In an earlier post, I mentioned that while a student in college, I was influenced by Keswick-style deeper-life teaching, and particularly the work of Charles Gallaudet Trumbull.
Trumbull wrote in the early part of the 20th century, and he served a long tenure as editor of the Sunday School Times. His book, Victory in Christ, has been almost continuously in print for more than 75 years, and is one of several influential guides to the Keswick-style "deeper life" doctrine.
Victory in Christ was an edited collection of Trumbull's popular messages from various deeper-life conventions. (So if the excerpts below sound like conference lectures, you'll understand why.)
Trumbull was largely responsible for popularizing the expression "Let Go and Let God." He advocated a radically passive view of sanctification-by-faith-alone that more or less eliminated the need for human effort of any kind.
One of the hallmarks of perfectionismand nearly all other errant schemes of sanctification, too (including classic Pentecostal theology)is the way they set up two categories of Christians: the merely-saved and the sanctified; the haves and the have-nots; the "alreadies" and the "not yets"; or whatever. The nomenclature may vary, and the advanced group may be described in various wayswholly sanctified, Holy-Ghost baptized, or supersaints who live life at a deeper level or on a higher plane. But the inevitable promise of an instant, easy entry into the higher-level group always has the stench of a gnostic-flavored elitism about it.
Trumbull preferred the expression "the victorious life." He suggested that only about one in a thousand Christians ever attains "victory" over sin. In his view, the problem with the "average Christian" (get this:) is that he or she tries too hard.
Quoting from the book:
On the train this afternoon I was reading a letter from a woman who is at this Convention, and she said, "I am trying to live the victorious life, and so I" did so and so under certain circumstances. That Christian friend may be in this audience tonight; and if she is, I cannot refrain from saying that as long as she keeps on trying to live the victorious life, she won't live it. If any of you are making the mistake of trying to live the victorious life, you are cheating yourself out of it, for the victory you get by trying for it is a counterfeit victory. You must substitute another word; not try, but trust, and you cannot try and trust at the same time. Trying is what we do, and trusting is what we let the Lord do.
While I'm at it, let me cite one or two more quotations from the book. I am not generalizing or picking on an obscure point. Passivity is the whole gist of Trumbull's whole approach to sanctification.
He says, for example: "Christ's power is not futile without our effort, but it is made futile by our effort. To attempt to share by our effort what only grace can do is to defeat grace."
At one point, he responds to a letter he received from a missionary who had supposedly discovered the secret of the victorious life:
"Do you know that not only for three months have I not once slammed the door in the face of one of these stupid . . . servants that used to get on my nerves so, but I haven't even wanted to once in the three months!"
And that was a miracle. Not keeping from slamming the doorthat is no miracle. Any ordinary, unsaved person who is halfway decent can keep from slamming the door: by setting his teeth, using his will, putting his hands behind his back, and determinedly not doing what he feels like doing. No, there is no miracle in that. But to go for three months without once wanting to: without once feeling within yourself that angry surge of irritation, of temper, that makes you want to show your feelings in some outward, uncontrolled way; does not your heart tell you that that indeed would be a miracle in your own life?
But that is Christ's offer to us now and herefreedom immediately and completely from all the power of known sin. That is what Paul meant as he came forever out of the seventh chapter of Romans into the eighth; when he said in the second verse of the eighth, "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus made me free from the law of sin and death" (A.S.V.). Are you rejoicing in Christ as your Victory in this miraculous way?
Another book that teaches precisely the same theology is How to live the Victorious Life, by an anonymous British author who wrote under the name, "An Unknown Christian." He says, "Faith does nothing; faith lets God do it all . . .. It is Jesus Christ Himself who gives the victory. All I can do is look to Christ in faith and let Him overcome for me."
This Unknown Christian echoes Trumbull when he writes, "The entrance [into the victorious life may be summed up in two [sic] simple mottoes:Let Go and Let God."
Elsewhere, the Unknown Christian writes this:
This Decision for Holiness is a crisis in a Christian's life. With it comes an instantaneous revelation of God to him, that Christ can be all in all; that Christ can and does give Victory over all known sin: not gradually but Instantaneously. "Having therefore these promises let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of the flesh and spirit perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord" (2 Cor. 7:1). The tense in the Greek shows that this is done at once as a definite and decisive act. This is the crisis of sanctification.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Let gosurrender: then "let God" do His part. But God will not allow any effort or struggle on your part to help Him. Salvation is entirely a gift of God: entirely of grace (60-61).
Now, what are the errors of this way of thinking? Is Scripture teaching what these men say it is?
First, we can acknowledge that there is a very crucial germ of truth in the idea that it is God who sanctifies us and not we ourselves. I introduced this series of posts last week with a reference to Philippians 2:13, which says true holiness is a result of God's power at work in us to will and to work for his good pleasure. We don't become holy through our own fleshly effort.
But we don't become holy without effort, either. Certainly all our effort must be Spirit-empowered. But sanctification does, after all, require our obedience, our diligence, and the mortification of our own sinall of which are part of what Philippians 2:12 requires: "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."
There is enough deadly error in so-called deeper-life doctrine to make it seriously hazardous to holy living. Here are three key errors that make Keswick-style doctrine (and every other brand of perfectionism) a dangerous approach to sanctification. I hope to develop these in a few follow-up posts:
- It separates justification from sanctification and makes them hinge on separate acts of believing.
- That sets up two classes of Christians: the saved-only and the true disciples; the defeated and the victorious; lower-plane and higher-plane Christians, or whatever.
- The formula of trusting without trying suggests we ought to defer obedience until we get the right feeling, or experience some ecstatic liberation, or are otherwise supernaturally made to do what is right.
Think about the implications of Trumbull's illustration about the missionary woman who said she had found "victory" over her door-slamming anger: What should she do if something happens to make her experience those old feelings of anger? If she follows Trumbull's advice, she will probably lose her temper and slam the door, because according to Trumbull, if we "put our hands behind our back, set our teeth, and [refrain from slamming] the door," we frustrate the grace of God by human effort. Trumbull calls that "counterfeit victory."
I say he and his fellow deeper-life aficionados are the ones peddling a counterfeit.
If you want to read a truly helpful volume on the sanctification, I recommend John Owen's work on The Mortification of Sin. It's volume 6 in the complete works, but someone has made a helpful readers-digest edition for modern readers. It's good stuff.