Normally when book reviews appear on this website, they’re for new books: cutting edge books that add some new piece of information or fresh analysis to our ever-growing bank of theological information. But we also need to reflect on historical gems—classic treatments that inform the present far more thoroughly and penetratingly than any one week’s worth of web chatter can possibly hope to do.
So for my contribution to the Tchividjian controversy, rather than manufacture some spectacular new twist, I’d instead like to commend to our readers B. B. Warfield’s out-of-print work Studies in Perfectionism, a condensation of his larger block of material on sanctification that appears as vols. 7 & 8 of his Collected Works (still available for sale today). Those familiar with this work will recognize it as perhaps the most devastating critique of Keswick theology ever written. But it is more than that. It is a critique of a recurring error that has erupted perhaps dozens of times in the history of the church—an error that stands opposite that of Legalism/Pharisaism and has earned labels like “Antinomianism,” “Libertinism,” or in Warfield’s tome, “Perfectionism.”
If legalism errs by leaking a deadly sort of synergism back into the doctrine of justification, granting works an inordinate role in earning divine favor and assaulting the doctrine of solus Christus, perfectionism errs by projecting a deadly form of monergism forward so as to subsume sanctification in its scope. Frustrated by dead orthodoxies where individuals work very hard to earn favor with God, perfectionists seek ways to grow in grace authentically, without expending any effort at all, relying wholly upon Christ to unilaterally accomplish for me the Christian growth that I once thought was accomplished through obedience (or to use a more sinister word, “law-keeping”). This all-I-have-is-Christ approach to sanctification occurs almost magically: all I need to do is to “reckon” on my standing in Christ (that’s the Keswick version) or preach the Gospel to myself (that’s the Tchividjian version), and I will grow—almost without even trying and free from the frustrations experienced by those wicked folks who are “striving” to be more like Christ.
To be fair, many perfectionists defy their own theology and actively live holy lives, so we must be careful not to overstate the perfectionist error. But it is an error, and it is not new. Just as Romanism (the premier expression of legalism) found its pendular opposite in Lutheranism, Scholasticism in Holiness Theology, and Modernism in Keswick Theology, so also the excesses of Fundamentalism have produced Tchividjianism. I can only wish that Warfield were here today to write an appendix to his most excellent book.