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.
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!
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.
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).