A few months ago I expressed some fairly strong reservations about a nefarious variation of “Gospel-Centered” sanctification that has captured the attention of a number of conservative evangelical luminaries—a preach-the-Gospel-to-yourself, squeeze-your-eyes-tight-and-think-really-hard-about-justification method of propelling oneself to holiness without any discipline, self-denial, effort, or obedience (cuz that’s how them legalists do sanctification).
In this post, I’d like to put on a happy face and make a positive recommendation of an accessible, contemporary, evangelical work that captures a much more holistic picture of the Bible’s teaching on sanctification—a book that does not neglect the motivating role of justification in personal holiness, but one that concentrates more promisingly on regeneration as the energy that fuels personal holiness.
In his book The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung argues that the Gospel involves more than a new standing in Christ; it also involves a new creation. And when we emphasize the former to the neglect of the latter, personal holiness inevitably suffers. This is the hole in our holiness. It starts as a noble effort to rid justification of every vestige of good works, but expands to “assume that good works will invariably flow from nothing but a diligent emphasis on the gospel,” and culminates in a bad case of “nomophobia” or the fear of laws (p. 55). People with this disorder, DeYoung suggests, “make every imperative into a command to believe the gospel more fully…and faith becomes the one thing we need to be better at. If only we really believed, obedience would take care of itself. No need for commands or effort.”
The problem with this approach, DeYoung asserts on the same page, is that “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.”
As a dispensationalist I would quibble with DeYoung’s “third use of the Mosaic Law” as something that continues in the present dispensation. But as DeYoung himself points out, we agree in principle that there exists a transcendent law of God that functions most emphatically as a manifest guide for Christian behavior. It is a guide that instructs us to mortify sin, to put off the old and put on the new, to fight the good fight, to strive, to run, to discipline the body, to press forward and strain, to make every effort, to toil, to struggle with all our energy, to conquer, and to overcome (pp. 88–89). And where do we find the energy for this monumental effort? We find the energy in our new life in Christ! By means of definitive sanctification and new birth God has broken the grip of total depravity and rendered us capable of walking in holiness—not perfection, mind you, but real holiness nonetheless. And so we are called upon to become what we are (chap 7).
So what does this look like? Firstly, it involves the full use of the ordinary means of grace (prayer, reading Scripture, and the regular celebration of our union with God’s people and with Christ himself in the rites and functions of the local church). And secondly, it involves me constructing a plan to avoid sin and cultivate holiness in the peculiar milieu where I live and work. To illustrate the latter, DeYoung singles out the pervasive problem of sexual immorality and constructs a biblical strategy for avoiding it. His strategy (all of chapter 8), easily the best short treatment I have ever seen on this topic, is especially directed especially to an unmarried, late-teen/twenty-something audience. If you are in this category or are a parent of someone in this category, buy the book and read this chapter without delay (but preferably the whole book, too).
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a handful of minor quibbles with DeYoung’s work (e.g., his use of the Mosaic Law mentioned above and also his curious emphasis on “positional” sanctification in chaps 6–7 that in some ways undercuts his major argument even as he makes it). But in all, this book offers an extremely fine alternative to the “Gospel-Centered” (or more accurately, the “justification-only”) model that threatens the modern evangelical movement with premature death by nomophobia.