Throwing out the (dirty) baby with the bath water [pt 1]

In their November (Web-only) issue, Christianity Today ran a four-part, multi-author book review of The Hole in our Holiness by Kevin DeYoung. I haven’t read the book but a recently renewed interest in the doctrine of sanctification drew me to check out the discussion anyway.

I expected differing levels of agreement (or disagreement) from the reviewers but I didn’t expect a rebuttal of “the self-conscious pursuit of holiness.” Mark Galli, editor of CT, opens his review by pulling the rug out from our feet when he says:

The Hole in Our Holiness is a fine book that makes a good argument that all devout Christians should read and inwardly digest. And then, as soon as possible, we should forget about it.

Why should a fine book with a good argument be forgotten as soon as possible? According to Galli it’s because a conscious pursuit of holiness will inevitably lead to despair (since we will continue to sin) or self-righteousness (since any “success” will breed pride). So striving for sanctification leads to sin unless you just don’t think about sanctification in which case you will become holy. Uh huh.

In fairness, Galli acknowledges that there “is some deliberate effort involved” in our call to holiness although he also opines “that a conscious and purposeful pursuit of holiness is about the worst way to go about [becoming holy].” We ought to be aware of the dangers that accompany a pursuit of holiness–despair and/or pride–and I don’t deny that Scripture warns against such traps. But Galli’s requisite prescription for avoiding these self-centered ills amounts to throwing out the baby with the bath water except that in this case we wouldn’t even bother to see the baby cleaned first.

What follows are key statements from Galli’s argument (in bold italics) followed by my thoughts in response:

1) The case for holiness is not hard to make, as the Bible is full of injunctions to that end. Set aside the self-defeating endeavor of admitting that “the Bible is full of injunctions” to holiness while simultaneously dissuading the reader from thinking too much about them. Galli speaks of Ephesians 1:4 and 2:10 as definitive statements on practical holiness in relation to which “every other biblical admonition to holy living seems like mere commentary.” With all due respect, such an approach is too short-sighted. Consider just four other passages:

Matthew 5:48  You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
1 Thessalonians 4:3  For this is the will of God, your sanctification…
Hebrews 12:14  Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
1 Peter 1:14-16  As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance,  15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct,  16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Galli doesn’t even reference such explicit commands. Furthermore, Galli’s  approach glosses over the fact that the Bible communicates the holiness imperative both directly and indirectly. That is, passages which never actually use the word “holiness” or “sanctification” (or their respective cognates) can nevertheless speak to the biblical concept of sanctification. An informal sampling of the New Testament yields such honorable mentions as  Acts 26:20; Rom 6:12-14; 12:1-2; 1Cor 6:20; 2Cor 3:18; 5:9; Gal 5:16ff; Eph 4:17-24; 5:1; Phil 2:12; 3:12ff; Col 1:10; 3:5ff; 1Thess 4:1; 2Thess 2:13; 1Tim 4:7-8; 2Tim 1:9; 2:19, 22; Titus 2:14; Heb 13:21; James 1:21; 2Pet 1:10; 3:11; and 1Jn 3:3.

The point is that Galli’s cursory admission of the biblical call to holiness comes across as self-serving to say the least. I suspect that a more even-handed acknowledgement of the robustness of Scripture’s call would undercut the author’s thesis from the start since the notion that two Ephesian verses adequately represent Scriptures’ expectation of Christian holiness fails to appreciate the full weight of practical holiness as a component of salvation. The biblical injunctions are too many and too varied for us to not think about the pursuit of holiness.

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Author: Jonathan P. Merritt

Happily married father of six. Associate pastor for education at Edgewood Baptist Church (Columbus, GA). Good-natured contrarian and theological Luddite. A student of one book.

1 thought on “Throwing out the (dirty) baby with the bath water [pt 1]”

  1. John Piper endorsed it… I suggest you stop referencing the bible and instead follow his twitter feed; might help you forget those silly bible passages and become truly holy!

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