A Brief Note On The “Higher Life” Allegation Against The Critics Of Side-B/Revoice Theology

I am in the throes of trying to make real progress on the commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism. Today, I hope to finish the section on Heidelberg Catechism 92. My goal is to finish the work by the end of August. So, just a brief note this morning about some of the responses to PCA Overtures 23 and 37, which were passed at the recent PCA General Assembly and which intend to forbid the admission to special office anyone who self-identifies as a celibate, homosexual. The Revoice-influenced critics of the overture believe that a homosexual orientation is not sinful per se and they accuse the critics, who believe that it is necessarily sinful per se, of teaching the nineteenth-century theology of Robert Pearsall Smith, Theodore Jellinghaus et al., i.e., the doctrine of complete deliverance from the power of sin as a second blessing. Now it may be that the Higher Life theology has had more influence on contemporary Reformed theology than many (myself included) have hitherto recognized. Thus, to begin to think through this allegation I was reading a bit in B. B. Warfield’s monumental two-volume work, Perfectionism. In volume 1 he surveys the Higher Life movement specifically as a subset of the broader movement. As I read his account of the intersection of the “Mediating Theology” among the Germans—on this movement Zachary Purvis, Theology and the University in Nineteenth Century Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)—with the Higher Life movement that swept across Europe, the British Isles, and the US (even influencing Abraham Kuyper for a time) it seemed more familiar than I expected. I recognize some of the ideas and themes from some modern Reformed writers. Thus, the influence of the Higher Life movement on Overtures 23 and 37 is not, a priori, impossible. E.g., as I plunge headlong into the sixteenth-century context of the catechism again and compare that with way some modern Reformed folk talk about, e.g., union with Christ, I realize that some of what has been presented as the Reformed doctrine of union with Christ may have more to do with Albert Schweitzer’s doctrine of mystical union than it does with Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ.

Is the criticism true, however, that the claim that a persistent, immutable homosexual orientation is inherently sinful and corrupt, contrary to nature, and therefore disqualifying for pastoral ministry, is the product of the Higher Life movement and not authentic Reformed theology? Preliminary report: not according to Warfield’s account of the Higher Life movement. Part of what is at stake here is the Reformed doctrine of concupiscence. Another part of what is at stake here is the Reformed understanding of nature. I have been arguing for some time that the advocates of the Revoice theology do not properly distinguish nature and grace (see the resources below) and thus they do not appear to understand that homosexuality is not only sinful but also contrary to nature. A third consideration is the way the Revoice advocates talk about homosexuality, which, as I have been arguing, has more to do with post-1973 psychology than it does Scripture. So far none of this has anything to do with the Higher Life movement.

What is at issue is how we should talk about sanctification. Is it evidence of the influence of Keswick theology to speak of acknowledging a homosexual orientation per se to be sinful? No. This is old-fashioned confessional Reformed theology. I have spent the last week neck-deep in Ursinus’ Corpus doctrinae (our English translation of his lectures on the catechism, the Willard edition of the Commentary, is not always reliable) and in part 2 of Olevianus’ De substantia. In my mind, there is no question that were we to put to them the question whether the Revoice anthropology (the Christian doctrine of humanity) is acceptable, they would reject it heartily. One could not insert a worn dime between their theology of humanity and sin, their doctrine of definitive justification and progressive sanctification as the “double benefit of Christ” (Olevianus’ language), and that of the Westminster Standards.

I am not presenting myself as expert on the Higher Life movement but if we may take Warfield as a reliable guide then we should think that the Higher Life doctrine of sanctification is rather distinct from that embodied in overtures 23 and 37.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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18 comments

  1. Hebrews 7:25 “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” To say that there are limits to what Christ will do or can do, in sanctifying someone, and that in respects to an unnatural sin, one that is specifically called out as evidence of God’s judgement, is blasphemy. All these Revoice-esque arguments should be seen for what they are: attempts to justify one’s sin and sinful condition. That is a false Gospel. Peter and John warned us about this. Time for the Church and its Watchmen to stop being naive and gullible. Time for the Church and its Watchmen to protect the Church from false teacher, or confused, or false professors. Right now, there is a man in the PCA who is teaching and counselling people who does not believe Christ can or will remove his heinous sin, sin that he had before he was saved. How can he tell a repentant sinner that he should repent, when that Pastor has not repented himself or has given up on the Grace of our Lord. This man should not be a Pastor, and the PCA is at fault that he still is. It really isn’t about Higher Life, Second Work of Grace, or Perfectionism. It is about a Gospel that declares Christ died to reconcile sinners to God, Christ died so that the Spirit can conform us to Christ’s image (a process never ending for the believer until glory) so that Christ will be ‘the first born among many brothers’, and this same Christ lives and intercedes for His people continuously. Any highly educated clergy who denies these things is not a saved person. Feel free to delete this remark if it is temperament.

    • Randall,

      I don’t know whether the Revoice advocates are arguing that God cannot remove a persistent homosexual desire or orientation. They are arguing that such an orientation is not disqualifying for special office.

    • Dr. Clark,
      Do you believe the presence of those desires is disqualifying in of it self? Even if they are daily repenting of those desires, and do not identify with those desires?

      • Benjamin,

        The way you put it is not the way it’s put by the Side-B folk. The way you put it is more difficult.

        Were I voting on the candidacy of a man in my classis I would struggle with this. I first encountered the approach you describe when I read Sam Allberry’s book, Is God Anti-Gay? I interviewed him.

        I understood him to say that he thought that a homosexual orientation is per Se sinful and that he did not identify as gay. At that point was prepared to accept that approach. Since then I’ve had opportunity to think through the issues more thoroughly.

        1. I’m not sure that the point of view you describe is held by many people. I’m not certain that Sam holds it any longer. See the LGBTQ resource page.
        2. The Side-B view seems to be the dominant view now.
        3. Then there is the question of nature. A same-sex attraction is contrary to nature. That matters. How is that not disqualifying? In the last 30 years we’ve lost our sense of how repugnant homosexuality used to be.
        4. Then there is Paul’s language in 1 Cor 6: “such were some of you.” I’m not sure how to square a same-sex desire with the qualifications for ministry. Would we ordain someone who confessed that he struggled with a temptation to shoplift? Would we ordain someone who confessed to on ongoing desire to murder people? Not to put too fine a point on things but what about someone who confessed to an attraction to children or animals? Both are similar to homosexuality in that they are contrary to nature and are still illegal as homosexuality was just a few years ago.
        5. Otoh, I don’t want to set up a standard to means only the sinless qualify for pastoral ministry. It helps me to distinguish between sins. They are not all equally heinous, as the Divines said.
    • Dr. Clark, in response to this….

      “Then there is Paul’s language in 1 Cor 6: ‘such were some of you.’ I’m not sure how to square a same-sex desire with the qualifications for ministry. Would we ordain someone who confessed that he struggled with a temptation to shoplift? Would we ordain someone who confessed to on ongoing desire to murder people? Not to put too fine a point on things but what about someone who confessed to an attraction to children or animals? Both are similar to homosexuality in that they are contrary to nature and are still illegal as homosexuality was just a few years ago.”

      … I wonder if the best response would be to say that a person who identifies as ex-gay, but confesses to ongoing struggles, should be regarded as qualified for church membership and communion, but only ordained if serving in specialized roles where his background and continuing struggles would be unique assets rather than liabilities.

      The obvious example would be the question of whether to ordain such a person as an elder heading a ministry to homosexuals. Ordination to pastoral ministry raises additional questions in practice, though not necessarily in theory, since apart from formal theological training and being “apt to teach” at a higher level of laboring in the word and doctrine, the biblical qualifications for ruling and teaching elders are identical.

      I know at least one ordained pastor in a Reformed church who falls into that category though I am not sure how widely his service is known and for that reason don’t want to put the name and church online. I believe several ruling elders fall into that category though I am not certain if the people involved were ordained as elders for that specialized role or ordained as elders after having served for an extended period of time as laymen ministering to homosexuals.

      This is a very difficult question, both as to biblical principles and practical prudence, and I think it’s fair to say that confessionally Reformed churches are not necessarily going to come to the same conclusion on how best to proceed. The qualifications for ordained office are and should be very high, and the question of being of good report among outsiders is a legitimate concern. If in doubt, care, caution, and postponing a decision is prudent until a church and candidate are able to address doubts, and ideally to remove those doubts by answering them with unquestioned faithfulness in doctrine and life over an extended period.

  2. I think you meant to say “not only sinful but also against nature.” If something is against nature, but is not sinful (like a miracle), then it is not disqualification-eligible. Not being an elder is not being a particular servant for a particular task. Not being an elder doesn’t disqualify from pursuing the Christian life, benefiting from insights and sharing the benefit of insights. This seeking of eldership is a form a seeking for status, whereas as if someone really wants status in the body of Christ, the person needs to take the last seat in the house, and God will call forward, when that time comes. In other words, Revoice is borrowing their striving from perhaps the RCC orders and orders within orders and hierarchies and rankings and being well-spoken by men. No double-entendre intended there.

  3. Thank you, Dr. Clark. I was thinking about asking how you’d respond to the “Keswick” charge by Rev. Twit and others but now I don’t have to.

  4. Thank you, Dr. Clark, for documenting this.

    The “Higher Life” charge against these Overtures is shallow, historically ignorant, and smacks of desperation. And those are the strong points.

    On the other hand, it’s easy to show that these recent charges are of a piece with the “hyper-grace,” “grace only” (not, of course, “grace alone”), antinomian movement of a few years back. Both negate the objective Gospel by downplaying or denying the subjective changes which must follow; both present obedience to the law from a renewed heart as an oppressive burden; both want to hold on to justification tightly with one hand while losing a grip on sanctification with the other. It’s no accident that a number of the new “cheap grace boys” also support Revoice and Side B. Chop up the whole Gospel into pieces, and what remains can neither save nor sanctify.

    • And, if these recent critics indeed charge the Overtures with teaching “the doctrine of complete deliverance from the power of sin as a second blessing,” there’s even more to say: There is no basis – none – for such a charge. No one is teaching this, or even vaguely suggesting it. The documentation to prove the contrary is voluminous and easily accessible.

      As I hurl into advanced age, I have no time for such foolishness. For the honor of Christ and the good of His church, it’s time to speak bluntly. These men are making excuses for sinful thoughts, and they pile up euphemisms to obscure the ugliness of the matter.

      This is not a difficult subject, or in modern parlance “a complex issue that calls for honest conversation.” The fact that we are forced to discuss it at all highlights how far we have fallen from biblical and Reformed teaching. And remember, 23% of the commissioners to the recent PCA General Assembly voted against one of these Overtures. That may be the most sobering (shocking?) stat from the week of GA.

    • I agree, Dr. Clark, that probably some of the anti-Overture folks are sincerely wrong. Thanks for making that clear. I was speaking specifically, though, of the most vocal opponents, those who level the charges that you discuss in your post. In my opinion, these are not the “mushy middle,” the uninformed or easily swayed. These are the hard-core, true believers. I cannot look into their hearts, yet they are known by their fruits. As someone here has written, these are “highly educated clergy.” They openly flout the Biblical evidence, Christian tradition, and our confessional standards. I am convinced that they know exactly what they are doing. I make no judgment as to the state of their souls, only that their words are destructive to the peace and purity of the church. We have easily refuted them; we must rebuke them as well.

  5. Dear All,

    I have had to write to some of you, delete and edit comments. Please don’t make me do this. I’m really busy. Please don’t use inflammatory language. Please don’t say things that could get me into trouble. People hold me accountable for the words you use.

    Comments are good and useful but take a beat, take a breath, and think about the consequences of what you write here. It’s not 1999. The internet is a covenant of works and anything you say can and will be held against you and me.

    Please.

  6. Yesterday over coffee I outlined Thompson & Kwon’s criticism of DeYoung’s review of their book and replaced the majority binary that they speak against (CRT white supremacy) with the minority binary that Revoice advocates (homosexual theology).

    To summarize, every category in Thompson & Kwon’s review is relevant to Revoice with little or no modification. Thompson & Kwon make accusations of selfishly centering one’s own identity, reducing sin, treating sin as confined, privileging comfort, minimizing sin, relativizing sin, prioritizing shamelessness etc. Those categories are all relevant to Revoice criticism.

    Particularly relating to the Higher Life, look how Thompson & Kwon criticize what they call “white” theology as “narrowing the Gospel” with its spiritualizing, forensic and individualizing tendencies.

    We can chart this spectrum and expect criticism on both ends. If we do not exhort enough sanctification then we have spiritualized and individualized sin, relying on the atoning forensic work of Christ in an antinomian way. But if we exhort too much sanctification then we are accused of a legalistic Higher Life Theology.

    (I’m oversimplifying because I don’t actually think skin color is an issue of sin)

    My tentative conclusion is that the accusations of each can be helpfully applied to the other. It is Thompson & Kwon who are teaching a Higher Life Theology, and Revoice advocates who are minimizing and relativizing sin.

  7. Does the Higher Life movement infect those who are critics of Side B thinking? Well, no, but we who criticize Revoice are regularly accused of Deeper Christian Life views. The idea shows in the Missouri Presbytery report which exonerated Greg Johnson. In reply to a communication from a church in Texas the report includes these words:
    “In failing to incorporate the truth of the mysteriousness of God’s work in sanctification, Allegation #3 skates close to the edges of an “up, up, and away,” “better and better every day, in every way” theology of God’s work in making believers holy—a theology which, if we want to be fair, ought then be applied not only to same-sex-attracted brothers and sisters in Christ, but to all believers … In short, a one-sided view of sanctification can land us very near some kind of perfectionism which seeks now what God has only promised us for the future.”
    Note the “up, up, and away” characterization of the church’s position. That ties in with Higher Life language. The 125 page report is available on the Missouri Presbytery website, just scroll with “31-2.” The church’s letter had explicitly rejected eradication and perfectionism. The term far more used in the PCA by defenders of Side B pastors is triumphalism. If we say that the blood of Christ cleanses from all sin, we are tilting to triumphalism, though no one would say that of the Apostle John’s words. When we insist that progressive sanctification means progress against same-sex attraction, then the t-word comes out of its holster. So in this way we really are painted with Higher Life views.

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