Peter Kreeft. How to Be Holy: First Steps in Becoming a Saint. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2016.
Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and King’s College whose name may be known to older evangelicals as one of the signatories to Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994). He also describes himself as a former Calvinist.
In How to Be Holy, Kreeft lays out a theology of sanctification intended for members of nearly any theistic religion. As a popular-level book, it tends to avoid such longer terms as ‘sanctification’ in favor of such descriptions as hinted on its cover as ‘being holy’ and ‘becoming a saint.’ As a Protestant approaches the book, one may be inclined to believe that the title refers to justification, but its content is indeed more towards sanctification, and “Becoming a Saint” isn’t referring to Vatican canonization. It’s also important to note that despite the sound of the title, Kreeft is not arguing for the possibility of perfect sanctification in this life. As a theology of sanctification, however, it suffers from its Roman Catholic theological underpinnings and a hermeneutic which fails to account for the immediate context of individual scripture verses.
In the foregoing, “KL” means Kindle Location, as the Amazon Kindle edition lacks encoded page numbers.
Theology of Sanctification
The term “sanctification” appears twice in the entire text; both occur near each other in the first chapter. The first instance is an appeal for the reader to care about sanctification rather than simply to escape hell in mediocre fashion. (KL 146) The second is an unnecessary way to say that justification inevitably leads to sanctification: “Sanctification is to justification what babies are to sex.” (KL 158–159)
These statements are true when taken out of their respective contexts. Over and against the common false doctrine among evangelicals of the “carnal Christian” — in which a person is said to be saved by accepting Jesus as Savior despite never submitting to His lordship and therefore never becoming more like Him — repentance is a necessary component of the faith to which we refer when we say “justification is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s finished work alone” or sola gratia, sola fide, and solus Christus. An average evangelical holding to this kind of “carnal Christian” soteriology will find How to Be Holy difficult to wrestle with for this reason. Psalms 1 and 119 are reflective of genuine believers, not “super” believers.
But the trait of How to Be Holy which makes itself most apparent from its start is that its principles of sanctification are intended to be applied in a myriad of theistic religious contexts. While Kreeft describes himself as a “totally convinced, ‘eat-everything-Mommy-puts-on-your-plate’ Catholic Christian (KL 117), he openly states that the principles described herein are applicable in most religions. In the second chapter, some non-negotiable terms on what kind of God to which the book applies are given. In short, “The three attributes of omnibenevolence, omnipotence, and omniscience are absolutely non-negotiable, foundational, necessary,” (KL 190), thereby excluding, for example, the “Force” of Star Wars, which has a “dark side,” and “false gods” such as Zeus and Baal (KL 185). Not among these required attributes is trinity. The Islamic Allah, which is indisputably unitarian (small ‘u’) per the Qur’an , is fully affirmed to be the same God as that of Christianity and Judaism (KL 110) despite that Islam explicitly denies the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus.
This openness to religious diversity manifests not only here in the first chapter but also throughout the entire work in how it attempts to apply aspects of Christendom in terms of other religions. For example, Mary is “the ideal Muslim (the word means ‘surrenderer’)” (KL 127), chapter 6 is entitled “God as Your Guru” (KL 351), and Jesus is a “perfect Muslim” in the sense of “perfect submitter” (KL 539). Put another way, “All religions catch a glimpse of Him. None catch Him.” (KL 131) By implicitly denying essential doctrines of YHWH’s uniqueness, How to Be Holy places itself against the entire corpus of the Bible’s proclamation of the uniqueness of its God, e.g. Deut. 6:4–5; Isa. 40:18–25; John 12:28; 14:6; 17:1–5.
Kreeft’s various commentaries reveal his moral conservatism and regularly admonish the reader not to take a lukewarm approach to sanctification. The text regularly pleads with the reader not to use such excuses as paying for it in purgatory, On a couple of occasions, this takes form of dialogue between Kreeft and a hypothetical objector who thinks the task is not possible or otherwise sure he can deal with purgatory because he’s sure he’s not going to hell. Occasional, rightly-aimed shots are taken several times at the current sexual revolution.
The methods towards sanctification which the text proposes, however, are incomplete and flawed. Although suggestions to read certain scripture passages are provided in order to assist the reader in understanding what the book is saying, there exists no such recommendation to study scripture as a whole.
Much is made of prayer, but its often promoted as contemplative or, as in the case of the following quote, charismatic:
Our prayers are radically inadequate. Therefore God has provided for us many things to make up for that inadequacy. The Scriptures are one of them, especially the prayers in the Psalms. The Church’s public liturgy is another. Others’ prayers help, too. So do the “charisms” (“gifts”) of prayer, including the charismatic gift of tongues. (KL 1496–1499)
The same book portion later advocates using a private “prayer language” (KL 1502) as well. Indeed, the scripture gets mentioned here, but merely as an aid to the inadequacy of prayer. Rom. 8:26, on the other hand, promises the Holy Spirit to aid the prayers of believers. No such promise is made to believers to receive verbal communication from God by means of prayer, a private prayer language, or anything other than scripture.
Nature is advocated as a means in that it’s likened as a personal message to us, but in this there’s great irony.
How does nature make us holy? Only if we see it as it is. What does that mean? This is what it means: when the Great King sends His ambassador to your house with a message, sealed with His personal King’s seal and addressed to you personally, how do you treat that ambassador and that letter and that moment? The messenger is God’s angel (“angel” means “messenger”), and the letter is all the things that God made and did and said, and the moment is now. (KL 650–653)
Kreeft states that nature is a personal message from God, but the same is not stated concerning the corpus of scripture, very much in contrast with what scripture claims about itself in 2 Tim. 3:16–17.
Without a sound basis for justification or regeneration, Kreeft’s proposed methods of sanctification have no legs on which to stand, as the indwelling Spirit is the actual power behind sanctification (Rom. 8:13; 2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 5:17). Moreover, the methods themselves rely on extra-biblical revelation rather than the sure Word which promises to be our ultimate and best tool.
Decontextualized Hermeneutic of Romans 8:28
Kreeft’s central thesis is that believing Romans 8:28 — a “practical consequence or corollary” (KL 202) of the existence of this omnibenevolent, omnipotent, omnipresent God (KL 189–190) — can “make us holy.” (KL 205)
Let me break that down a bit. God is omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omnipresent, however understood outside of these particular, preceding conditions. Therefore, Romans 8:28 has to be true. Thus, believing Romans 8:28 — with our “hearts and wills” (KL 205) — can make us holy.
At this point, it’s necessary to show exactly how this gets presented to the reader.
It is the practical consequence or corollary of this theological idea that is radically life-changing. And that consequence is my favorite verse in the Bible. It is also the hardest verse to believe, precisely because it seems literally too good to be true. The verse is Romans 8:28 (ESV):
For those who love God all things work together for good.
But how can believing this make us holy? Holiness is caused by how we love, with our hearts and wills, not by what we believe with our minds. (See Jas 2:19.) Furthermore, love is a human choice, an act that comes from us, from our own free will; but Romans 8:28 refers to the objective truth that all things are part of a perfect divine providence that come to us from God’s will. I seem to be confusing will with intellect and human free choice with divine providential necessity. (KL 201–208, emphasis original)
First, the citation of Romans 8:28 here completely divorces it from its biblical context. Kreeft doesn’t even cite the entire verse. An entire-verse citation would have looked like this.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 ESV, emphasis added)
Who are those “called according to His purpose?” Some more context will answer that.
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:26–30 ESV)
Verse 33 goes on to identify this very same group as “the elect.”
To paraphrase exegetically: the Holy Spirit intercedes in the inadequate prayers of saints. These saints are those who love God, those whom God foreknew and predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus. The purpose of this is so that Jesus would be preeminent among many brothers, the very same saints whom He foreknew, predestined, and called. These very same saints he also justified and glorified.
So these aren’t promises to a panoply of world religions; they’re promises to a chosen people whom He has unconditionally elected.
Kreeft is careful not to apply his hermeneutic to every human being; it’s “only for those who choose to love God” (KL 254–255), “those whose deepest will is in line with God’s will, only for those who choose ‘islam’ or ‘surrender’ or ‘abandonment”’to God.” (KL 255–256) He’s neither universalist nor deist, and his words should make those who hold to so-called “Free Grace Theology” nervous. That’s their fault, not Kreeft’s. But scripture itself provides no such wide gate as Kreeft offers. Only genuine, believing Christians, as described in this very context of Romans 8, are those who love God.
Kreeft’s self-description of “totally convinced, ‘eat-everything-Mommy-puts-on-your-plate’ Catholic Christian” (KL 117) manifests more apparently when he speaks about what happens after death. Despite the aforementioned pluralism, he connects God’s very real demand for perfection not with Christ’s finished work on the cross but with Purgatory.
God’s universal call to sanctity is so adamant that He will never let us enter Heaven until we have become saints, no matter what it costs in purgation, in this world and in the next, and no matter what it cost God Himself when He suffered Hell on the Cross. (KL 838–840, emphasis added)
Catholics call completion of that thickening process “Purgatory”. Call it what you will, but if you really think that you can endure and enjoy the full light and fire of God a second after you die, being essentially the same kind of being you are now, without any additional divine operations on your soul, then you dangerously underestimate either your sinful nature or God’s holiness or the gap between them. (KL 599–602, emphasis added)
The issue herein has much to do with the doctrine of sola scriptura versus the Roman Catholic view of the regula fidei, which in summary holds scripture and tradition alongside each other and gives the Roman magisterium full authority to interpret. A convincing case for the doctrine of purgatory cannot be made from the standpoint of sola scriptura, which is exactly why it should be rejected. Scripture answers plainly that believers’ souls enter the Lord’s presence immediately upon physical death. (Luke 23:43; 2 Cor 5:8; Phil. 1:23)
But Kreeft is correct on the surface when he says that at the moment prior to death our state of sanctification is insufficient to stand in the presence of the Father. What, then, makes up for this gap? First: A believer’s soul is perfected immediately upon his or her physical death. Second: Believers’ bodies will be resurrected and glorified.
When believers pass from this present life, their spirits are separated from their bodies (2 Cor. 5:8) and enter the presence of the Lord (Phil. 1:23). Thus the author of Hebrews speaks of the glorified citizens of heaven as “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). They are glorified in the sense that sanctification is complete, but it is specifically their spirits that experience this perfection, since their bodies undergo the corruption that is tied to sin and death.
John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, eds., Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 636.
At the resurrection, all deceased believers’ bodies — yes, having undergone however many centuries or millennia of biodegradation — will be restored and glorified.
“I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.”
(1 Corinthians 15:50–53 ESV)
“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”
(1 Thessalonians 4:16–17 ESV)
If we may argue analogically, if God can raise the body of Abraham as instantaneously as he can Lazarus, he most certainly can sanctify our souls for heaven as soon as we die, and He has promised exactly that. We should trust Him at His Word.
In terms of Kreeft’s actual aim from his Roman Catholic standpoint, How to Be Holy argues well to any average Roman Catholic with pluralistic tendencies to get up off the couch and begin to work out one’s own salvation. From a scripturally grounded standpoint, however, it suffers from many of the same inconsistencies that plague its Roman Catholic theological underpinnings, offering a false gospel of works that easily falls under the anathematization of Gal. 1:8–9. Positively, a read-through by any Protestant would serve well to educate for the purpose of apologetics and to warn against the dangers of so-called “Free Grace Theology,” which — though not explicitly mentioned in the work — is an easy target for Kreeft’s argument and Roman Catholic apologetics in general.
 Surat 4:171; 5:116. See also chapter 4, “‘Say Not Three’ — The Qur’an and the Trinity,” in James R. White, What Every Christian Needs to Know about the Qur’an (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2013).