If at First You Don't Succeed, Stop Trying so Hard
The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness
August 31, 2012
160 pp., $11.57
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.
It's a fine book because Kevin DeYoung makes as good a case as can be made for pursuing holiness. Holiness is never formally defined in the book, but what he apparently means by it is righteous behavior motivated purely by a desire to obey Christ. Being familiar with DeYoung's writings, I know he is aware that holiness embraces more than this, but here he uses the term in its more ethical sense.
The case for holiness is not hard to make, as the Bible is full of injunctions to that end. There is no better summary than that of Ephesians 1, wherein we are told that from before the foundation of the world God chose us to live holy and blameless lives (v. 4), and then in chapter 2, that we have been saved by grace so that we might do good works (v. 10). Put in the perspective of salvation history, every other biblical admonition to holy living seems like mere commentary.
In pursuing the life of holiness there are many land mines to avoid, and DeYoung warns us about most of them. For example, he rightly notes the temptation to think that good works are something owed to God because of all the love he has lavished upon us. He also reminds us that "holy" is not something we become as much as a reality we live into, since by Christ's death and resurrection, we are already holy in the most important sense. Because of many such nuances, the book avoids many of the dead ends that one finds in other pleas for righteous living.
I believe, however, DeYoung fails to take some of his own advice as seriously as he might. Three examples will have to suffice.
First, he rightly argues that, as Scripture enjoins, we should "examine ourselves," but also wisely says we shouldn't "take our spiritual temperature every day." He devotes one paragraph to the latter exhortation, but in my experience, the temptation to spiritual narcissism is so powerful, it requires a chapter or more to think it through. Whenever I've made a priority of examining myself, it's pretty near impossible not to take my spiritual temperature every day. I've come to conclude that I, at least, cannot vigorously pursue holiness without becoming preoccupied with my progress or lack thereof. I don't think DeYoung appreciates the full power of this temptation.
Second, he rightly notes that in the pursuit of holiness, repentance is "a way of life"—meaning we should not expect perfection in this life, and that we'll always need to repent of something. But he creates an impression that repentance is the gut check on the way to something else, a mere means to the life of holiness. Again, what I've discovered is this: The older I've grown, the more I realize how layered and subtle is my sin; the more spiritually mature I am, the more I realize, along with Jeremiah, how desperately wicked my heart is. In that sense, as I run the last laps of life, I'm much less impressed with my outward progress, and more aware than ever of my sin, and more and more in a constant state of repentance. Others compliment me on my "progress"—I no longer have a temper, I'm more considerate of my wife, more compassionate toward others, and so on and so forth. But they cannot see my heart, and if they did, they'd run in fear, repelled by the cauldron evil that remains. Perhaps I've simply failed in the pursuit of holiness. Or maybe the pursuit of holiness is not so much a striving to adopt a life of habitual virtue but learning how to live a life of constant repentance.