covenants of works and grace. The focus ends up being on you, rather than our Savior and His finished work.

    Not to keep beating the same drum, but the Bridges' book I mentioned above avoids these errors and stays God centered. It really is remarkable... and remarkably simple. He also does an excellent job discussing union with Christ in very simple terms.

    I am on staff with The Navigators and am daily involved with this issue of the gospel and sanctification. This book is one of the best resources I have found. However, I also love the Belgic Confession and how it teaches the faith... being clear on justification and how a fruitful life comes out of that. I am praying about simply teaching the BC with the people with whom I meet.

    Well: I have rambled on. Once again, thank you.

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  • Guest - Rayn

    Thank you, Rev. Compton, especially for the catechism citation. I once was involved in a conversation about fear and the subject of discipline from Heb. 12 was brought up, but I like your gospel-centered approach to it. Thanks again for your service in Christ!

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