I recently received a complimentary copy of Jerry Bridges' audiobook version of The Pursuit of Holiness in order to review it (without any expectation of a positive review, as will be obvious here :) ). I had several theological problems with this book that bleed over to the larger issues of some of holiness movements. Let's go through these by way of some of Bridges' central points:
Factual certainty is central to faith. This, I think, is one of the most damaging elements of this book. At the same time, it was one of the most helpful to me, as it elucidated why so many people are obsessed with sin and the purging of sin: It helps certainty of salvation (more on this later).
Bridges states, "Faith must always be based in fact." I'm not sure where he gets this idea, as it's not biblical or humanly defined. Hebrews 10:1 defines faith as being certain, but based on what we hope for and cannot see. As emphasized by the positivist and empiricist movements, fact is really based on what can be observed by humans. That does not meant there is no fact of God. It means that there does not have to be proof in order to have faith. In fact, faith is more powerful without fact.
Secular definitions also define faith as not being based in fact. Wikipedia's first sentence in the article on faith states, "Faith is the confident belief or trust in a person, idea, or thing that is not based on proof." Other definitions of faith have more to do with the general idea of belief or trust, not necessarily rooted in fact.
This blog is devoted to people's struggles with faith, usually based on their reliance on facts that end up being unsupportable or not as they originally thought. Just because the facts disappear does not mean God or our faith have to disappear.
Reason must contain and control desire. Bridges rightly explains that our desires can be impure and lead us down some terrible roads. Therefore, he argues that we must always use our reason to contain our sinful desires. Reason is a very good thing, but it can also lead us astray. As a psychologist, I frequently see the reason-based defense of rationalization used to dissociate someone from their emotions and therefore move them away from truth.
Ransomed Heart Ministries is based on the premise that once we give our lives to Christ, he gives us a new, good heart. Heck, even the more conservative and sinlessness-driven John Piper's ministry is called Desiring God. We must listen to our desires. Yes, they may mislead us, but if we pay good attention to them, we will hear God speaking to us. Frankly, God speaks to us more through our emotions than through our intellect.
Holy is defined by sinlessness. Bridges states that holiness is "separation from impurity and moral evil." This is one of the biggest and most dangerous bad definitions in Christianity. A few months ago, I talked about how holy and sinlessness are not one in the same. Holiness can include sinlessness, but it is not defined by it. Rather, a better definition of holy is sacred, meaning set apart. Avoiding sin is one way to be set apart, but holiness is a lot more than that.
Granted, Bridges later says that holiness is in a broader sense "obedience to the will of God in whatever God directs," but by the content of his book, he clearly focuses on God's will being that we lead sinless lives.
One of the reasons this perspective can be dangerous is that it can lead us to assume that God dislikes us. Jonathan Brinks recently posted an article related to a video by Skye Jethani, exploring how God views us in the midst of sin. The answer: God loves us. When we forget that, our relationship with God becomes strained because we no longer trust him. But usually that's not our fault, but rather the fault of the Church.
Sinlessness is the evidence of salvation. Bridges states partway through his book, "The only evidence of salvation we have is a holy life." Based on his definition of holy, this would mean sinless. Besides the fact that no person will ever be sinless on earth (Bridges notes this), this idea is simply not biblical. He argues that the Holy Spirit helps us become sinless.
Yet in Galatians 5:22-23, Paul states the fruit of the spirit is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." Do these correlate with sinlessness? Some do. But these indicate something much more than the absence of sin. They emphasize the presence of love. Frankly, most of these emphasize desire and emotion and not reason, contrary to Bridges earlier point about reason trumping emotion.
Finally, this brings us back to the idea of the role and motivation of factual certainty. It seems this whole book (and I would argue much of people's obsessions with sin) is focused on the need to be confident in their own salvation. This is definitely an understandable concern: We don't want to wonder if we'll be in Heaven. We want proof. So we look for it in various ways.
One of the ways is emphasizing a "pure," sinless life. Like the Pharisees, we can become self-righteous if we lead sinless lives, being certain of our salvation. But just like the Pharisees, it is at this time that we are the farthest from God, missing the true hope of salvation in a relationship with Christ.