For a long time, there was no comprehensive and definitive statement of Keswick theology, making it hard to interact with. Steven Barabas changed that with the publication of his book So Great Salvation. In this article, Packer contrasts the Reformed view of sanctification with the Keswick view, as presented in Barabas’ book. Packer believes that Keswick theology is “impoverished” and “attenuated.” It rests on incorrect theological axioms, and if you “take it to mean what it says,” you will “prove comfortless and sterile.”
First, he states the Reformed view. In this view, sanctification is of the whole man. The Spirit works in our hearts to progressively put to death sinful attitudes and tendencies and bring to life holy tendencies and attitudes. God works through our activity, and in fact our activity itself is enabled by His power.
He then states, and critiques, the Keswick view. On this view, justification and sanctification are both received by faith—which means we receive sanctification by asking for it. We must come to a crisis point of decision, and then as a result of that decision we enter into the higher life of sanctification. This is not to say that we didn’t have the Spirit before, and Barabas is happy to speak of sanctification as beginning at conversion. But it is at this crisis point that sanctification begins “in earnest.” It is possible to receive this sanctification at conversion along with justification, but for most people the blessings are received at distinct times, often far apart, because justification comes through accepting Christ as Savior and sanctification through accepting Him as Lord.
One of Packer’s main critiques of this form of Keswick theology is that it is Pelagian. It implies that we can turn the work of the Spirit on and off in our lives by our own decisions which are not themselves caused by God. Some have even stated that God is only able to sanctify us according to our willingness. There is also some quietism in Keswick. There is the view that we know God’s will through “a mystical doctrine of personal communion with the Holy Ghost.” The indwelling of the Spirit is almost taken to mean not that the Spirit is present to empower us, but that He is there to issue direct commands telling us what to do. This relates to their teaching that we should not energetically seek to resist sin. Instead, we turn over a temptation to the Spirit, and then He deals with it. This is a form of vicarious sanctification—the Spirit works not through our wills, but does it all Himself. Packer is very troubled by all of this. He states that in the Reformed view, the Holy Spirit uses our faith (which He Himself gives) to sanctify us. In the Keswick view, we use the Holy Spirit (whom God puts at our disposal) to sanctify ourselves.
He also states that Keswick theology seems to teach a sanctification of our acts but not our persons. Our corrupt selves are not changed. Their effects of trying to pull us down are overcome by the insertion of a new principle of goodness in the Spirit. Further, our acts are practically able to reach perfection. Keswick theology often states that the believer is able to overcome all known sin on an ongoing basis. How contrary this is, Packer says, to the Reformed view that no matter how good our works, our conscience always tells us that we could have done better. These errors lead the Keswick movement to a novel interpretation of Romans 7:14-25. This text is now seen as an illustration of what happens when we try to conquer sin in our own self effort, rather than by handing temptation over to the Spirit.
In the end, Packer concludes that for all these reasons, Keswick theology is Pelagian, shallow, depressing, and delusionary.
Packer, James. “Keswick and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification.” Evangelical Quarterly 27 (1955): 153-167.