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Keswick Theology (a.k.a. Chaferianism) **

** From my old xanga blog posted in June, 2005. Edited in its present form in April 2007. Temporarily removed from May 2007 to August 2007.


These thoughts have been whirling around in my head for several weeks.

In my Moody seminar, we discussed the Keswick “movement.” I think we can call it a movement. It started as a camp in the mid-nineteenth-century in Keswick in the UK, a lake-front resort town. The kind of Christianity described and promoted in this camp resonated with D.L. Moody and contributed to his success in the British revivals there in 1873-1875. When Moody returned to the US for his American revivals, he had already digested this Keswick doctrine and became its chief American importer.If you’ve heard yourself repeating “Let go and let God.” you’re citing Keswick. If you’ve ever sung, “Oh, to be Nothing” or “I Surrender All.” you’re singing Keswick songs. If you’ve been vexed by the necessity for continuous consecrations, if you’ve heard about the “second blessing,” if you’ve heard sermons on “the victorious life,” if you’ve ever been motivated to “dedicate” your life to Christ, if you’ve ever participated in Campus Crusade, that’s a Keswick influence (Marsden 78).

Keswickian proponents try to negotiate among a Calvinist “total depravity,” a Wesleyan “eradication” or “perfection,” and a Pentecostal “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” George Marsden explains it as follows: “as long as Christ dwelt in the heart a Christian could be free from committing any known sin. There was therefore no excuse for tolerating any known vice, appetite, or sinful habit” (78). Marsden gives a lengthy description of Keswick’s influence on contemporary fundamentalism in his now classic, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelism, 1870-1925. Their popular metaphor is that “sinful nature is like an uninflated balloon with a cart (the weight of sin) attached. Christ fills the balloon and the resulting buoyancy overcomes the natral gravity of our sin. While Christ fills ours lives we do not have a tendency to sin, yet we still are liable to sin. Were we to let Christ out of our lives, sin would immediately take over” (78). Marsden labels Keswick, New Jersey as the new hub of Keswick teaching in the United States and then Columbia Bible College as its intellectual think tank where Keswick notions dominated among the middle-class and Pentecostalism flourished with the more disenfranchised (96). While D. L. Moody popularized it, Scofield and Ironside documented Keswick theology. And Charles Trumball perpetuated the “let go and let God” motto. He elaborated that Christ would rule in us so long as we did not interfere. Objectors claim that “Christ was supposedly let in and out of peoples’ lives like steam or electricity turned on or off” (98).Marsden rightly reminds his readers that Keswick works in the US because the notion of “free will” is an “American dogma” (99). Keswick negotiates between God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. Marsden ends his chapter on Keswick history by addressing it as a dispensational compliment within the Bible institute movement. It softened the often hard edge of “more objective arguments” and the harder edge of a cultural pessimism by focusing on individual success (100-01).

Such is the history, but M. James Sawyer lays out the Keswick theology. For the Keswickian there are two types of Christian: carnal and normal. For the normal Christian, the self is dethroned, yielded, absent. Any hint of self-identity, however, is carnal. Sin, in the Keswickian perspective, is overwhelmingly powerful. And while it can never be eradicated, it must be continually thwarted. Full surrender is the only solution; anything less is willful rebellion. What this comes down to is complete capitulation of anything human or anything personal. The self is useless. It has no rights, no personality, and no humanity.

Sawyer also points out the formulaic quality to the Keswick mindset. If you hear “there are just five simple steps to a successful Christian walk,” beware! This simplicity is only possible with an eradication of any difficult feelings. For the Keswickian, a strong faith is proven in positive “feelings.” Negative or strong feelings demonstrate self-rule and are, thus, to be avoided (read: denied) at all cost.

Keswick teaching assumes a Gnostic kind of dualism-the good angel and the bad devil sitting on the shoulders of every believer, ready to duke it out for ultimate control. When the believer remains completely passive, then the “good” side may take over. But any sign of will is certain doom.

But the fact of the matter is, as Sawyer points out, there is no metaphor of “control” in the New Testament. The Good Shepherd does lord not over His sheep. The husband does not strive to control his wife. Christ does not boss the church. Instead, there’s a metaphor of “leading.” “In fact, a result of the Spirit’s ministry on our lives is self-controlยญ, this would hardly seem possible if the regenerate self were still totally evil as Keswick claims,” Sawyer reminds his readers.

Sawyer’s principle critique is that Keswick is merely a kind of Holiness teaching that leads to introspection, elitism, and simplistic spirituality. By redefining sin from missing the mark (something we all do by our nature) to stubborn rebellion (something we choose to do by our will), they move the legalism from the objective sphere to the subjective. It is then even more impossible to be a good Christian because the standard is fuzzy and super-human.

So much for Sawyer and the 19th-century. In the drama of Keswick, believers are very much the actors, holding the reigns, controlling the outcome. They are acting upon God who is merely the scene. They seem to view the Christian walk as a tightrope that we must constantly balance all our weight upon. One little slip to the left or the right, one little glimpse down below, and we’re doomed.

The thing that’s so obnoxious to me is that I hear this Keswickian struggle at every turn. From a popular writer and speaker and counselor:

“Our greatest danger is always the flesh.”

“Dealing with such topics as learning to exercise self-restraint, recognizing reality, walking in wisdom, and setting a godly example, Changed Into His Image has been the key for thousands of believers to unlock the mysteries of overcoming and fruitful living.”

From an ever-present tract:

“Not far down this road you meet the second: the Cross of Dedication. It is you, not Christ, who must hang upon this cross. It is a cross of death to self. As a Believer, you realize this truth and place yourself upon this cross, believing that by dying to self you will be spiritually alive to serve Jesus Christ. Your life is saved and your works of faith will produce rewards in Heaven.”

But I hear it in conversations too. From my friend who is grieving the loss of her child and won’t admit her sadness because it doesn’t seem Christian. From a harsh counselor who insists that depression is just a sin problem and taking antidepressants indicates a weak Christian commitment. From an acquaintance who denies her vulnerability but pitifully and futilely shines the veneer of her perfect Christian life. From a preacher who insists that any whiff of self-esteem is ungodly. From a colleague who refuses to hear any appeals to our rights as citizens because we have no rights. From a friend’s cutesy knick-knack that quips “there are two choices on the shelf, pleasing God and pleasing self.” From a punitive culture that insists upon controlling rather than leading, dismissing rather than reflecting, inflicting pain rather than teaching. From a trenchant capitalism that perpetuates the idea that just one more product wil perfect our boring love lives, our overweight bodies, and our jammed careers.

I was discussing this with a seasoned professor that I admire who’s writing a book to counteract our culture’s avoidance of strong feelings. He reminded me that Dr. Bob, Sr. founded BJU in defiance of the Bible Institute movement and Keswick teaching. He saw the Christian walk as less a mysterious balance and more a plain common sense. And yet it has creeped in. ย Maybe because it sells so well.

The Christian walk is not a punitive balance on a tenuous tight-rope. It’s more like a walk in a state park, with God’s boundaries clearly delineated, through which we can wander fairly freely under His leading, enjoying the valleys and the hilltops, but always safe in His care. He is always sovereign, having created our personalities for His pleasure. We are human, and being human isn’t a sin. Trying to be super-human is.

47 thoughts on “Keswick Theology (a.k.a. Chaferianism) **

  1. Phenomenal post. Thank you for taking the time “back then” to write it … and for putting it back up now.

    I work in a marvelous little Christian school where several of my beloved high schoolers wrestle with the nasty aftershocks of Keswick theology in their churches (even Reformed ones).

    It grieves me to see kids turn away from church and Christianity because they’re tired of being handed a rulebook to follow, of being judged for outward appearance or for actions that appear “bad” to some Christians … but were obviously well-motivated to someone who takes the time to investigate.

    The cost of inculcating legalism in kids in place of the true Gospel frightens me. Grace scares me too because God is not a man that can be controlled. “He is not a safe Lion.” There’s no telling what God will rip apart in His quest to free me from sin. Nor am I sure what kind of trouble I’m going to get into while exploring the freedom I have in Christ. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    But legalism (no matter how beautiful the window dressing) is downright terrifying.

  2. Thank you for telling me about your blog. I will enjoy visiting it and reading what you have to say. My prayers are with you as you and your family have begun this new chapter in your lives.

  3. You’ve done a great job of distilling the Keswick philosophy in this post. I can see how this was incorporated into the fundamentalist mindset in which I grew up in the 70’s and continues today in fundamentalist circles.

    One note…In the paragraph that begins — “But the fact of the matter is, as Sawyer points out, there is no metaphor of โ€œcontrolโ€ in the New Testament. The Good Shepherd does lord over His sheep.” — I think you meant to say “does *not* lord over His sheep” given the parallel constructions which follow.

    Anyway, thanks for reposting this. Although having spent a delightful week in Keswick (UK) a few years ago, I’d prefer a different name for the theology. I guess I’ll have to go with Chaferianism (but I haven’t read enough yet to know the derivation of that term).

  4. I was using the library at the Great Institution last week. I went to the Seminary building to get a soft drink. Anyway, I was looking at that painting/mural of all the evangelists. I remember a teacher told a story of when the seminary building first opened and he gave a tour. A little old lady asked him why Chafer’s picture wasn’t up there. Can’t remember his exact response, but it was something to the effect that they didn’t approve of Chafer (a church history professor thinks he ruined the 2nd Gr. Aw.)

    As that story came to mind I thought about this post(a very helpful one, btw). The place is eat up with Chaferianism but he doesn’t get a spot on the wall of great American evangelist.

    Ahhhh, the inconsistencies!

  5. Interesting, Carey. Hadn’t thought of that one. I have always been bugged by the fact that they don’t have Finney up there. How can they ignore Finney? When I studied him, I kept asking every one, “Why don’t we like Finney? We’re just like him.”

    In hindsight, it’s kind of a naive question. That’s exactly why they don’t like Finney — because they are just like him.

    Sigh. . . .

    1. That’s true–they ARE just like Finney, using all his “techniques” and following his methods. Legalism is the logical outgrowth of Finneyism.

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  7. Thank you for the post, I appreciated it at a time when I am doing some research concerning Kewick theology. I am a Bible college student and am thankful for a strong, local-church based college in which to train. In your post you said the Keswickian believes that full surrender is the only way to thwart sin. If you don’t agree, what are your thoughts on the matter? Lastly, I want to say that I am not a legalist, but the Bible clearly teaches strong standards. It seems that some who have posted against Keswick fail to see the importance of standards in the life of the believer and have even joked about their “freedom in Christ.” Fighting against legalism gives no one the excuse to live dishonorably as a Christian. All things ought to be done for the glory of God.

  8. Hey, Shawn! Nice to see you here.

    Your assumptions about those who critique Keswick theology — that they are antinomians — is not unusual. Remember, too, that they called Jesus an antinomian too. And Paul. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I suggest you read my other series on the “Things I Never Heard in Fundamentalism,” especially the post on sin. That is a better counter-balance to the notions in Keswick theology.

    Also — check out J.I. Packer and even B.B. Warfield. They wrote against Keswick theology at its inception. The best contemporary critique I’ve found is Steve Brown and his book, The Scandalous Freedom. Really — it’s very good.

    Just remember, Shawn, God loves you even when you sin. He loves you just that much.

  9. Thanks for the reply. Let me clarify and say that I do not mean to say these that have posted against Keswick theology feel they are not obligated to live the life of righteousness that God demands of Christians. Certainly we have freedom in Christ, and that freedom is from sin and death, that we might obey and submit ourselves under the mighty hand of God.
    I saw that you left my question unanswered. If surrender is not the way to thwart sin, what are your thoughts on the matter? Please don’t misunderstand, I do not agree with Keswick theology. But I see Biblically that we are to confess and forsake sin (and at that moment, by the promise of Christ, we have forgiveness), walk in the Spirit as we are commanded to, and submit our will to that of the Father’s. Do you see Biblically that there is no place for surrender?
    Praise God He does love me when I sin as a Christian, and what is more, He commendeth His love toward me in that while I was yet a sinner, Christ died for me. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Before I posted I read an article by David Andrew Naselli. It was a survey and analysis of the doctrine of sanctification in the early Keswick movement. Would you be willing to read it and tell me what you think? I have found it most helpful—correct, to the point, without unecessary sarcasm or foolish jesting.

    Thank you and have a good day!

    1. What is the Christian to yield? rom 12
      to what and from what
      Is this volitional from our end

      what do we put of and on in colossians?
      Is this volitional from our end

  10. **without unecessary sarcasm or foolish jesting.**

    I’m not sure what you mean here. Are you trying to tell me something? That’s an honest question. ๐Ÿ™‚ No jabs or anything.

    Yes, I know Andy. He and I have talked, and I’ve read his dissertation. It’s an excellent historical survey of Keswick theology. Remember that his is a *dissertation* not a blog. So the style is different than what you see here. I often cite him. He’s the one that says those who subscribe to Keswick theology often think that those who criticize it are antinomians or perfectionists.

    I didn’t avoid answering your question. I just answered it in a way that you may not have expected. ๐Ÿ™‚ Packer and Warfield and Steve Brown all address the fact that surrender isn’t the point. You don’t stop sinning by trying really hard to stop sinning. That’s obsessing on sin! That’s getting stuck in Romans 7. You stop sin by loving Jesus. Just love Jesus. Nothing you do can make him love you more and nothing you do can make him love you less. God’s not mad at you. You’re not continually getting punished. God’s not a big bully that you have to be afraid of if you do the wrong thing. Just obsess about Jesus and the sin will fall away.

    I suggest that you read my just-finished series on Things I Never Heard in Fundamentalism — http://www.drslewis.org/camille/things-i-never-heard/. Again — that may not be the way you want me to answer that question, but I can’t easily answer it in a single reply here.

    Saying that in Christ we have the freedom to not sin is a bit of a cop-out. There’s still a worry that we’re going to mess it all up. It pushes us to worry that we’re not surrendering enough.

    The only thing I will say that we need to surrender is our own pagan and sinful addiction to rule-keeping and sin-thwarting. Moralism. We need to surrender our moralism. And I’m *serious* about that. I’m deadly serious.

    Honestly, Shawn, the best way I can answer the question is by pointing you to other far-from-Keswick writers like Brown and Packer. Jesus wants us to live free. FREE!! There’s no sarcasm in what I’m saying. No “jesting.” It’s the truth. Live as free as you want to be.

    Please read more around here. That’s the best way I can explain it.

    1. If you really love Jesus you would do what He and the Bible says- mark 8:34 if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. If you think living your life the way you think it would be great (live as FREE as you WANT TO BE)and denying the words of God, that’s not true love for Jesus at all.

  11. A great place to get some help in understand Keswich theology is:


    Jack Crabtree (under the audo files, MP3 files) which you can download has done a whole series on the book of Romans.

    He describes in detail his view of the Keswich Theology and how to understand the book of Romans.

    There are lession 1-30 approx and you can download each lesson.

    A must listen to.

    Joan Mackenbzie

    Jack also has a book called: The Most Real Being which is a challenge to read

    Ron Julian has out a book Righteous Sinners.

    Another great book on their website is:
    Language of (God).

    Let me know if any of this helps.

    you can reach me at jonicmac@gmail.com with subject matter McKenzie Study Center

  12. Ehhh, what can one say? Another pendulum swinging, hyperbolic misunderstanding of Keswick thinking and theology.

  13. Yeah, JSL, you certainly know your country music and anti-marijuana propaganda. I guess that makes you a drive-by expert on 19th-century revivalism.

  14. I really enjoyed this article Camille. Reading around here is like a breath of fresh air. It made for a nice mini retreat. I linked to this article on FB because I have some frineds who desperately need to hear this.

  15. So true. So very true. In fundamentalism I always felt horrible. I worked hard to measure up to “biblical” standards, and never felt like I did. I was miserable all of the time. Since I left, and have learned to look just to Jesus, I don’t worry constantly if I have it all right. I figure he does have it all right, and I just trust him to hold me.

  16. Still learning this through my sanctification. What propensity I have to continually take control of my life trying ever harder to please God more as though there is something I can do to please Him (“prone to wander, Lord, I feel it”). The Bible says itself that even my righteousness is like filthy rags. As one preacher has said, “We must repent of our repentance.” Either we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness to stand before God justified in the work of Christ or we are clothed in our self righteousness to be judged by the LAW (i.e. those who live by the law will be judged by the law…with no mercy!!).

    I recently heard a provoking statement by a “reformed” preacher, “I am pleasing to God, no matter what!” (in the context of being a believer). It’s a tough statement to grapple with as a formerly trained “Keswickian.” …But how true it is!! The “reformed” pastor who preached at our retreat preached a series of messages on the “Myths and Urban-Legends” regarding the gospel, dismantelling the very common but dangerous belief that God is pleased with me based on what I do.

    I came upon this blog as a result of a Google search on a statement resurrected on Facebook that many have heard over the years from well known IBF leaders; the statement “Only two choices on the shelf, pleasing God or pleasing self”. In the back of my mind I knew I had read somewhere that philosophy being derived from some falsely based religious point of view and you have pinned it down in this blog. Nice read!!

    1. What other choices are there besides God or self? Reading the discussions, it sounds like there is a whole lot of confusion going on.
      The Bible clearly states we must, if we are followers of Christ, pick up our cross and follow Him. Doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a rose-strewn path, with me living just like I want to.
      Loving God is evidenced by obedience. He is a “safe lion”…to say He is not is heresy. He NEVER promised we would not have difficulties, hardships, and battles…He does promise that the victory will be ours if we trust in HIM.

      1. Theologians, as I linked to above, have elaborated on these issues more than I. And when God redeems us, He chooses us. Period. We are chosen. We don’t remain in this angst-filled turmoil that Keswick exploits. That’s not heresy. That’s a fact.

        1. He chose us so we should enjoy the life of being chosen by doing whatever we want? I don’t understand that is NOT a fact. Denying oneself constantly– yes some peoPle take it to the extreme in the wrong way but fundamentally we are born sinners. The sin is in our blood. Just because Jesus saved us it doesn’t mean everything is fine now and we shouldn’t continue to follow behind Jesus.

  17. My current Pastor is a Moody graduate and they seem to have let go of that extreme Keswickian theology. Maybe that’s in part why fundies originally viewed them as liberals.

  18. The information found on this page is not doctrinally accurate. While somewhat alike, there are major differences between Keswickianism and Chaferianism. For the Keswickian, a “carnal christian” is a spiritually immature (new or young) believer. However, Chaferians wrongfully teach that, because of imputed righteousness, a person can indulge themselves entirely in a sinful lifestyle and still be saved.

    Keswickianism predates Chaferianism by at least 50 years or so. Chaferianism was the brainchild of Lewis Sperry Chafer (a Plymouth Bethren)who, after spending some time at the Moody Bible Institute, decided to merge various Keswickian beliefs with his own personal belief in Once Saved Always Saved. Chaferianism is both known and widely taught today as “Free Grace Theology”.

    Some well known Keswicks are Andrew Murray, A.W. Tozer, Paris Riedhead, A.B. Simpson, D.L. Moody & R.A. Torrey. Some well known Chaferians are Chuck Swindoll, Charles Stanley, Tony Evans and anyone else who embraces what is taught at the Dallas Theological Seminary found by Lewis Sperry Chafer.

    1. The information found on this page is not doctrinally accurate.

      Based on the evidence you provide to prove your point, what you mean to say is that I am not “historically accurate.” Not doctrinally.

      I disagree with your conclusions. Protestantism has a splintering effect, and one way that manifests itself is in what I would call this kind of hair-splitting. Both Moody and Chafer were from the same root. They are the same in effect. Yes, Chafer is the more masculine expression of Murray’s feminine voice. Two sides of the same coin and all that.

      The effect is the same. They are all what I would eventually call Keswidispiecostals. They are a relatively recent creation of an Anglo-Protestant grasping to make the mysterious seem scientistic.

      1. Actually, it is both doctrinally and historically inaccurate.

        Keswickianism takes a very strong stance for progressive sanctification and against sin while Chaferianism all but dismisses sanctification and embraces licentiousness.

        Keswickianism teaches that the dwelling of Christ both imputes and imparts righteousness, imparted righteousness being the divine character that scripture refers to as fruits (behavior) of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

        Chaferianism completely and wrongfully dismisses progressive sanctification and insists that one is entirely sanctified upon salvation and that from that point forward God ignores any and all sin. In fact, Chaferianism is to blame for the modern “Hyper grace” movement.

        While Chaferianism has borrowed various elements of their theology from Keswickian doctrines, the two are as different as night and day.

  19. Keswickian theology is actually a Reformed monergistic representation of Holiness teaching completely different from the Wesleyan and / or Oberlin Holiness perspectives. In fact, Keswickianism was widely embraced and taught by Anglicans and Presbyterians of the era. Andrew Murray was Dutch Reformed. A.B. Simpson was a Presbyterian. Charles Trumbull was Anglican. Just to name a few…

  20. I didn’t realize until as of late so much what I was saying was Keswick teaching. For the last two years I now belong to a Southern Baptist Reformation church, got sick of so much gospel reductionism in so many of other churches in my town, teaching your best life now and other modern nonsense .
    I now have victory in understanding my total depravity and how God through his sovereignty he has made me a new creature and have finally settled in that his hand has been on my all this time molding me, I see the evidences of regeneration in my life. My desire is to do the will of God and I do want to obey his commands, I really want to obey him and love him and this is the wonderful mystery of regeneration.
    Some of you may feel the same as I there are so many who are false converts who are trying the broad gate by trying to measure up by being very religious or because they made a decision of their own will. They still have a heart of stone and not flesh. Salvation is totally a work of God and not some evangelical hoops we can jump through. The gospel is so simple and so many make it so difficult by adding rules and this and that and the other. It is sin, righteousness and judgment. Once we understand that through repentance and faith , Jesus imputes us with his righteousness and there for we can stand before his thrown justified and declared right with God and also treated as right with God.
    Some of you may be saying, you sound like typical Calvinist. Well I donโ€™t really consider myself one, if that what i takes to know what I know now and to be what I am now, then so be it. I may more of five point Spurgeonist, I recon. Here is the proof it all because of what I know now, I have helped others have the same victory they too have been set free. God is on the move in restoring the gospel and returning to the historical doctrine of regeneration.
    Some of you have spoken of fundamentalism, it true it is true it is so destructive. My mother grew up in a church of Christ fundamentalist church, and I have worked for years to heal the damage it did to her and now she too has been set free..

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