One of the most encouraging trends I’ve seen recently is a renewed concern over holiness. While, historically, holiness has always been a matter of extreme importance, it’s one that recently has been neglected (something another book on this subject made clear). So what’s the problem? The problem, as Kevin DeYoung sees it, is “we don’t really care much about it” (Location 115).
If his new book, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness, is any indication, DeYoung wants to change that.
In this book, DeYoung offers careful criticism and wise counsel to a generation that may be a bit too comfortable with the gap between their passion for Christ and their pursuit of godliness.
According to DeYoung, holiness—and the Christian life—is really about one thing: Obedience to Christ. “Is obedience what your church is known for?” he writes. “Is it what other Christians think of when they look at your life? Is this even what you would want to be known for?” (Location 144)
This might seem harsh, or even legalistic to some, but it’s important. We like to be known for being “relevant,” or bringing a greater sense of creativity to our churches or being active in seeking the welfare of our communities—and these aren’t bad things in and of themselves. But these are no sure sign of a pursuit of holiness, any more than loudly proclaiming your gospel-centeredness to all the world can be. If our lives are marked by ongoing patterns of unrepentant sin, all the creativity, good deeds, contextualization, or “taking a stand for Christ” won’t do us a lick of good, because the call is not to those things explicitly, but to holiness:
There are a hundred good things you may be called to pursue as a Christian. All I’m saying is that, according to the Bible, holiness, for every single Christian, should be right at the top of that list. . . . If you read through the instructions to the New Testament churches you will find few explicit commands that tell us to take care of the needy in our communities and no explicit commands to do creation care, but there are dozens and dozens of verses that enjoin us, in one way or another, to be holy as God is holy (e.g., 1 Pet. 1:13–16). (Location 251, 260)
Again, that might seem harsh, but it’s important. As important as being good stewards of all that God has put in our care is, and as important as caring for the needy is, they’re not the goal per se. The goal is obedience. It’s what we teach, model and encourage:
The Great Commission is about holiness. God wants the world to know Jesus, believe in Jesus, and obey Jesus. We don’t take the Great Commission seriously if we don’t help each other grow in obedience. . . . Jesus expects obedience from his disciples. (Location 188, 197)
DeYoung’s emphasis on holiness is much-needed and rarely overstated. This is not a book written from an ivory tower of arrival. It’s more of a desperate plea from a fellow pilgrim seeing so many around him going off track. He wants us to remember that the purpose of God’s saving work is not so that we may fight the war on poverty, or be better stewards of creation, or any other number of things: He saves us so that we might become holy.
It means that we take hold of our identity in Christ, which is the fruit of our justification in Christ, and out of that identity and become progressively sanctified in, by, and for Christ.
How does this happen? DeYoung explains it as being through “Spirit-powered, gospel-driven, faith-fueled effort.”
This expression, built upon the idea behind Phil. 2:12-13, is essential to progressing in the pursuit of holiness. Because we are empowered with the supernatural power fo the Holy Spirit, we need not feel disheartened and defeated, giving up the fight. Because, in Christ, we can actually please God, we don’t have to see God as a cruel taskmaster waiting for us to screw up. We are justified by faith and “by faith we make every effort to be sanctified. Faith is operative in both—in justification to receive and rest, and in sanctification to will and to work,” writes DeYoung (Location 1238).
This is one of the strongest elements of DeYoung’s book—that “work” and “faith” are not in opposition when it comes to growing in godliness. We’re not justified by our works, and indeed, it’s not our work that even truly makes us godly—it’s Christ’s work in us that makes it possible. Nevertheless, we pursue, we grow, and we live in the tension of working out our own salvation, knowing it is God at work in us to make it possible.
Equally strong is his emphasis on our union with Christ as being the source of our strength in holiness. He writes
The whole of our salvation can be summed up with reference to this reality. Union with Christ is not a single specific blessing we receive in our salvation. Rather it is the best phrase to describe all the blessings of salvation, whether in eternity past (election), in history (redemption), in the present (effectual calling, justification, and sanctification), or in the future (glorification). (Location 1381)
Simply, because we are united with Christ, our relationship to sin is different. Where we were once enslaved to it, we are not empowered to fight against it—to put it to death. And while we are never free from its effects or the struggle against it in this world, we can fight with full vigor.
Sin may get in some good jabs. It may clean your clock once in a while. It may bring you to your knees. But if you are in Christ it will never knock you out. You are no longer a slave, but free. Sin has no dominion over you. It can’t. It won’t. A new King sits on the throne. You serve a different Master. You salute a different Lord. (Location 1539)
The Hole in Our Holiness is among the most challenging books I’ve read in the past year. It’s so easy to get caught up in just going along with whatever everyone else thinks is funny or cool, for example. But when holiness is our goal, we wind up seeing things differently. Maybe not always right away, but inevitably, we will see our preferences change. The jokes we would have laughed at a year ago may make us weep. The books we may have read may now make us shudder. The movies or TV shows… you get the idea.
The point is we need to pursue holiness—genuinely and faithfully. We need not worry about whether or not people call us prudes or fundamentalists. The world doesn’t need Christians to be cool—they need us to be holy. If you want to be encouraged and challenged in your pursuit of holiness, I’d highly encourage reading The Hole in Our Holiness.
Title: The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness
Author: Kevin DeYoung
Publisher: Crossway (2012)