17 February 2006

Speaking of books that will mess you up—

by Phil Johnson

In an earlier post, I mentioned that during my student years 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 perfectionism—and nearly all other errant schemes of sanctification, too (including classic Pentecostal theology)—is the way these schemes 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 ways—wholly 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 door—that 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 here—freedom 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 Albert Ernest Richardson, an Anglican priest (and missionary) who wrote anonymously 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."

The 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 go—surrender: 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 sin—all 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:

  1. It separates justification from sanctification and makes them hinge on separate acts of believing.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Phil's signature


Dan B. said...

Great post. My wife and I encountered some of the "deeper life" talk while we were in college (a methodist college very much into holiness), and some chapel speakers would claim that they knew people had "complete victory over sin". (one such comment I remember: "I know someone that hasn't sinned in 4 years")

Does the Methodist stress on holiness (that obviously swings the other way on the santification issue, as to human effort) meet with the view that you expressed on "victory" or would I be mischaracterizing the Methodist position? Since they seem to be into a second work of grace as well, I thought there could be a parallel.

Moo Zuba said...

Dear Phil,

I look forward to the future articles dealing with this subject. These deeper-life teachings and their sister teachings in the Pentecostal and charismatic churches have been on my heart and mind more and more these last few months. More than anything else in my Christian pilgrimage, I long for holiness. Purity. Freedom from sin. And these "let go, let God" teachings -- these "instantaneous sanctification" doctrines are so alluring. The only problem is they don't work. I spent a good two months in the earliest part of my spiritual walk laying on my face crying out and weeping for God to make me holy. God finally gave me what I was asking for -- but it came in seeing Christ crucified, not in ecstatic utterance or some other instant experience of being totally sanctified.

I am disillusioned with many of my early teachers. There is one man, whom I love in the Lord, who I can barely bring myself to face right now because of how desperately far he led me astray in those first formative months of my spiritual awakening. And even though I no longer actively believe what I was once taught it still stands as a stumbling block to me in my pursuit of practical righteousness. Furthermore, I see so many who adhere wholeheartedly to these teachings who are led, not into "total sanctification" but into antinomianism and guilt-free sin. They read 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and rewrite it to say "This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from active holiness and wait upon God to work through you." I fear for many of them that they may be waiting in vain. And yet God drew me to Himself in the midst of these very errors. I long more than anything for that day when sin shall be no more in me and I shall be conformed at last to the image of my Lord. Father, hasten that day.

In Christ alone,

DJP said...

I tried to stop trying, once.

Glenn said...

Thanks for this post Phil, I'm looking forward to your follow ups.

James 2:22 "You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did."

Kim said...

I'm looking forward to hearing more about this.

Chris said...

Don't forget Hanna Whittal Smith's "The Christian's Secret for a Happy Life." (And people think Joel Osteen is something new!)

At one point in the book, she answers the question, if sanctification is all God's work, why did He give us the Bible and all of its commands and exhortations? The answer: so that we can see things in the Bible which are already happening in our lives, and therefore recognize that God really is working in us.

I guess giving us the ability to recognize Himself is the one thing God left out of sanctification.

Jeremy Weaver said...

I think an error many Calvinists fall into has to do with sanctification.
What we must remember is that Regeneration is completely monergistic. All calvinists will agree on that.
But then I have encountered some resistance when I have said that from that point on everything is synergistic until our final Glorification, which is again a monergistic work of God.

Rick Potter said...

Hi Phil,
I am also looking forward to your future posts on this matter. Your post mentions: "But sanctification does, after all, require our obedience, our diligence, and the mortification of our own sin." One of the things that I just can't seem to get a grip on is the process whereby "I" as the one obeying and being diligent, is differentiated from Sin's part in me - according to Paul in Rom. 7:17. You know, come to think of it, this verse never really presented a problem in my thinking until I read James Boice's commentary on this and he pointed out that at this point in Paul's life (Romans 7), that Paul was a "Mature" Christian.

It can be a little scary when one can see themselves relating with Paul in Romans 7, then reading chapter 8 and praising God for what he has done for our benefit but still finding ourselves groaning inside because we cannot connect all the dots. Anyway....I look forward to your thoughts.


Jabbok said...

I've always stumbled at the phrase "let God". I don't know how a sinner, regenerate or unregenerate, could ever "let God" do anything. For this reason I also have trouble with invitation systems that plead with the lost to "let God" have His way in their lives.

The deeper life, from this perspective, seems to border on a form of Gnosticism. It's almost like you have to have some form of secret knowledge to enjoy it.

IB Dubbya said...

moo zuba & rick potter: I second, third & fourth those emotions...

Being formerly of the Classicalist Pentacostical Percussion I, too, eagerly await what This Esteemed Shepherd (privy pot!) has forthcoming on the topic.

Thanks for going there, Phil!


Bob Hayton said...

Is this Keswick teaching associated with R.A. Torrey's teaching on the Baptism of the Spirit? It seems that his emphasis was on Christians having a great experience of the Spirit (usually) subsequent to their initial conversion, which would be the point in which the experience the filling of the Spirit. It seems that after this initial experience they become part of the 2nd tier/higher class Christians that Keswick teaching talks about.

This whole idea leads to dangerous and misleading thinking (as several commentors above mention). In an IFB college we were basically taught to seek this second experience--especially since the pastor and other "great men of God" had such an experience. This contributes blatantly to an undue "worshipping" of the clergy and other 2nd tier Christians. And it all contributes to a general fogginess concerning how to pursue sanctification in the normal Biblical way (which obviously has detrimental effects on the spiritual lives of all affected).

Rick Potter said...

Oh, my brother Moo Zuba...
When you said - "And even though I no longer actively believe what I was once taught it still stands as a stumbling block to me in my pursuit of practical righteousness." - it's like a light bulb came on in my head. I have been seeing this issue as an inconsistency within myself. Maybe it is not that at all but rather a paradox(for lack of a better word) because of my fallen sinful nature. I don't know, but I'm going to think on it....Thanks for your comment.


Steve said...

I too look forward to other topics on the Keswick movement. While posting on progressive sanctification on Christianthotsataglance.blogspot,com/ I mentioned the Keswik doctrinal fallacy. IF you agree I would like to link to or quote this aricle on my blog and any future discussions on this topic. Thanks for bringing this forward.

David Whitesel said...


Please keep those book recommendations coming. Holiness by J.C. Ryle posted at gracegems was tremendous. The sections on Holiness, sin, Sancitification, fighting the fight and counting the cost were excellent and much needed. The section on counting the cost of being a follower of Christ was most needed. When I became a Christian I expected attacks from unbelievers, however, it has been the attacks from those that call themselves "believers" that have been the most vicious.

Thanks to you and all the Pyromaniacs for sharing your faith and experiences in your walk. It is truly edifiying to see where you have come from and how the Lord is using those experiences to help others along the way.


4given said...

Heretical Worldly Spew comes to mind as I have personally encountered such chunderous error... yes, CHUNDER being vomit.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing that. You gave me a lot to think about.

4given said...

Mr. Whitesel, your comments, "it has been the attacks from those that call themselves "believers" that have been the most vicious."

So sad... so true.

Kent Brandenburg said...

Hello Phil. I agree with your assessment of the keswick teaching, even if at latest count one billion Chinese could care less. I'll just ignore them and ponder a moment on the thoughts. Don't you think that the the keswick movement glove fits the American cultural desire for an experience, measuring spirituality by the seismic meter instead of by clear scriptural criteria? Reinacting some version of Pentecost repeatedly as an outworking of second blessing?

This same thirst for tangible feelings fuels the contrived and choreographed worship, directly birthed out of this wrong view of sanctification and equally perverting genuine spirituality. The music perverts the doctrine of pneumatology in confusing the participants and listeners about the true nature of genuine worship. They feel something and think that it must be the Holy Spirit when it was manufactured only by the rhythm and sensuality. Classic existentialism. While teachers harangue the perversion of the mother keswick theology, they embrace her evil stepdaughter, the worship (music). Those in search for an experience can get their daily or weekly fix with either the theology or the music. How can we say the latter is not at least equally dangerous than the former?

MSC said...

Some time ago I read something Jerry Bridges said about the different ways Christians view sanctification. I have modified what he said a little in a illustration I use to teach others.

Imagine sanctification is like moving a log up a hill. The fleshly view supposes we pick up the log and move it ourselves. The passive (Keswick) view supposes God picks up the log while we sit and watch. A synergistic view (still Arminian in my mind) suggests we get on one end, God gets on the other end and we cooperate in getting it up the hill. The proper monergistic view (Phil. 2:12-13) suggests we move the log up the hill while God moves us (via power of the Holy Spirit). Perhaps overly simplistic, but it has been helpful to me.

stauf46 said...

Phil, your little description of the "'alreadies' and the 'not yets'" regarding the so-called 'carnal' and 'spiritual' Christians is priceless! It really gets to the heart of the error!


donsands said...

"you can not try and trust at the same time."

I like what 1 Cor. 15:10 says in regard to this false teaching.
Many other Bible passages do the same of course.
It's a difficult teaching for us to grasp, but it is without a doubt a quite clear teaching(1 Cor. 15:10), and it refutes this false doctrine without exception in my thinking.
Thanks for another post that encourages us to go to the Word.

Jabbok said...

Upon giving this further thought I believe it was Major Ian Thomas who preached at our church many, many years ago and brought the same type of message. Here is what I remember:

You can't
He can
He never said you could
He always said He would
Stop trying, start trusting
Simply let go and let God.

That sounds too spiritual and deep to pass up doesn't it? The trouble with it is that you can chase it for the rest of your life and never get further along than you are now.

Like Adrian Rogers used to say, "Just because a river is wide doesn't mean it's deep."

Steve said...

jabbok, it's interesting you should bring up Major Ian Thomas, because he immediately came to mind when Phil mentioned Trumbull. I also think of Bob George, who also teaches a very similar message that, in my opinion, has severely stunted the growth of many Christians.

Anne H. said...

I say he and his fellow deeper-life aficionados are the ones peddling a counterfeit.


So many who think that they are going after holiness are simply going after a "holiness" that is nothing more than what they suppose holiness to be. For example, I do not think that anyone should smoke but it is not a salvation issue. And such is a counterfiet religion.

I'm not "up to speed" like so many who comment here but I am really appreciating this and wanted to say so.


Brad Huston said...


For once I am glad to have finished a related post before you, so that it couldn't be said I just stole your high points here for my own fodder.

This is truly an outstanding post and a great illustration at addressing the deeper concern.


Daniel said...

One thing that modern Christianity is in danger of is in becoming a "form." That is we imagine that if a church teaches us to read our bible, to pray, and to minister to the lost (evangelize) and the saved (encouragement, etc) - we imagine that we have found a good church. Certainly we have found a rare church, :-), but that criteria only desribes what a good church looks like, and not whether or not the church is actually right with God. The believers may well be doing everything that good believers ought to do but that only describes the outside of their cup...

Jesus, we will recall, came to clean the inside of the cup. There are two ways, or so Jesus describes, to make the outside clean - by cleaning the outside (external religion) or cleaning the inside (genuine religion).

A man who reads the bible and tries to keep what he finds in it is not unlike a good Jew. When he does particularly well, we like to say that it isn't really his rightouesness, but "Christ is being rightoues in him" (thus avoiding stealing God's glory) - even though the man's righteousness comes entirely from his own effort to obey the outward form, or mould (scripture) that he has been pressing himself into. Yes, he is certainly taking on the form of the mould, but not because he has changed one whit - rather because he knows what clean looks like, and is behaving as if he were actually clean.

This charade is hotly pursued in many churches today - and is being touted in those churches as all there is to Christianity - you grit your teeth, obey as best you can - and then give God the glory for everything you have done in your own strength. They don't stop to ponder that even an unsaved person could do it in their own strength, or even if a buddhist or muslim, or wiccan could do the same in the strength of their own "faiths" - yet because a person is a "Christian" they must give the "glory" to God for all that their own hands have wrought. It is a poison, and I suspect it isn't just a local problem up here in the north.

In a word, obeying the rules, real or imagined, produces an external change, and not an internal one.

I can't tell you how many Christians I know - even seasoned, well-churched Christians from bible believing assemblies - who don't know the first thing about genuine obedience! Surely they imagine it is the Holy Spirit who is giving them the chutzpah to grit their teeth and do it. But deep down, it is not love but fear that drives them. Fear that they are not genuine enough. Their obedience becomes their assurance - they imagine that by gritting their teeth and affecting some change in their life that the change affected gives testimony to their salvation. They know better in their head - but they still do it.

The problem is they never come to the cross - that is, they never really understand what it means to be crucified with Christ - the words are just a limerick that they use, and not a reality that they're living. They know that they are supposed to reckon themselves dead indeed - but they don't, and frankly they think it is some mental trick you play with yourself. In fact, their whole religion is about trying to be a good Christian by acting like one. They are deceived, having a zeal for a form of religion - and telling themselves that they in fact have a proper and biblical Christianity.

The believer is supposed to obey the Spirit of life and not the law - having been set free from the law (as a means to righteousness.) Sanctification happens progressively as the believer submits to the Spirit. It isn't rocket science, but it also isn't well understood.

Too many Christians have a wimpy definition of sin - so that when they read "homolegeo" (confession) in 1 John 1:9 they reason that since it means "saying the same thing as" that confession means that they must agree with God that something was sinful.

That is a good start, but it falls woefully short of agreeing with God about the sin. God sent that particular sin to the cross - and failing to agree with God about it belonging there (that is, failing to reckon it there for those of you who are following) is not saying the same thing about the sin that God says. If I say with my mouth that a thing is sin, but I refuse to reckon it on the cross - I am --not-- agreeing with God about it. God says it belongs on the cross, and I say we can skip that part. It isn't "homolegeo" until I say the same thing as God says. God doesn't simply say "that is sin" God says, "the wages of sin is death" - a true confession reckons the sin on the cross, anything else is lipservice, and a lie - a walk in darkness rather than light; a walk that doesn't produce genuine righteousness in the believer, but rather produces a hardness of heart.

Unless we deal with sin the way God has provided and prescribed, and stop skipping over the cross we become religionists, and our "sanctification" is entirely outward, through our own effort.

Yet for all that many Christians will readily parrot how Christ died to save them from the penalty of sin (past), the power of sin(present) and the presence of sin (future) - but if you ask them how they are being saved from sin's power they haven't got a clue, because in reality they are -not- experiencing any salvation at all from sin's power - not because Christ doesn't offer it - but because they don't understand how to be crucified with Christ.

Sorry for the rant, if I were better able to express myself, brevity would certainly rule. ;-)

Jabbok said...

Isn't what your suggesting Gnosticism?

You concluded with: "...they don't understand how to be crucified with Christ."

They put on a charade, they parrot, they grit their teeth and all of that but after all of their efforts they still don't understand how to....

It seems that you're suggesting that there is a knowledge that only a few have attained.

People are either crucified with Christ or they're not. If they are then they are saved, if they're not then they are not saved.

There is no third category of Christians who have been crucified with Christ and who have discovered how to be crucified with Christ.

4given said...

Daniel, John Bunyan says it best: "I set the commandments before me for my way to heaven; which commandments I strove to keep, and, as I thought, did keep pretty well sometimes. I continued to live so a year, though I knew not Christ, nor grace, nor faith, nor love; and I was nothing but a poor painted hypocrite."
(We have snow and ice out here and therefore church had to be canceled for safety purposes if you are wondering why I am posting when I am supposed to be in church.)

Scott Hill said...

I have been not trying all my life, and I still have gained victory of sin.

donsands said...

"The Scriptures teach nothing more clearly than that God's design in showing us mercy is to make us holy people: 'For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age' (Titus 2:11-12) ....
Your flesh will whisper to you that strictness and anxious care about obedience are LEGALISM--the gospel came to deliver you from such things! And besides, if you really do commit a sin, you can be forgiven later." -Kris Lundgaard, The Enemy Within.

Some further good words for the Christian heart to ponder I would think, from a fine book on the subject of sin and holiness, which is gleaned from John Owen's teachings.

Daniel said...


If what I was suggesting was that the people "secret" (and therefore extra biblical) information, then I what I was teaching, while not historical gnosticism, would certainly fit the shoe.

You are correct at least in this - I -am- suggesting, in fact I am outright saying (as opposed to merely suggesting it) that some people don't understand what it means to be crucified with Christ.

Every Christian --is-- crucified with Christ, whether they reckon it or not. I am not suggesting that some are, and some are not crucified. What I saying is that until one reckons this particular truth, it is of profit to him experientially speaking.

4given rightly identifies that what I am suggesting is well described by bunyun (see her post).

I am not speaking of "special" knowledge - as though obeying the Holy Spirit was some big secret. I am saying that most people will do everything "BUT" obey the Holy Spirit, and that is why they are always learning, but never growing - their seed lacks moisture.

4given said...

Bunyan was describing himself before true regeneration.

Daniel said...

Bunyan was describing himself before true regeneration.

We could call it the standard description of an unregenerate religion. Human effort based on a set of rules.

It also describes what Paul rebuked the Galatians for - continuing on in the flesh having begun in the Spirit. That was my point.

DJP said...

Scott "Fide-O": "I have been not trying all my life, and I still have gained victory of sin."


Momo said...

doxoblogist wrote: What we must remember is that Regeneration is completely monergistic. All calvinists will agree on that.
But then I have encountered some resistance when I have said that from that point on everything is synergistic until our final Glorification, which is again a monergistic work of God.

Hmmm. Nope. Not buyin'.

In the end we may be arguing semantics here, but salvation is monergistic from start to finish. It is all a work of God.

And I am an active participant in my salvation, by God's grace, until the day I stand on the other side of Jordan.

Nevertheless, it is all of God.