Question: "What is the Keswick movement, and is it biblical?"
Answer: The Keswick movement, also called the Higher Life movement, is a theological movement that originated in England in the early 19th century. It was heavily influenced by the teachings of John Wesley, John William Fletcher, and Adam Clarke. Since 1875 promoters have organized the annual Keswick Convention. Various Christian leaders have been involved in the Keswick Convention through the years, including missionaries Hudson Taylor and Amy Carmichael, devotional writer Oswald Chambers, and evangelist Billy Graham.
Essentially, Keswick theology teaches that the Christian life consists of two primary crises (or major turning points): justification and sanctification, both of which happen at different times in the life of the believer. After salvation one must have another encounter with the Spirit; otherwise, he or she will not progress into holiness or the “deeper” things of God. This second encounter with the Spirit, in Keswick terminology, is called “entire sanctification,” “the second blessing,” or “the second touch.” This emphasis on a second, post-salvation experience corresponds with the Pentecostal idea of the “baptism” of the Spirit. Some Keswick teachers would even say that sinless perfection is possible after one receives the “second blessing.”
Although it is true that both justification (i.e., getting saved) and sanctification (i.e., becoming more like Christ) are vital aspects of the Christian life, overemphasizing the distinction between them tends to produce two different “classes” of Christian—those who are not being sanctified and those who are being sanctified. Moreover, according to Keswick theology, we can decide which camp we belong in, and the initiation of sanctification is something that depends on us after we are saved.
The tendency for theological error resulting from overemphasizing one side of a debate versus another has been demonstrated time and time again throughout church history. For example, the well-known debate between Calvinists and Arminians is frequently seen (somewhat inaccurately) as a “conflict” between God’s sovereignty and man’s autonomous free will. Many on both sides of this debate have a tendency to overemphasize one side of this “conflict” to the exclusion of the other. Those who emphasize God’s sovereignty tend to minimize human volition, while those who emphasize man’s ability to choose end up burdening themselves and others with the charge to behave perfectly before the Lord. In reality, both God’s sovereignty and man’s volition must be held in tension with one another, because both are taught in Scripture.
In the same way, Keswick theologians take a very real and biblical distinction between justification and sanctification and press it too far. Scripture tells us that all those who are saved (justified) are also being sanctified. God promises to finish the work He began in us (Philippians 1:6).
“But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification” (Romans 6:22, NASB). We are freed from sin by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but our freedom must lead to holiness (sanctification), not further sin. Rather, Paul tells us that we are “to consider [ourselves] to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11, NASB). The picture that we see painted in these verses is that it is impossible for the believer to persist in sin, once he or she has truly entered into a relationship with Christ. Keswick theology says that one could be a genuine Christian and still say something like, “I have been justified, but I am not being sanctified, because I don’t see the need to be right now. I’m a Christian, surely; I’m just not as dedicated as others might be.” Of course, Scripture tells us that such an attitude is really evidence that the person speaking is not a believer (1 John 2:3–4). As a result, Keswick theology may give false assurance of salvation to those who refuse to submit to the Word of God but still want to think of themselves as truly saved.
Sanctification is a long, gradual, and sometimes tortuous process, and it is something that all believers will experience, not just those who have a “second touch” of the Spirit. The Keswick movement has some commendable points—an emphasis on the lordship of Christ and personal holiness, discipleship, and a promotion of missionary activity. And some historic evangelistic efforts have begun at Keswick Conventions. However, Keswick theology’s insistence on a “second blessing,” its hierarchy of “sanctified” Christians vs. those who are “only justified,” and its bent toward the unbiblical doctrine of entire sanctification are causes of concern.