The Hole In Our Holiness: A Friendly Rejoinder to Gavin Ortlund
Last week TGC posted a review of my Holiness book by Gavin Ortlund. I really like his father and his brother, so I suspect Gavin will be a friend of mine too when we meet someday. Next time he’s in Michigan, the Hot N’ Ready is on me. I am thankful for his articulate, thoughtful review.
After several kind words at the beginning of the article and one paragraph noting various strengths of the book, Ortlund spends most of the review highlighting various concerns. It doesn’t bother me that someone might critique aspects of the book—that’s usually what happens in a book review. But since the bulk of the review is negative, even if graciously and tentatively so, I’d like to briefly respond to his three lines of criticism.
1) Ortlund wonders if my arguments are, at times, directed toward generalized tendencies that have been “slightly exaggerated or caricatured.” He wishes I would have documented my opponents and “locked horns with concrete individuals, books, and statements.” He is right that I do not often footnote the general tendencies I am arguing against. This was by deliberate choice. I never intended for this to be a polemical book like Why We’re Not Emergent or even What Is the Mission of the Church? The impetus for the book was in me long before any of the sanctification debates surfaced on the blogs. I didn’t conceive of the project with any particular authors or movements in mind, other than a general sense that contemporary Christians, myself included, need to take holiness more seriously.
Having said that, it’s certainly true that as the book developed I wrote, in part, to counter what I perceived to be unhelpful tendencies in some of our gospel-centered movement. But even here I did not want the book to become a tit-for-tat exercise where I quoted from different authors in our circles, authors on the whole I deeply like and respect. In other words, I purposely chose not to have a “locked horns” kind of book. Naturally, those wanting that sort of book will be disappointed.
Keeping with this point just a bit further, I can honestly say that I didn’t try to caricature any opposing views. I’ve heard or read all of the sentiments I try to correct-whether those sentiments were by well-known leaders or simply mistaken churchgoers. For example, Ortlund’s one claim of potential exaggeration is my lament that “we remove any notion that we can obey God or that he can delight in our good works.” Ortlund objects, “I cannot personally think of anyone who denies that obedience is possible or that we can please God.” But I can think of one good-spirited, thoughtful conversation I had with a fellow speaker at a conference who-I think I’m being fair here-disagreed with my insistence that pleasing God was a legitimate motivation for holiness. This article on “The Danger of Trying to Please God” shares that speaker’s concerns. I also recall this blog post which criticizes pastors for trying to keep people from sinning. The parable about teaching frogs to fly suggests that instructing people in obedience or growth in godliness is wasted effort to get sinners to do the impossible. There are many Christians out there who believe the only obedience we can really have is the obedience of Christ and that every good deed is nothing but a filthy rag in God’s sight.
2) Ortlund worries that the book may not as adequately challenge the legalist as it does the libertine. He thinks I have overestimated how many people already make the connection between the gospel and personal holiness. He could be right. Every book comes out of a context. Mine is one in a more liberal denomination and, in a different circle, among earnest YRR Christians, where legalism is frequently chastised. No doubt, there are those from severely moralistic backgrounds and those in repressive church environments who don’t need the libertine spooked out of them. Perhaps my book does not do enough to help them.
But if that’s the case, it’s not for want of trying. In many places I explicitly reject and warn against the legalistic tendencies in our hearts (52). “Apart from our union with Christ,” I write, ”every effort to imitate Christ, no matter how noble and inspired at the outset, inevitably leads to legalism and spiritual defeat” (100). Later in that same paragraph I conclude, “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.” Elsewhere I warn that “those most eager to be holy are often most susceptible to judgmentalism and arrogance” and that it is “very possible to pursue holiness out of pride” (140). The sections on the Holy Spirit, on faith, on gospel-driven effort, and the entire chapter on union with Christ are meant to counteract any notion that sanctification is a do-it-yourself exercise in self-salvation.
3) Ortlund’s main concern is that I “could have more clearly demonstrated that a failure to pursue holiness is itself a failure to appropriate the gospel.” He acknowledges that the book is “grounded in gospel truth” but argues that I “could more clearly draw out the point that holiness is always…by grace.” He thinks I demonstrate that holiness must accompany grace, but don’t clearly show how holiness comes by grace. The excerpts below suggest this charge is not accurate.
- “God expects us to be holy and gives us the grace to be holy” (66).
- ”God not only works obedience in us by his grace, it’s also by his grace that our imperfect obedience is acceptable in his sight” (67-68).
- ”More than that, we cannot produce any righteousness in our own strength. But as born-again believers, it is possible to please God by his grace” (69).
- “Sanctification doesn’t just flow from justification, so that one produces the other. Both come from the same Source. Christ justifies no one whom he does not also sanctify” (99).
- “‘The beauty of holiness’ is first of all the Lord’s (Ps. 29:2). But by his grace it can also be yours” (146, the last sentence in the book).
Along the same lines, Ortlund worries that I do not make clear the extent to which “the gospel of grace is as equally the answer to antinomianism as it is to legalism.” He cites Romans 6 as evidence that the best way to rebuff antinomianism is to drill down deeper into the Christian’s “grace-established identity.” The primary gap, then, is not between gospel passion and holiness but with our appropriation of the gospel itself. So for “Joe Christian” (the example Ortlund gives of a lazy pursuit of sanctification) the “ultimate need is for the gospel he professes to take root in his heart.” Ortlund commends The Hole in Our Holiness for being “gospel-rich” but also faults it for not showing more clearly that at the root of all our problems is a problem with the gospel.
It’s hard to know how to respond to this criticism. I don’t think Ortlund disagrees with the theology in the book. It just doesn’t say what he would say or in the way he would say it. Four times in this final concern he uses the phrase “more clearly” or “make clearer.” It seems to me the concern is not that I’m wrong but that I’ve not done enough to be thoroughly and explicitly gospel-centered.
This would be a serious deficiency, so it’s worth probing a bit further. Is the deepest problem in every situation and in every sinful struggle our failure to appropriate the gospel? Perhaps—depends on your definitions. I don’t have a problem saying at the root of every problem is a misfiring of the gospel. But neither would I have a problem saying that at its root every sin is a failure to recognize the Lordship of Christ, or to believe the promises of God, or to accept the goodness of God’s commands, or to trust the word of God, or to recognize our union with Christ, or to celebrate the character of God, or to find our satisfaction in Jesus, or to live in the power of the Spirit. I suppose someone may say, “Yes, that’s it exactly. And all of that is a failure to appropriate the gospel.” But then “gospel” has become shorthand for almost any spiritual blessing evidenced in Scripture. And if that’s our working definition of the gospel, I don’t mind, so long as we don’t expect everyone to give a hat-tip to “gospel” before we say anything else.
The gospel is, in one sense, the answer for everything. It unmasks our legalism and our antinomianism. Paul certainly confronts the “let’s continue in sin” attitude in Romans 6 by reminding us that we are dead to sin and alive to righteousness by virtue of our union with Christ. I have a whole section in the book on the glories of Romans 6. But it would be a mistake to think this is the only way to confront sin, or the only truly gospel-centered approach, or the only one that gets to the ultimate problem. In Romans 13 Paul attacks the libertines of his day by warning them of Christ’s return. This is a gracious gospel truth too, though not, I think, what people have in mind when they argue that the antidote for the abuse of grace is more grace.
Augustine was converted by Romans 13:13-14 not because it immediately revealed his failure to be sufficiently gripped by the gospel, but because it convicted him of sin and gave him relief from his wretched way of life. God counsels us in a hundred different ways and exchanges a thousand different truths for our lies. Let’s not think a “failure to believe the gospel” (which usually refers to our acceptance in justification) is the only final diagnosis for every malady. My concern with Ortlund’s concern is that many Christians have become hesitant to employ the full arsenal of Scriptural threats, warnings, promises, examples, and commands for fear that unless we explicitly say something about our deep down gospel issues we aren’t really dealing with the ultimate problem and we aren’t emphasizing grace as clearly as we ought. Surely there is more than one way to skin a sinful cat.
This rejoinder has gone on longer than I expected. I hope this is not evidence of defensiveness in my heart but an indication of how seriously I took Ortlund’s thoughtful review and how important these nuances can be. I imagine everyone reading his review and this response want the same thing: to grow in holiness by the grace of God. I trust that this conversation helps us all in that glorious and necessary pursuit.