As the subtitle indicates, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness is written to “fill a gap” between gospel passion and the pursuit of godliness. Kevin DeYoung is concerned by a lack of holiness among contemporary evangelicals, especially among younger ones and those disdainful of legalism and religion (11). This book attempts to correct this imbalance and call evangelicals back to one of the great aims of our salvation—that we increasingly look like Jesus (24–26).
DeYoung, senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, is a sharp thinker and gifted communicator, and his writing in this book is typically lucid and persuasive. In my judgment, DeYoung helpfully deconstructs many false notions about the nature of Christian sanctification. He is right that in certain quarters, even talking about holiness is perceived as moralistic (17); that holiness is not an unconscious byproduct of thinking about the gospel (19); that sanctification requires diligent effort (87–91); and that there are numerous and diverse incentives for obedience in Scripture (57–60). Many in the evangelical world, including many of those championing gospel-centeredness, need to take to heart DeYoung’s caution that “it’s not pietism, legalism, or fundamentalism to take holiness seriously” (21). On the whole, I think The Hole in Our Holiness succeeds in its goal of rectifying an imbalance.
Many particular strengths of The Hole in our Holiness could be noted. It is theologically careful—his treatment of the third use of the law (50–56), for example, or of union with Christ (chapter 7), evidences thorough study and discriminating insight. It is historically rooted, especially drawing from the highly relevant insights of the Puritans. It is pastorally sensitive, for instance, in its call for purity in Christian dating relationships in chapter 8, or in its counsel on maintaining a clean conscience in watching movies (43–45). It is accessible to those without theological training, and thus could be helpful in a Bible study or small group or Sunday school class, especially given the discussion questions at the end. It is also an important book for advancing conversations among pastors and theologians concerning the gospel and holiness. One way to interpret the book is as a sign of the gospel-centered movement maturing into a more self-critical, complex phase.
How to Get There
But let me focus my remaining remarks on a few areas of concern. I hope these comments will be seen as sympathetic (and at times hesitant) thoughts from a friend who likes the overall destination we’re heading toward together, but has some questions about how best to get there.
First, I wonder if DeYoung’s book might have been more helpful if the errors it responds to were, at least in some cases, documented. Who exactly is the target of DeYoung’s worthy criticism? Is he reacting more to generic evangelicalism, or (as it seems) to gospel-centered voices within the so-called Reformed resurgence? Or is it both or neither? DeYoung interacts with many theologians, both ancient and contemporary, but there are virtually no quotes that represent the viewpoint he is criticizing (unless one counts Hannah Smith as representing Keswick theology on page 90). As a result, at times it seems DeYoung is targeting generalized tendencies that seem slightly exaggerated or caricatured.
To give one example, he laments that “we remove any notion that we can obey God or that he can delight in our good works” (64). I personally cannot think of anyone who denies that obedience is possible or that we can please God, and thus I’m not sure exactly to whom the “we” in this sentence refers. Maybe he sees the errors to which he’s responding only at the popular level, not written in books or on blogs. Or perhaps DeYoung simply runs in different circles than I do. All the same, I think this book would have pushed contemporary conversations about the gospel and holiness down more helpful avenues if it had locked horns with concrete individuals, books, and statements.
Second, at times I wondered whether DeYoung assumed too much gospel understanding in his readers. For example, he begins his brief treatment on how the pursuit of holiness is “gospel-driven” (83–85) by commenting, “It seems as if almost every Christian I talk with these days insists that personal holiness will flow a true grasp of the gospel” (83). In my experience, this truth is not so widely celebrated, and I wonder if DeYoung’s book could be strengthened by a greater burden for readers who have not yet made this connection. Throughout his writings, DeYoung is a keen observer and critic of liberalizing trends within contemporary evangelicalism, and it feels in this book like his eye is particularly on younger, culturally engaged, theologically-minded Christians who talk a lot about the gospel but underemphasize holiness. I’m sure this book will helpfully confront that reader demographic in numerous ways. In some ways, I think it will also challenge readers who look down on that demographic and feel superior to them (e.g., see Andrew Murray’s helpful warning against “holiness pride” on page 140). Overall, however, I wonder whether this book may fail to challenge the legalist as effectively as the libertine.
The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness
The hole in our holiness is that we don’t seem to care much about holiness. Or, at the very least, we don’t understand it. And we all have our reasons too: Maybe the pursuit of holiness seems legalistic. Maybe it feels like one more thing to worry about in your already overwhelming life. Maybe the emphasis on effort in the Christian life appears unspiritual. Or maybe you’ve been trying really hard to be holy and it’s just not working! Whatever the case, the problem is clear: too few Christians look like Christ and too many don’t seem all that concerned about it.
Finally, I wonder if DeYoung’s book could have more clearly demonstrated that a failure to pursue holiness is itself a failure to appropriate the gospel. The book is thoroughly grounded in gospel truth. And yet at times its tone and constructions come across as “Yes, the gospel, but also holiness,” or “Yes, gospel trust, but also effort.” I would prefer to more clearly portray our efforts after holiness as one species of gospel trust, in order to bring gospel effort into sharper contrast with the kind of effort that can be spawned by legalism. Yes, gospel effort is more than merely clinging to justification. But the kind of effort involved in Christian sanctification always remains a manifestation of trust in the indicative truths of the gospel. Effort is not something to be added to trust, but is part of its very fabric.
In Romans 6, Paul anticipates the charge of antinomianism as a result of his presentation of scandalously free grace for sinners in 3:21–5:21. His response to this anticipated objection climaxes in his affirmation that his readers are “not under law but under grace” (6:14) through their union with Christ in his death and resurrection. In other words, Paul rebuffs antinomianism by drilling down further into the grace-established identity of his readers. Ultimately, then, what stops the abuse of grace is more grace. In his laudable concern for holiness always to accompany grace, I feel DeYoung could more clearly draw out the point that holiness is always, as in the title of Bryan Chapell’s helpful book Holiness By Grace: Delighting in the Joy That is Our Strength, by grace. I think DeYoung’s book does root obedience in the gospel (note, for example, his helpful interaction with Romans 6 on pages 102–105). But its presentation could at times make clearer the extent to which the gospel of grace is as equally the answer to antinomianism as it is to legalism. Any gap between gospel passion and holiness results from some kind of prior misfiring and malfunctioning of gospel passion itself.
Let me close with an anecdote to draw out this last point. Imagine Joe Christian. He has sound theology, and he is passionate and articulate about the gospel of grace. And yet Joe rarely (if ever) practices spiritual disciplines, feels no conviction about a gambling addiction, and evidences minimal desire for growth or change in his life. I would suggest that Joe’s primary “gap” is not between gospel passion and holiness. Joe’s problem is with the gospel itself; Joe has a “gospel gap.” Nor is Joe’s ultimate need to take holiness more seriously. That’s penultimate. Joe’s ultimate need is for the gospel he professes to take root in his heart, thereby uprooting the idols and pseudo-saviors manifested in his apathy and gambling.
I think The Hole in our Holiness will be helpful for many Joe Christians out there. And it will be so precisely because it is so gospel-rich itself.