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Last week TGC posted a review of my Holiness book by Gavin Ortlund. I really like his father and his brother, so I suspect Gavin will be a friend of mine too when we meet someday. Next time he’s in Michigan, the Hot N’ Ready is on me. I am thankful for his articulate, thoughtful review.

After several kind words at the beginning of the article and one paragraph noting various strengths of the book, Ortlund spends most of the review highlighting various concerns. It doesn’t bother me that someone might critique aspects of the book—that’s usually what happens in a book review. But since the bulk of the review is negative, even if graciously and tentatively so, I’d like to briefly respond to his three lines of criticism.

1) Ortlund wonders if my arguments are, at times, directed toward generalized tendencies that have been “slightly exaggerated or caricatured.” He wishes I would have documented my opponents and “locked horns with concrete individuals, books, and statements.” He is right that I do not often footnote the general tendencies I am arguing against. This was by deliberate choice. I never intended for this to be a polemical book like Why We’re Not Emergent or even What Is the Mission of the Church? The impetus for the book was in me long before any of the sanctification debates surfaced on the blogs. I didn’t conceive of the project with any particular authors or movements in mind, other than a general sense that contemporary Christians, myself included, need to take holiness more seriously.

Having said that, it’s certainly true that as the book developed I wrote, in part, to counter what I perceived to be unhelpful tendencies in some of our gospel-centered movement. But even here I did not want the book to become a tit-for-tat exercise where I quoted from different authors in our circles, authors on the whole I deeply like and respect. In other words, I purposely chose not to have a “locked horns” kind of book. Naturally, those wanting that sort of book will be disappointed.

Keeping with this point just a bit further, I can honestly say that I didn’t try to caricature any opposing views. I’ve heard or read all of the sentiments I try to correct-whether those sentiments were by well-known leaders or simply mistaken churchgoers. For example, Ortlund’s one claim of potential exaggeration is my lament that “we remove any notion that we can obey God or that he can delight in our good works.” Ortlund objects, “I cannot personally think of anyone who denies that obedience is possible or that we can please God.” But I can think of one good-spirited, thoughtful conversation I had with a fellow speaker at a conference who-I think I’m being fair here-disagreed with my insistence that pleasing God was a legitimate motivation for holiness. This article on “The Danger of Trying to Please God” shares that speaker’s concerns. I also recall this blog post which criticizes pastors for trying to keep people from sinning. The parable about teaching frogs to fly suggests that instructing people in obedience or growth in godliness is wasted effort to get sinners to do the impossible. There are many Christians out there who believe the only obedience we can really have is the obedience of Christ and that every good deed is nothing but a filthy rag in God’s sight.

2) Ortlund worries that the book may not as adequately challenge the legalist as it does the libertine. He thinks I have overestimated how many people already make the connection between the gospel and personal holiness. He could be right. Every book comes out of a context. Mine is one in a more liberal denomination and, in a different circle, among earnest YRR Christians, where legalism is frequently chastised. No doubt, there are those from severely moralistic backgrounds and those in repressive church environments who don’t need the libertine spooked out of them. Perhaps my book does not do enough to help them.

But if that’s the case, it’s not for want of trying. In many places I explicitly reject and warn against the legalistic tendencies in our hearts (52). “Apart from our union with Christ,” I write,  ”every effort to imitate Christ, no matter how noble and inspired at the outset, inevitably leads to legalism and spiritual defeat” (100). Later in that same paragraph I conclude, “The pursuit of holiness is not a quixotic effort to do just what Jesus did. It’s the fight to live out the life that has already been made alive in Christ.” Elsewhere I warn that “those most eager to be holy are often most susceptible to judgmentalism and arrogance” and that it is “very possible to pursue holiness out of pride” (140). The sections on the Holy Spirit, on faith, on gospel-driven effort, and the entire chapter on union with Christ are meant to counteract any notion that sanctification is a do-it-yourself exercise in self-salvation.

3) Ortlund’s main concern is that I “could have more clearly demonstrated that a failure to pursue holiness is itself a failure to appropriate the gospel.” He acknowledges that the book is “grounded in gospel truth” but argues that I “could more clearly draw out the point that holiness is always…by grace.” He thinks I demonstrate that holiness must accompany grace, but don’t clearly show how holiness comes by grace. The excerpts below suggest this charge is not accurate.

  • “God expects us to be holy and gives us the grace to be holy” (66).
  •  ”God not only works obedience in us by his grace, it’s also by his grace that our imperfect obedience is acceptable in his sight” (67-68).
  •  ”More than that, we cannot produce any righteousness in our own strength. But as born-again believers, it is possible to please God by his grace” (69).
  • “Sanctification doesn’t just flow from justification, so that one produces the other. Both come from the same Source. Christ justifies no one whom he does not also sanctify” (99).
  • “‘The beauty of holiness’ is first of all the Lord’s (Ps. 29:2). But by his grace it can also be yours” (146, the last sentence in the book).

Along the same lines, Ortlund worries that I do not make clear the extent to which “the gospel of grace is as equally the answer to antinomianism as it is to legalism.” He cites Romans 6 as evidence that the best way to rebuff antinomianism is to drill down deeper into the Christian’s “grace-established identity.” The primary gap, then, is not between gospel passion and holiness but with our appropriation of the gospel itself. So for “Joe Christian” (the example Ortlund gives of a lazy pursuit of sanctification) the “ultimate need is for the gospel he professes to take root in his heart.” Ortlund commends The Hole in Our Holiness for being “gospel-rich” but also faults it for not showing more clearly that at the root of all our problems is a problem with the gospel.

It’s hard to know how to respond to this criticism. I don’t think Ortlund disagrees with the theology in the book. It just doesn’t say what he would say or in the way he would say it. Four times in this final concern he uses the phrase “more clearly” or “make clearer.” It seems to me the concern is not that I’m wrong but that I’ve not done enough to be thoroughly and explicitly gospel-centered.

This would be a serious deficiency, so it’s worth probing a bit further. Is the deepest problem in every situation and in every sinful struggle our failure to appropriate the gospel? Perhaps—depends on your definitions. I don’t have a problem saying at the root of every problem is a misfiring of the gospel. But neither would I have a problem saying that at its root every sin is a failure to recognize the Lordship of Christ, or to believe the promises of God, or to accept the goodness of God’s commands, or to trust the word of God, or to recognize our union with Christ, or to celebrate the character of God, or to find our satisfaction in Jesus, or to live in the power of the Spirit. I suppose someone may say, “Yes, that’s it exactly. And all of that is a failure to appropriate the gospel.” But then “gospel” has become shorthand for almost any spiritual blessing evidenced in Scripture. And if that’s our working definition of the gospel, I don’t mind, so long as we don’t expect everyone to give a hat-tip to “gospel” before we say anything else.

The gospel is, in one sense, the answer for everything. It unmasks our legalism and our antinomianism. Paul certainly confronts the “let’s continue in sin” attitude in Romans 6 by reminding us that we are dead to sin and alive to righteousness by virtue of our union with Christ. I have a whole section in the book on the glories of Romans 6. But it would be a mistake to think this is the only way to confront sin, or the only truly gospel-centered approach, or the only one that gets to the ultimate problem. In Romans 13 Paul attacks the libertines of his day by warning them of Christ’s return. This is a gracious gospel truth too, though not, I think, what people have in mind when they argue that the antidote for the abuse of grace is more grace.

Augustine was converted by Romans 13:13-14 not because it immediately revealed his failure to be sufficiently gripped by the gospel, but because it convicted him of sin and gave him relief from his wretched way of life. God counsels us in a hundred different ways and exchanges a thousand different truths for our lies. Let’s not think a “failure to believe the gospel” (which usually refers to our acceptance in justification) is the only final diagnosis for every malady. My concern with Ortlund’s concern is that many Christians have become hesitant to employ the full arsenal of Scriptural threats, warnings, promises, examples, and commands for fear that unless we explicitly say something about our deep down gospel issues we aren’t really dealing with the ultimate problem and we aren’t emphasizing grace as clearly as we ought. Surely there is more than one way to skin a sinful cat.

This rejoinder has gone on longer than I expected. I hope this is not evidence of defensiveness in my heart but an indication of how seriously I took Ortlund’s thoughtful review and how important these nuances can be. I imagine everyone reading his review and this response want the same thing: to grow in holiness by the grace of God. I trust that this conversation helps us all in that glorious and necessary pursuit.

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25 thoughts on “The Hole In Our Holiness: A Friendly Rejoinder to Gavin Ortlund”

  1. Thanks Pastor Kevin,
    I fear some in our day would write a very critical review of Jesus’ demands in the Gospels . . . if they didn’t know they were Jesus’ words. Praise God for your Biblical insights!

  2. Jeremiah Ketchum says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book and especially appreciated that you didn’t simply state “the gospel” as the means of becoming more holy and instead used the “full arsenal” of scripture. It would be true to say the gospel is the way we become holy, but the gospel HAS become shorthand for dealing with just about every spiritual malady. That’s why I appreciated Thabiti’s August 24 post so much. Thanks again for writing this book.

  3. Steve says:

    I am grateful, Kevin, for your ministry. When I first heard you were writing this book, I was further thankful. My hunch (admittedly, not footnoted) is that we’re more prone to attack legalism – not from a right scriptural concern – but because the spirit of our age is antinomian. This is an overstatement – but I sometimes wish legalism was something I had to be more concerned over. I find it difficult to find Christians that even care about 2 Cor 5:9-10, Titus 2:11-14, 1 John 2:15-17, etc.

  4. Randy in Tulsa says:

    Would not Ortlund’s critique equally apply to most of the Lord’s teachings? Consider what Jesus said about the sheep and the goats, as just one example. The Lord spoke plainly and consistently about obedience, the moral law of God, holiness and the performance of good works. We also know from his teaching that only those who have been born again – the regenerate – can see God. Once regenerated and thereby “given much, ” much is required. How often has Ortlund written about all that is required, in terms of obedience, the moral law of God, holiness and the performance of good works, aside from his review of your book and similar critiques? You were on target in your sermon series on holiness – and at the T4G conference, as I assume you are in your book, which I should be receiving in the mail any day now. You are proclaiming that “the grace that saved a wretch like me and the grace that will lead me home,” enables personal holiness, a God-working in you-you working out-more and more-in your own personal life type of holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. Stand firm, brother.

  5. Laurette says:

    I agree with Steve.

    As Screwtape the desk-devil said: “We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under.”

    Kevin, I haven’t read this latest book of yours, but from Ortlund’s review it seems like you’re trying to counter what “Screwtape” and his cronies are trying to establish – a world where we confuse “discipline” with “legalism” and where we think sitting still and waiting for God to do something is the ultimate good, even to the point of “tinkering” (hat tip) through life aimlessly.

    As a 20-something, I feel incredibly convicted by my lack of discipline and obedience. There’s a picture, that captures this so well, of Jesus and a young guy, sitting on a park bench with Jesus saying: “No, I’m not talking about Twitter. I literally want you to follow me.” That will be our generation’s big struggle.

  6. Frank says:

    Dear Rev. DeYoung, thank you very much for writing this book. I got it last week and devoured it in two days. Now, my wife has ordered a copy and we ordered copies for our sons in college. You were right to not make it a polemical work – it’s much more winsome and practical this way. And just for the record,I tend to be “legalistic”, and I feel sufficiently challenged by your writing to read the book again – which I’m planning to do!!

  7. Brad says:

    Thanks for this post and your book. I think you are correct. I have been experiencing a lot of push back in my life from the “gospel-centered” crowd. It seems like you have to use certain language to please them. It can be very frustrating. I have simply returned to reading the Bible and asking the Spirit to teach me.

  8. Alex Johnson says:

    Ortlund’s solution near the end does little to actually help his character know how to do what he needs to do.
    “Joe’s ultimate need is for the gospel he professes to take root in his heart, thereby uprooting the idols and pseudo-saviors manifested in his apathy and gambling.”

    I know that for me just professing and taking root in my heart are at times difficult to lead to change without some mental acceptance of them. My mind needs to convicted as well as my heart and soul (Mark 12:30; Deuteronomy 6:5).

    Thank you for your work Pastor. I look forward to reading this book.

  9. PJ Tibayan says:

    I have not yet read the book or the review, so I’m the least of all qualified to chime in. But in reading this blog post, I don’t think the few quotes you gave in rejoinder #2 answer the “HOW grace works in holiness.” Maybe the second bullet could with a little bit more implications making the connections. But the other quotes just say they relate but don’t point toward how it works or the nature of the relationship. That’ my two cents, if it even worth that.

    I do appreciate #3 and am thankful for the exercise of your spiritual gift for the good of the broader Christian community.

    Your brother in Christ,

  10. Aaron says:

    Rev. DeYoung,

    The reason why #1 is important and why it’s unsatisfying for you to not provide specific examples is not because readers want blood. It’s because you’re dealing with (by your own admission) nuance and clarity and different sides of an issue. So, to not directly state what you’re against at some points leaves open the legitimate charge of “broad brush” or “not careful diagnoses”.

    In addition, I agree that the bible covers many more motivations for holiness than just resting in our justification. But, the place where you and Tullian, Gavin, etc. . keep talking past each other a bit is that they’re saying obedience doesn’t ultimately come from the warnings, chidings, etc. of scripture, but that those things push you back to the gospel, which then fuels your obedience.

    So, it’s not that there’s no warnings in the Gospels (like many posters have said above) or that Paul doesn’t use “bad news” to correct Christians, . . but it’s that those things weren’t meant to give you fuel to obey. So, you have to come back to Christ’s radical acceptance to have any success in pursuing holiness. Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.

    It’s also fair to say that Tullian, Ortlund, etc. write from a paradigm as well where those warnings and calls for obedience were THE ONLY thing used to try and motivate obedience. A correction was needed. Has it gone too far? You think it has, and I respect that. I would say we still aren’t to the place where people are genuinely revisiting their justification enough. Elyse Fitzpatricks fictional letter come to mind. If someone is properly walking day in and day out in the gospel, that person is becoming more sanctified. Libertines aren’t joying in the true gospel.

  11. Blake says:


    You don’t have to defend yourself. The gospel does that for you, when understood & preached to your self properly. I was suspect about your book at first, but i think God is going to do amazing things through it. Rest in his love for you and write books you believe He will use. Don’t defend yourself, defend Him. Grace.

  12. Randy in Tulsa says:

    I don’t think Kevin and Tullian are “talking past each other.” I think they actually disagree, but keep doing it in a “friendly way.” From an argumentation standpoint, it would be nice if these friends would just come out and say, “I don’t agree with you on this point. Period.”

    What does “walking day in and day out in the gospel” really mean? I understand repentance to God, faith in Christ, and “diligently pursuing the ordinary means of grace,” which include the daily reading of the word, hearing the word preached, prayer and sacraments. I don’t understand the phraseology used by folks like Aaron, maybe because the expressions aren’t biblically worded and they are ill-defined. If “walking day in and day out in the gospel,” simply means that, when we sin, we confess our sins and truly repent, we know that God is faithful and just to forgive ours sins, why not just use the biblical expression? DeYoung is a breath of fresh air in the gospel coalition crowd, because he uses ordinary, historically accepted terminology to express long held beliefs of the church.

  13. Randy in Tulsa says:

    Isn’t “preaching the gospel to yourself” another one of those catchy phrases that is a bit hard to find in the Bible? What does it actually mean? Personally, I like the catechism wording that says the scripture principally teaches what we should be believe concerning God (the Triune one) and what duty God requires of us. If more in the gospel coalition would discover/rediscover the larger catechism and study it (as Kevin DeYoung clearly has done) before they preached another sermon or wrote another article, the entire word of God would be proclaimed much more clearly, more accurately and more effectively.

  14. Greg says:

    Thanks for this and for your T4G message, Kevin.

    Keep fighting the good fight, both in your own sanctification and on this critical issue.

  15. Robert says:

    I’ve often heard people go through all sorts of hoops to apply the Gospel to a situation, leaving the listener in a state of confusion. Scripture has much clearer application that leads to thoughts that you outlined in the following quote:

    “But neither would I have a problem saying that at its root every sin is a failure to recognize the Lordship of Christ, or to believe the promises of God, or to accept the goodness of God’s commands, or to trust the word of God, or to recognize our union with Christ, or to celebrate the character of God, or to find our satisfaction in Jesus, or to live in the power of the Spirit. ”

    I think when we can faithfully preach both Law and Gospel and avoid trying to do fancy mind-tricks to make everything the Gospel.

  16. Blake says:

    Know one asked Kevin Deyong to write a defense on HIS BOOK. Is this a identity struggle? Is this a marketing tool? Did jesus write a defense to pilot, or the Pharisees? These blogs are dangerous & can make us become these Christians that sit around and debate all day. Very disappointed.

  17. Robert says:


    Seriously? From what I understand the original review was done graciously and with respect. And Kevin’s response was also done graciously and with respect. I think what we see here is a good example of handling things like this in the public square. What we see is an exchange of ideas from two people who have genuine concerns for edifying believers and encouraging healthy and mature direction for the church.

    I would much rather see this than for everyone to quietly hold their opinions to themselves and never discuss important things. Jesus discussed important things with his disciples. It wasn’t an identity struggle for him. In the same way, we can discuss things with each other to promote understanding and learning.

  18. Lauren says:


    Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing this book. I could go on and on explaining the trajectory change I have seen in my church. It is exactly what you brought up in your Desiring God interview with John Piper (and what I am assuming you wrote about in this book). Be encouraged…. there is most certainly a hole in our holiness today (well, at least in my church culture in southern CA). I praise God for your faithfulness.

  19. Paul says:

    I was somewhat surprised by Ortlund’s review as well. It was a very good review (honestly), but I was surprised that he was not aware of the problems that DeYoung’s book addresses. I have attended a church for over two years where the idea that we need grace and the gospel is understood to mean that we don’t need to pursue holiness. This has been very distressing to me and I’ve worked some to talk about the issue (graciously, I hope), but without much success. So I was thrilled to learn about DeYoung’s book.

    I think this issue may be more prevalent in certain YRR church planting networks (like the church I attend is part of). I find that the misunderstanding is mostly caused by lack of reflection on the issue. In other words, my pastor and others have picked up certain terminology and statements about the gospel from other authors and pastors without ever considering how it fits into the big picture of the Christian life. The entire Christian life is by grace, of course!, but not apart from obedience. I highlight YRR churches because I have clearly seen and heard the same attitude in two other churches in our network.

    I hope that in all of this my love for the YRR church planting movement is apparent. I’m staying in the church where I’m at, but I think its important to note that we need this book.

  20. J.Vanderton says:

    I know I am chiming in a bit late, but i wanted to echo what Paul said.I attend a reformed/confessional church where justifacation is often stressed. my Pastor however does a great job in encourageing every believers personal pursuit of holiness with the proper emphasis on both law and gospel. HOWEVER what i sense from the congregation is that “Jesus did it ALL for me SO I dont have to do anything?! No one wants to talk about personal holiness or struggle in the Christian life because you might be percieved as a legalist/pietist. I think this is due in part to the writtings of M.Horton and ESPECIALLY Tuilen T. I think Mark Jones pegged it rightly in his review of Jesus+ nothing+ everything.

    cheers, Jay

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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