J.I. Packer on Four Problems of Keswick Teaching
By “Keswick teaching” I mean that modified version of the Wesleyan view developed a little over a century ago to parry criticism of the claim that God’s second decisive work of grace eradicates sin from the Christian’s heart. It has also gone by the name of “victorious-life teaching”; under that name it is still met today. Its architects, as I noted earlier were American Presbyterians like Robert Pearsall Smith, husband of the Quaker Hannah Whitall Smith, and English Anglicans like Evan Hopkins and Bishop H. C. G. Moule, and it was called “Keswick teaching” because it was regularly given at the Convention for the Deepening of the Spiritual Life held annually at Keswick, in England’s Lake District, since 1875. . .
Keswick teaching, as I said above, is in essence Wesleyan perfectionism modified to exclude the unrealistic claim that sin is uprooted from the sanctified Christian heart. Accordingly, its distinctive mark in all its many forms was and is the characteristic insistence of the Wesleyanism from which it withdrew: namely, that justification and sanctification, new birth and holiness, are distinct blessings which both become ours by the same means. That means is an exercise of faith that in both cases consists of calling a halt to self-reliant activity (“works”) in order to receive from Christ as a free gift that for which one had been working—acceptance with God in the one case, the achieving of obedience in the other.
Keswick teaching, as I said above, is in essence Wesleyan perfectionism modified to exclude the unrealistic claim that sin is uprooted from the sanctified Christian heart.
With a clearheaded, clear-cut man-centeredness that would have shocked John Wesley (though it was only the natural development of the Arminianism that he so pertinaciously professed), nineteenth-century Wesleyans parceled out God’s salvation into two distinct gift packages, each consisting of a separate work of grace—Christ’s work as justifier being the first and his work as sanctifier being the second. Through the “holiness revival” of the middle and late nineteenth century, to which “Keswick teaching” gave wings, this idea of salvation as two separable salvations, one from sin’s guilt and the other from sin’s power, became standard in all evangelical thinking save that of confessional Lutherans and Calvinists, and in some quarters it still survives.
Through the “holiness revival” of the middle and late nineteenth century, to which “Keswick teaching” gave wings, this idea of salvation as two separable salvations, one from sin’s guilt and the other from sin’s power, became standard in all evangelical thinking. . .
Its last gasp (at least, its latest gasp; I for one hope it is the last) is the assertion I sometimes hear that choosing to be a “carnal Christian”—that is, one who receives Christ as Savior but not as Sanctifier—is an open option, though not a very good one. This putting asunder of what God has joined in his Son’s mediatorial office—namely, the role of priest with that of prophet (teacher) and king—is evidently a latter-day fruit (a bitter fruit, be it said) of the two-package way of thinking.
A Limited View of Holiness.
As an account of holiness, setting forth the Christian moral ideal, Keswick teaching falls badly short. It grasps neither the Augustinian vision of a life that glorifies God by praise, obedience, service, and the pursuit of value, nor the Wesleyan goal of ardent, endless love toward God and man. Instead, it centers upon the essentially negative ideal of a life free from the tensions of moral reach (aspiration) exceeding moral grasp (achievement) and from the censures of conscience for not having done all one should. Unbroken joy and tranquility are the goals set, and these prove to be linked not so much with achieving righteousness as with avoiding the sense of moral failure. But surely it is plain that this ideal is self-centered rather than God- or neighbor-centered and that it makes against, rather than for, growth in moral and spiritual sensitivity. To make present happiness one’s present purpose is not the path of biblical godliness. A quiet, sunny, tidy life without agony, free from distress at the quality of one’s walk with God and one’s work for others, is not what Scripture tells us to aim at or expect, and Scripture will not justify us if we do.
A quiet, sunny, tidy life without agony, free from distress at the quality of one’s walk with God and one’s work for others, is not what Scripture tells us to aim at or expect, and Scripture will not justify us if we do.
Too Much and Too Little.
As an account of the Holy Spirit’s work in sanctification, Keswick teaching falls short again, for it seems to affirm both too much and too little at the same time. I say “seems” because its architects were laymen and pastors whose agenda was to dissociate themselves from Wesleyan perfectionism while retaining the Wesleyan second-blessing frame, and it may be that the wider theological implications of the concepts they formed as means to this end escaped them. However, if we take their words at face value, the judgment expressed above is inescapable. They really did affirm a perfection of acts, and they really did deny that after conversion God further changes our hearts, and both claims are wrong.
To start with: The Keswick promise of complete victory over all known sin goes beyond anything that the New Testament permits us to expect in this world (see 1 John 1:8–10; Gal. 5:17; Rom. 7:14–25, about which I have already spoken and will say more shortly). The Christian’s present righteousness is relative; nothing he does is sinlessly perfect yet.
The Keswick promise of complete victory over all known sin goes beyond anything that the New Testament permits us to expect in this world
Only the very insensitive and the mentally unbalanced will ever be able to imagine that anything they have done is sinlessly perfect. If the Christian is at all alert toward God and in touch with himself, he knows these things, thinks of them often, and is humbled. To be sure, the New Testament anticipates an increasing degree of deliverance from known sins as the Christian life goes on, but to promise total victory over them all here and now is biblically unwarranted and spiritually unrealistic. Keswick teaching, however, makes this promise, and highlights the wonder of it by simultaneously affirming that we must expect our sinful hearts to remain unchanged from the time of our new birth to the end of our earthly lives. But this is a second mistake, for it ignores the fact that believers are being “. . . changed into his [Christ’s] likeness from one degree of glory to another . . . ,” and “. . . transformed by the renewal of . . . [their] mind” (2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 12:2).
Only the very insensitive and the mentally unbalanced will ever be able to imagine that anything they have done is sinlessly perfect.
There is a progressive strengthening of spiritual desires and discernments and with it an observable weakening of particular sinful cravings and habits as the Holy Spirit works in their lives. They will be conscious of the ongoing change to some extent and will be able to testify to it. As I said earlier, any Christians who had no such testimony would be giving cause for concern about their spiritual welfare and would indeed make one wonder if they were regenerate at all.
Here, then, are two respects in which classic Keswick teaching lost touch with the realities of the Christian moral life. I should like to believe, as I said above, that those who developed these features of the teaching had not thought out the implications of what their anti-Wesleyan zeal led them to say and did not really mean it, but whether that would be fair to them I do not know.
Limited by Passivity.
As an account of the Christian’s relationship to God the Holy Spirit, Keswick teaching fails yet a third time. A strong quietist element went into its making, and quietism prescribes passivity. Quietism, we saw, holds that all initiatives on our part, of any sort, are the energy of the flesh; that God will move us, if at all, by inner promptings and constraints that are recognizably not thoughts and impulses of our own; and that we should always be seeking the annihilation of our selfhood so that divine life may flow freely through our physical frames. We have already seen how the idea of inner passivity was worked into the Keswick formula for holy action.
A strong quietist element went into its making, and quietism prescribes passivity.
Passivity means conscious inaction—in this case, inner inaction. A call to passivity—conscientious, consecrated passivity—has sometimes been read into certain biblical texts, but it cannot be read out of any of them. Thus, for instance, to “yield” or “present” oneself to God (Rom. 6:13; 12:1), or as it is sometimes put, to “surrender” or “give ourselves up” to him, is not passivity. Paul’s meaning is not that having handed ourselves over to our Master, we should then lapse into inaction, waiting for Christ to move us instead of moving ourselves, but rather that we should report for duty, saying as Paul himself said on the Damascus road, “What shall I do, Lord? . . .” (Acts 22:10) and setting no limits to what Christ by his Spirit through his Word may direct us to do. This is activity! Again, being “led by the Spirit of God” (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:18) is not passivity.
The Christian’s motto should not be “Let go and let God” but “Trust God and get going!”
Paul’s meaning is not that we should do nothing till celestial promptings pop into our minds, but that we should resolutely labor by prayer and effort to obey the law of Christ and mortify sin (see Gal. 5:13–6:10; and Rom. 8:5–13, to which v. 14 looks back). This too is activity! Surely we need not go further. The point is plain. Passivity, which quietists think liberates the Spirit, actually resists and quenches him. Souls that cultivate passivity do not thrive, but waste away. The Christian’s motto should not be “Let go and let God” but “Trust God and get going!” So if, for instance, you are fighting a bad habit, work out before God a strategy for ensuring that you will not fall victim to it again, ask him to bless your plan, and go out in his strength, ready to say no next time the temptation comes. Or if you are seeking to form a good habit, work out a strategy in the same way, ask God’s help, and then try your hardest. But passivity is never the way, and the overtones of passivity in Keswick teaching (“don’t struggle with the matter yourself, just hand it over to the Lord”) are unbiblical in themselves and hostile to Christian maturity.
Passivity, which quietists think liberates the Spirit, actually resists and quenches him.
Poor Pastoral Advice.
As pastoral advice, Keswick teaching is disastrous. This fourth failure is the most pathetic of all, particularly in light of the fact that the teaching was developed to bring pastoral help. The unreality of its passivity program and its announced expectations, plus its insistence that any failure to find complete victory is entirely your fault, makes it very destructive. I know this; I have been at the receiving end of it. The quickest way, I think, to make my point here is to share that experience, so let me quote some paragraphs in which I once described (in the third person) my struggles as a new Christian in Oxford in 1945 and 1946.
His perplexity was this: he had heard and read his teachers describing a state of sustained victory over sin. It was pictured as a condition of peace and power in which the Christian, filled and borne along by the Holy Spirit, was kept from falling and was moved and enabled to do things for God which were otherwise beyond him. To yield, surrender and consecrate oneself to God was the prescribed way in. . . . But the student’s experience as he tried to follow instructions was like that of the poor drug addict whom he found years later trying with desperate concentration to walk through a brick wall. His attempts at total consecration left him where he was—an immature and churned-up young man, painfully aware of himself, battling his daily way, as adolescents do, through manifold urges and surges of discontent and frustration . . . it all seemed a long way from the victorious, power-packed life which those Christians were supposed to enjoy, who by consecration had emptied themselves of themselves.
But what should he do? According to the teaching, all that ever kept Christians from this happy life was unwillingness to pay the entry fee—in other words, failure to yield themselves fully to God. So all he could do was repeatedly reconsecrate himself, scraping the inside of his psyche till it was bruised and sore in order to track down still unyielded things by which the blessing was perhaps being blocked. His sense of continually missing the bus, plus his perplexity as to the reason why he was missing it, became painful to live with, like a verruca or a stone in your shoe that makes you wince with every step you take.
However, he happened to be something of a bookworm, and in due course he stumbled across some reading which became a lifeline, showing him how to deal with himself as he was and enabling him to see that thing he had been seeking as the will-o’-the-wisp that it is. . . . A burned child, however, dreads the fire, and hatred of the cruel and tormenting unrealities of overheated holiness teaching remains in his heart to this day. Now I was that student, and the books I read were volumes 6 and 7 of the works of the Puritan John Owen (Goold’s edition) and J. C. Ryle’s Holiness. . . .21
J.I. Packer, Keep In Step With The Spirit, 145, 150-158
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