Stump the Chump:
Questions church people ask me just to watch me squirm
Q: What About Kevin DeYoung and Hebrews 12:14?
This one comes up often in my circles – the pietistic quadrant of evangelicalism. Kevin DeYoung’s one liner on Hebrews 12:14 is often in rotation within conversations about sanctification. This is partly because he writes more on personal holiness than any other contemporary author. He’s our Wesley. This particular quote is his mic drop moment. It came up again most recently after DeYoung’s lecture at the 2016 Together for the Gospel conference where he doubled down on his premises. I thought I would respond here for future reference.
In fairness to DeYoung I went back and listened to his 2016 T4G lecture when he referenced this verse again. (Confession – I was in Louisville for T4G when DeYoung delivered his address, but had skipped out to enjoy the Elk Burger at Proof on Main for lunch. I highly recommend it.) Usually, his pithy commentary is offered without context. It’s a bromide. And, if you isolate it – DeYoung might be accused of fear mongering by letting us suspect that sanctification is an additional ground of our justification. So, just to be sure, I listened to the lecture.
And, of course, he did clarify himself on the above concern. So, technically he’s good. And also, DeYoung is a good communicator so his points are not unclear. I did not agree with him on a few issues. This includes the second half of his sermon where he presents the Epistle of First John as a series of tests for salvation. How can it be otherwise, right? This argument for the book is engrained into evangelical thinking. Personally, I think this approach to the letter is wrongheaded and misses the over all tone and purpose. You can interact with my perspective here.
Also, to be honest, (this preferential… so feel free to ignore it) as I listened to DeYoung I noticed a recognizable tone. He comes off as a sort of hall monitor for evangelicalism. It sounded as if – and I could be wrong – the operational assumption is that DeYoung (along with others on the panel) is there to straighten the rest of us out and keep us in check. Generally speaking these coalitions – which are a strange phenomenon within Evangelicalism – become a pseudo-authority bequeathing influence to men over local churches they don’t rightfully possess. I think coalitions like T4G are useful in the same way Home Owners Associations are – they are necessary evils. If you didn’t have them your neighbor would have his car up on blocks in his yard. Can you say “Furtick”? But, I digress…
One last thing by way of context. The lecture itself did reveal a straw man in DeYoung’s argument. Apparently, there is a group out there who are more than suggesting that sanctification is optional in the Christian life. As a result, his entire lecture was aimed at establishing sanctification as a normal part of the Christian life. In this way he was “preaching to the choir.” Personally, I’m unaware of any group actively repudiating sanctification as a necessary part of the Christian life who we consider orthodox. Given that sanctification results from sovereign initiative (Romans 8:28-30) and is inevitable for the same reason, you’d have to deny the Bible to do so. It does involve man, but it is ultimately a work of God. Obviously, many groups within the confessionally reformed ranks disagree with DeYoung’s pietistic approach to sanctification, but I’m certain there is unity as to its existence. Point is – he never actually proves the presence of this rebel faction. He only alludes to it in setting up his argument. What you end up with is a helpful lecture on an obvious point – sanctification follows justification and precedes glorification. I don’t think this is in question.
Back to the Question
Okay, back to the quote itself. If you’re unfamiliar with this discussion let’s catch you up. First, here’s the passage from Hebrews 12:14,
“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
And then… here’s DeYoung’s famous statement on the verse. His mic drop moment, if you will.
“I would stake my entire ministry on the fact the author of Hebrews is not talking about positional holiness.”
DeYoung’s statement is viewed by some as a sort of theological Gordian Knot. “How are you going to explain this pastor?” I think they imagine the comment represents some irreconcilable dilemma. A bombshell observation. Of course, this discussion (the one underneath the quote) is not new at all. The relationship between justification and sanctification has been puzzling Protestants for fifteen hundred years. It’s part of who we are. Of course, Roman Catholics have no such dilemma here because the two (justification and sanctification) are combined into one ongoing event. So long as we keep justification ahead of sanctification and/or justification does not result from sanctification, we remain Protestant. So, in this sense, it’s nothing new.
Most times, however, DeYoung’s conundrum is offered up out of confusion, “What in the world does he mean?” Or even out of despair, “Pastor, is he really saying I won’t get to heaven unless I try hard. How hard is hard enough?” These questions seem to be in line with the over all notion projected. He’s teasing out a question. “How much personal holiness is enough personal holiness to have assurance about the future?” (Of course, no one save Jesus ever stepped up to answer this question – absolute holiness.) I think this a fair assessment of the standard reaction to the quote.
My own reply to the quotation is purposefully dismissive. This is because I think it is mainly melodramatic in nature and a false dilemma at that. You end up trying to defend theological ground that the Reformation already took. In my mind the quote is much ado about nothing because there is no real issue to resolve. My response goes something like this,
“Well, I’d be willing to stake DeYoung’s ministry on the fact that the author of Hebrews is not saying what you think DeYoung is implying.”
I agree with DeYoung. Of course the author of Hebrews is not talking about positional holiness (justification) in 12:14!! The author of Hebrews cannot mean this because the Bible does not teach it. Never does positional holiness (justification) result from striving in this life (sanctification). So, yes, I’d also stake my ministry on the fact that justification does not result from sanctification. That’s a safe bet. The safest actually. Positional holiness is not a linear event (works). It’s punctiliar (imputation). It’s a gift of God’s grace and comes to us through faith and cannot be wrought by striving, or works. The Bible is only a little clear on this.
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)
We Are Incurably Arminian
Over all, what’s most striking is how Arminian DeYoung sounds when dealing with the matters of personal holiness and sanctification. (He’s an ordained reformed pastor.) Whether intentional, or not the quote stirs up uncertainty regarding the classic reformed category of assurance. He’s intentionally ambiguous for effect. I think you’re supposed to wonder exactly what he means. “Does he mean my effort at personal holiness is part of my justification?” Or, “Does he mean the struggle in personal holiness is a to be expected part of the Christian experience between here and eternity?” Or, “How much holiness is necessary to be certain I’ll see the Lord?” This is where the intentional ambiguity comes in. Ironically, a chapter in the Bible that encourages us to “run the race” by faith in Christ ends up sounding more like “run for your life.” DeYoung makes a similar argument in his most popular work on the subject.
“On the last day, God will not acquit us because our good works were good enough, but he will look for evidence that our good confession was not phony. It’s in this sense that we must be holy.” – The Hole in Our Holiness, p. 29
There is so much wrong with the above quote it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s beyond confusing. That is unless you’re Arminian. Then it makes perfect sense. At the least it’s far removed from a reformed articulation of justification, sanctification and vindication. Consider the implications of his statement regarding the nature of God and His decree. Will God really need to make an inventory of our good works because He is unsure of our status as believers (“phony”)? What of predestination and union with Christ? Ultimately, the above comment puts us back under the covenant of works. We work hard here in our pursuit of godliness so that God may be convinced of our status as believers in the future. This makes striving a part of the ground of our acceptance. Point is, this sounds like basic Wesleyan Arminianism.
What’s interesting is that this tendency – to retreat to Arminianism in the midst of theological tenstion – is typical of evangelicalism – even the Calvinistic quadrants. Cornelius Van Til (referencing B.B. Warfield) describes this tendency in his work Christian Apologetics.
Non-calvinistic protestants, frequently spoken of as evangelicals, have conceived of “the operations of God looking to salvation universalistically” in order to leave room for an ultimate decision on the part of the individual human being… There are differences among evangelicals but, in the last analysis, these differences are merely as to whether God approaches the individuals by means of a wider or narrower species. The final issue is always left up to the individual. – Christian Apologetics p. 29
His point? Evangelicals are inherently Arminian – even those with Calvinistic leanings. They will inevitably revert back to the will of man and not the sovereignty of God when dealing with paradox, or theological dilemma. It is always a choice between autonomy and sovereignty. Usually, it’s the former. We are either preserving man’s will, or putting pressure on it. We are reluctant to resolve these matters by resting completely in the sovereign purposes of God and the mystery that surrounds it. That is to say, we will by a bend in our theological frame always go towards man and not God when we take our hands off the wheel. As Warfield made clear we are most consistently not “particular” and most obviously “universal.” Our Arminian traits – again even among those who claim Calvin as an ally – are the inevitable effects of Revivalism in the modern church. Of course, you could go all the way back to the Synod of Dort in tracing this thread. And even further back to Pelagius. And even back further to Socrates. Eventually you get to Adam. That struggle to preserve man’s autonomy is in our DNA. If the right hand is Arminianism and the left hand is Calvinism then we are right hand dominate. When the struggle is tossed at us we innately reach up with the right.
Pick any tension within soteriology and you’ll immediately see what Van Til means. How do you resolve the painful strain of particular redemption (Christ died as a substitute for the elect only) and the universal offer of the Gospel? Do you allow the two – Sovereignty and human responsibility – to stand together with the understanding that one (agency) fits within the other (determinism)? No. You resolve it by creating a “four point” Calvinistic system (otherwise known as Amyraldianism) in order to lessen the offense towards Arminian leaning evangelicals. What of the incipient nature of “easy believism” within evangelicalism? Do you do as Paul did in Romans 6 and press us deeper into the reality of sovereign grace by describing our rescue by one Lord from the domain of another (sin and death) via divine fiat? No. You turn to will of man. You create an impossible scenario where dead men must by the power of their own will make Christ Lord. We choose him. He does not rescue us. What about the pursuit of holiness in the Christian life? Which is DeYoung’s concern. Do you return to the “golden chain” of Romans 8:28-30 and maintain that sanctification necessarily follows justification as a result sovereign regenerating grace? Do you explain that sanctification is as certain as glorification because they are ultimately the work of God’s grace. No. As is evidenced by DeYoung, you place the burden upon the will of man by creating uncertainty and fear. “It is in this sense that we must be holy.”
It is this last category – transformation – that our Arminian bent most often manifests itself. Always with sanctification it seems we are losing our Calvinistic minds. The degrees of sanctification within each life may vary (1Thess 5:14), but sanctification exists within each regenerate life. There is no exception here. If it does not exist there is no regeneration. In calvinism it’s either or. As Loraine Boettner wrote in his classic work, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, “The mere presence of faith, no matter how weak it may be, provided it is real, is a proof of salvation.” In other words, if we are consistent we must admit that initial faith is a sign that sanctification is under way. Again, when we are consistently reformed it is either or. Whenever we allow our inner Arminian to answer for us we create the uncertainty of maybe. Who knows? Be careful.
What’s is Hebrews Saying Then?
So what does Hebrews 12:14b mean then? Ironically, given DeYoung’s apparent point, the entire chapter is written to encourage both godliness (12:1-4) and assurance (12:3-11). A combination evangelicals find impossible to hold together. The point of the verse is as simple. The path between here and our future glory includes the pursuit of personal holiness. It will happen and it won’t be easy so buckle up!! We’re being prepared as we go. No one will see the Lord without this experience. So… lean into it with faith.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
This is not some fairytale pleasant experience, but one of hardship and striving against the flesh. But, this is not a threat. It’s a fact. We die hard deaths to self.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12:3-4)
Striving for holiness is part of our earthly experience on this pilgrimage toward our heavenly Father as we are united to Christ. It is not meritorious. As DeYoung says, “the author of Hebrews is not talking about positional holiness.” Thank God, or we would all be doomed. Hebrews is talking rather about the process of conformity that He applies to his children on their earthly journey. He puts all his children through this experience as an act of His love. This chastening is how we know He loves us.
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.
It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9 Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits land live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. (Hebrews 12:5-10)
No one enters into to the presence of the Lord (heaven) in the future without going through the experience of striving against sin in this life. It is His preparation of us for the future. Again, there is not a hint of merit here but only identity. Neither is there a hint of doubt. We are God’s sons because Christ has ransomed us. While it is not meritorious, it is transformational.
For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)
Earlier the author of Hebrews captured the same idea when he wrote,
Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:11)
I’d be willing to stake my entire ministry on the fact that the author of Hebrews is not talking about a good night’s sleep.