Book Review: DeYoung’s The Hole in our Holiness

Every once in a while, a book comes along that kicks me in the pants. More often than not, these books have to do with the application of the good news of the gospel in sanctification and growth in holiness. They are a great antidote to my antinomian tendencies. J.C. Ryle’s Holiness was one such book several years ago, and Kevin DeYoung’s The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness (Crossway, 2012) is the latest.

DeYoung’s book is a gracious yet challenging book that packs a punch even in its brevity (~150 pages). If you don’t read the rest of this review, buy the book and read it for yourself. From the outset, DeYoung earnestly strives to be pastoral, not polemical. That is, though the subtitle and introduction hint at the shortfalls of other contemporary Christian leaders, he does not call any of them out by name and rarely engages with their works specifically. Namely, he hints at the works of Horton, Tullian, and other “gospel-centered” writers in possibly overemphasizing justification (current status) at the expense of holiness and sanctification (ongoing progress). I appreciated this pastoral perspective, since it’s easy for me to pridefully get caught up in pointing out the faults of others. This book also represents a change of direction for DeYoung, as much of his previous work was devoted to pleading with emergents and social justice fanatics to remember the gospel. This is directed more to Reformed Christians, who often have an antinomian streak. This book is mostly a response to a subtle antinomian stance so prevalent in contemporary Reformed circles, especially in the younger generations.

In regards to this overemphasizing of justification at the expense of sanctification, DeYoung is very careful to not disparage justification. He goes to great lengths to show his passion for who we are in Christ as justified sinners. But he wants to take this emphasis to the level that the New Testament writers do: holiness in light of the good news of justification. The law is not terrible, and DeYoung leans heavily on Scripture, the Reformers, and the Confessions in showing that the law has other uses besides convicting of sin leading to the gospel.

In fact, DeYoung takes a refreshing stance in the law-gospel conversation. “Among conservative Christians there is sometimes the mistaken notion that if we are truly gospel-centered we won’t talk about rules or imperatives or moral exertion. We are so eager not to confuse indicatives (what God has done) and imperatives (what we should do) that we get leery of letting biblical commands lead uncomfortably to conviction of sin” (p. 19, more here). Many writers are so careful to distinguish between the indicatives (promises) and imperatives (law) in Scripture, that their close relationship can be lost. One way this relationship is lost is that the gospel can actually lead to law. DeYoung agrees that one use of the law leads to the gospel while acknowledging the danger of overemphasizing the imperatives: all law can lead to no gospel. But in a discussion of why we are saved, DeYoung argues that the gospel should also graciously lead Christians to the law, since that is what we are saved for. This was a refreshing perspective, since lots of contemporary writers write meticulously about the important distinction between law and gospel, and never the two shall meet.

But wait, like the TV news anchors say, there’s more! That’s not the whole picture presented to us in Scripture. “There is nothing ungracious about divine demands…It’s just as true that gospel leads to law” (p. 53). Examples of this are throughout Scripture: the Israelites were saved from Egypt and then given the law, Paul expounds the glorious riches of the gospel in Romans 1-11 and follows with the responsibilities of Romans 12-16, and Jesus explained living water to the Samaritan woman and then exposed sin. To go one step further, if we are so careful to keep the law in its box, constrained by only being able to condemn and convict, then doesn’t the psalmists’ myriad exclamations of deep love for God’s law ring a little hollow?

Similarly, love and law are not mutually exclusive, and this view is actually unbiblical: love is a command of the law, and Jesus makes close connections between love and law (John 14:15). In fact, if we don’t keep the law, we don’t love Jesus. DeYoung goes on at length to flesh this out:

  • “Let’s not be afraid to land on law – never as the means of meriting justification, but as the proper expression of having received it” (p. 54)
  • “The irony is that if we make every imperative into a command to believe the gospel more fully, we turn the gospel into one more thing we have to get right, and faith becomes the one thing we need to be better at…But the Bible does not reason this way. It has no problem with the word “therefore.” Grace, grace, grace, therefore, stop doing this, start doing that, and obey the commands of God. Good works should always be rooted in the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection, but I believe we are expecting too much from the ‘flow’ and not doing enough to teach that obedience to the law – from a willing spirit, as made possible by the Holy Spirit – is the proper response to free grace.” (p. 55)

This last quotation summarizes the crux of the whole book. A subtle tendency of ours is to turn the gospel into a law unto itself. We need to continually believe and rest in the promises and work of Christ, but also continue to strive after the “therefores.” Personal striving and effort for holiness is pervasive in Scripture, and indeed is one of the main themes of the New Testament. The gospel is the foundation and impetus of repentance and growth in holiness. Moreso, union with Christ through the Holy Spirit is the sum of the Christian life, and includes God’s working in and through us for our sanctification by applying Christ’s work. Chapter six is especially helpful in this regard.

DeYoung gives an excellent, but lengthy list of 40 motivations for holiness pulled right from the Scripture. In the context, DeYoung argues that thankfulness for Christ’s work for us is a great motivator for holiness, but definitely not the only motivator. His point is that God is a gracious healer of sin, using many and diverse motivations for holiness, not just one blanket “ice and Advil” remedy: “The sooner we explore and apply those reasons, the more equipped we’ll be to fight sin, the more eager to make every effort to be more like Christ, and the more ready to say with the apostle John ‘his commandments are not burdensome'” (p. 61).

There’s much more to say from this short but deep book, but seriously, just read it. It is a timely, important, well-written book with a message very much needed in the Christian community. It’s in the running for my best book of 2012. I very much recommend it for individual and/or group study. And repeat. You can pick it up from Westminster or Amazon.

Note: Crossway provided me with a free copy of this book for an objective review.

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