Pietistic Goofiness: How Keswick Theology Nearly Destroyed J.I. Packer
GUEST POST by Andy Naselli:
It is not much of a recommendation when all you can say is that this teaching may help you if you do not take its details too seriously. It is utterly damning to have to say, as in this case I think we must, that if you do take its details seriously, it will tend not to help you but to destroy you. [p. 159]
That’s what J. I. Packer wrote about Keswick theology, a teaching that has destroyed many people and continues to destroy more today. It frustrated the tender-hearted J. I. Packer as a young, recent convert in his pursuit to be holy:
It didn’t work and that was a deeply frustrating and depressing thing. It made me feel like a pariah, an outsider, and at the age of eighteen that was pretty burdensome. In fact, it was driving me crazy. [p. 169] The reality of its [i.e., Keswick theology’s] passivity program and its announced expectations, plus its insistence that any failure to find complete victory is entirely your fault, makes it very destructive. [p. 157]
Packer felt like a “poor drug addict” desperately, unsuccessfully, and painfully trying “to walk through a brick wall.” The explanation for his struggle, according to Keswick theology, was his “unwillingness to pay the entry fee,” that is, not fully consecrating himself. “So all he could do was repeatedly reconsecrate himself, scraping the inside of his psyche till it was bruised and sore in order to track down still unyielded things by which the blessing was perhaps being blocked.” His confusion, frustration, and pain grew as he kept “missing the bus.” The pursuit was as futile as chasing a “will-o’-the-wisp.” He felt like “a burned child” who “dreads the fire, and hatred of the cruel and tormenting unrealities of overheated holiness teaching remains in his heart to this day” (pp. 157–58). Packer concludes that Keswick’s message is depressing because it fails to eradicate any of the believer’s sin and that it’s delusive because
it offers a greater measure of deliverance from sin than Scripture anywhere promises or the apostles themselves ever attained. This cannot but lead either to self-deception, in the case of those who profess to have entered into this blessing, or to disillusionment and despair, in the case of those who seek it but fail to find it. [“Keswick and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification,” p. 166.]
The Puritans, says Packer, correct what he calls Keswick theology’s “pietistic goofiness” (p. 33). For further reading:
- J. I. Packer, “Keswick and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification,” Evangelical Quarterly 27 (July–Sept. 1955): 153–67
- J. I. Packer, preface to the centenary ed. of J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Welwyn: Evangelical, 1979), vii–viii.
- J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1984), 157–58; cf. 111.
- J. I. Packer, introduction to John Owen, Sin and Temptation: The Challenge of Personal Godliness (ed. James M. Houston; Minneapolis: Bethany, 1996), xvii–xxx, esp. xxv–xxix.
- Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 22–26, 76–80.
- Wendy Murray Zoba, “Knowing Packer: The Lonely Journey of a Passionate Puritan,” Christianity Today 42:4 (April 6, 1998): 30–40, esp. 33.
- Jeffrey P. Greenman, “Packer, James Innell,” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (ed. Timothy T. Larsen, David W. Bebbington, and Mark A. Noll; Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 497.
- John H. Armstrong, “A Reformation & Revival Journal Interview with James I. Packer,” Reformation & Revival 13:4 (Fall 2004): 163–96, esp. 166–69.
- Andrew David Naselli, Let Go and Let God? A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010).