Occasionally I hear people use the label Keswick in a derogatory way. Yet others use the term quite positively. Someone who did not know the term would wonder if Keswick is a good word or a bad one. The issue, of course, is not the term, but what one means by the term.Evangelist John Van Gelderen has written a revised and expanded edition of the original edition of this article by the same name. I encourage all guests to read the article like a study. Move slowly through each paragraph, consider the history, the underlying theology, the answers to inaccurate accusations/misrepresentations and reasons for them, meditate on the Scriptural principals set forth. Dr. Van Gelderen says, “...derogatory slurs against this truth are not small matters.” This article concludes the short series on Keswick, which I hope has been helpful read for all concerned on either side of the debate. If you found this article helpful please consider sharing the link to it with a wide a circle of friends and acquaintances.
Historical Background and Theology
Keswick is a beautiful town nestled in the Lake District of England. In 1875, a conference began there which continued annually as “The Keswick Convention.” Its original stated purpose was for the deepening of spiritual life. To accomplish this purpose, a definite theological position was taught—sanctification by faith, sometimes called holiness by faith.
The focus of the theology was on Christ as one’s life. This was sometimes called “The Higher Life,” or “The Deeper Life,” or “The Victorious Life.” Although in later years other ideas were sometimes attached to some of these labels in various sub-groups, their original usage was Christ-focused, and still remains so by the majority of those who use the terms.
In other words, the “Higher Life,” the “Deeper Life,” the “Victorious Life,” the “Spirit-filled Life,” the “Christ-Life” is not a new line of teaching. It is not a mere set of doctrines; it is not a set of motions; it is not a conference, a convention, or a movement—it is a Life. That Life is a Person, and His name is Jesus! Jesus is the “Higher Life.” Jesus is the “Deeper Life.” Jesus is the “Victorious Life.” How can it be otherwise? Sanctification, or holiness by faith, is simply accessing the “Holy Life” by faith. It is “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” by “faith” (Gal. 2:20). Holiness by faith is accessing the Holy Life of Jesus to empower holy living and serving. It is becoming “partakers of His holiness” (Heb.12:10) through the impartation of His life, not a self-dependent attempt to imitate His life.
Keswick theology teaches that “progressive sanctification” does not mean an inevitable gradual sanctification, but rather that sanctification is accelerated by faith choices and is hindered by choices of unbelief. Obviously, the Holy Spirit keeps working, but believers are responsible to cooperate in faith for sanctification to progress according to God’s will. Keswick teaches that just as justification is by faith, so also sanctification is by faith. “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him” (Col. 2:6).
To help people understand how to “progress” in sanctification, Keswick emphasized a specific theme each of the five days of their convention: Sin (sin is the problem, both outer man sins and especially inner man sins), Provision (Christ is the answer through the cleansing power of His blood and the enabling power of His Spirit), Consecration (the access to Christ’s provision is through surrender to/dependence on Christ’s leadership and surrender to/dependence on Christ’s enablement), the Spirit-filled Life (surrender/faith accesses Christ’s Life—the Spirit-filled life for holiness and service), and Service (the whole point of sanctification by faith is to then serve by faith primarily in the declaration of the Gospel).
The Keswick Convention began in 1875 and continues to this day in England. However, as with many movements, eventually the original focus was lost so that today the Keswick Convention no longer truly represents its original purpose. The first two generations of Keswick (the first eighty years) held to the original theology. In other words, Keswick theology stayed largely true to its beginning from 1875 through the 1950s. During this time, Keswick guarded itself from the extremes of certain factions within the “Holiness Movement.” Ecclesiastically, however, Keswick began to weaken during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s and 1930s. Their motto of “all one in Christ,” though a blessed truth in biblical proportion, set them up for potential compromise when this controversy came on the scene. This compromise eventually eroded their theology in significant ways by the 1960s. However, it should be noted that many other Keswick or Keswick-type meetings have stayed true to Keswick theology to this day.
First-generation Keswick included as speakers Evan Hopkins (who spoke annually for 39 years), F. B. Meyer (regular speaker from 1887 to 1925), Handley G. C. Moule (regular speaker from the mid-1880s to his death), G. Campbell Morgan, A. T. Pierson, A. J. Gordon, S. D. Gordon, R. A. Torrey, Andrew Murray, Hudson Taylor, Jonathan Goforth, and W. H. Griffith Thomas. Second-generation Keswick was led by W. Graham Scroggie, and included Donald Grey Barnhouse and J. Oswald Sanders.
Notice how familiar many of these names are and how they are esteemed even to this day. R. A. Torrey was so respected in his day that he was the editor of The Fundamentals. The Fundamentals contain 90 articles. Speakers associated with Keswick theology wrote at least 21% of these articles. Of the total number of authors used, at least 29% were associated with Keswick theology. This is a significant fact and shows that Keswick was mainstream in the beginnings of biblical fundamentalism. Therefore, Keswick was clearly considered “orthodox.” To denigrate Keswick is to denigrate the roots of fundamentalism.
I prefer to call Keswick theology “revival theology,” although there is a sense in which revival theology is broader than sanctification by faith. When one is awakened to the need to access the indwelling Life of Christ by faith and begins to appropriate that Life for the steps of obedience, personal revival occurs. Personal revival is a restoration to spiritual life—the Life of Christ in you accessed by faith as the animating power to your personality. This doctrine did not begin in 1875 with Keswick. It began in the New Testament (John 10:10, 14-16; Rom. 6-8; II Cor. 3:5,17-18; 9:8; Gal. 2:20; 3:1-5,14; Eph. 3:17; 5:18; Phil. 1:21; Col. 1:27; 3:4). Even in corporate revival this is what occurs to the individuals involved. This is revival theology! In fact, in The Flaming Tongue, J. Edwin Orr’s account of the early twentieth-century revivals which affected at least 57 nations, Orr repeatedly documents that Keswick-type conferences were used of God to either ignite revival fire or to greatly fuel it.
In the work entitled Five Views of Sanctification, J. Robertson McQuilken wrote the Keswick view, and John Walvoord wrote the Augustinian-Dispensational view. After each author presented his view, he then had opportunity to respond to the other views. Essentially, McQuilken maintained no real difference between the Keswick view and the Augustinian-Dispensational view, and Walvoord maintained no real difference between the Augustinian-Dispensational view and the Keswick view. Dispensational theology is broader than just sanctification, whereas Keswick deals primarily with sanctification. But on sanctification, Keswick theology is Dispensational theology embraced by many today.
Over the years I have come across several inaccurate accusations against Keswick theology.
Some accuse Keswick of passivity. This is probably because Keswick emphasizes resting in Christ. However, the emphasis is not to sit back and do nothing, but rather trust to obey. It is obedient faith, and, therefore, believing obedience. Resting in Jesus involves the due diligence of faith-filled (resting) obedience (labor) as stated by the Apostle, “Whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.” This is not mere “labour,” but “labour” that is trusting in “his working.” The emphasis is not idle passivity, but active cooperation—the cooperation of surrendering to the Spirit’s leadership and depending on His enablement. This is walking in the Spirit, which obviously involves steps, not quietistic passivity. But the steps are steps of faith, not the mere motions of flesh-dependent activity. This is what brings “rest unto your souls” (Matt. 11:29), for as one preacher said, “When you yoke up with Jesus, He carries the load!”
Keswick denounces performance-based sanctification or “struggle theology,” which is flesh-dependence in an effort to live the Christian life. Sanctification by works is just as wrong as justification by works (Gal. 3:1-3). You do not get justified by faith, and then get sanctified by struggle. Sanctification is also by faith, for “without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb.11:6). Obviously there are struggles in life, but flesh-dependence for frustrated Christian living is an unnecessary struggle. Faith for victory means you are depending on the victorious life of Christ to enable you to obey. It is not a matter of you trying to live the Christian life (hollow motions), it is a matter of trusting the indwelling Christ to enable you for the steps of obedience (empowered motions). So victory without trying does not mean victory doing nothing; it means victory with trusting. True faith is not an inward, “navel-gazing,” self-focus; it is focusing rather on Christ, the true object of faith, that He might express His very Life through yours. To accuse Keswick theology of passivity is simply not accurate.
Occasionally Keswick theology is labeled derogatorily as being too subjective. This is probably because of Keswick’s emphasis on the reality of the Holy Spirit. However, Keswick emphasizes the subjective reality of the Spirit, based on the objective boundaries of the Word. The emphasis is by no means the Spirit without the Word. Nor is it the Word without the Spirit. Rather, it is the Word and the Spirit. The Spirit without the Word is delusion leading to strange fire. The Word without the Spirit is deadness leading to no fire. But the Word and the Spirit is dynamic leading to true Holy Spirit fire.
Interestingly, Robert Thomas rightly deals with the dangerous subjectivism of evangelicals in his book called Evangelical Hermeneutics. He names many names in the evangelical world that he considers guilty of true subjectivism. But when he seeks to show a right approach, he often quotes J. Robertson McQuilken as handling matters biblically. McQuilken, who wrote several helpful books, is the writer of the Keswick view of sanctification in Five Views of Sanctification, which we noted earlier. Keswick teaches the subjective reality of the Holy Spirit based on the Word, not subjectivism which leaves the scriptural foundation. To accuse Keswick of subjectivism reveals an inaccurate understanding of Keswick teaching.
Some accuse Keswick of second blessing theology. But this shows great ignorance of both true second blessing theology and Keswick theology. Second blessing theology speaks of receiving a once-for-all second blessing which puts one on a new stage never to fall back to the former stage. Keswick speaks of alternating between two conditions of either walking in the flesh or walking in the Spirit. It is not once for all. Second blessing theology demands a “second” event. Keswick teaches that you were given the whole package at salvation and that you can access the whole blessing immediately (and some do), but that many, because of a lack of understanding, do not until later. Even then, it is not a second blessing, but a second, and a third, and a fourth, and so on. Second blessing theology says that you receive something you did not yet have. Keswick theology teaches that you, by faith, access your first blessing! However, when one has not accessed the provision of the indwelling Christ for quite some time, when he does so, it may seem like a second blessing, even though technically it is not. This explains why some early Keswick writers used the terminology of second blessing (which confuses matters today), but they did so only in the sense that I have described above, which is different from true second blessing theology.
I suppose this charge comes because Keswick theology emphasizes the victorious life of Christ. The provision for victory is perfect. It has to be—His name is Jesus! But Keswick makes clear that we still live in the “body of sin” (Rom. 6:6). The focus of Keswick is not that you cannot sin, but that you are able not to sin because of the indwelling Christ. Keswick makes clear that tragically Christians sin. Yet it teaches that the focus should not be on being defeated, but rather on victory in Christ by faith. The provision of the indwelling Christ is perfect, but our consistent access of that perfect provision is sadly imperfect.
This is quite different from a Wesleyan position. There is no such thing as a Wesleyan/Keswick position. Rather, there is a Dispensational/Keswick position. To accuse Keswick theology of sinless perfectionism is simply not being honest with the facts of Keswick teaching.
Let Go, and Let God
Sadly, this phraseology has had various aberrant concepts attached to it in recent decades. Therefore, I do not use this phrase. However, its original usage in the early Keswick era was simply to “let go” of self-will and self-dependence, and “let God” by yielding to God’s will in God-dependence. It represents the words of the Lord Jesus “Whosoever shall lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:24). While it is understandable that the aberrations of this phrase must be clarified, it is sad that the original God-centered and ultimately Christ-centered meaning of the phrase is being denigrated by some as well.
Reasons for the Attack
Several reasons for the criticism of Keswick theology are observable.
Amazingly, I have been in various settings where speakers had just taught Keswick/Deeper Life theology and then said, “Now I’m not talking about Keswick,” or, “I’m not talking about the Deeper Life.” This shows that they do not really know what the labels actually mean, but are likely functioning off of hearsay and concepts which have been attached to the terms Keswick or Deeper Life by their critics. First impressions are mind-setting. Someone “bent their ear,” or they read the critics of Keswick without actually reading the Keswick authors themselves. Then, when they criticize the term Keswick or its related terms, they are shooting themselves in the foot because they are undermining what they themselves teach. Obviously this is unintentional, but still it is harmful to that which they believe.
Not all proclaimed-Calvinists clash with Keswick, but those of a thoroughgoing system often do. Keswick emphasizes man’s responsibility of faith (sanctification by faith). Some Calvinists claim this is man-centered. But how can God-dependence theology be man-centered? Faith is not a work; it is dependence upon the Worker. The inspired Word says, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him” (Rom. 4:5). Therefore, faith is the opposite of works. Faith says, “I can’t, but God can,” and so depends upon God. The focus of true faith is, of necessity, on God, who is the object of faith. This is undeniably God-centered.
The clash is between inevitable faith (thorough-going Calvinism) and responsible faith (Keswick). Does progressive sanctification just inevitably occur for every true child of God, or can it be hindered by unbelief and accelerated by faith? Keswick claims the latter. Interestingly, responsible faith (Keswick) also clashes with the misfocused faith of unfettered choice (thorough-going Arminianism). Responsible faith means you are responding to the convincing work of the Spirit based on God’s Word. It is not unfettered choice, nor is it inevitable. It is a true responsibility.
When I hear or read what some Calvinists claim that Keswick teaches, I’m amazed at the inaccuracy. Perhaps some read the critics of Keswick and not Keswick authors themselves. Others may perhaps read Keswick authors but do so with such bias that they do not read what the authors are actually saying. The outcome is major misrepresentation.
Some may attack Keswick because they supposedly “tried it, and it didn’t work” for them. However, the problem is not with the provision of the indwelling Christ, but with either a misunderstanding of truth or a misapplication of surrender.
Some people misunderstand faith, what it is, and how it operates. Like a triangle with three sides, faith must involve the three parts of the soul of man (mind, affections, will), or it is not true faith. The mind must understand the foundation of truth revealed in God’s Word. The affections must be affected (convinced) by what is understood. Then the will must engage in God-dependence based on Spirit-convincement of the reality of God’s words. Regarding sanctification by faith, it seems to me that some may attempt to move from mere intellectual understanding to a choice of the will without actually being convinced by the Spirit of the truth involved. This would “short-circuit” the process because it would not be real faith. It would be wishful thinking rather than convinced confidence. When this is the case, some may conclude, “I tried it, and it didn’t work.” However, when the Holy Spirit illumines truth, the convincement leads to genuine faith – which always works.
Others misapply surrender/faith. They may not have given their all to Christ, trusting Him to take it. Or they may not have taken His all to them, trusting Him to give it.
For those who “tried it and it didn’t work,” the problem is not with the truth of the provision of the indwelling Christ which may be accessed by faith. Yet it is always easier to blame something other than yourself.
Satan attacks revival truth! He is the master deceiver. Revival theology (Keswick) threatens his turf. Much of the controversy is stirred up by his deceptions. When you understand that Keswick-type conferences were used to ignite revival fires or fuel them in the early twentieth-century revivals, it is no wonder that Satan has attacked Keswick theology in order to prevent another great wave of revival blessing.
Obviously, an article which is brief in its nature cannot deal with all the details of the present confusion around the word Keswick. May I suggest that you read the Keswick authors, and let them speak for themselves. Their writings have been blessed of God to point many to Christ and the Word, away from self and the world, which gloriously passes the tests of 1 John 4. Read G. Campbell Morgan’s The Spirit of God, Evan Hopkins’ The Law of Liberty in the Spiritual Life, J. Elder Cummings’ Through the Eternal Spirit, Handley G. C. Moule’s Practicing the Promises and his treatment of Romans 6-8 in his commentary on Romans, F. B. Meyer’s many books, W. H. Griffith Thomas’ treatment of Romans 6-8 in his commentary on Romans, A. J. Gordon’s writings, A. T. Pierson’s works, and so forth. Steven Barabas quotes from many Keswick authors in his book entitled So Great Salvation: The History and Message of the Keswick Convention.
So, is Keswick a good word or a bad one? If you mean sanctification by faith, thus accessing the victorious life of Christ, that is gloriously good! However, I prefer to use the label “revival theology.” The issue, of course, is not a label, but truth.
The Christian life is not merely a set of doctrines. It is not merely a set of moral actions. Unsaved moralists have that. The Christian life is a life—a person—and His name is Jesus! Jesus Christ is the Christian Life. Therefore, Jesus Christ is the only one who can live the Christian life. But when you were born again, Christ, the Christian life Himself, moved into you —to impart to you His life. He lives in you so that you, yet not you, but Christ in you, can live the Christian life. When you got saved, Christ moved in—to live His life, not yours! But this is not automatic. As you received Christ by faith, you also must walk by faith one step at a time (Col. 2:6). This is accessing the eternal life of Christ as the abundant life in Christ. This is sanctification by faith. Ultimately, this is revival reality.
For those of us who believe the theology of “Christ in you accessed by faith,” the derogatory slurs against this truth are not small matters. Jesus is the Victorious Life, the Higher Life, the Deeper Life, the Spirit-filled Life, the Revived Life, the Hidden Life,—the Christ-Life! To us, when holiness by faith—the Holy Life accessed by faith—is attacked, the attack is ultimately on the indwelling Life of Christ.
I published this article in a shorter form in Revival magazine, Issue Five, 2006. The only significant changes in this present publication are expansions. Since 2006, the term revival theology has taken hold. My hope was that this would avoid any unnecessary confusion which surrounded the word Keswick. However, I have discovered that, in some cases, the attack simply switched to the term revival theology. This indicates that the issue is not what terminology you choose to use, but rather the truth behind the terms. It is becoming more apparent that the real problem for some is “ye do always resist the Holy Spirit.” The real tension point for some is “the offense of the cross.” The cross repudiates self in both justification by works and sanctification by works. Furthermore, not only does the cross repudiate the works of the flesh (self-indulgence), the cross repudiates the work of the flesh (self-dependence). The cross demands “not I, but Christ” (Gal. 2:20). The heart of Keswick theology is accessing this Holy Life of Jesus by faith, nothing less, nothing more.
Dr. John R. Van Gelderen
Revival Focus Ministries