Learning About and Letting Go of Keswick Theology

jonathan-hoxmark-6VWTC9sWu8M-unsplash.jpgKeswick theology. The name may be unknown, but it views are ubiquitous—and most unhelpful!

In yesterday’s Sunday School lesson I mentioned the half-truth contained in Keswick theology—namely, that Christians need to submit themselves to God. However, the other side to Keswick’s equation, which is the untruth, is that this view of the Christian life devalues justification by faith, and it makes sanctification a singular and solely passive experience.

To appreciate the history, influence, and trouble of Keswick theology, let me cite a couple pages from David Calhoun’s history of Princeton Seminary. In a section on Princeton during the 1910s, he cites the mixed reception Keswick theology received at Princeton. In short space, Calhoun gives a brief history of the movement, as well as a constructive critique marshalled by B. B. Warfield. He writes (Princeton Seminary: 1869–1929, 305–06):

“Keswick” or “Victorious Life” conferences were held in Princeton for several years ‘to lead Christians into a life of victory through moment-by-moment faith in Christ.” Developed in England during the 1870s, popularized by its famous annual convention at Keswick in the lovely Lake District, and promoted in America by conferences, books, the Scofield Reference Bible, and especially by The Sunday School Times, “the Keswick message” gained wide acceptance by the early twentieth century. Although he admitted that earlier Keswick teachers may have presented “a stereotyped form of experience, Charles Erdman stated that the teaching was now “most careful and conservative and scriptural.” It helps people “to appreciate and appropriate the riches of grace in Christ Jesus which are offered in common to all believers,” Dr. Erdman claimed, adding that “such a message the church needs today.” In 1917 the Presbyterian gave high praise to one of the Princeton Keswick conferences. The editors emphasized the similarities between Keswick and Reformed teaching and found Keswick’s emphasis on ‘trust” and “surrender” a welcome alternative to the social ethics of liberalism.

These are the (half-)truths which make up the positive side of Keswick Theology. Calhoun continues, honing in on the evaluation of Warfield.

Dr. Warfield also found positive things about Keswick teaching—“it exalts Christ and it exalts faith,” he said. But he disliked its “crass separation of sanctification from justification,” which, he believed, laid “the foundation … for that circle of ideas which are summed up in the phrase, ‘the Second Blessing.’” Of this separation of sanctification and justification, Warfield wrote, “not only do the generality of Christians know nothing, but the Scriptures know nothing.”

Against the Keswick teaching that Christians may (by surrender and trust) live a life free from sinning (while remaining sinners at heart), Dr. Warfield asserted that the Holy Spirit cures our sinning precisely by curing our sinful nature. “He makes the tree good,” Warfield stated, “that the fruit may be good.” “The sanctifying action of the Spirit terminates on us, not merely on our activities; under it, not only our actions but we are made holy.” “Only, this takes time,” Warfield added, “and therefore at no point short of its completion are either our acts or we ‘perfect.’” [emphasis added]

This mention of time is crucial. For Keswick theology fails to appreciate indwelling sin and the ongoing battle that faithful Christians must engage. It also fails to appreciate the new nature which believers are given by the Holy Spirit. In this way, Keswick theology urges faith in Christ, but fails to appreciate the work that Christ has accomplished and what the spirit is doing in progressive sanctification.

Turning again to Warfield, Calhoun cites some of his most important work on the subject.

In solid theological essays first published in The Princeton Theological Review, Dr. Warfield dealt with the various expressions of Keswick and related movements, giving careful attention to the teachings of W. E. Boardman, Mr. and Mrs, Pearsall Smith, Charles Trumbull and The Sunday School Times, and the “German Higher Life Movement” and its chief exponent, Theodore Jellinghaus (who in 1912 renounced his views and returned to the Reformed position). Warfield summarized what he called the “essential elements” of these holiness movements:

In all of them alike, justification and sanctification are divided from one another as two separate gifts of God. In all of them alike sanctification is represented as obtained, just like justification, by an act of simple faith, but not by the same act of faith by which justification is obtained, but by a new and separate act of faith, exercised for this specific purpose. In all of them alike the sanctification which comes on this act of faith, comes immediately on believing, and all at once, and in all of them alike this sanctification, thus received, is complete sanctification. In all of them alike, however, It is added that this complete sanctification does not bring freedom from all sin; but only, say, freedom from sinning; or only freedom from conscious sinning; or from the commission of “known sins. And in all of them alike this sanctification is not a stable condition into which we enter once for all by faith, but a momentary attainment, which must be maintained moment by moment, and which may readily be lost and often is lost, but may also be repeatedly instantaneously recovered. (B. B. Warfield, Perfectionism, 2:563)

As someone who imbibed this view of sanctification for the first five years of my Christian life—without ever hearing the name Keswick mind you—I can attest to its disabling effects. It led to vacillating uncertainty and drove me to seek some subjective experience to confirm my standing before God. In this way, it undercut the assurance which faith in the finished work of Christ affords, and it weakened my confidence in the power of the Spirit to sin to death (Rom. 8:13).

Thankfully, when I went to seminary I learned more completely to trust in the objective and unchanging work of Christ. Yet, I still remember the painful searching that Keswick theology produced, and thus I share something of its tenets here with hope that others will not be pulled down by its half-truths.

For more information on this subject, check out Warfield’s two volumes on PerfectionismOr more currently and more concisely, Andy Naselli’s book No Quick Fix:  Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful. 

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Jonathan Hoxmark on Unsplash

7 thoughts on “Learning About and Letting Go of Keswick Theology

  1. I need to do some more engagement with this subject. Coming from the UK and having even been to the Keswick Convention a couple of times, that kind of teaching seems familiar to me. My pastor recently spoke on John 15 which I think is helpful regarding sanctification- there is a sense in which we are sanctified before God already; but there’s another sense that we need to go on being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. We’re not perfect yet, even if that’s how God graciously regards us in Christ our Saviour.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post on a subject I need to explore more!

    • If you are familiar with J. I. Packer, you should check out his testimony concerning the despair of perfectionism and the help he found in the teaching of John Owen. His book Keeping in Step with the Spirit might be helpful.

      • I’ve read “the mortification of sin” by John Owen. Not read much Packer at all tbh! I’ll have to have a look :)

      • That is the book that ‘saved’ Packer. So you’ve already gone to the source :-)
        But Packer’s work on the Spirit would still be helpful.

  2. Two historical doctrinal statements that I have found especially helpful on this subject are the following. 1. The Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 77: Q77: Wherein do justification and sanctification differ?
    Answer 77: Although sanctification be inseparably joined with justification, yet they differ, in that God in justification imputeth the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification his Spirit infuseth grace, and enableth to the exercise thereof; in the former, sin is pardoned; in the other, it is subdued: the one doth equally free all believers from the revenging wrath of God, and that perfectly in this life, that they never fall into condemnation; the other is neither equal in all, nor in this life perfect in any, but growing up to perfection.
    2. The 15 Articles and 9 Rejections of “Of the Perseverance of the Saints,” The Fifth Head of Doctrine in The Canons of the Synod of Dort; on Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary at https://prts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Canons-of-Dort-with-Intro.pdf [accessed 25 NOV 2019].

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