Phillip Keller, born to Missionary parents in East Africa, is probably best known for his book, ‘A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm.’ In that book, he examines each of the six verses of the 23rd Psalm in their original, pastoral light. Because of his personal experience with shepherding, he is able to bring truths out of the text that one might either overlook or misunderstand. There’s a reason that it’s his best known work: it’s phenomenal. Although many people have read and enjoyed ‘A Shepherd Looks at the 23rd Psalm’ along with his two other ‘Shepherd’ books, Keller wrote dozens of other books that, although less well-known, are great, Bible-affirming and Christ-centric works. ‘The High Cost of Holiness’ is one of those works that deserves a look.
Although written in 1988 ‘The High Cost of Holiness’, like every spiritual classic, reads as though it was just written yesterday. Spiritual truth has an eternal quality to it which allows it to be enjoyed by the saints, no matter when they might live. The book is divided up into two distinct sections that could really be entirely different books. The first is titled ‘A Church in Peril’ and primarily deals with issues that the church in America is facing. The second section, ‘The Cost of Knowing Christ’, touches on the sacrifices that must be made in order to faithfully follow Christ. Both halves are well-written and filled with Biblical truth; unfortunately, they lack a cohesiveness. They aren’t tied together well and, as a result, feel like two separate books arbitrarily joined together. This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, it just wasn’t what I was expecting from the title of the book.
The book begins by discussing some of the issues that the author sees the American church facing. It’s amazing to me how similar our problems today are to those the church was facing 25 years ago. Keller recognizes, just as Jesus foretold, that we live in a time when there are many wolves in the sheep-pen. Although each chapter in this section of the book could be applied to the church at large, it is especially searching to those in leadership. Keller encourages church leaders to ask themselves, ‘Why are you in this role? Is it for personal advancement, or is it to please God and bring benefit to others?’ It’s an important question that should be returned to again and again throughout a pastor’s ministry. If not vigilant, it’s easy for a minister to, as Keller puts it, go from ‘serving others in humility’ to ‘serving his or her own interests.’
The following chapters in section one go on to deal with several other issues facing those in places of leadership within the church. Keller deals with the obsession that too many American Christians have with ‘Success’ as the world defines it. He encourages us to recognize that God counts success as obedience and not having the biggest church in town. He doesn’t stop there though, he rebukes many in the church for placing their faith in methods, doctrines, and creeds rather than in Christ alone. He warns us of the danger in preaching ‘peace, peace when there is no peace.’ Throughout this part of the book, he calls the church’s leadership back to a simple reliance on the gospel of Jesus Christ, as ordained by God and empowered by His Holy Spirit. For it is this Gospel that is the ‘power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.’
The only real issue that I had as I read, and this is something that I found in both sections of the book, was Keller’s oft found advertisements for his other books. He would mention a topic and then basically say, ‘Find out more about this topic by picking up my other book, [insert title here].’ Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe he was doing it out of any wrong motivation. It just felt odd and reminded me of those PBS specials where they constantly interrupt the flow of the program to ask for donations. Again, I have no reason to doubt Keller’s sincerity (and I do think that his other books are worth picking up), it just seemed somewhat out of place.
In the second section of ‘The High Cost of Holiness’, Keller shifts gears and exhorts all Christians, minister and laity alike, to examine their walks with God. He speaks to a single issue which have plagued many Christians in Western Society: love of self. Keller warns of the danger of self-love by examining several ways that it works its way out in practice and then encouraging the believer to sacrifice all for the sake of Christ. These chapters are phenomenal and serve as a reminder to Christians of every maturity-level that we can hold nothing back from God. Our all must be laid on the altar and given up to Him. At times, we may receive our sacrifice back, as Abraham did with Isaac; but at other times, once on the altar, we’ll never have it back. Regardless, we must be willing to give up everything if we are to follow Christ as His disciple.
Keller digs down deep in these chapters by calling us to ask such questions as ‘Do we truly want to be different? Do we long to be remade in [Christ’s] likeness? Do we earnestly wish to be changed from our old character, so defiled, to His, so pure?’ He reminds us to honestly search out our priorities and motivations, making sure that Christ is at the root of them all. Ultimately, this entire section of the book is obsessed with sounding out the call of ‘Sacrifice’ for the sake of Christ. He reiterates it again and again in various ways. Christianity is ultimately about sacrifice. Christ sacrificed for us and we are to sacrifice for Him. It’s a message that we can never outgrow. Whether you’ve been a Christian for an hour or a century, sacrifice can never be lost sight of if we are to remain faithful to Christ.
As I read through this book, I was encouraged, challenged, and called to a higher plane of living. It wasn’t quite as challenging as some of the older classics like ‘A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life’ or ‘The Imitation of Christ’ but it’s call to leave love of self at the altar is one that is both necessary and timely.