Thinking about the Keswick Theology

I grew up in a church influenced by the Keswick movement. I early on rejected it, particularly when I came across the Puritans who were for me an example of both holiness, sound theology and honesty about the nature of spiritual experience, i.e., that the Christian struggles with sin until the day he dies and overcomes by a persevering faith that sweats, works, and costs.

Keswick is the name of the place in England where conventions were held focusing on the “deeper Christian life.”Go to Wikipedia for a decent review of the movement. Also Kevin DeYoung has posted on his blog a reflection on JI Packer’s flirtation with the Keswick movement and his ultimate rejection of it. It’s basic assertion is that while justification is through faith alone so is sanctification. In other words, as justification comes to the Christian immediately upon belief, so, too, in a second work of grace, entire sanctification can come to a Christian through faith alone.

Some of its most popular expressions are Watchman Nee, Stuart Briscoe, Columbia Bible College and Seminary, Robertson McQuilken, the ever popular book, The Christian’s Secret of A Happy Life by Hannah Whiteall Smith, and the enduringly popular Keswick Conference center in New Jersey.

The appeal of the movement is the frustration of the Christian with his slow progress in sanctification, growth (or lack thereof) in holiness. There is real suffering and pang of conscience in the Christian who recognizes how far he is away from that full Christlikeness to which he aspires and which the New Testament teaches is his birthright. What a Christian does with that frustration can determine whether he will self-destruct or harness that frustration in a way that leads to a deeper life with Christ. The Keswick movement faces this reality and promises the Christian a better way, a way to total victory and a faith rest in Christ never to be disturbed.

This is the way of faith, of simply believing to be true what God says of us and “reckoning ourselves dead to sin.” Of course, that is just the rub. What does the Bible mean by “dead to sin” and “reckon.” At times the Keswick movement appears to be a “mind over matter” movement, a positive thinking ideology which rightly entered into keeps the Christian at such a high plane of living that victory over sin is a natural overflow of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The struggle has ceased. The life has been surrendered. Now all is at rest.

This can be contrasted to that view which more historic Christianity asserts – the Ephesians 6 model of an alert life that is in constant battle mode until the end of life or the coming of Christ. In this life there are moments of intense suffering and pain, Gethsemane-like experiences which are crushing and a never-to-be-left-behind aspect of Christ-following. It is this model which I believe to be the one that is more fair to the biblical data as well as to the actual Christian experience.

And yet!!! Christians in the midst of the fight against sin, the flesh and the devil can develop a “gee, aint’s it awful” mindset which accepts a low level of Christian living and diminished expectations of what Christ can actually do in our hearts. Before long the Christian is accepting “falling” as normative and “winning” as the exception and the not often expected. In this way, the “deeper Christian life movement” has an appeal and hold out a promise that is dear to the believer – Christ is Lord and powerful over all that opposes His kingdom.

A healthy Christian life is not a balance between the deeper Christian life movement and the historic position of the church. For the Keswick movement is wrong and at key points decidedly unwise in its interpretation of the biblical data. It should be simply enough to maintain the historic view of the church when it comes to sanctification (a never to be completed in this life struggle against sin) but to be careful to give to the promises of God their full weight and motivational power.

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