Is Will-Power Good or Bad?

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:7-8)

 Let Go and Let God?

Have you ever been told by a well-meaning evangelical that the way to achieve a victorious Christian life is to “Let go and let God” or “stop trying and start trusting”?

As a teenager, I remember being given this advice by people who were eager to help me achieve Christian victory over sin. “Stop struggling against your flesh”, they would say. “Whenever you’re struggling, that simply proves you’re trying to overcome sin in your own strength rather than in God’s strength. Sanctification has got to be a God-thing, not a man-thing.”

In his book Christ the Tiger, Thomas Howard he tells about his own encounter with this teaching, and his subsequent struggle to put it into practice:

“In order to have this victorious life, one had to “let go and let God”. It was the simplest formula in the world. Do not try to do for yourself what Christ has already done for you. You are a failure. You cannot help but sin (non posse non peccare). But what do you suppose the Resurrection was all about? Christ rose a victor over sin as well as death, and now He lives in you. The entire power of the Resurrection is at your disposal. Stop trying to fight Satan yourself with your silly little weapons. Go to the Victor. Christus Victor.

My own problem here was that, after years of attempting to let go, and repeated attempts to hunch myself over the fence into the green pasture, or even to let Christ get me over, I could not get there. I followed meticulously all the steps. I tried, and I tried not trying. I did everything the speakers told me to do and not to do. I finally concluded that I was not a candidate for the victorious life. Cupidity and my own consciousness had a way of staying alive, although I wanted desperately to believe that I had been crucified and risen with Christ.

Is “Try” a Dirty Word?

One contemporary evangelical pastor who usefully encapsulates this type of teaching is Jim Wilson from Moscow Idaho, the father of the popular writer and speaker Douglas Wilson. In Wilson’s blog post ‘Try to Obey’, he rebukes another Christian for writing about his struggles “trying” to obey.  Wilson responds:

“Listen carefully even if you have to read this several times. The key sentence in your letter is, ‘I have really tried most everything.’ The key word in the sentence is tried. That is the reason for your continued defeat. Try is a dirty, un-Christian word. It is a practice taught by the devil. It is a lie of the enemy. A person who tries is trusting himself. That is the wrong person to trust. It is impossible to trust God and try at the same time. In order to trust God we have to quit trying.” (emphasis his)

In his blog post ‘Being and Doing III’, Wilson takes up this same theme when he suggests that it is impossible for the Christian to please God with willpower: “There is a word in the English language, ‘willpower’ which seems to mean some sort of exertion or effort that is mental. If there is such a thing, it…should be rejected in serving God. The person who thinks he is obeying God with his own ‘willpower’ is mistaken.”

Historical Perspectives

I mention Jim Wilson simply because I have friends who have been heavily influenced by his teaching on sanctification, which is also known as “Keswick theology” or “monergistic sanctification.” However, a host of more familiar evangelical teachers have taught similar doctrines, asserting that there is essentially a short-cut to sanctification which completely bypasses human effort and struggle. In his article “Why ‘Let Go and Let Go’ Is a Bad Idea”, Andrew Naselli lists the following names of those who have been connected with Keswick theology: John Wesley, Charles Finney, Hannah Whitall Smith, Evan H. Hopkins, H. Moule, B. Meyer, Andrew Murray, J. Hudson Taylor, Amy Carmichael, Frances Havergal, W. H. Griffith Thomas, Robert C. McQuilkin, A. B. Simpson, D. L. Moody, R. A. Torrey, Lewis Chafer and Charles Ryrie.

In his online book Let Go and Let God? A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology, Andy Naselli shows that the basic problem behind Keswick theology is a “monergistic sanctification in which God does everything and the believer does nothing.” In an online pdf based on his 2008 William R. Rice Lecture Series for the Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, Naselli helpfully contrasts monergistic sanctification with what he believes to be the genuinely “reformed” perspective of “synergistic sanctification”, which involves co-operation between God’s will and man’s will. “The Reformed view of sanctification, which advocates a gradual mortification of sin that is never complete until glorification, includes synergistic sanctification.” By contrast, according to the Keswick teaching, “The believer’s own strength is not only insufficient for sanctification, it is offensive to God.”

The Keswick movement does not have a monopoly on ideas of “monergistic sanctification.” The heretical ‘Manifest Sonship’ movement (a subset of the controversial Latter Rain movement) espouses similar ideas, as did seventeenth-century Roman Catholic ‘Quietism.’ In his book Keep in Step with the Spirit, J.I. Packer described ancient Quietism and modern Keswickism as holding

“that all initiatives on our part, of any sort, are the energy of the flesh; that God will move us, if at all, by inner promptings and constraints that are recognizably not thoughts and impulses of our own; and that we should always be seeking the annihilation of our selfhood so that divine life may flow freely through our physical frames…. Passivity means conscious inaction—in this case [i.e., with Keswick theology], inner inaction. A call to passivity—conscientious, consecrated passivity—has sometimes been read into certain biblical texts, but it cannot be read out of any of them…. The Christian’s motto should not be ‘Let go and let God’ but ‘Trust God and get going!'”

Packer knows what he’s talking about from hard experience, since these false teachings about sanctification nearly destroyed him when he was a baby Christian. In an interview for Reformation and Revival Journal, Packer explains the effect this teaching had on his life:

“this teaching was that you surrender yourself completely to Christ, and then, as temptations and inner upsets arise, you immediately commit them to Jesus. Then they are his business and not yours any longer and he enables you to move along in peace and do the things you ought to do and want to do…. I did try the routine of surrender and of looking to Jesus to carry me through times of temptation by squelching the temptation before it had fully articulated itself in my heart. It didn’t work and that was a deeply frustrating and depressing thing. It made me feel like a pariah, an outsider, and at the age of eighteen that was pretty burdensome. In fact, it was driving me crazy.

The Abnormal Christian Life

As mentioned earlier, I also went through a period where I tried to apply the basic categories of Keswick thought. But I could never understand the actual mechanics of how to overcome sin without trying to overcome sin. In fact, I didn’t even know how to get up from a chair—let alone keep to a routine of Bible reading—without using some degree of will-power. Yet I kept being told that will-power was displeasing to God. One person told me that my problem was that I was trying to stop trying to stop trying, which showed that I didn’t really get it.

In my early twenties I turned to the writings of Watchman Nee (1903–1972), since I had been told that he had written the best explanation of the “let go and let God” process. In Nee’s book The Normal Christian Life, he argues that God can only get the glory for a person’s sanctification when no human effort is involved. Though Nee denies it, the human agent becomes essentially passive in the work of sanctification since will-power and struggle play no part in the normal Christian life. As with Jim Wilson, Nee believed that phrases such as “human effort”, “willpower” and “trying hard” were words of the devil.

When I turned to Nee’s book Release of the Spirit, I began to understand that these ideas arose out of a Platonic-like anthropology. In this book, Nee makes clear that we need to not only escape from the will, but also from the body, the mind or the soul—in other words, everything that makes us human! That’s when I saw that the life Nee was describing was not the normal Christian life at all, but a very abnormal Gnostic one. The problem with Nee’s anthropology was aptly summarized by Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs in their excellent book Being Human: The Nature of Spiritual Experience.

“According to Nee, the person is composed of three parts: the inner man (the spirit), the outer man (the soul) and the outermost man (the body). Because they belong to the outer man, neither the emotions nor the mental thoughts have the same nature as God. Only the spirit relates to God. …He seems to be rejecting not merely the sinful nature but the self, for is not the self constituted by the emotions, the mind, the will—Nee’s ‘outer man’? Consequently he devalues the human. He says that natural compassion and tenderness are still sinful because they are only human. These too must be broken to allow the Spirit to do his work.

See Also

God Works Through Means

The antithesis that Nee and some of the Keswick teachers have posited between the “natural” and the “spiritual” often arises out of a deep discomfort acknowledging that God works through natural processes and means. According to this line of thought, if God is to get all the credit, then man’s will cannot be involved, not even as an instrument used by the Holy Spirit. If God is to get all the glory, then the involvement of man’s will must be reduced to nil, or at least consigned merely to “choosing to believe” or “choosing to trust.” The idea is that it is somehow more spiritual for God to work when we are passive than when we are actively struggling.

Behind these notions of monergistic sanctification is the same assumption which animated much of ancient Gnosticism, namely that the divine and human are quantitatively rather than qualitatively distinguished, so that they must be negotiated or rationed between God and human persons. If that is your starting point, then of course we want God to swallow up the human, and for God to be glorified by us losing our identity. Gnosticism took this to the extreme of teaching that we had to shake off the shackles of the physical body, whereas teachers associated with the Keswick tradition merely teach that we must shake off the shackles of the will to become passive instruments of the divine. Both ideas are essentially Gnostic.

By contrast, when we understand that God works through means, then it is non-problematic to assert that one of the means or instruments He uses for our sanctification is human will-power, just as one of the instruments He uses for our justification is human faith. (I say “one of the means” because will-power is not the most important aspect of sanctification. But it does play a crucial part.)

This isn’t about trying to earn favour with God through “works righteousness”—heaven forbid! Indeed, God is the one that makes it possible for us to exercise will-power in the first place, just as He is the one who makes it possible for us to exercise faith (Philippians 2:13). Remember that we’re talking here about children of God who already have faith, already love God and who are therefore already filled with the Spirit in some sense.

The point is that in both sanctification and justification, God’s sovereign work occurs through the vehicles by which He sovereignly chooses to work. The believer works because God works. It’s not a question of either/or but both/and, as the human and the divine co-operate synergistically.

The Bible is full of this synergistic both/and approach to sanctification. Indeed, for the apostles, one of the ways you surrender yourself completely to Christ is precisely through God-directed will-power and human struggle. Indeed, throughout the New Testament the apostles frequently speak of human struggle as a good thing. See Rom 7:14–25; 1 Cor 9:24; Gal 5:17; Eph. 6:18; Col. 4:2; 1 Tim, 4:7-8; 1 Tim. 6:11–12; Heb 12:1–3; 2 Pet 1:5–7, for just a few of the numerous references. Moreover, we know from the gospel narratives that Christ’s time on earth was full of struggles, especially towards the end when He wrestled with the Father’s will in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Holiness and Human Effort

I’d like to close by inviting you to participate in a little experiment. Read the following sentence slowly and out loud: “Holiness is often the result of intense human effort.” Now, when you spoke those words, were you uncomfortable? Did it feel wrong to mention holiness and human effort in the same sentence? If that is how you reacted, then chances are that you have been infected by Keswick theology, perhaps without even realizing it.

One of the many admirable aspects of Eastern Orthodox Christianity is that they have never lost the high premium that the Biblical writers place on the connection between holiness and human effort. Listen to the words of Saint John (Maximovitch) of Shanghai and San Francisco (1896–1966). In a sermon about Saint Seraphim, the Holy Russian Orthodox hierarch was moved to remark that

“Holiness is the fruit of a man’s efforts and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Holiness is reached by him who wears a cross and wages warfare in the name of Christ against the obstacles to holiness, to becoming akin to Christ. These obstacles are sins, sinful habits, firmly rooted in the soul. Struggle against them is the major work of a Christian…”

Further Reading

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