Weakness Number Two: QUIETISM

The Keswick view of sanctification promotes quietism and passivity in the pursuit of holiness and argues that any effort or struggle on our part comes from the flesh and proves unhelpful. What is quietism? Quietism can be summed up in the popular slogan “Let go and let God.” It views any striving or struggle or energy exerted in our battle with sin as counterproductive to reaching true victory. Instead of struggling we need to passively and quietly allow God to take over and move through us to achieve this desired level of victory. A believer does this through surrendering instead of striving.  J.I. Packer describes this teaching by saying, “They (teachers of Keswick) censured all conscious exertion toward obedience as expressing self-reliance and all laboring to do right as ‘the energy of the flesh’; and they insisted that the way of faith is consciously to let Christ do things in and through you rather than try to do them yourself.”[1]   He also defines quietism as: “Quietism 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 selfhood so that divine life may flow freely through our physical frames.”[2]  Any descriptions of exerting energy in the pursuit of holiness are frowned upon as self-reliance instead of Christ-reliance and therefore sinful.  J. Robertson McQuilkin defines this by saying, “For Christians who are experiencing a subnormal life, reentry into normal, supernatural Christian living is through the gate of surrender. They may concentrate their energies on gaining a more accurate understanding or on experiencing some emotional sense of release or well-being, but such efforts will all prove fruitless until they make the choice to yield.”[3]  But we are left with a quandary. What does it actually mean to “yield” or “surrender”?  Proponents of the Keswick view affirm that there must be some type of emotional crisis that moves a person to make a decisive commitment to absolutely surrender to Christ.

While this sounds very spiritual and appealing to those who truly struggle with sin, quietism misunderstands Paul’s teachings in Romans 6:1-14. In Romans 6, Paul describes the reality of what every believer who has been justified by God’s grace experiences. Once we have been saved, we are no longer under the dominion or tyranny of sin. Sin is no longer our master. In essence, we have died to the rule of sin in our lives through our union with Christ and we now have a new identity. We will explore this truth more comprehensively in Chapter 12, but suffice it to say that as believers we are dead to sin’s bondage and imperial rule in our lives. This does not mean that we no longer struggle with sin as a presence in our lives. While its power and dominion have been destroyed through justification, the pollution and presence of indwelling sin still remains. As such, we are called to pursue holiness. Negatively we do this by not offering our bodies to indulge the flesh through our sinful passions. Paul writes, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” (Romans 6:12-13) Paul does not say that any struggle or striving to do this is sinful. He does not tell us to quietly and passively “let go and let God”, but instead gives a strong imperative for us to be active in not engaging the flesh. Sin has no dominion or power over us as an active enslaving force in our lives, but we must still vigorously come to terms with its presence in our lives as justified believers. Quietism assumes that any struggle or striving shows that we are not living in the victory of our freedom in Christ.  Andy Naselli writes,

Keswick theology chronologically separates justification from progressive sanctification by emphasizing a crisis of consecration subsequent to justification that enables genuine progressive sanctification. This essentially divides Christ as one whom people can “take” as their justifier without “taking” him as their sanctifier.”[4]

Again, Packer gives a helpful exhortation when he writes, “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.”[5]  For example, let us consider a young engaged couple, Lance and Ashley, who have made a serious commitment to remain sexually pure before marriage, but yet find themselves struggling as the wedding is only a year away.  In the Keswick teaching, they are told to just let go and let God and to surrender fully to Him so that they can be victorious over sin.  Taken to its most logical conclusion, here is how a potential scenario would play out. They find themselves in a darkened room watching a movie in the basement of their parent’s house while no one is home. The surge of hormones race in overdrive through their bodies and are faced with overwhelming temptation. They wonder if they have truly surrendered enough to God and let Him have His way in their relationship. In a fit of passion, they passively wait for God to come to their rescue and give them the victory over sin. When this help does not come in a way that they can “experientially feel” or through some inner promptings, they give in to fornication.  They respond in guilt and shame and wonder why God did not come to their rescue and give them the victory. They had consecrated themselves the week before during the altar call to “let go and let God” and they just knew that if they passively waited on Him to come to their rescue, He would show up and deliver them from temptation. The subtle weakness of this type of teaching is that it does include some actual truths from Scripture. God does help us in times of weakness. God does deliver us from temptation. God does provide a way of escape. But does He automatically do it when we passively “let go and let God”?  Michael Horton writes, “Many of us raised in evangelicalism remember the altar call and rededication, or summer-camp resolutions in this manner. A particularly sinful week could be atoned for by rededicating ourselves in a public meeting to ‘start over’ with Christ. This amounts to nothing less than a Protestant version of penance.”[6]

Instead of “letting go and letting God”, Lance and Ashley could have made some resolute commitments to not be alone together in a compromising situation in the first place. They should have come to grips with the overwhelming presence of indwelling lust in their hearts and developed a strategy to remain pure through active and diligent obedience.  They should have opened themselves up to an older married couple who could help hold them accountable through prayer and encouragement. Instead of seeing victory over sin as the ultimate aim, they should have been more concerned with obedience to God’s clear word on sexual immorality.

In an earlier post,  when I described my teenage struggle with lust, my entire focus centered on gaining victory over my sin. I wrongly assumed that I could continue to live in disobedience to God’s direct commands, because somehow He would give me the victory through my passivity. Lance and Ashley also believed this was the path to victory as well. As long as they fully surrendered to God and allowed Him to be Lord of their lives, they could put themselves in precarious situations in the hopes that He would then bail them out. Paul tells us very clearly in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 what God’s will is. He writes, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor,  not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.”  We obey God through abstinence before marriage and victory over sin is the byproduct of simple obedience.

Often the teachings of Keswick can sometimes be confusing because they focus on inner promptings and put an overemphasis on experience to the neglect of sheer obedience to God’s will. For example, if Lance and Ashley are tempted with sexual sin, do they need to wait for an inner prompting or subjective feeling to tell them to surrender in that moment and “let go and let God”?  Or do they determine beforehand to explicitly obey God’s commandments concerning sexual purity so that they do not need to rely on an inner promptings to tell them whether or not to move forward or slow down in their relationship.

In our next post we will see if “effort” is sinful….

[1] Ibid, 147

[2] Ibid, 155

[3] Five Views of Sanctification”, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1987), 171

[4] Andrew Naselli, “Let go and Let God? A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology” , 227

[5] Ibid, 157

[6] Michael Horton, “In the Face of God”, (Dallas, Texas: Word Publishing, 1996), 143


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