04 June 2010

Let go?

by Phil Johnson

No time to write a fresh post this morning; so here's a long-forgotten post that goes with yesterday's topic.
    This afternoon (3-5pm EST) I'll be guest-hosting Wretched Radio for Todd Friel. I have never done 20 seconds of live radio solo, much less 2 hours. So if you like the excitement of potential disaster, blended with unpredictable but possibly edifying subject matter, tune in.
    Meanwhile . . .

Speaking of books that will mess you up—
More on Keswick doctrine, the elusive promise of quick-and-easy holiness, and the deadly danger of passive living.

(First posted 17 February 2006)

n 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 perfectionism—and 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 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 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 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. Philippians 2:13 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 sanctification, I recommend John Owen's work on The Mortification of Sin. It's volume 6 in Owen's complete works, but someone has made a helpful readers-digest edition for modern readers. See also Overcoming Sin and Temptation, another simplified digest of Owen's classic work edited by our friend Justin Taylor. It's good stuff. Phil's signature


Ron said...

Two quetion from a dunderhead;

1. This living without "known sin"? Frankly, I can't wrap my mind around what that looks like. "Known" sin vs. unknown sin?

2. Once "perfected", is the importance of the Atonement altered/ignored?

I know ome folks in the holiness movement who have yet been able to explain these to my sastisfaction.

Any help here?
Help please.

DJP said...

Definitely worth a repost or five.

It leads to an endless do-loop, anyway, doesn't it — this false dichotomy of doing vs. trusting in sactification? To wit:

My problem is my doing, right? So I should stop. Instead, I should trust.

Oh, but wait - that's me again, right? I mean, who's trusting? Me. Who's "letting go"? Me. So the problem is me, and I still have to solve the problem. I haven't trusted right, I haven't let go right. I still have to do something.

Because otherwise, what's stopping God from coming in and overcoming and living the Christian life for me? It's me (in this system). I haven't done (or not-done) the right thing. Or I haven't done (or not-done) the right thing right.

It's a nightmare on every level.

James Scott Bell said...

I like Packer's chapter on all this in Keep in Step With the Spirit. Between Keswick and Augustinian errors he posits: "The devotional conclusion is that when Christians ask God to make them more like Jesus, through the Spirit's power, he will do it, never mind what shortcomings appear in their theology. He is a most gracious and generous God."

Hayden said...

Or also look into "The Enemy Within" by Lundgaard (which is a simpler version of Owen)

trogdor said...

Unknown Christian: "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."

Another Unknown Christian, writing in Hebrews 11: By faith a bunch of people did a whole lot of spectacular stuff. Emulate.

I think I'll take my chances with the original UC, thanks.

Write@titude said...

H. A. Ironside's auto-biographical book Holiness, The True and the False relates his personal struggle with this doctrine during his years within the Salvation Army. It's an easy and informative read (~142 pages).

Also, a book that I've found helpful on sanctification that does deal with the effort involved on our part to conquer sin is Victorious Christian Living: studies in the book of Joshua by Alan Redpath.

Brad Williams said...

How dumb. If this were true, laziness would kill us all.

Mary Elizabeth Tyler said...

This is our part, which is not working for our salvation, but from our salvation.

“Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able (Luke 13:24).”

“Wherefore, my beloved, as ye have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).”

This is God’s part:

“For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of [his] good pleasure (Phil 2:13).”

“And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them (Eze 36:27).”

Try to make a person who is a proponent of easy believeism understand this.

I look forward to this series.

Jessica Kramasz said...

I grew up in a Christian commune that was steeped in deeper-life teaching. While we were there I was too young to be too influenced by it, but after my parents began to see the errors of this group (which went way beyond deeper-life) and left, they ended up with more of a "do more, try harder" view of sanctification which was completlely void of grace. While it was the opposite of "Let go and let God", it was quite damaging.

As a teenager with this kind of thinking I was miserable and eventually gave up. I really thought I could never be "good enough" to be a Christian.

Fortunately, ten years later God brought me to repentance and caused me to fully understand the doctrines of grace. I finally understood that wasn't about me being "good enough", it was about God's grace and the Holy Spirits ongoing work of sanctification in us when we avail ourselves of the means of grace.

Jim Crigler said...

Phil, this was helpful. But as a counterweight, it would also be helpful to hear about the error on the other side: All effort and no grace.

olan strickland said...

The idea of instantaneous perfection in regards to sanctification is foreign to Scripture. “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

We do have instantaneous justification (having been declared holy through faith in Christ) which leads to progressive sanctification (being made holy through loving loyalty to Christ) and will culminate in instantaneous glorification (Christ will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory and we will be like Him – Philippians 3:21; 1 John 3:2).

Our sanctification is not disjoined from our justification or our glorification. Both our past justification and our future glorification aid in the present sanctification process.

We obey Him (that’s sanctification) because we love Him and we love Him because of the justification which He has so graciously and mercifully provided.

We purify ourselves (that’s sanctification) just as He is pure because we love Him and are looking forward to the glorification that He will provide when He comes.

Salvation is a seamless garment that is not to be divided.

Phil Johnson said...

Jim: "Phil, this was helpful. But as a counterweight, it would also be helpful to hear about the error on the other side: All effort and no grace."

That's exactly what our ongoing series on legalism is all about.

Jeff Godley said...

Looking forward to hearing you on Wretched Radio today, Phil!

I also want to learn more of the dangers of deeper-life thinking. I'm involved in an Alliance church, a denomination founded by A. B. Simpson (who was, I believe, another "deeper-life aficionado"). The idea of a "deeper life" never sat well with me, it seemed contrary to scriptural teaching about sanctification, although I could never quantify precisely why.

Hungry to know more...

donsands said...

Taking Todd's place. Cool.

"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."

A very deceptive teaching indeed.

Suppose I was to think this way when I had to install a 50 foot aluminum seamless gutter?
I have to have a lot of practice, first of all, and then it takes a little sweat, sometimes tears, and once in a while some blood.
I absolutely do pray to our Lord for wisdom and strength, and most of all, a good attitude, but I need to be the one who carries this gutter up a 32 foot ladder.

Just thinking out loud.

I remember another time when there were people in my church, who basically detested me. It took all, all that was within me to go to church. It was very dark and heavy, and yet by His grace I went. But it was painful and difficult. Took some effort.

Have a great Lord's day.

Sven Pook said...

Wow, I must say, that this article helped me put 2 and 2 together. I have an acquaintance who ministers at a prison near the small N Cal mountain town in which I live. We've played a round or 2 of golf in the past and listening to some of the things he has said I realized (After reading what you had to say, Phil) that he is steeped in this Keswick Doctrine (KD).

I have been trying to get a novel published and kept running into publishers that stress that they do not publish works that teach Christian perfection.

That is where this guy is, Christian perfection, he also teaches that there is no need to tithe, is this part of that doctrine? Practically every illustration I have heard from this man fits this KD.

Until now, I hadn't realized how insidious and pervasive it is. I had always taken the "let go and let God" statements to mean that we need to immerse ourselves in the Word and spend time with Jesus in prayer and God will do the work to make me start to become more like Christ (Abide in Me and I in you . . .)

Now I have to take a hard look at my book and make sure I didn't have anything that might hint at this KD nonsense within its pages :-D

Thankfully, since there is not much to choose from in our small town, I get 90% of my teaching from Pilgrim Radio. They're running a great sermon series from Brian Borgman in the book of Job.

Whenever I see that they are running a series by you, Phil, I greatly look forward to listening to you preach the Word. Your name was the reason I began to read this blog in the first place . . . don't get too big headed, I have been commenting on Dan's posts most often ;-D

Oh, yes, looking forward to your radio show this afternoon, I'll be tuning in!!!

Craig and Heather said...

Olan Strickland:
Salvation is a seamless garment that is not to be divided.

Really appreciate this thought!


olan strickland said...

Thanks Heather.

The two main errors associated with misunderstanding the gospel are legalism and license (or you could say libertinism). Both of these errors do damage to the seamless garment of salvation.

Legalism reverses sanctification in its relationship to justification and seeks to make sanctification the cause of justification.

License or libertinism removes sanctification in its relationship to justification. License has justification standing alone with absolutely no connection whatsoever with sanctification following or flowing from justification. License sees sanctification as either unnecessary or as some higher form of spirituality that one can attain to if he knows the secret.

That secret of course will be some form of antinomianism because the libertine cannot understand how obedience to Christ out of love for Christ isn't legalism.

Terry Rayburn said...

The early Keswick people talked more "quietistically" than they actually lived.

That is, they spoke of "waiting on the Lord" to do things through them, or expanded on Gal. 2:20 regarding Christ living through them instead of them living...

...YET, they were some of the most active Christians in missions and evangelism, orphanages, writing and teaching, etc.

Their reputation (and sometimes view of themselves) was "passive", but they were actually very "active".


Because their two-tiered doctrine of carnal vs. spiritual Christians was correct?

No, but because they, like other Christians who have dabbled in various errors, nevertheless were into the Word of God, and prayer, and loved Jesus Christ, and He worked in them both to will and to do for His good purposes.

Strivers and meditators and mild-mannered shy folks and too-arrogant extroverts and fine expositional teachers and just-can't-get-it students and isolationist Anabaptists and fiery Reconstructionists and Arminians and Calvinists and lookin-like-a-fool-wit-your-pants-on-the-ground Jesus people have all been used by Him Who can use anybody whom He sovereignly regenerates and justifies and santifies...

...even while He grows us -- fast or slowly...

...and even while we prodigalize ourselves for the 1000th time and come back into His arms while He runs to greet us with the ring and robe.

Ain't He something?

Stefan Ewing said...


Yes, He is.


I really like your word-picture of sanctification as being a continuum, with justification and glorification as its endpoints.

donsands said...

".. nevertheless were into the Word of God, and prayer, and loved Jesus Christ" -Terry

I agree, if any Christian is doing this, then our Lord surely is working in them to will and to do.

And yet, the false teachings can cause great damage as well. Look at the Corith Church with the sinful man Paul turned over to Satan, because of their easy going way with sinful behavior; or perhaps cheap grace.

And, of course, there's the other side like those in Galatia who were putting heavy chains of rules on the church.

I guess we all know that. Just wanted to think out loud a little bit.

Have a wonderful Lord's day.

Dave Miller said...

Listening online now to Wretched Radio.The show is a repeat of Todd Friel from March of 2009. I thought Phil was going to be on today. Hope everything is okay.

Anonymous said...

Dear Phil,

Yesterday you commented on Dan's post:

"Keswick doctrine doesn't have the impact and appeal it had in the first half of the 20th century, but the influence is still there, mainly through early Keswick speakers' published works."

I'm very curious to know if you have found Steve McVey's Grace Walk Ministries and Bill Gillham's Lifetime Guarantee Ministries to be having the impact in other places that they are where I live.

They are both members of the Association of Exchanged Life Ministries (founded by Hudson Taylor's son). We know pastors in several states that are going full speed with it and it has ultimately led to full fledged Contemplative Spirituality ala Richard Foster.

Just very curious what your take is on it.

Thank you,

Mike Erich the Mad Theologian said...

What I have found in the Keswick approach to sanctification is a legalism worse than legalism. If you try it and it does not work (and if you are really honest with yourself it will not work) then you can end up on a endless treadmill of trying to work up the faith or right attitude to get it to work. I have been there and would much rather trust in the power of God working in all true believers to transform us over time (2 Corinthians 3:18) than a quick fix that does not work.

Sir Brass said...

I've heard this deeper life doctrine before and to be honest, it only made me despair.

See, what I never absorbed from it was this two-tier system for Christianity. It was all or nothing, really. Either one is obedient and becoming more holy, trusting in Christ alone for salvation, or one is dead in sin. And this deeper-life doctrine that I was hearing from some folks was making me think that I wasn't really doing so hot in the obedience category and that made me despair of my salvation.

Thankfully, the Lord works all things for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. That deadly doctrine I couldn't fully accept but still drove me to despair still drove me straight into prayer and pleading with God, "Oh Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!"

These days, I see this deeper-life doctrine for what it is: snake oil with snake venom. And I find great comfort in the words spoken when we partake of the Lord's supper when the question is asked, "For whom is the Lord's supper intended?" And the answer is (and I can't quote verbatim here, but I'll give the gist of it): for those who are truly penitent and desire to amend their life.

My prayers are now along the lines of, "Lord command what you will, and will in me what you command." The Lord commands, and thus I strive to do.

I still ache when I am confronted with my sin, and I still often question myself on my soul's state, but my despair is less and less. My life is hidden with Christ, and He swore by Himself. And also, He who began a good work in me will not fail to complete it on the day of Christ Jesus. So, the Lord commands, and so I strive to do.

That's not deeper life, that's just the Christian walk. The only thing that has changed is me. Christ is just as active in my sanctification now than when I was being influenced by deeper-life doctrine (I was never influenced directly, but rather influenced by the charismatic adherents or practitioners of this stuff). He has not changed, I have. He is actively completing that good work He started.

Praise be to God that He is sovereign and He does what He wishes, no matter how screwed up we are. If I could thwart God, then I'd be sunk.

Pierre Saikaley said...

Thanks to Diane for reminding me of the names of McVey and Gillham. I read McVey's book a few years ago. In fact, my home church did a series on the exchanged life.

Phil is this a phenomenon that tends to be Dispensationalistic given the confusion of justification/sanctification in "free grace/no-lordship" teaching?

Gordan said...

Great post!

I still love AW Tozer, though. :(

Looking forward to your answer to the question you have begged here:

What are we to do with the fact that our churches seem to naturally divide betweeen two groups, the get-its and the don't-get-its?

Rachael Starke said...

Sir Brass,

That's a good word. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Sir Brass,

"and that made me despair of my salvation."

Exactly! A dear young mother confided that she was in such despair under such teaching that she had become suicidal. She did not know how to deal with the hidden sin in her heart. This teaching should not be downplayed.

~Mark said...

Y'know, I tend to get a little confused at the blanket dismissals of certain teachings here and I think I'm figuring out why that is.

I was taught the "let go and let God" when I was first saved but was taught that it was in reference to how we are to view our standing before Christ and the assurance of our growth in Him even as we fail while working toward a more holy life.

In other words we weren't supposed to take the full weight of responsibility for growth and holiness upon ourselves, but we needed to recognize that God has already born that in us and is the One with the power to grow us in holiness, and that our responsibility is to work to be holy but to also recognize that we are essentially reaching to pluck an already ripened fruit.

God did the job, God is doing the job, so while we must work to examine our lives is the light of Him and make the changes necessary, the "letting go" is in recognition that He did the work, He provides the strength for our work, and He is faithful to complete the work.

So while I do recognize that my first home church had some teachings that were mingled with error and has since revealed the consequences, I also can't "throw the baby our with the bathwater" as is so often seems here.

Unless of course, and this is certainly possible, due to my history I am not grasping ALL that the posts are meant to say.

Matt Aznoe said...

Gordan, while I cannot answer for the author, I can submit why I believe there are two groups of people in the church today: most of the people in our churches are not, in fact, Christian. A recent Barna poll did a survey on fundamental Christian beliefs. The results were alarming. Only 19% of those who claimed to be born again Christians had what they called a Christian worldview. You can see the report here:


The doctrines they asked about were pretty essential (and actually quite lenient). I wonder if you could even be a Christian and not be in that 19%.

So what does that mean? That over 80% of Christians in America are not, in fact, Christian at all. Let that sink in a little bit, and you will begin to understand a lot of the problems in our churches today.

donsands said...

I checked into the Keswick "movement"-I think you pronounce Keswisk, Kessick-, and i found Hudson taylor, and Amy Carmichael. Pretty incredible Christians. True examples for us all to be honest.

I suppose there are dangers in this movement, but there is quite a fold of glorifying fruit for our Lord as well.

This Trumball may be a completely different animal.

Just wanted to share that.