Striving After Godliness Should Not Be So Controversial: Responding to the CT Reviews
I was surprised to learn on Monday that Christianity Today was running four reviews of my new book The Hole in Our Holiness. I consider it a sign of respect that they think the book deserving of this kind of analysis. I’m grateful too for the invitation to round out this week of reviews with a response of my own. Though I’m hesitant to respond—because rejoinders often appear (or are!) defensive and thin-skinned—I’ll venture a few thoughts on each review.
Erik Raymond has written the sort of review every author enjoys. He understands the book, appreciates the book, and recommends the book. I’m particularly grateful that Raymond sees, and agrees with, my emphasis on grace-based effort and my use of various confessions. Since both of these points were criticized by others in this series, it’s good to see not everyone considered these elements to be mistaken. I’m thankful for Raymond’s kind, encouraging review.
Mark Labberton and Tyler Braun hit on different themes, but both have written the same sort of review. They like a lot about the book, but would have said more or less in some areas. Since the book was short, 146 under-sized pages, there is certainly more that could have been said about a number of important issues. Labberton wishes I would have said more about what lies beneath the biblical call to holiness (and our dismissal of it) and the public implications of a holy life. It’s hard to know how to respond to this criticism except to say I addressed some of both, but could have done more. I could have talked more about consumerism and social justice and (especially) the kingdom, as Labberton suggests. I also could have talked more about abortion, statism, and religious liberty. Holiness touches on all of life, so almost any topic would have been fair game. As a pastor, I addressed the sorts of issues I see people struggling with most and the issues talked about most directly and most frequently in the New Testament. That leads us to recurring concerns with sexual immorality, relational sins, and vices associated with the breaking of the Ten Commandments.
Braun’s concern is that The Hole in Our Holiness may be too much like “a seminary textbook” and not do enough to reach out to those far from Christ or falling away from God. He fears I may be too entrenched in a Reformed Christian subculture to relate to outsiders. I suppose all those critiques will hit the mark with some readers. Some people will think the book is too heady. Some people will think it references the Reformed confessions too often. Some people won’t feel comfortable handing it out as an evangelistic tool. On the other hand, some people will think I’ve only skimmed the surface of a very deep topic. Some people in the Reformed community will think I haven’t engaged the confessions enough. Some people will consider the book ideal for struggling sinners. It depends on your expectations. I’m not meaning to dismiss Braun’s concerns, except to suggest that they strike me as largely personal preferences. He would have liked less interaction with the Reformed tradition and more emphasis on drawing “back to Christ those who are too lost in their own sin and shame to see beyond it.” Not surprisingly, the latter is precisely what Braun sets out to do in his own book on holiness. The main critique with my books seems to be that I wrote the book I did instead of the book he did.
A Puzzling Take
Mark Galli’s review is the most puzzling. While he thinks the book is helpful and nuanced, he also concludes that it is “best forgotten as soon as possible.” Galli acknowledges that holiness, like his favored pastime of golf, requires a certain type of effort. You do have to practice different elements of your swing, even if concentrating too hard ends up ruining your timing. But otherwise, he urges us to stop looking at ourselves, stop examining ourselves, and stop trying to be holy. Instead, we should start looking for the neighbor and move toward him with the “rhythm of grace.” He contends that the conscious pursuit of a righteous life leads inevitably (his emphasis) to judgmentalism and arrogance. The proof is in the Puritan pudding—”their passion for holiness led inevitably to self-righteousness.” In short, Galli believes “a conscious and purposeful pursuit of holiness is about the worst way to go about it.”
I find Galli’s review puzzling because I wonder if it really means what he says. Either he is speaking with a lot of hyperbole, or we have two completely different ideas of what it means to pursue holiness. If I wake up in the morning, give myself a holiness score of 6, and then commit myself to get to 6.5 by the end of the day, that would be disastrous and silly. But what if I am struggling with lust and pray for God’s help that I might fight the urge to click where I shouldn’t click, and embrace my identity in Christ as chosen and beloved, and believe God’s promises about the pure in heart—is that also the “worst way” to go about holiness? I never describe holiness as a scorecard. In fact, though Galli says I provide no definition of holiness, I describe it chiefly as the pursuit of Christ himself. Is it really a dreadful thing for Christians to be intentional about wanting to be more like Jesus? I know that’s not where the gospel starts, but haven’t a myriad of Christians through the ages considered that at the heart of discipleship?
The language of inevitability also strikes me as misplaced. Is it really the case that everyone who has ever aspired to holiness ends up suffering from spiritual pride? To be sure, we all continue to sin, and pride is one of the ways we do. But Galli seems to be saying more than this. To simply point out that those who pursue holiness still have pride is a truism. We all still suffer from pride. Galli suggests, however, that pride is most prevalent in those who most consciously pursue holiness. Really? Is this always the case? Every Methodist, every pietist, everyone from the Dutch Second Reformation, everyone in every religious order, everyone in our churches deliberately trying to kill sin in their lives—all of them are essentially self-righteous hypocrites? Galli must be thinking of the pursuit of holiness in the worst possible caricature. Are Jerry Bridges and J. I. Packer—two men who have written extensively about the pursuit of holiness—especially judgmental and arrogant? The men and women at my church who strive each day to wage war against the flesh and grow in grace do not fit Galli’s description.
And the Puritans? Galli’s comment is either overstated or unfair. Besides the historical presumption of making such a sweeping claim against “the Puritans” (as if their theology and behaviors were monolithic), it is terrifically uncharitable to suggest, without naming a single example, that as a group they were especially marked by censoriousness. As in any church or any tradition, some who went by the name Puritan were no doubt arrogant and proud. But some lived lives of which the world is not worthy. We do ourselves no favors when we tear down all our heroes because they walked the earth on clay feet.
Most damaging to Galli’s thesis is the record of Scripture itself. If the call to pursue holiness is best forgotten, why does the Bible remind us of it so often? What do we do with Hebrews 12:14 and its language of “striving” for holiness? What do we do with Paul’s language of “fighting” and “toiling” and “pressing on”, or Peter’s language of “making every effort,” or Jesus’ language of “striving” to enter the narrow gate? And what about the exhortation in Philippians 4 to “think about these things” and “practice these things”? None of these descriptions envision a morbid navel-gazing. But they all envision that the Christian life involves the conscious and purposeful putting off of sin and putting on of holiness. Of course, we never achieve this perfectly or without the presence of indwelling sin, but that doesn’t lead the biblical writers to reject the conscious pursuit of holiness or the possibility of living a holy life pleasing to God and worthy of emulation.
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus assumes that asking for forgiveness would be a daily occurrence, as would praying that we might be delivered from evil and led not into temptation. The mystery of the Christian life is that Christ expects us flee sin and the devil, but does not expect us to rid ourselves of either on this side of glory. Repentance is a way of life and so is the pursuit of godliness. I wish every Christian could be reminded of these two things. And I wish they were less controversial than they have become in our day.
This article also appeared online at Christianity Today.