Sunday, January 20, 2013

Holiness, Obedience, and Gospel Enthusiasts {a review of DeYoung's The Hole in Our Holiness}

In his book, The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung seeks to address what he sees as a lack of concern and conviction in the church about living godly lives and pursuing holiness. This is a difficult task--holding up God's law as good and instructive without obscuring or minimizing the free gift of justification by faith alone. Overall, DeYoung does this well, exhorting readers to holiness and encouraging them through the gospel.

He calls readers to take seriously the imperatives of the law and to strive to grow in holiness as a result of and fueled by the freeing grace of the gospel. Pastor DeYoung encourages Christians to live lives of obedience to God's law through "Spirit-powered, gospel-driven, faith-fueled effort." He reminds us to return to the identity we have in Christ, through the gospel, and to live out the reality of that new identity. 

All this is very good, and much needed. In mainstream evangelicalism certainly, and surely in many individual churches as well, pastors shy away from preaching the imperatives of the law with its clear call to perfect holiness and instead preach a "you're good-enough" kind of message. We all need to grow in our love for and reflection of God's holiness and DeYoung's book is an excellent help to believers in that direction.

I am hesitant to voice my criticism of this book because there is so much that is so good. However, there are a number of places in the book where DeYoung addresses possible disagreements with his argument and it is in these places that I believe he muddies the waters a bit instead of clarifying things.

In reformed and reformed-leaning circles recently there has been some discussion of the possibility of over-emphasizing the gospel.  There seem to be some questions about whether or not too great an emphasis on justification results in too little concern for striving and obedience, and there have been accusations of antinomianism. Christians in these circles would benefit from clear distinctions and definitions and straight-forward discussion. DeYoung's overall thesis rightly affirms a gospel-driven pursuit of holiness, but some readers may go away from his book thinking that they should be concerned when the gospel is "too" celebrated.

In Chapter Four, he discusses those who suffer from "nomophobia (fear of the law)" and characterizes them as people who "make every imperative into a command to believe the gospel more fully." He claims that these people "turn the gospel into one more thing we have to get right, 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"  (55).

This kind of person may exist, one who emphasizes the gospel so much that "every imperative" is somehow reduced to "believe the gospel more fully" with "no need for commands or effort." However, I think DeYoung is creating a false dichotomy here. He seems to be claiming that those who teach that every command of God to the Christian implicitly calls us to believe the gospel more fully are also dismissing the third use of the law in the command, the content of the therefore.  I think this person who claims that obedience to God requires no commands or effort is something of a straw man that DeYoung references several times in his book.

In Chapter Five, DeYoung declares, "If we, in a well-intentioned effort to celebrate the unimpeachable nature of our justification, make it sound as though God no longer concerns himself with our sins, we'll put a choke hold on our full-throttle drive to holiness"  (74).

Again, I'm not sure who this hypothetical person is--the one who is so excited about the security of his salvation that he claims that God is not concerned about our sin. Here DeYoung misses a chance to clarify how enthusiastic celebration of the gospel leads to greater rest in Christ and this deep security fuels a greater desire and effort to walk in a manner worthy of Him.

Later in the same chapter, DeYoung looks to Paul's life as an example of a Christian pursuing a life of holiness without being plagued by guilt. He writes, "What's the secret to such freedom? Paul is not summoning the power of positive thinking or feeling good because he's got some judgment-free God" (76).

Once again, DeYoung is implying that those who emphasize that there is no condemnation for those in Christ also teach that this God of a radical, robust, amazing gospel, somehow doesn't care about holiness and sin. If DeYoung were writing to a wider evangelical audience, maybe to those who would be tempted to believe Oprah's gospel or Joel Osteen's, I could understand this repeated implication. (But the accusation would not apply here either, since the heart of the gospel--Christ's death and resurrection for my sake--is not preached emphatically by them.)

It seems to me that DeYoung's audience (and maybe I am wrong about this) is primarily made up of conservative Christians, readers of The Gospel Coalition blogs, those who lean toward or are Reformed, those who are trying to answer the question, "How do the sola gratia, sola fide, and sola Christo of the gospel relate to the holiness of God and my sanctification?"

These repeated moments of confusion in The Hole in Our Holiness become a shadowy straw man, subtly calling into question the teaching of those who preach and teach "the unimpeachable nature of our justification." It would be a shame for anyone to think he should be concerned or suspicious of bold, unapologetic, unqualified gospel proclamation.

My concern is that those who fear that the gospel can be overemphasized and should be balanced, maybe even limited by law will find fuel for their worry in DeYoung's words, instead of realizing that these two realities for the Christian--that we are freely justified by faith as a gift AND that God calls believers to lives of obedience and holiness--are complementary truths and gain their meaning and power in relation to each other not in opposition to each other.

I may be too critical in highlighting this one particular weakness in The Hole in Our Holiness. Overall, I appreciated DeYoung's exhortation to Christians to strive to live obedient lives and to follow God's law in light of our justification, union with Christ, and new identity in him. I recognize the need in my own life to be awakened to the beauty of God's holiness and to strive more and more to follow after Christ and his righteousness. Despite the shortcoming discussed here, I am thankful to Pastor DeYoung for his kind and powerful call to this life of obedience and I heartily recommend his book.


  1. Well written review. You might consider submitting this to Modern Ref. They are always looking for insightful book reviews such as this.

  2. The doctrine of "union with Christ" does not mean a union of justification and sanctification. That's the papist view. Sanctification does not merit salvation at any point. How sanctified do you need to be in order to be saved?

    1. True, sanctification is a promised result of justification and one of the many benefits of union with Christ. We are justified by grace through faith in Christ alone--not because of the progress we make in holiness.

  3. "Because you believe in Christ, the Holy Spirit has joined you to Christ" is false. It is Arminianism. The elect hear and believe the gospel because of effectual calling and the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not do something because the elect believe. And the Holy Spirit only causes the elect to believe the gospel after God has imputed Christ's death to the elect. Deyoung has written a book for evangelicals who either do not believe in elect or who do not think that election matters either in the gospel or in the matter of holiness.

  4. I agree with you, Mark. The ordo salutis is very important to clarity in this conversation. I don't know that De Young would deny that Christians believe because of the work of the Spirit in election and calling, but that line in his book really obscures this understanding. I think that's another example of what I see as the difficulty with this book. It affirms a lot of great things, but obscures or confuses or provides inadequate explanation of critical doctrines related to sanctification.


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