Kevin DeYoung and John Piper on the Pursuit of Holiness (Part 2)

I just wrote a blog last night, it isn’t published yet on urging pastors and everybody to, when they say, “I am loved by God,” to ask, “What do you mean? What does that mean? What’s good about that? What’s good about that?” And I have this scary suspicion that it’s just, “I really feel good when I’m loved.” I say, “But wait a minute, what’s the gift? What’s he doing? What is love doing for you?” And the answer is, you get God.

He suffered for us once, the righteous for the unrighteous that he might bring you to God. And if I could get people pushed through justification and through propitiation and through expiation and through redemption and through reconciliation to the point to just say loved, accepted leaves this big emptiness. To what end? And the Bible answer is so that you can know God, enjoy God, be with God, walk with God. And as soon as you go there, I think then all the pleasing God pieces make more sense.

Let me go another direction. If, in fact, we’re at the judgment and we know that there must be evidence that our new birth was real, our faith was real, our union with Christ was real and therefore our justification was real. And that’s the public display of this internal unseen faith and union with Christ. If we know that that must happen, what becomes of assurance? I was just on the phone call that you were on, and I won’t give any names here, but we both know that the critique of some views of justification is that it leads to antinomianism and “Do what you want, you’re justified, now you can live like the devil.”

And we’re saying not only shouldn’t you, but if you do, you weren’t saved. You’re going to be damned if you live like the devil if you have no evidence, zero evidence in your life, unlike the thief on the cross who had a little bit of evidence and that’s all he needed. What becomes of assurance? How do I know I’ve got enough evidence?

I say two things. One, I think Scripture gives us several different indications for assurance. I think 1 John was written to provide assurance. And I think there’s basically a theological test: What you believe about God. There’s a social test: Do you love your neighbor? And then there’s a test, an ethical test: Do you keep God’s commands?

And I think at different times and different people, you need to steer people who are especially introspective at times to say the gospel and cling to Christ. But Peter says, “Make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10). So there is a place to look at your life as evidence for it. So the first thing I say is there are different ways in which I think scripture means to give us assurance. And I think evidence and godliness is one of those.

The second thing, which may sound paradoxical given the title of the book, I think many, many Christians perhaps in particular Reformed Christians, do not feel like they have permission to find evidence in their life and are robbing themselves of assurance. Second Corinthians 13, Paul says, “Examine yourselves to see if you’re in the faith” (2 Corinthians 13:5).

What’s fascinating is when you look at that in the context Paul’s dealing with, people are attacking his apostleship. “You all are the mark of my apostleship” (1 Corinthians 9:2). And so at that point, the conclusion of his letter, the assumption is the Corinthians will find themselves to have passed the test thereby corroborating his apostleship.

So that’s why he says, “Unless you’re not in Christ,” so he expects, “Examine yourselves and I’m assuming you’re going to pass the test.” I think many of us hear that we think, “I couldn’t pass the test.” Or just another example, whenever we do elder training or we talk about eldership and you go through the qualifications, Timothy and Titus, the guys always say, “Man, nobody can live up to this.”

And I get that and I’m thankful for it on one level. You don’t want someone to say, “I nailed that fifteen years ago.” We all feel inadequate. Yet Paul gave the requirements thinking somebody meets them. So, I just wonder if part of the reason why we’re scared to look at evidence for assurance as we don’t feel like we could possibly note that evidence in our lives. It wouldn’t be a mark of piety if we said, “I do think I pass the test by God’s grace and I have many things.” So we equate holiness with perfection, and when you do that you never have assurance and you just give up on holiness.

Do you think that maybe one of the reasons for that hesitancy to recognize any evidences of Spirit-wrought holiness in us is a failure to understand the seriousness of our sin? And here’s what I have in mind: If we’re dead, if we were dead and can produce nothing of any spiritual value apart from the Holy Spirit, then any good is evidence.

And I think people have a kind of Pelagian or semi-Pelagian notion that “I could produce a little good on my own. And so I can’t be sure that it’s really good.” When in fact any truly spiritual action, any desire for Jesus, for Jesus, not just his gifts is an amazing work of the Spirit. You can’t even say “Jesus is Lord,” apart from the Holy Spirit, Paul said (1 Corinthians 12:3). I think he probably said that to provide that kind of test.

Yeah, I should put that in the book. That’s good.

Here’s my bottom line on assurance and tell me what you think. Once I’ve said just what you said, namely that you really should, biblically, look for attitudinal affectional and behavioral evidences that the Holy Spirit is at work in your life. You are the temple of the Spirit. He is at work. You are united with Christ. He is shaping you. You should be aware of those and be encouraged when you see them. Certain personalities, at least, will always come back and say, “Yeah, but how can I be sure it’s enough?” And I understand that logically they can go there with me.

So I wind up back at Romans 8:15–16 that “the Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we have the children of God.” And I agree with Edwards on this. This is not a voice speaking in my ear. You are a child of God, you really are. That’s circumventing holiness entirely in the whole process. But it is an unquantifiable gift that as you lay your head on the pillow at night with your C-minus day, D-plus, you feel “I’m his; I’m his because he’s my Father.” Because it says there when we cry “Abba Father,” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we’re the children of God. Is there another ground beneath that one?

No, I would just add if we don’t have that — Wayne Grudem in the essays for your book, that great chapter on all of the language of pleasing God and one of his points is we ought to go through life feeling like we are pleasing to our Father. Not just in an imputation sense, but also in an obedience sense. And I would just add the piece that assurance has to be a community project. I mean because some people hear this and I know because I have dear brothers and sisters that I love and they’re just like that. They read Edwards or the Puritans and they get depressed. I mean the soul searching, they do that naturally.

So you have to tell people, “Don’t look for evidence from Tuesday to Wednesday. Don’t look at it from a week. You got to look over, ‘How’d you do the last year?’ And not, ‘Do you feel holy?’” Because I mean everyone always says, and it’s true, the closer you get to God, the farther away you see that you really are. So the holiest saint is going to be more aware of his sin than the most immature new believer is. So you’re going to have that experience. So you need to look not just where you are but your trajectory. And you need to look not just over days but years.

And then you need to look not just yourself but others. And that’s hopefully if there’s a functioning elder board, one of the things the elders do whatever they can bind and they can loose. And you say there are ten godly men here who have authority from Christ and they deemed that I’m a member of his body.

In the few minutes we have left, let’s dig in just a little bit to the dynamics of how godliness happens. Where does it come from? So I have been born again, I have the Holy Spirit. The confession says that I’m justified by faith alone apart from works, but faith that justifies is never alone but always accompanied by the graces. And I want to say, “Why is it always?” That’s why I wrote Future Grace.

So in your mind, how would you say it? How do you get from saving faith in Jesus for justification and for the fulfillment of all of his promises to you in Jesus get from faith, which is being emphasized in the gospel focus to patiently picking up after your roommate again and again in college because they’re such a messy person. How do you get from there to kindness, and patience?

I’ll give you two answers. I’ll try to be brief. One of the chapters in the book, this is a hyphenated title you would like, “Spirit-powered, Gospel-driven, Faith-fueled Effort.” And I think all of those things are important. Spirit-empowered: How does the Spirit empower us for holiness? Well, he not only strengthens us in the inner being so we can actually do things we couldn’t do before. But the Holy Spirit is light. He exposes sin, he shows sin, he makes it distasteful to us. So, the Spirit empowers us.

Gospel-driven: So all the things we want to talk about, the gospel and justification and how gratitude and understanding that we don’t have to fear all of that. And then faith: the things you want, faith and future grace, believing the promises of God. How do you not take a second look when you walk through campus and you see a group of ladies here that you want to take a second look at and you shouldn’t. You think of Matthew 5:8. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God,” and you think “I want to see God more than that.” So, that’s faith.

And then there is effort and I think this is the part that trips people up. There’s just lots and lots of passages. “Make every effort,” Peter says, and you can’t just say it’s every effort to believe. It says, “Make every effort to add to your faith” (2 Peter 1:6). Strive for. Pursue. So, that’s one big category — all of those.

So what would be an example of that? I mean, you gave me the example of don’t look at the girls the second time because you want to see Jesus. And you’re going to not see Jesus so clearly if you keep looking at those girls so that you’re trusting that Jesus is satisfying. So now what’s an example of what effort?

I’ll give you one. I mean I walk in and my daughter and my wife are sitting on the couch and they’re watching a movie and I’m late and I thought we were going to do something together tonight. And one of them says, “We’re doing this now.” Now, at that moment I’m feeling self-pity, feeling, anger rise my heart. I’m feeling stuff. And I believe that by trusting Jesus, gospel-driven, whatever all those things were you said, I at that moment can say to my soul, “Don’t go there. Don’t go there. Don’t go to anger. Don’t go to self-pity. Stop that, Piper. Right now. Stop it.” I mean that’s a piece. And I’m basing this on: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12–13).

And I think that probably means not just kind of vague salvation, but you have been saved from anger. You have been saved from self-pity. Now, are you going to do that salvation? Are you going to act that salvation right now or not? And if I cave and I just say, “Ah, I can, it’s just overcome me right now. I’ve got these feelings, I can’t help them.” So at least in my life, that’s the cutting edge of effort. When I’ve done all my believing, all my gospel preaching to myself, all my calling upon the Holy Spirit, there remains a moment when the mind or the will can do something.

And we all do. We do. We preach, we get up to preach. But in this case, it’s just saying, and then mentally, willing, willing on the basis of all that gospel truth, not to be angry. Is that the kind of thing you means by effort?

Yeah, because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, “I worked harder than any of them” (1 Corinthians 15:10). Now he’s talking about his ministry. But he works harder. “Though not I, but the grace of God that is within me.” So we needn’t be afraid of saying hard work. So for me, my besetting sin at this stage in my life is being patient with my children. And so when they’re screaming, and when they’re not listening, and when they’re acting like sinful kids instead of how I want them to act, you’re right, you try to remember Bible verses and the gospel. But there is a moment where you do have to work hard not to do some things that you want to do.

And here’s the other big piece that I would throw in there. I think the New Testament ethic, if you had to just boil it down to one sentence, you could say, “Be who you are.” Be who you are. I mean, union with Christ. This is your identity.

I heard a story one time, it’s a great story, so I hope it’s true. But a pastor counseling a man struggling with same-gender attraction called up his pastor, “I’m going to go out to the bars again. I’m going to hit the gay scene again tonight. I’m going to do it.” And the pastor just said, “No, you’re not. That’s not who you are.”

Now, if you don’t have a robust doctrine of union with Christ, it sounds sort of like Star Wars. “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for. Just move on.” But if you have this robust doctrine of union with Christ, and I think that’s what Paul is unfolding in Romans 6, all of this: Do you know what happened to you objectively?” Puritans would always say your union with Christ is fixed, unalterable. But from that, you can grow in the communion with Christ. And that’s really what holiness is, is working from this union with Christ to grow in this communion with Christ.

One of the things that I sometimes hear in Romans 6, Paul anticipates this objection to the gospel. “Well, then we should sin that grace may abound.” And of course, that’s not the gospel. And people will say, “See, he responds to that grace with even more gospel,” which he does, but he goes on then he doesn’t just give them more indicatives. He also tells them, “So let sin therefore not reign in your mortal body. Do not present your members” (Romans 6:12–13). So, he’s telling them all these things that happened to them at the cross when they died to sin, happened in the empty tomb when they were raised with Christ, and now they have to do it. They have to make real the reality.

I just want to remind folks who only emphasize faith in the gospel, that they do make choices. They do. They decide when to get up, when to go to bed. They decide what words to say, what words not to say. And at those moments they are exerting a will. They are exerting a will. And we better have a way to define how that is either legal or gracious, either by faith, from faith, which is not from faith is sin, at that trigger moment where I’m deciding to punch you or not, kiss you or not, hug you or not, speak words of grace to you or not? I’m deciding, I’m doing it, I’m deciding.

Either we help people at that moment say that is coming from something and we explain the psychological dynamic of how it comes or we leave them in this vague land of “Just believe that you’re justified.” How? Because it in fact is not spontaneous in real life. We wish, we wish every decision were a merely spontaneous thing from a heart of purity. But in fact, we decide things. We choose things. And I’m just so jealous that we provide people with a way to talk about I am now going to make a choice to do a thing. And that choice to do a thing is guided and shaped and carried along by, I’m going to say, faith in God’s being there for me or something.

And Calvinists in particular, can’t be afraid, should not be afraid of the word “choice.” I think sometimes we are. “That’s an Arminian word.” But even the Canons of Dort say we are not sticks and stones that God throws. That’s why when people throw out the barb at Reformed people, “Well, your God is just a puppet master.” No, because that’s a form of external coercion, which is not what we believe. That’s not the way the causation of God’s sovereignty works. It is to renew us so that we will so that our wills are set free. So I actually make the decision, but it’s God working in me to renew me, to empower me to do that. So if we have this sort of just flat, omni-causal, God causes everything in the same way, it won’t help us with justification or sanctification.

Right. We need to stop. We’ve gone over time. But thank you for doing this. What would be a good way to end? Is there a note that, I mean some people are going to listen to this and they’re going to say, all those guys did was say, “Do, do, do.” And others are going to listen and say, “Too much gospel,” or whatever. What note should we strike at the end? How do you end your book?

I end my book with progress is possible, if you want to talk about that, but I’ll just talk.

That’s really good for me to hear at 65. I mean when I think about my marriage, when I think about my soul, I do tend to be fatalistic. I say, “Look, if I haven’t got it figured out by now, it ain’t going to get figured out. If my marriage isn’t going to get better, it isn’t ever going to get better. If my patience with my people, or whatever, it’s just not going to better.” And you’re ending on a note of, “There’s hope after 65.”

And I hope after 34.

That’s when I came to my church, 34. You’re just getting started. Just a kid.

I’m just getting started. That’s what they say.

What were you going to say?

One of the verses that struck me, you talk about ministry. I’m just finishing nine years in ministry, seven years at this church was 1 Timothy 4. We know 1 Timothy 4:16, “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching,” but previous to that, “practice these things immerse yourself in them. That is in speech, in conduct and love and faith and purity, devoting yourself to scripture, so pursuing these things so that all may see your progress.”

And there was part of that at first that was discouraging. I thought, “Man, they’re going to see in five years that this sermon I’m preaching this Sunday was not very good.” You get those — well, I get those comments. I don’t know with you, but “Man, your preaching has sure gotten better.”

I think that’s a compliment.

Thank you. What they used to say was, “Man, you’re good for being a young guy,” which sort of registered if you’re preaching like this in ten years, you stink. But right now it’s okay. But then I see, no, this is encouraging because you can think of this as God expects progress, which is true. But you can also think he promises and he allows progress. It’s okay that the John Piper at 65 is not going to be as good as the John Piper at 75 and the Kevin DeYoung at 34 is not the same as the Kevin DeYoung at 64, Lord-willing, as he works in us and gives this gift of sanctification.

So I want people, that’s how I close the book. I want people to walk away feeling like progress is possible. Repentance. I love this line from the Puritans. They said, “Repentance is the vomit of the soul.” And he used that line, I think Thomas Watson, because he said, “Vomit is the hardest thing your body does.” You don’t look forward to that. In the same way, that’s what repentance is, not just sort of, “I’m sorry, I’m not perfect.” But real repentance. The Puritans would say real repentance, not regret, but repentance, as is much a sign of grace is not sinning. So real repentance, real progress is possible because the one who calls you to it is faithful. And he will do it in Philippians 1:6, that “the one who began a good work and you’ll be faithful to complete it.” That’s the hope.

Why don’t you pray that for us and for the folks watching?

Father in heaven, you give us gifts, blessing, after blessing. And you say in your word that all of the blessings are ours in Christ. Our election is in Christ, reconciliation is in Christ, propitiation is in Christ, and our sanctification is in Christ that we will be holy and blameless before you. So work in us, which you have already promised to work. Help us to enact the miracle that you’ve already wrought in our lives through the new birth. Help us to choose moment by moment, day by day what you are working in us that we would will to do it and to choose it.

Give hope to anyone watching, listening this who is despondent, who has fallen into the same pattern of sin for the millionth time. May they know that they cannot exhaust your grace, that you oppose the proud, but you give grace to the humble. You will always give grace to the humble. So lead them to you in earnest repentance and help us to pursue hard after this holiness without which no one will see God. It is one of the reasons you have saved us, that we might be holy. So help us to pursue it, not in any sort of legalistic way, but in a way that is full of effort and hope and faith and gospel and spirit. And help us to help others to do it too. In Christ’s name, for his sake, in hope of his work, we pray. Amen.