Kevin DeYoung and John Piper on the Pursuit of Holiness (Part 1)

It’s September 7, 2011, and Kevin DeYoung is here with me in Minneapolis, and we’re going to talk, God-willing, about sanctification here. And one of the incentives for doing this is that not only is Kevin the pastor of University Reformed Church in Lansing, but he just finished a sabbatical, and the main project of the sabbatical, as I understand it, was trying to finish a book on sanctification. And the title, as least tentatively, is The Hole — H-O-L-E — in Our Holiness.

That’s right.

So, that’s one incentive for doing this, and then lots of blog discussions recently about sanctification and its relationship to faith and justification and gospel preaching. So, I’m not sure where this conversation will go. I’ve just got lots of questions here, and we decided he can go back and forth in whatever way is helpful. And we’ve both got our Bibles in front of us, so we’ll see where this goes.

So, I think what might get us started best is to say, and don’t talk for half an hour on this question, okay? What is holiness, and what’s the hole in it? So, in other words, what prompted the book, and what’s the gist of the book?

I’ll answer the second question first. I would say the hole in our holiness is that I don’t think we are thinking too much about holiness. First, and I’ll come back to that, but the first question, what is holiness, most simply people say it’s separation, it’s being set apart. God is holy, so we are to be holy because God is holy, so it’s God’s Godness, his purity, his difference from his creation. So, to be holy is most fundamentally to be like God.

And then because Jesus is the perfect image of God, it is Christlikeness. You could also describe it as keeping the commandments because Christ kept the commandments perfectly. So, simply to answer, holiness is godliness.

And the hole in our holiness, and the subtitle at least that we’re working with right now is filling the gap between gospel passion and the pursuit of godliness. So, if you have gospel passion, and I don’t at all assume that’s just a given, we can just sort of check that off. Everyone’s got that. We always need to work on that, preach the gospel. This is by no means saying, “You know what? We need a little less gospel.” Not that. But connecting that gospel passion and not being afraid to say, “You know what? I love the gospel of free grace, and I am pursuing holiness by God’s help with all of my might.”

I was really struck by, I think, Richard Lovelace. One of his books said Puritanism was a Reformed holiness movement. I would love for whatever God is doing with Reformed Christians in our day, that you could say the same thing.

So, when you say godliness, you have in mind practical kinds of attitudes and behaviors like?

Like I think if you look at the vice list and the virtue list in the New Testament, I think you get a pretty clear idea of what godliness, what holiness is. So, you go to the fruit of the Spirit. A holy person has love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. You could go to the opposite of that, and an unholy person is marked by sexual immorality and dissension and idolatry and adultery. You could compile a long list of these sorts of character traits for the holy person or not.

I think what sort of gets in our mind sometimes and trips us up is we think we have a list of taboos, some of which might be helpful but some of which may be dated and aren’t really appropriate. So, we hear holiness, and some people will immediately recoil from that and think, “Okay, I have a list about how long my hair can be or how long my beard needs to be or something.” Where holiness is much more of a character trait in the sort of person that you are in Christ manifesting his character.

So, the gap, filling the gap between gospel passion and pursuit of godliness, is that what you said?


So, your sense is that with the resurgence of gospel passion these days, which we both say is glorious, has come a fear of or indifference to or a failure to reckon with these character qualities, traits, behaviors, or attitudes that should be pursued, and something’s not going right here?

Yeah, and to give a few examples of where I see that, one would be I think there’s a sort of spiritual way in which we talk. Isaiah 64: “All our righteous deeds are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). You actually, this was very helpful to me, write about it in Future Grace, that we shouldn’t understand Isaiah as saying, “Every possible good thing you could do, God sneers upon it as a filthy rag.”

You would never say to your son, who of his own initiative mows the lawn, he’s eight years old, and he gets crooked lines, and you just look at it and say, “Filthy, dirty. I hate that. It means nothing to me.”

So, I think in an effort to come to grips with our own sin, we almost are too spiritual, if that makes sense, and we talk as if nothing I ever do could possibly be pleasing to God. “There is no real difference between me and someone who is godly.” We sort of level the playing field. “There is no distinction between different kinds of sins, different levels of maturity. It’s just all filthy rags; that’s all we have.”

And we sort of revel in that in a way that’s not helpful — not precise enough. If we say, “God, there’s nothing I could do as a justified Christian to make God more or less pleased with me,” you just have to say maybe that’s right.

I don’t think even a maybe. It doesn’t get a maybe.

Unless you’re talking about just the level of justification. I’m not less justified. But yeah, if you use the word “pleased,” then you don’t get a maybe.

Not with all the texts I see in the book. We should be pleasing, and we can be more or less pleasing to our Father, and he can be more or less upset with us and spank us.

Displeased with us. Right.

Yeah, you’re saying that disinclination to want to go there is one of the gaps here.

Yeah, one of the gaps. I think there’s a fear. And even in preaching, we want gospel-centered preaching. I believe that with all my heart. We don’t want moralistic therapeutic deism. We don’t want sermons that just tell people here’s three steps to be better. But I feel like we end up pulling the punch on some texts that maybe need to land on you ought to feel convicted. There’s sin here. There’s holiness that you need the Lord to work in you and you need to strive after. But we’re afraid to land on the imperative.

So, we pull the punch at the very end and say, “You know but it doesn’t really matter because Jesus died for your sins.”

Well, this is huge to me. I may go too far, but I’ve said I don’t preach salvation sermons. Every sermon’s a salvation sermon. I’m always getting the saints saved, meaning perseverance is a community project and all of the Bible is an instrument in keeping me in the faith. So, my question, when you say “needs to pursue,” is holiness sanctification change in moral behavior necessary for final salvation?


You think that’s underplayed? I agree totally. Would you go to a text?

There’s a lot. The one that people usually go to is in Hebrews: “Without holiness, you’ll not see the face of God” (Hebrews 12:14). And I think it’s talking about not just positional holiness — yes, that’s true — but a progressive holiness.

Pursue peace and holiness. Pursue it.

Right. This is something that you need to demonstrate in your life. So many texts, first Corinthians 6. Here are character traits. If you are marked by these, you will not inherit the kingdom of God. You won’t. So, as Protestants, we’re very nervous about that. It’s probably good that we get a little nervous, but lots of Christians that come before us and have balanced these things, maybe that’s not the right word, but put them together in the right way.

So, say that a key to putting together standing before the judgment seat of Christ knowing that there is a holiness without which I won’t get into heaven and I’m still justified and declared perfect in his sight by faith alone apart from works of the law. Give us a sketch on how people should think about that. How does that work?

I would say the keyword is evidence. There needs to be some evidence that this grace that has gone in you has flowed out of you. I’m cribbing from things I’ve heard you say even before about the book and the books in Revelation. Your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life. That’s unalterable. There’s going to be a book; there’s books that are open too. You might have a small book, like the thief on the cross, but there needs to be something that demonstrates faith worked itself out in love. In John Piper, in Kevin DeYoung, there is a faith here that worked itself out in love. It’s not grounded in that working out of love, but there needs to be evidence of it.

Any idea in your head why God would set it up this way? Why not just say, “Justification by faith alone, and if you have any holiness, that would be good, and if you don’t, it doesn’t matter”?

Well, it brings God glory when he transforms sinners, brings him glory to save them, but also to transform them. And to reckon that what he has reckoned us to be is in the process of becoming that. So that there is a process that’s finalized in glorification.

Like J.C. Ryle, his book on holiness is just a classic, one of my favorites, and he talks about how you’re not fitted for heaven without some measure of holiness. Why would you want to be in heaven? The people there are all holy. Their conversation is all holy. Their thoughts are all holy. So, if you have no interest in holiness here, why in the world would you want to be in heaven? It’s not your people. It’s not your style.

I’d love to go there.

Can I ask you a question?

Yeah, if you don’t get me too far off track.

Okay. So, Future Grace, which I found helpful, here’s a critique I’ve heard, and you probably heard it. I don’t agree with it, but I want to hear your response. John Piper in Future Grace doesn’t go back enough to the cross. It’s not centered enough on the once-for-all; it’s not really on the gospel and the gospel itself. The work of Christ on the cross, that should be sufficient to fuel, anchor, ground all of this pursuit of holiness. Why don’t you do more to go back to the cross?

Yeah, well, it could be true. It could be that proportionately, I should say more. I don’t know about proportion, but theologically, my defense would be that the way the New Testament functions is that our acceptance and all of God’s future blessings are purchased decisively at the cross. “He who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all” logic (Romans 8:32).

So, that rhetorical question there is really a “therefore.” “Therefore, he will most certainly give us all things.” And all things are every blessing imaginable in the future, all that God is for me and Jesus, and all the help to get there is bought there. So, theologically, I’m totally dependent on the past. And I am, not to overstate it, totally oriented on the future. Meaning, he bought this. I live my next minute. I live my next minute. I need God’s help to finish this interview, and my trust that he will give it will have a character-shaping effect on how I approach it. I won’t be as wrapped up in me and what people are thinking about me because now I’ve got this total confidence that the blood-bought assistance in two minutes from now will be there. That’s the way I live my life.

So, that’s why the book sounds the way it does. The whole book has tried to defend that what the cross bought for me in the assistance of the Holy Spirit and all the guaranteed future blessings are, I want to say, the key to holiness. And I don’t know, I haven’t read your book yet. I’ve got it and I’ve snooped around it, but I don’t know what you’re going to say. I love that section where you list forty motivations. I say, “Whoa, this is biblical. I like this. Now, how do they all relate to each other?”

Did I answer enough on the Future Grace thing? The gospel is founding my life everywhere but my orientation is on what it bought for me. It bought God for me. And he shows up and he will finally show up decisively.

And the reason why I love that answer, and the book goes to, one of the chapters. I have forty reasons, forty motivations for holiness. And I think I could have put a hundred in there, but had forty. And I think because Christ, he’s a Good Physician. He gives different medicines for us. He knows what this person needs as a medicine, as an elixir, to motivation to holiness may be different than this person.

And so part of my concern, and you never say too much gospel, but if we make it sound like the only thing you could tell a person to motivate them to holiness is Jesus died for your sins. Now, this is going to sound wrong, but it’s very biblical. That’s not the only motivation. There are all sorts: the example of Christ, future grace, fear of punishment, that you might be won over by your neighbors.

I think it’s interesting, reading the Heidelberg Catechism, when it asks, “What are the motivations for doing good deeds?” I think it gives two of them. Out of gratitude, that’s expected, and then, third, that you might win over your neighbors. “Whoa. Are we allowed to say that?” Well, yeah. That’s a biblical from Matthew 5 and 1 Peter 2.

I wonder, this just came to my mind, whether that scenario you just painted, where the only motivation is to say Christ died for you, you’re accepted, you’re loved, you’re justified. I want to ask, so what? I have a feeling that the people for whom that feels enough, the biggest obstacle in their life is the absence of that. That’s not the biggest obstacle in my life. The biggest obstacle in my life is the fear of tomorrow. That’s just the way I’m wired. Fear of what’s going to happen to me tomorrow.

Then they would say, “Oh, that’s included. That’s included. If you’re justified then you can’t.” I’m saying, “Yeah, draw out about fifty of those. Draw out about fifty of those.” In other words, the reason I’m forgiven, accepted, loved is that it has to do with these forty things and all the blessings that flow to me, especially Jesus and his present fellowship, offering. I will help you, I will strengthen you, I will hold you up with my victorious right hand. I go into every day counting on promises that he bought.

The fact that I’m accepted and forgiven and justified is simply the starting place for me. I want to know, yes, I’m accepted, I’m loved, I’m justified, now what? I get Jesus, and I get him every day, and I get all of his strength, all of his help, all of his wisdom, and all of his glory that satisfies my soul so that I can move into situations.

Yeah, well, tell me what you think about this. I hear some people saying, and I try to understand why they’re saying it, but they’ll say things like, “At the heart, everyone’s a legalist,” or “Everyone, the root of all their sin is really an effort at self-justification, so we need justification by free grace to sever that root of the desire to self-justify.”

And I hear that, it reminds me of David Powlison talking about some of the needs theories in psychology that everyone is just an empty love bucket and they just need more love and more acceptance. I remember him saying, “My bucket’s really laziness. I feel loved; I like to be lazy.” So, just telling me I’m loved is not the only thing that’s going to help.

And so I wonder if we’re not dealing with all of the Scriptural motivations in categories because that’s not the only thing that motivates people. And if we preach to people thinking deep down the bottom of what you need to hear is that God loves you. Yeah, we need to hear that, and there are some other things that the Bible tells us, like if you continue down this path, God is going to be very displeased with you. That’s also part of the motivation.