Be Holy!

A Review of An Infinite Journey

December 10, 2014Filed under Theology#book reviews#fbc durham#m. div.#papers#sebtsMarkdown source

The following was written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of Dr. Andrew M. Davis and Andy Winn's Pastoral Ministry Internship class at FBC Durham for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.


I would like to preface the following review by noting that Andy Davis is not just any author, and indeed not just any pastor. He is one of my pastors. This makes the task of writing a critical book review somewhat strange. On the one hand, I wanted to write this review as I would any such. On the other hand, I wanted to take care to show respect to a man whom God has used to shepherd me and my family for the past two years since we moved to North Carolina, and whom I regard very highly for his faithfulness in serving the church gathered as First Baptist Church of Durham. I hope I have struck the balance appropriately. And as I hope will become clear, though there were a few places where this book could be stronger, it is nonetheless extraordinarily valuable. I have been challenged and indeed have grown in holiness because of having read it. I commend it to you.


An Infinite Journey: Growing toward Christlikeness, by Andrew M. Davis, Greenville: Ambassador International, 2014, 480 pages.

Overview

Andrew Davis’ An Infinite Journey is a careful, thorough, heavy exploration of the doctrine and practice of sanctification in the Christian life. Davis, the long-time pastor of First Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina and an adjunct professor at nearby Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has clearly dedicated considerable time and consideration to the topic of holiness and growth in the Christian life, and this consideration is on display throughout what is ultimately a very helpful book.

Davis begins by introducing the concepts which permeate the rest of the book: the saving work of God in Christ and the Christian’s lasting dependence on the Holy Spirit. Perhaps surprisingly (at least to the casual reader), he opens not with the topic of sanctification, but with justification, arguing that all real Christian growth must be predicated on a right understanding of the gospel. Thus, he spends some time tracing out the story of salvation, culminating in Christ’s atoning death on the cross and resurrection, and his institution of the church and sending the Holy Spirit to save and then shape the internal lives of Christians throughout the ages. He further argues that all Christians are involved in two “infinite journeys”—the external journey of evangelism and discipleship, and the internal journey of growth in holiness. Both, he notes, are essential for the health of the Christian: to be deficient in either is to demonstrate either ignorance or hard-heartedness toward the things of God.

After this introduction, Davis turns to a map of the second of these journeys: the internal path of growing Christ-likeness. His thesis is that sanctification is a four-part process, involving a continuous sequence of knowledge, faith, character, and action, each feeding into the next. Knowledge of God produces faith; increasing faith produces Christlike character; a more Christlike character results in more Godward actions; and those Godward actions in turn lead to a greater knowledge of God himself. Davis dedicates a section of the book to each of these ideas, examining in detail Scriptural support for the concept and then examples of the element in the lives of figures in Scripture, especially Christ. Finally, he turns to a section dedicated to application, looking at the knowledge-faith-character-action cycle as a whole in both Scripture and a variety of day-to-day scenarios.

Analysis

Davis’ treatment of the doctrines of sanctification is thorough and compelling, most of all because it is drenched in Scripture. Early in the book, Davis explicitly spells out his commitment to the centrality, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture, and the text of the book backs this up. It is common to hear authors affirm the importance of Scripture; it is rare to see it so born out so clearly in their writing. Even apart from the explicit references on nearly every page, the text bears the unmistakable imprint of Davis’ own practice of memorizing books of the Bible. Allusions, near quotes, and implicit references to Scripture appear multiple times on nearly every page.

This Scriptural emphasis leads to the book’s other great strengths. First, Davis makes no point without basing the assertion on Scripture, and he draws on every section of the Bible to demonstrate the importance of each aspect of his map for growth in holiness. Moreover, he follows Scripture’s lead in grounding sanctification in the work of Christ mediated to us by the Holy Spirit. Davis’ emphasis on the work of the Spirit is especially helpful. Though he is by no means a charismatic in the modern sense of the word, it is clear that he is gripped by the reality that sanctification simply does not happen without the work of the Holy Spirit. This is an essential corrective for two kinds of churches: those tempted to ignore the Spirit, and those tempted to ignore all the works of the Spirit apart from those that result in visible signs. Rightly, Davis’ doctrine of sanctification is trinitarian: holy people whole-heartedly worship the Father in Spirit-empowered dependence on the finished work of the Son.

Second, this Scriptural care allows Davis to navigate the difficult topic of Spirit-dependent human effort that characterizes Biblical sanctification. Because sanctification is the one aspect of salvation in which people are called to work (e.g. in Phil. 2:12), many believers are tempted to treat sanctification as a wholly human endeavor. Davis repudiates this notion, showing again and again that sanctification—like the justification that precedes it and the glorification that will follow it—is ultimately a work of God and one that brings him all glory. No person will be able to claim the credit for their own sanctification before God at the day of judgment. At the same time, he also rejects a Keswickian spirituality (“let go and let God”), even when dressed up as mere gospel dependence. However much in vogue the notion may be that we can do nothing and God does everything for us, it is simply not true. God requires us actively to seek him and his holiness. Davis rightly recognizes both these dangers and charts a course between them. The pursuit of holiness is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and believers must always fix their eyes on the finished work of Christ and the promise of future glory. Yet believers keep their eyes on Christ and rely on the Spirit to work—not to sit still and trust God to float them toward holiness.

The book does have a few weaknesses. First, although the book’s length and thoroughness are valuable in many ways, they also make this a difficult sell for anyone who is not already a dedicated reader. Moreover, while much of the length was inevitable in a work this thorough on a topic this complex, the book could be substantially shorter were it edited more carefully. Trimming the lengthy introduction and removing some repetition, unnecessary explanations, and clarifications would make the work stronger as well as shorter and more approachable. Given Davis’ goals—to stir up believers to pursuing holiness—this would be profoundly helpful, as it would allow for the book to be used in a broader variety of contexts.

Second, a number of Davis’ references to words’ meanings in Greek are either extraneous or inaccurate. In particular, he regularly committed the so-called etymological fallacy, ascribing meaning to words based on their components rather than their actual use in the language. (This led him several times to disagree with every modern major translation!) He also sometimes referenced English words derived from Greek terms, but in cases where the derivation is irrelevant to the present meaning of the English word (e.g. poem from poiema). Gladly, no major issues in the text hung on these cases. Nonetheless, the misuses were distracting, and since in most cases they were also unnecessary, they actually weakened the book for me.

That these are the only significant issues in such a large and thorough book is a significant achievement, and both could readily be addressed in future editions of the work. Taken as a whole, Davis’ book shines. As Davis points out, holiness necessarily entails both knowledge of the things of God and zeal for his glory. The book drips with Davis’ passion for God and his urgent desire that God’s people seek holiness, and it lays out a thoughtful and (most importantly) Scriptural plan for how his people shall become holy. Lord willing, the volume will be a reliable guide to sanctification for the church for years to come.


Note on publication: This paper was first published online on January 1, 2015. However, I wrote this and submitted it in mid-December, and have backdated it accordingly.