Our Holey Holiness: A Conversation with Kevin DeYoung

Holiness. Do you like that word? Or does it (off the record) sort of make you squirm?

By God’s grace we hear a lot these days about gospel-centered living, books, music, conferences, ministries, and churches. But how often do we hear about gospel-centered obedience? Is there, particularly among young evangelicals, an “enthusiasm gap” between our passion for the gospel and our passion for godliness?

That’s Kevin DeYoung’s concern, and he intends to “mind the gap” in his latest book, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness (Crossway, 2012). “The hole in our holiness,” DeYoung suggests, “is that we don’t really care much about it.” Readable and timely, clear and compelling, biblically saturated and pastorally sensitive, The Hole in Our Holiness is a fresh call to run after righteousness for the glory of the One who both demands and enables the pursuit.

I corresponded with DeYoung, senior pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan, about how personal holiness relates to mission, the dangers of excessive “idol hunts” and “spiritual temperature checks,” practical counsel for pastors, and more.


Churches focused on personal holiness don’t always seem to be “on mission.” How do we avoid repeating this mistake?

Two thoughts come to mind. One, we must remember that holiness is part of our mission. Christ calls us to make disciples, not just decisions (Matt. 28:19). Helping people obey Jesus and pursue holiness is an important aspect of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:20). Two, we must emphasize that the pursuit of holiness is really the pursuit of Christ. We aren’t simply trying to be better. We are working—as God works in us—to be more like Christ who is in us. In witness and in sanctification we are making Christ known.

You observe that, in many circles today, “We know legalism (salvation by law keeping) and antinomianism (salvation without the need for law keeping) are both wrong, but antinomianism feels like a much safer danger.” How did we get this way, and how do we correct without overcorrecting once more?

The last part of your question answers the first. We overcorrected. When we see churches swallowed up in moralism, self-helpism, and religion by law-keeping, we want to fight against that with all our Galatian might. But with any issue there is a tendency to be so afraid of the mistake we see clearly that we are a bit blind to other mistakes. One of the keys is teach people about the double grace (duplex gratia) of justification and sanctification. Both are gifts from God.

I know I must be holy in order to go to heaven, but isn’t Jesus my holiness? Isn’t his obedience enough for the both of us?

Yes, Jesus is more than holy enough for you. And even for me! It must be clear that the pursuit of holiness is not a pursuit of justification or eternal acceptance with God. The requirement for holiness is not one of merit but of evidence. We must have some grace coming out of our lives to show that grace has come in. Our good works don’t contribute one tiny drop to our acquittal. Jesus paid it all. And when we appropriate this gift by faith, our lives cannot be the same.

What are some dangers associated with lengthy “idol hunts” and frequent “spiritual temperature checks”?

There are several dangers. One, there are always more idols to find. We can always peel back another layer of motivation. It’s possible to deconstruct every act until we feel miserable about things that are truly—if still imperfectly—good. Two, we are not very good at checking our spiritual temperature. When we check too frequently (“Am I better today than yesterday?”) or when we check by ourselves (apart from Christian community and church leaders), we are apt to misdiagnosis. Those most holy will be most aware of their sins and probably too hard on themselves, while those who need a checkup the most will pass themselves with flying colors.

Why do you say the distinction between union and communion is practically and pastorally useful?

We need to help people see the difference between the two. Our union with Christ is fixed and secure. We cannot be more or less in union with him. We have been joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit through faith. But our communion with him allows for variance and degrees. Just as you can’t be more or less married, but can have a sweeter or sourer marriage, so it is with Jesus: the union with him has been eternally established, but it is still a dynamic relationship.

Scripture presents various exhortations which appeal to a wide range of motivations. As a pastor, how do you determine when it’s time to counsel someone (1) to run to the cross; (2) to run away from sin; or (3) to run for the crown?

I can’t think of a time when any of the three would be inappropriate. More generally, however, we need to know our people well to know whether they will get farther with pushing or pulling, with alarm or comfort, with a hug or a firm rebuke. One size does not fit all. The Word of God provides many different medicines for our motivation.

  • http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com Wesley

    Looking forward to digging into KD’s book – seems there’s much to take home from it! Appreciate this comment from the interview particularly, “Our union with Christ is fixed and secure. We cannot be more or less in union with him. We have been joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit through faith. But our communion with him allows for variance and degrees. Just as you can’t be more or less married, but can have a sweeter or sourer marriage, so it is with Jesus: the union with him has been eternally established, but it is still a dynamic relationship.”
    Spent a good deal of time working through this distinction between union with, and abiding in, Christ (the fruit of that here:http://outin2thedeep.wordpress.com/2012/08/24/on-union-with-christ/). The union must be established before the abiding can allow for this growth in holiness. I might guess that some may not see much growth in, or desire for, their personal holiness b/c they are not united with Christ to begin with.

  • Pingback: Healthy Pursuit of Holiness « Geoff Chapman()

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin

    I think one of the best ways to avoid becoming a “holiness church” (which leads either to ‘pride’, or ‘despair’) is to teach what the Bible teaches about holiness and that being that we are declared ‘holy’, for Jesus’ sake. We ARE holy.

    Now, we don’t look holy or feel holy, very often. But it is God’s declaration about us, in Christ. “We walk by faith, and not by sight.”

    NO religious ladder-climbing or holiness projects!

    • Kyle

      I’m confused, but maybe that’s because I’m reading you wrong. The Reformed understanding of sanctification is that the Spirit works in us that we might bear fruits of holiness. This holiness, the Westminster Confession of Faith says, is “true” and “personal.” That’s something other than declarative holiness. Any thoughts?

  • Barbara

    I cannot imagine anyone having met the Holy One of Israel and being indwelt by Him – His Spirit, His heart – and coming away from that with anything other than a deep, lifelong hatred for sin and a desire to be holy and free from it to the degree that one is willing to take up his cross daily and battle with it. We need this kind of encouragement for the battle-weary instead of the beatdowns from the merciless or the coddling from the ones who seem to know or care nothing for reverence. There is a huge difference between external morality, and holiness of heart and life, and that fact is too often lost. Thank you for this.

  • Erick

    I have been Protestant for many years but when you read the fathers of our faith, you learn that they never really struggled with this problem too much. Orthadox Christianity has always understood salvation as a process, like a race or a fight which is not yet done. Protestants are always trying to emphasize the completeness of our salvation at the moment of conversion. Therefore anything after conversion is ”evidence”. Like a crime scene, the crimes is past tense, and now since it is done we are looking for evidence.

    In Christ we are running a race which has warning of apostacy. In other words, one must always remember that they are saved if they continue

    • Mitchell Hammonds

      Continue what?

  • Derek

    Thanks, some of these points were really well-explained for me, and will provide food for thought at tonight’s small group!

  • Mariana

    Sin forsaken is one of the best evidences of sin forgiven . – JC Ryle

    • Mitchell Hammonds

      So you never struggle with the same sins?

      • Barbara

        Some. Many became nauseating to me from the early days of my walk with Christ, when He first saved me and gave me His Spirit – the sinful things I used to laugh at and enjoy became horrifying to me….and then He convicted me of breaking the very first commandment, from which all other sin flowed. But it was there, as I agreed with and was resigned to my own damnation but mourned not for that but rather for what I had been in the face of this glorious, perfect, holy God….that the cross was held out and there to my heart was the blood applied (as the song goes). I no longer love my sin – it is impossible for me to. There are many that He has given me victory over – enslavement to cigarettes, for example. 4 years smoke-free now, after 14 years as a 1-2 pack per day smoker. It was the first big war between the Spirit and the flesh. Convicted, repented, and granted strength for the battle. That’s the key – His Spirit in us gives us a right view of sin and a desire to kill it; and He gives us the strength and the means to do so. Some take longer than others, some in His sovereign mercy He uses to keep us humble and dependent on Him lest we think too highly of ourselves, some He has yet to reveal to us but we pray to have our hearts searched; sin is grievous and cause for mourning; being saved not only from the penalty of sin but also from its dominion over us is cause to rejoice and walk in victory because we are united with Christ.

        No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. – 1 Cor 10:13.

    • Thomas

      Yes, but is it the ONLY evidence? For instance, Samson’s lifestyle, including regularly sleeping with prostitutes, would fail the ‘test of faith’ in today’s Calvinist culture and yet he was justified by his work(s) (Hebrews) and this justification was tied to a single event that proved, ultimately, Samson’s trust in God for salvation and that he cared about His glory and NOT his lifestyle. Samson was sanctified, set apart, chosen by God in spite of himself.

      “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” If we follow Peter’s subsequent list then we will never fall, not that the failing of adherence to his list means we were never saved or will fall away ultimately but that obedience provides strength to assurance and spares us from “trials if necessary” and being “Saved as through fire”. Peter assumes his readers are saved, without question because they are “those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours”.

  • Mitchell Hammonds

    “When we appropriate this gift our lives cannot be the same.”

    The same as what?

    • Barbara

      The same as before.

  • http://theoldadam.com/ Steve Martin


    You’re never going to be a better Christian, than at the moment you were baptized.

    At that moment, God killed off the old sinner (Romans 6) and raised the new man in Christ (also Romans 6).

    We are declared righteous, for Jesus’ sake. We are set apart (made holy), for Jesus’ sake…and it’s not at all because of anything that we do, say, feel, or think.

    There’s real freedom in that. The kind of freedom that Christ died to give us (Gal. 5:1).


    The very first of the 95 theses is this:

    “The entire life of the Christian is one of repentance.”

    No spiritual ladder-climbing, sanctification/holiness projects. That is the kind of stuff that the Roman Catholics do. Leave all of that to them. We are free.

    • Kyle

      Your Lutheranism is beginning to show :) So Augsburg or Westminster? I think I’ll stick with Westminster.

  • Erick

    Salvation is past tense future sense and present tensed.

    Our salvation is not complete at conversion. As are justified and sanctified and washed, this includes the bath of regeneration, remission of sin, and the renewal of the inner man by the holy spirit. However Paul said that this gifts are true only if we continue in perserverance in holiness. Ultimately we are judged by our deeds, read the last chapter of revelation. Only the doers of the will of God enter the kingdom

    • Mitchell Hammonds

      I agree. There is an already and not yet aspect to the Christian life but if you’re assuming that it’s your personal holiness that continues to keep you in the faith then I have to chalk your belief up as very Roman Catholic.

      For those who are ‘baptized in Christ’s death’ the judgment has already come.

      It is not “our doing” of God’s will that gains our entrance into the Kingdom… but Christ’s alone… Imputation – “Great Exchange.”
      Christ gets our sin… we gain His righteousness. That’s all you’ve got.

  • Mike

    Calls to holiness have never incited in me a holy sinless or sin-less life I’ve read Owen, Edwards, Ryle etc., these teachings have brought me & many others great discouragement despair anger and frustration. I have sat under these teachings for years and they do not work! To teach that we are given grace to keep the law or live a holy life is I think cruel when we know its not working. Grace is directed at us in the gospel with no expectation on our part! I’m not anti-law-nomian its the law that crushes my life and grace in the gospel (faith in the Blood of Jesus on the Cross) ALONE has lifted it.IF I have found any deliverance from any sin in any way, and that, not much, it has been by obsessing, contemplating, and focusing on the the Gospel and not rooting out my sins making my self “accountable” or “mortification” or anything of that nature. I find great confort in the assurance of my salvation in the gospel of grace and that causes me to sin-less but not much less. Mike

  • http://thesesamehands.wordpress.com Alex Macdonald

    This is great! I’ve just started going through Titus with the youth group boys that I lead, and I reckon you’ve hit it on the head; that grace has appeared bringing salvation, but also teaching us in godliness. Growth in faith and knowledge of the truth lead to godliness. Praise God!

  • Pingback: No Reformation Without Sanctification – The Gospel Coalition Blog()

  • Pingback: No Reformation Without Sanctification()