Review: The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness

The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of GodlinessThe Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness by Kevin DeYoung

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

J. I. Packer recently said in an interview with Desiring God,

There are writers who think that simply by crisp, orthodox formulations of Bible truth and wisdom—without any searching application to the reader—they are fulfilling the full role of a Christian writer and that nothing more is required of them…. There are enough people around already who can verbalize orthodoxy on paper. What we haven’t got is writers who can join truth and wisdom about God from the Scriptures with personal communication; that is, communication that hits the heart, that makes you realize that this writer is a person talking to other persons and that this writer is trying to search me in order to help me and I must let him do it… There is a certain art and craft in writing in such a way that it gets to the reader’s heart.

That quote kept coming back to me as I listened* to Kevin DeYoung’s book The Hole in Our Holiness. This is a timely book targeting a large group of American Christians who, in their rush to embrace grace and avoid legalism, have swung the pendulum a bit too far. DeYoung is calling people in his own (YRR) movement to take the Bible seriously—not only in its invitations to revel in God’s grace but in its commands to mimic God’s holiness. In my view, DeYoung did an excellent job targeting my own heart and bringing his reader back to the scriptural “plumb.”

DeYoung’s thesis is simple: “A concern for holiness is not obvious in our lives like it is obvious in the pages of Scripture.” If you don’t think such a book is for you, if it sounds legalistic, then ask yourself DeYoung’s three diagnostic questions:

  1. Paul commends the Roman believers by saying “your obedience is known to all”. Could that be said about us?
  2. Is your heaven a holy place? Or is it a place of perpetual divine affirmation for us? Some Christians have never been taught that sorcerers, adulterers, and everyone who loves falsehood will be left outside the gates of heaven.
  3. In our evangelism are we teaching people to do all that the Lord commanded?

For some Christians, DeYoung says, holiness is a lot like camping. It’s great for those people who for some reason want to make life harder on themselves, but it’s unclear why I should feel any obligation to try it. But you won’t find such a view of holiness in the Bible, as DeYoung’s book abundantly proves.

And his book is full of Bible, full of good theology applied searchingly to you and me. If DeYoung’s exhortations sound more than a little fundamentalist, the problem doesn’t lie with him. With some careful work through conservative doctrinal themes—union with Christ preeminent among them—DeYoung faithfully expounds the Bible’s teaching on holiness.

But as Packer said, many people know these doctrines and can explain them accurately. What DeYoung adds is skilfull, heart-felt writing. He has many well-formed phrases that, for me, stuck.

  • “When it comes to growth in godliness, trusting does not put an end to trying.”
  • “It’s one thing to graduate from college ready to change the world; it’s another thing to be resolute in praying that God would change you.”
  • “There is a gap between our love for the Gospel and our love for godliness. This must change. It’s not pietism, legalism, or fundamentalism to take holiness seriously. it’s the way of all those who have been called to a holy calling by a holy God.”
  • “To find acquittal from God at the last day, there must be evidence flowing out of us that grace has flowed into us.”
  • “Don’t be so scared of works righteousness that you make pale what the Bible writes in bold colors. We are saved by grace through faith—Ephesians 2:8–9. We were created in Christ Jesus for good works—verse 10. Any gospel which purports to save people without changing them is inviting easy-believism.”
  • “[Sometimes biblical] imperatives hit us like a ton of study Bibles.”

One of the most helpful things DeYoung did for me was to note that Jesus is a great physician who can writes different prescriptions for different maladies or different patients. Gratitude and duty are not the only appropriate motivations for holiness. Sometimes people are told to do right simply because it is right—for example, Ephesians 6:1. But compare Ephesians 4:32. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” DeYoung put together a whole list of verses offering different motivations to do right. This was excessively valuable, because we all need as many inducements to holiness as we could possibly and righteously and biblically get.

The Situational Perspective

One reviewer of DeYoung’s book on The Gospel Coalition blog issued a mild criticism of it, saying that while some people may be too liberated by their (mis)understandings of grace, he still knows plenty of people who need to catch the gospel-centered wave. I could echo this criticism, but I wouldn’t call it a criticism, only a suggestion to book-recommenders. This may not be the book to give to a legalist (try Milton Vincen’ts Gospel Primer for that), and that’s okay. DeYoung witnessed a problem in his circles, one I’ve seen in my own heart, and he offered the Bible’s answer to it. The question of legalism, though DeYoung does bring it up several times and though it is a significant problem, simply wasn’t the situation DeYoung was addressing.

The holiness DeYoung is urging on his readers is one that makes worldly entertainment a serious issue. It’s one that isn’t flippant about dating standards (and here DeYoung gives a memorable personal illustration). And it’s a holiness for which there are no performance-enhancing drugs. He argues that “the only way to extraordinary holiness is through ordinary means:” church, prayer, Bible reading, the ordinances.

His book is one of those means. It is an example of a Christian teacher exercising his gifts for the good of the whole body of Christ (Eph. 4:11ff.). And in the end it does not pit grace against holiness. Both the indicatives of scripture and its imperatives are from God for our good, given in grace, DeYoung says.

*I received this review book from christianaudio, but was not required to say anything positive. Because I listened to the book rather than reading it, direct quotations may vary slightly in punctuation from the printed book.

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Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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