Andrew David Naselli. No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful. Lexham Press, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
Andrew David Naselli has two Ph.D.’s: one from Bob Jones University,
and another from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He teaches New
Testament and Theology at Bethlehem College and Seminary, which is in
Minneapolis. He wrote a dissertation about the Keswick movement, which
he revised as a book for Lexham press: Let Go and Let God? A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology. No Quick Fix is a shorter book about the same topic and is more accessible to lay readers.
What is the “Higher Life Theology” that Naselli is criticizing?
Higher Life Theology posits that there are two kinds of Christian
believers, both of whom are saved: there are carnal Christians, who are
habitual sinners and are not fully yielded to God, and there are
spiritual Christians, who are yielded to God and are filled with the
Holy Spirit. At a dramatic moment of decision sometime after his or her
conversion, a Christian may decide to yield to God in surrender and to
become filled the Holy Spirit. This results in a great spiritual
transformation, as the believer becomes liberated from sinful tendencies
and attracted to righteousness; it also entails receiving spiritual
power to do God’s work. While obedience to God can set the stage for
this intense moment, the transformation comes, not through actively
working for it, but through “letting go and letting God”: trusting and
allowing God to do the work of transformation. Practically speaking,
according to Naselli, many who have this kind of experience find that
their spiritual batteries eventually run low and they feel a need to
attend a Keswick conference where they can have the experience again.
What are Naselli’s problems with Higher Life Theology? He has a
variety of them. For one, he does not acknowledge any distinction
between carnal and spiritual Christians. All true Christians bear
spiritual fruit, to varying degrees, and this commences when they are
saved, not at a later point in time. Second, Naselli disagrees with the
passivity that Higher Life Theology encourages. According to Naselli,
the New Testament does not teach believers to passively wait for God to
transform them but encourages them to live out actively who they are as
Christians: to mortify sinful desires and to perform works of
righteousness. On the basis of John 15, Naselli defines the believer
abiding in Christ as walking in Christ’s commandments, and Christ
abiding in the believer as Christ’s words dwelling in the believer; this
entails activity, not passivity, on the part of the believer. Third,
Naselli believes that Higher Life Theology overlaps with Pelagianism,
which he states “exalts a human’s autonomous free will and inherent
ability to obey any of God’s commands apart from God’s help” (page 84).
How can this be, when Higher Life Theology encourages the believer to
let God do the work of spiritual transformation? For Naselli, Higher
Life Theology is Pelagian in that it emphasizes that the believer can
make a decision on his or her own to surrender to God, to plug into the
Holy Spirit, and to become transformed. The correct view, according to
Naselli, is that God is the one who creates the faith and the will in
the believer to obey God and to do good works.
Fourth, Naselli contends that Higher Life Theology sets believers up
for spiritual discouragement. They have a dramatic religious moment and
expect things to be smooth sailing for them spiritually after that, but
this does not happen. They may conclude that they did not truly
surrender everything to God, or they may even redefine sin, lowering the
bar to where they are, to defend the authenticity of their religious
experience. Naselli discusses his own negative experience with Higher
Life Theology and his recovery from it. He also mentions evangelical
luminaries who have had similar struggles with it, including J.I.
Packer. And, in an epilogue, John MacArthur, Jr. shares his own
struggle with it back when he was a young Christian.
The book discusses the historical roots and development of Higher
Life Theology, as its roots came from a variety of sources (i.e.,
Methodism, Pentecostalism, dispensationalism, etc.). He talks about key
figures associated with the movement, including D.L. Moody and Hanna
Smith, the author of The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.
Naselli refers to the high points of the movement: for instance, Moody
was impressed when a cantankerous Christian attended a Keswick
conference and became sweeter and more loving afterwards. But Naselli
also mentions the lows: Hanna Smith’s husband Robert was sexually
immoral and became an agnostic, and Hanna became (by Naselli’s and many
conservative Christians’ standard) a heretic.
To his credit, Naselli attempts to account for those who have had
positive spiritual experiences with Higher Life Theology, without
dismissing their experiences. For Naselli, sanctification can entail
times of rapid growth spurts, and that may be what they are
experiencing. Naselli also acknowledges that believers becoming aware
of their dependence on God’s Spirit for sanctification (which the
Keswick movement encourages, albeit in an incorrect manner, as far as
Naselli is concerned) is a positive development.
The book is informative. Naselli does not systematically lay out his
view of sanctification in one setting, but he does refer to it, and he
supports it Scripturally, when he attempts to refute Higher Life
Theology. Naselli not only demonstrates that there are New Testament
passages that affirm that believers must actively fight sinful desires
and do good works, but he also seeks to unpack the meaning of the
concept of being filled with the Holy Spirit. He presents different
interpretive options concerning Ephesians 5:18, and he concludes that it
means being influenced by the Holy Spirit and being indwelt by the
words of Christ, which can exist at varying degrees. Yet,
unfortunately, Naselli does not address the concept as it appears in the
Book of Acts. Naselli’s discussion of how some commands in Scripture
entail varying degrees of obedience, and how one can always improve
one’s obedience of those commands, was an interesting insight.
There are spiritually inspiring statements in the book, from those
Naselli seeks to refute, from himself, and from those Naselli cites for
support. Regarding Higher Life Theology, there is an appeal to letting
go and letting God, as opposed to climbing uphill in an attempt to
become better. And Naselli favorably cited a powerful comment by Jerry
Bridges in his appendix of Christian resource that he considers helpful:
“Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.”
It was ironic, from my standpoint, that MacArthur narrated his
spiritual struggles with Higher Life Theology, considering that his
Lordship Salvation beliefs gave me my own share of spiritual struggles
and disappointment. I continually wondered if my life was spiritual or
holy enough to be a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work in me, and if I could
even follow Christ’s commands. Naselli may have done well to have
addressed the question of what professing or nominal Christians can do
if they find that sin is great in their life and question whether they
are truly Christians.
Finally, it stood out to me that, in listing spiritual exercises that
believers can do to assist their sanctification, there was no reference
in the book to accountability from fellow believers or fellowship.
There was a brief reference to church discipline, in an attempt to
refute the idea that there are carnal Christians. But, considering that
accountability is emphasized in evangelicalism today, its extremely
rare occurrence in the book was salient.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.
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