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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A much safer danger

“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. We’re scared of words like diligence, effort, and duty. Pastors don’t know how to preach the good news in their sermons and still strongly exhort churchgoers to cleanse themselves from every defilement of body and spirit. We know legalism (salvation by law keeping) and antinomianism (salvation without the need for law keeping) are both wrong, but antinomianism feels like a much safer danger. 

“Then there’s the reality that holiness is plain hard work, and we’re often lazy. We like our sins, and dying to them is painful. Almost everything is easier than growing in godliness. So we try and fail, try and fail, and then give up. It’s easier to sign a petition protesting man’s inhumanity to man than to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Filling the hole in our holiness

I just received an advance copy of Kevin DeYoung’s newest book, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap Between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness, due out any day.

I’m really excited about this book, as it is a very timely and relevant treatment of an often overlooked but vitally important aspect of the Christian life. As with other DeYoung books, I expect it to be encouraging, challenging, pastoral, and well written. I know I will benefit greatly from it. Here’s an excerpt on the misguided tendency for Christians (Reformed ones especially) to downplay our works as filthy rags (full, lengthy excerpt here):

Why do we imagine God to be so unmoved by our heart-felt attempts at obedience? He is, after all, our heavenly Father. What sort of father looks at his daughter’s homemade birthday card and complains that the color scheme is all wrong? What kind of mother says to her son, after he gladly cleaned the garage but put the paint cans on the wrong shelf, “This is worthless in my sight”? What sort of parent rolls his eyes when his child falls off the bike on the first try? There is no righteousness that makes us right with God except for the righteousness of Christ. But for those who have been made right with God by grace alone through faith alone and therefore have been adopted into God’s family, many of our righteous deeds are not only not filthy in God’s eyes, they are exceedingly sweet, precious, and pleasing to him.

Look for a review soon, and in the mean time pick it up here or here. There’s also a lengthy interview with DeYoung on the book here.

Information Overload

Kevin DeYoung on the glory of plodding – a fantastic read. “What we need are fewer revolutionaries and a few more plodding visionaries. That’s my dream for the church — a multitude of faithful, risktaking plodders. The best churches are full of gospel-saturated people holding tenaciously to a vision of godly obedience and God’s glory, and pursuing that godliness and glory with relentless, often unnoticed, plodding consistency.”

The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brain. If you’re familiar with my previous posts on media ecology, this won’t come as a surprise. Media ecologists have been saying similar things for years. But it’s great to see some more scientific inquiry into the fact that we use our tools, but our tools also change us. (ht:challies)

Introducing Hymns to a Contemporary Congregation. I’m slightly sad that a post like this is necessary, but it is good nonetheless.

Foxy News. Doug Wilson in the Washington Post writing about the pornification of Fox News. “A number of evangelicals are up in arms about President Obama himself, and Obamacare, and Obama-other-things, and Obama-anything-else, and are warning us in dire tones about the impending slavery that is involved in all this ‘socialism.’ And–full disclosure here–I am economically pretty conservative myself, just slightly to the left of King Arthur, so I am not pointing out this part of it to differ with any of it. But what I am noticing in this discussion is a striking public tolerance for right-wing skankyness. When I am cruising around for my Internet news, I am far more likely to run into Moabite women at Fox News than anywhere else.”

Top Ten Reasons You Should Quit Facebook. I haven’t quit Facebook, but I’ve limited my information, guarded my privacy settings, and don’t use it as much.

Flip Flop Fly Ball. Some humorous and well-designed graphs for the baseball geeks.

Christian Hedonism; Confession of Sin

I don’t have enough links for an Information Overload, but I had two main posts to link to that have been of great benefit to me.

The first is actually several in a series on John Piper’s “Christian hedonism,” something that I don’t disagree with but am hesitant about. Doug Wilson, likewise, doesn’t disagree with Piper’s Christian hedonism, but in accepting it, he shows that it should be taken “further up and further in.” In doing so in this series, he hits on many of my questions and puts them into words much better than I ever could. Here are the posts, in order from first to last (if you don’t have time to read all of them, the first two are excellent):

Piperian Hedonism 3.0
A Full Tank of Gas and Lots of Wyoming Ahead
The Barkity Barkity Midnight Dog
Math Problems in a Dark Room
Creation is Thick, I Tell You

Here’s a lengthy quotation from the first post:

“Van Til once said that if there were one place on creation’s radio dial where nonbelievers could tune in and not hear God, that is where everybody would have their radio set, all the time. His point was of course that God broadcasts, all the time, on every channel. But often, believers make a similar mistake, that of thinking that God broadcasts on only one channel, and then they do their level pious best to keep their radio tuned to that one channel. But then the time comes when the rest of your family and friends tire of hearing the Haven of Rest Quartet 24-7, and so life elsewhere begins to wither and dry up. And sanctifying the rest of the channels does not consist of making them into ‘religious broadcasting.'”

And one from the excellent second post:
“There is a delicate balance here, but God is most glorified in me when I love what He has given to me, for its own sake. This is teleologically related to the macro-point of God’s glory being over all, of course, but we still have to enjoy what He gives, flat out, period, stop. Otherwise, in the resurrection, God will be looking at all the billions of His resurrected saints, standing there contentedly, looking at Him, and He will say, ‘You know, you people are impossible to shop for.’ Which is, of course, absurd and impossible. In the resurrection, it will be possible for us to be absorbed by God’s gifts in ways that are impossible to conceive of now.”

The other link is to a post from Kevin DeYoung on the necessity of confession of sin – in corporate and private worship and prayer. It is spot-on. An excerpt:

“Confession of sin is one of the missing ingredients in the life of today’s Christian. We feel bad all the time, but often it’s over the wrong things. And when we do feel sorry for our sin, we don’t know what to do with it. We feel like we would be cheapening the blood of Christ if we confessed again. So we hesitate to repent. We feel bad, but we don’t confess and enjoy a clean conscience.”

Reaching the Next Generation

Kevin DeYoung has been writing a series about reaching the next generation by grabbing them with passion, winning them with love, holding them with holiness, challenging them with truth, and amazing them with God. The holiness and truth installments were particularly insightful and I know that these two aspects have had a great influence on me. I’ve found that, anecdotally, many solid Christians in my generation aren’t impressed by performance-driven worship styles; practical but shallow preaching; and no link to the historical church. Instead we want to grapple with hard truths of Scripture and apply them, apply the gospel to every facet of life, and learn from the good and bad of history.

I was particularly startled by some results on why people return to church that DeYoung cited in the truth article. Thom Rainer researched why formerly unchurched people chose the church they were currently attending. The results were:

11 percent: worship style
25 percent: children’s/youth ministry
37 percent: sensed God’s presence
41 percent: someone witnessed to them from the church
49 percent: friendliness
88 percent: doctrine
90 percent: preaching with certitude and conviction

Here’s to hoping the next “seeker sensitive” movement is one of sound doctrine, Scriptural fidelity, and biblical worship.

Too Good to Wait for a Sunday Citation

Kevin DeYoung writes in his short but powerful Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will (Or How to Make a Decision Without Dreams, Visions, Fleeces, Impressions, Open Doors, Random Bible Verses, Casting Lots, Liver Shivers, Writing in the Sky, Etc.):

“We need to stop thinking of God’s will like a corn maze, or a tight rope, or a bull’s eye, or a choose-your-own-adventure novel…Many of us fear we’ll take the wrong job, or buy the wrong house, or declare the wrong major, or marry the wrong person, and suddenly our lives will blow up. We’ll be out of God’s will, doomed to spiritual, relational, and physical failure. Or, to put it in Christianese, we’ll find ourselves out of ‘the center of God’s will.’ We’ll miss God’s best and have to settle for an alternate ending to our lives…

“This conventional understanding is the wrong way to think of God’s will…Trusting in God’s will of decree is good. Following his will of desire is obedient. Waiting for God’s will of direction is a mess. It’s bad for your life, harmful to your sanctification, and allows too many Christians to be passive tinkerers who strangely feel more spiritual than they actually do.

“God is not a Magic 8-Ball…He is a good God who gives us brains, shows us the way of obedience, and invites us to take risks for Him. We know God has a plan for our lives. That’s wonderful. The problem is we think He’s going to tell us the wonderful plan before it unfolds. We feel like we can know – and need to know – what God wants every step of the way. But such preoccupation with finding God’s will, as well-intentioned as the desire may be, is more folly than freedom.

“The better way is the biblical way: Seek first the kingdom of God, and then trust that He will take care of our needs, even before we know what they are and where we’re going.”