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.