Interview with Andrew David Naselli, author of NO QUICK FIX: WHERE HIGHER LIFE THEOLOGY CAME FROM, WHAT IT IS, AND WHY IT’S HARMFUL

Published on August 29, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Lexham Press, 2017 | 160 pages

“Surrender.” “Let go, and let God.” We’ve all heard it preached and taught, and many of us have read it and even taught it. Andy Naselli wants to warn us that it’s not the biblical approach to practical sanctification, and it’s really not good for you. I’m Fred Zaspel, and Andy Naselli is with us today to talk about his new book, No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Comes From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful.

Andy, welcome – great to have you back, and congratulations on your new book!

Andy Naselli:
Thank you, Fred.

 

Fred Zaspel:
Your own experience with higher life theology I think will serve well to introduce the subject and what you’re writing about. Tell us what higher life teaching was in your own experience and the affect it had on you.

Naselli:
I’m not sure when God first changed my heart, so that I would see him as beautiful and turn from my sins and trust him. I think it was when I was eight or twelve, around that time frame. And when I would recall how God changed me when I was a teenager and into my college years, we would – it’s called giving your testimony – we would share basically, what’s God’s story in your life. And when I would tell that story I would share it in a way that my Christian leaders taught me to share it, so he would go something like this: God saved me from my sins when I was eight years old and I surrendered to Christ when I was thirteen. So, by saved I meant something like Jesus became my Savior, and I became a Christian; and then by surrendered I meant I’d dedicated my life to Jesus and gave him full control; he’s my master, I dedicated my life to him.

So, there’s these two steps. First, you get saved, then you surrender and you get serious. That’s just the categories that people used when they told their stories. So that’s the basic framework, the background, that I grew up with at least through my teen years and into early college. You’re initially carnal as a Christian and then you become spiritual. There are different ways of putting it – you’re not spirit-filled, then you’re spirit-filled; there are so many different ways. And the particular brand of theology that I’m addressing is saying that to go from step one to step two requires that you let go, and let God, that you totally surrender yourself. You have this crisis of consecration which is surrender, that’s to let go in faith, let God, and then you experience the spirit-filled, victorious, Christian life.

 

Zaspel:
How did that work for you? Tell us about your own thinking during that time.

Naselli:
Well, I have so many friends who have that theological framework, and many of them are godly people and they love Jesus, they read the Bible regularly, they pray. I don’t mean to say that people with that framework are not godly people or that they are not Christians. I don’t mean that at all. But personally, I really tried to do this and it didn’t work for me. I was expecting that when I became spirit-filled and entered this victorious Christian life that I would stop sinning. But I became frustrated and disillusioned and then suspicious. I was frustrated, I was struggling with my sin. I’m disillusioned because this higher life theology just seems too good to be true. And then I became suspicious because what higher life theology teaches didn’t seem to fit with what I was reading in the Bible. So that’s the launching pad for investigating this in my later college years and then into seminary.

 

Zaspel:
You point out that higher life theology has roots – where did it come from, and how did it develop? Can you give us a brief overview?

Naselli:
Yeah, well, it’s kind of complicated. I’ll be as simple as I can without being simplistic.

The father of higher life theology is John Wesley. When I say higher life theology, there is a broad way to use that term where it just means the two step approach, the Clark Kent and Superman; the first step, second step; the carnal/spiritual where you divide Christians into two distinct categories. John Wesley with his Wesleyan perfectionism, and his followers, Fletcher and Clark, really popularized that idea. And that fed into the Holiness movement, which included Methodist Perfectionism, like Phoebe Palmer and camp meetings; and also Oberlin Perfectionism, Charles Finney, Asa Mahan. And that fed into the Higher Life movement with Wm. A. Boardman, and Robert Pearsall Smith, and his wife, Hannah Whitall Smith. All of that fed into what I call higher life theology, or Keswick theology, which I think formally began in 1875 with their first Keswick convention. I could go into more detail, but is that what you are wanting?

 

Zaspel:
Yes, that’s very good.

Okay, take it a little deeper. What are some of the leading marks and claims of higher life teaching. How does it support its claims? And how can we recognize it when we hear it?  

Naselli:
The best way to do this, is probably to explain how the early Keswick conventions taught Keswick theology. There would be a five-day convention and Day One would focus on the diagnosis of Sin – so it’s like a spiritual clinic. Day Two would focus on the Cure – God provides for victorious Christian living. Day Three would focus on the Crisis for the Cure – you need to have a crisis of consecration. Day Four would focus on the Prescription – which is be Spirit-filled. And then the final day would focus on the Mission – which is to powerfully serve Christ as a Christian; and they would especially emphasize foreign missions.

The distinctives of this teaching are that there are two categories of Christians: carnal and spiritual. Or, you might say, first blessing and second Blessing, or average and normal, constant defeat/constant victory, not abiding in Christ/abiding in Christ, spirit indwelt/Christ indwelt, Christ as Savior/Christ as Savior and Lord, believer/disciple, duty life/love life, etc. There are so many different ways to describe this.

So that’s how you can see it, is when preachers and teachers will distinctly show that there are two categories of Christians and everything else flows out of that. Once you have that framework, that there are two categories of Christians, then the next step is, how do we go from stage 1 to stage 2, as a Christian? How do I move from carnal to spiritual? And then the cure, or the solution for that, is this crisis, followed by a process where there is a point in time, dedication, followed by a process of living victoriously. And you might, in that process, slip and then do it again, and re-consecrate. So that’s the cycle.

 

Zaspel:
Is it too simplistic to say that the distinctive mark of higher life teachings in whatever variety is that there is that second crisis moment, or second crisis experience or event where you dedicate, surrender, or whatever the term is?

Naselli:
Yes. Yes, that’s right.

 

Zaspel:
Talk to us about 1 Corinthians 2-3 and the notorious “two classes of Christians” interpretation that has always marked higher life teachings. Explain for us what the higher life claims here are and, by contrast, what Paul is actually saying.

Naselli:
1 Corinthians 2, verses 6 – 3, 4. That’s a passage that actually mentions Christians as, the King James says, carnal, or spiritual. So, the question is, are there three distinct categories into which all people fit? Natural – that would be all non-Christians; and then carnal or of the flesh, and spiritual; those are the three. The Higher Life teaching would say, yes, there are three categories – non-Christians are natural people, carnal Christians, and spiritual Christians, and this text is one of the key texts they use to support that teaching.

In reply, (and I’ll try to do this quickly) in 1 Corinthians 2, verses 14 and 15, Paul describes people as psuchikos, that’s the Greek word for natural, or pneumatikos, spiritual. I think he puts all the people into one of those two categories. The natural people are the opposite of spiritual people. So, I would say natural people are those who don’t have the Spirit; spiritual people are those who have the Spirit. The NIV, I think, nails this – they translated it “the person without the Spirit” and “the person with the Spirit.” So, all humans are either in the category of without the Spirit or with the Spirit. So, it’s non-Christian and Christian; unregenerate and regenerate; unbelieving and believing; unrepentant and repentant; unconverted and converted; natural and spiritual. Those are the two categories for all humans.

Then, the question is, what does Paul mean in 1 Corinthians 3:1 – 4? Well, I think he’s rebuking Corinthian believers for not acting like who they are, as people with the Spirit. He says, you’re people of the flesh, you’re carnal, the KJV says. But, the question is whether spiritual and carnal are two distinct, exclusive categories into which believers fit. And I think that based on the way the Corinthians were acting, Paul couldn’t address them as who they actually were. They were people who had the Spirit, but they were acting like _(audio missing)_ characteristically don’t do that. So that’s why he addresses them that way. He’s not saying there are three distinct categories into which all people fit. He’s using that word, pneumatikos, in two separate ways.

 

Zaspel:
How is all this related to the “Lordship” controversies that come and go?

Naselli:
The Lordship salvation controversy is popular, today, because of the controversy between John MacArthur and Charles Ryrie and Zane Hodges. It goes back earlier than they; it goes back at least to Paul, probably, but in more recent history it goes back to B.B. Warfield and Higher Life theology proponents. John Stott was involved with it in the 60s. But, more recently, it was John MacArthur and Charles Ryrie. And the back and forth went something like this: Charles Ryrie writes a book that has the question in it, “must Christ be Lord to be Savior?” And he says, “no, Christ does not have to be your Lord to be your Savior.” That’s in a book he wrote called Balancing the Christian Life. So, in 1988, John MacArthur writes a book called, The Gospel According to Jesus, where he argues, “yes, Jesus must be your Lord, not just your Savior.” Then, Zane Hodges, a professor at Dallas seminary at the time, and Charles Ryrie each wrote a book responding to John MacArthur. Zane Hodges wrote a book called Absolutely Free, and then Charles Ryrie wrote So Great Salvation. Those are both in 1989, and Hodges’ book was more extreme than Ryrie’s.

In MacArthur’s first book, The Gospel According to Jesus, he is saying that the Gospels teach that you have to repent to be saved and that good works and continuing to believe in Jesus are the necessary fruit of saving faith. And I say, “Amen.” Now he could have done things maybe a little better in that first book; in the updated editions, I think he does it a little bit more. But Hodges argues that the Gospel doesn’t support that. He says the only condition for salvation is that you intellectually believe, and then all those other elements like repentance and surrender are adding to the Gospel. That’s the gospel plus works. So, he rejects that you have to repent; he rejects that you have to surrender to Him as your master; it’s just believe intellectually. And he has a category for someone who can drop out of the Christian life, just like a student can drop out of school, and still be a Christian. Ryrie wasn’t that extreme, but he also argues that the Bible doesn’t support that you have to repent to be saved or that good works and continuing to believe in Jesus are the necessary fruit of saving faith. Ryrie says God requires that you just believe and that’s it. Just believe. And, I think, MacArthur was correct to say, “No, repentance and faith go together; you can’t have one without the other; to repent in faith, to believe and repent, go together.” More recently, Wayne Grudem wrote a book called Free Grace Theology that is excellent in addressing that particular controversy.

 

Zaspel:
And all of that is just a natural upshot of this two classes of Christians.

Naselli:
Right. I’d call it the framework of non-Lordship salvation that’s very common with some people who have been associated with Dallas seminary. Most who teach at Dallas seminary today are not like this, but historically the co-founders of Dallas Theological Seminary, especially Lewis Sperry Chafer, and then subsequent main leaders like John Walvoord and Charles Ryrie, have propounded this two-class view of Christians that is an offshoot of higher life theology.

 

Zaspel:
I read that early on in my ministry; and swallowed it for a while, as well.

You spell out quite a list of the leading problems associated with higher life teaching. We’ll get to something more positive in a minute, but can you survey or highlight some of them briefly for us?

Naselli:
Yes. I think in the book I limited it to ten reasons that higher life theology is harmful. Really, one reason is sufficient. There’s one knockout reason and that’s that higher life theology creates two categories of Christians. I give an entire chapter to that one reason to just explain, I think, five different reasons why that doesn’t work exegetically and theologically. It’s fundamentally flawed to have two distinct categories of Christians.

That’s the big one; and the other issues flow out of that. It’s a form of perfectionism; it’s a form of quietism; it’s a form of Pelagianism; it misreads the text and doesn’t interpret the Bible accurately; it provides false assurance; its methodology is faulty; it creates this need or dependence or an addiction to special experiences at holiness meetings; it’s, I think, abusive – it frustrates and disillusions people who aren’t experiencing this higher Christian life; and then, I think it misinterprets personal experiences.

 

Zaspel:
Do you have any sense of how pervasive this teaching is still today?

Naselli:
I don’t how to do that with accuracy, sociologically, so anecdotally, it seems pretty common in some versions of Fundamentalism. And also, in broader Evangelicalism, especially Pentecostalism. And for… I’m trying to say this nicely… There are people who love God; they are such godly, holy people, and they are drawn to reading Keswick theologians like Andrew Murray and others, because they sense that these authors know God – and they do – but that’s often the way that people imbibe this theology is through old devotional books like that. So, I don’t know how many it is now. In the circles that I run in now like the T4G, TGC, Bethlehem, the circles I’m in, it’s not common; but I have people contacting me constantly saying, “help!” or, “I’m hearing this in my school,” or, “this is in my church,” so it’s more common than some might think.

 

Zaspel:
Yeah, I believe it.

Let’s take a more positive approach. Biblically viewed, what does the Christian life look like? If it’s not “Let go, and let God,” then just what is the way forward?

Naselli:
I like how Jim Packer puts it. He says it’s not let go, and let God, it’s trust God, and get going. The Christian life does involve trusting in Jesus, resting in Jesus. Amen. Amen. Amen. But there’s no passivity about it. It’s work out your salvation with fear and trembling, because God is the one who’s enabling it all. There’s nowhere for us to just sit back and let go, and let God. That fundamental passivity is wrong. We must actively pursue holiness, actively benefit from the spiritual disciplines like reading the Bible and praying and fellowshipping with the Church, etc. etc. That’s how you grow as a Christian; it happens gradually; it happens throughout the course of your life.

My favorite analogy for this is eating. I don’t remember most of the meals that I’ve eaten in my life; but I remember some of them because they were so unusual and so memorable. I look back, and I remember the first time I had a steak Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. It was so good! My mouth was exploding with fire! It was like, Wow! I remember that, distinctly: but I don’t remember what I had for breakfast and lunch that day, it’s not really that important. But it is important because that is what God has used to sustain my life up to this point. That’s what it’s like in your Christian life. You might be able to look back and remember distinct experiences where you can think, “yeah, that was a great time where I grew spiritually. I took a large step of growth then.” But that doesn’t mean that you went from stage 1 to stage 2. It might just mean that you took a large step of growth. It’s just like you can remember a certain meal, but all the meals are important and all of them sustain you throughout your life. And benefiting from the means of grace throughout your life regularly is important.

 

Zaspel:
There is a history behind this book – it’s not your first effort on the subject. Tell us where your interest in this began, how it developed, and your larger work on the subject.  

Naselli:
When I was in college, I was part of a school and a church that their main emphasis was Keswick theology. It got me thinking and I had some friends outside that context who helped mentor me and gave me resources and I was reading widely in theology and just asking questions and doing word studies on words like metanoeo, to repent, etc. and by the time I went to another school for graduate school I started writing my research papers for each class on subjects related to Keswick theology. So, paper after paper after paper, and when it came time to choose a dissertation topic, I thought I should just address this one. So, I addressed Keswick theology for my first dissertation, and that was done in 2006. In 2010 that came out as a book that’s a more academic version that revises my dissertation and it’s called, Let Go and Let God? A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology. That book is available only in Logos Bible Software format, it’s not available in print. This new book that’s out, that you are interviewing me, about is a miniature version of my more detailed and academic work. In the new book, I’ve stripped out most of the academic jargon. I’ve repackaged it to make it more inviting and thoughtful for laypeople. It’s way shorter. I’ve tried to make it accessible to anyone who’s interested in the topic. So, there you go.

 

Zaspel:
You’ve succeeded well.

We’re talking to Dr. Andy Naselli, author of the new book, No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Comes From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful. It’s a really great read – important instruction for every Christian and easily accessible to all. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and I think you’ll find it helpful and clarifying too.

Andy, thanks for talking to us today.

Naselli:
My pleasure.

Buy the books

No Quick Fix: Where Higher Life Theology Came From, What It Is, and Why It’s Harmful

Lexham Press, 2017 | 160 pages