I grew up in a church setting that was really into “higher life” teaching. This teaching goes by many different names, including “victorious Christian living,” “the exchanged life,” and “the crucified life.” A particular stream of higher life teaching that continues to be influential is known as the Keswick Movement (pronounce KES-ik), named after an annual Bible conference that has been taking place in Keswick, England each year since the late nineteenth century. One key aspect of higher life teaching is probably traceable even further back to a movement referred to as Quietism, popular in Italy, France, and Spain during the seventeenth century. If you aren’t familiar with any of these labels, it is still likely that you are familiar with a slogan that gets used in connection with various strands of this teaching, namely, “Let Go and Let God.” Said differently, the key to the Christian life is to “let go of reliance on yourself and let God do the work in you.”
So much of what is taught in evangelical higher life circles is right and helpful, and I want to affirm much of it. The emphasis on surrendering oneself to Christ, the importance placed upon overcoming sin and living in holiness, and the awareness of the need for empowering by the Holy Spirit to defeat sin, spread the good news, and live a life pleasing to God are all praiseworthy. Higher life emphases have also been affirmed by many who have been catalysts for significant missionary thrusts during the past couple centuries. Actually, the reason it sometimes gets referred to as “higher life” teaching is because these brothers and sisters are unwilling to settle for the mediocrity they see among so many professing Christians. They know that the Scriptures teach something better. On these points, for sure, I could not agree more.
But there exists in the idea of “letting go and letting God do it” an implicit passivity. Surprisingly, many people who strongly emphasize “releasing their wills to God” and “allowing him to do his work in and through them” are not passive at all in their own lives. Nevertheless, a form of passivity is present in their teaching, and the Apostle Paul would have nothing to do with it if he were here.
I remember hearing a higher life teacher once use the illustration that you should view yourself like a limp glove into which God puts his hand. The only thing you are to do is surrender yourself to God so that he can do his work through you. But the Apostle Paul would disagree. I’ll let him speak for himself; then you decide whether he is encouraging passive acquiescence or whether he is actively engaging and encouraging the churches to do so as well.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27).
So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart (2 Timothy 2:22).
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore…(Ephesians 6:11-14).
Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me (Colossians 1:28-29).
This last verse is especially helpful because it emphasizes both that a Christian must toil and struggle, but also that he must do it with the energy that God works within us. Similarly, when Paul says in Romans 8:13 that we need to “put to death the deeds of the body,” he emphasizes that it is to be done “by the Spirit.” But still, such a statement is not an encouragement to passivity! It is an active killing off of sinful deeds even though the activity is Spirit-empowered and Spirit-motivated.
What makes this difficult for many people is that those from legalistic church backgrounds often find freedom and learn to deeply trust in the Lord when they come into contact with let-go-and-let-God teaching. Learning how to trust often brings their Christian lives into balance since they already know well the importance of obedience. But then they turn around and teach only about trust and leave out the importance of obedience! Others, like me, who receive their earliest Christian training in a church that emphasizes the trust aspect of the Christian life, often come into balance when they learn about radical, obedient, faithful discipleship. But then they—like I did for so long—only emphasize forsaking all to follow Jesus in their teaching, and put little emphasis on the need to surrender to Christ and depend upon the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. I think the hymn writer had the balance right: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”
Obedience and trust. Action and acquiescence. Activity and spiritual enabling. Putting to death the deeds of the body and being empowered by the Spirit to do it. It is not one or the other. Trust undergirds obedience, and obedience enlivens trust.
It seems that the hang-up for many people is the thought that if they are actively battling sin, then they cannot possibly be trusting in the Spirit. They think that if they are striving hard, then they must be working in their own strength rather than in the strength of the Spirit. It cannot be emphasized enough how incorrect such thinking is. Sure, it is possible to do lots of activity—even fighting against sin—in one’s own strength and without a dependence upon the Holy Spirit. But this does not mean that we are to be passive. Rather, we are to render the deeds of the body ineffective and not give the devil any sort of foothold in our lives (Ephesians 4:27)—in conscious dependence upon the Holy Spirit of God.
Excerpted from my little book Walking in the Spirit (Crossway)