Apologetics Index

Quietism — The Passive Christian Life

By David Kowalski

Many believers are unfamiliar with the term, but in various ways, the phenomenon of quietism has been with the church for centuries. It is a passive approach to Christian living that is unscriptural.

In its broadest use, the term “quietism” refers to any approach to philosophy or religion which seeks to negate the human mind or will. In this broad sense, quietism takes many forms and manifests in various degrees of self-negation. In philosophy, it takes forms such as Dadaism and postmodernism. Some postmodern philosophies and literature are written as deliberate nonsense that bypasses the intellect. 1 Much modern and postmodern poetry caters to mood independent of mind, with no cognitively meaningful content.

Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are perhaps the most extreme examples of quietism. The impediment to enlightenment in these religions is not self as a rebellious independent but self in its very humanity. Both the mind and will are seen as enemies to be blotted out. Once the mind and will are entirely negated, the practitioner achieves ecstatic enlightenment. Buddhist teacher Ajahn Chah says one must “exhaust the mind’s ability to concoct thought.” 2

In the Christian tradition, quietism refers to a passive approach to living that sees intellectual stillness and the inward quieting or negating of our wills as the key to victorious Christian living.  Instead of teaching a self renewed in Christ, quietism teaches a kind of self-annihilation. Quietistic strains have existed since very early times in the church, showing themselves in such things as Neoplatonism. Some medieval mystics sought this intellectual stillness and interior passivity, speaking of a kind of union with God in which the individual is absorbed into the deity with the human will or self being subsumed and essentially nullified in this experience.

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This self-eradication to achieve a higher state among early Christian mystics is sometimes difficult to distinguish from the concepts of moksha and nirvana in Eastern religions (this is true, for example, to some degree of the teachings and practice of Meister Eckhart [1260 — 1327]). Full-blown quietism is often traced to Miguel de Molinos, a 17th-century Spanish priest who influenced the thought and spirituality of notable quietists such as Madame Jeanne Guyon. Guyon saw Christian life not as a renewal of self by the Spirit but as a replacement of self by the Spirit that happens in the mystical state of “union”:

Indeed He drew my soul more and more into Himself, till it lost itself entirely out of sight, and could perceive itself no more. It seemed at first to pass into Him. As one sees a river pass into the ocean, lose itself in it, its water for a time distinguished from that of the sea, till it gradually becomes transformed into the same sea, and possesses all its qualities; so was my soul lost in God, who communicated to it His qualities, having drawn it out of all that it had of its own. 3

This quietism never died completely and was preserved in a mostly milder state through the years of the Holiness Movement, which preserved the idea of a second blessing of sanctification as something separable in experience from justification. This movement eventually birthed the Keswick, Higher Life Movement, the origin of which is sometimes traced to the publication in 1858 of William Boardman’s book, The Higher Christian Life. 4 Boardman taught that the sanctifying experience is obtained in the same passive way justification is. The Keswick conventions were host to many speakers and attendees who were not all in harmony with Boardman’s passive approach, but many notable quietests, such as Robert Pearsall Smith and his wife Hannah Whitall Smith, were part of the quietist element in the Higher Life Movement. Keswick-style quietism is still reflected in some Christian teaching, especially among those with antinomian leanings.


Miguel de Molinos

Keswick quietists urged others to “let go and let God.” They rejected any appeal to the renewed will as a resort to willpower. They saw little practical difference between the outworking of justification and sanctification — seeing both as the gift of God which is passively received. In Scripture, though, sanctification involves such an obvious divine/human cooperation that even many Calvinists call it “synergistic” (cooperative) — a word they detest in reference to justification (which they describe as monergistic). 5

Loraine Boettner explains as follows:

Many people confuse regeneration and sanctification. Regeneration is exclusively God’s work, and it is an act of His free grace in which He implants a new principle of spiritual life in the soul. It is performed by supernatural power and is complete in an instant. On the other hand, sanctification is a process through which the remains of sin in the outward life are gradually removed . . . It is a joint work of God and man. 6

Being made in the image of God, we retain characteristics of the self that are not designed to be negated through intellectual stillness or inward passivity. Though the imago dei (image of God) was distorted in mankind, it was never removed entirely. Three main components of this imago dei are self-awareness, rationality, and volitional capability. These three characteristics make us genuine persons, and they remain in mankind, being essential to man’s identity. James affirms this continuing image of God in James 3:9: “And with it [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God….”

This image of God makes us a self but not a self that is designed to live independently of the creator. Each man and woman is made to live in dependent fellowship with God. In this fellowship, there is a union between creator and creature which, while not a true paradox, does defy full explanation to the natural mind as to how this relationship is expressed in real living. Though self as independent from God is an adversary to the expression of divine life, self as a creature in God’s image is never negated. The mind and will persist. Paul described the renewal of this fellowship as “Christ in us.” Christ is the power, vitality, and guide for this new life, but we remain “us.” God’s goal for his children is not a passive, negated self but an empowered and enabled, obedient self. As Jerry Bridges points out, while sanctification involves our activity, all of our activity is founded upon and is in response to the activity of the Holy Spirit:

Progressive sanctification very much involves our activity. But it is an activity that must be carried out in dependence on the Holy Spirit.  It is not a partnership with the Spirit in the sense that we each — the believer and the Holy Spirit — do our respective tasks.  Rather, we work as He enables us to work. His work lies behind all our work and makes our work possible 7

Still, the responsive nature of our activity does not negate the fact that practical, progressive sanctification involves our activity, as R. C. Sproul notes:

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are coworkers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work (Phil. 2:12-13). 8

Quietists teach that self-control and striving to obey are lowly and unspiritual works of the flesh. Scripture, however, teaches that we are new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17), and in Him, we strive to obey with his power that works in us:

Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. (Luke 13:24) 9

“For it is for this we labor and strive, because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of believers.” (1 Timothy 4:10)

The word translated as “strive” in English is the Greek agonizomai, which means “to fight or struggle.” This word was used to describe those who contended in the Olympic  games, and thus reminds us of a related passage from Paul:

 “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)olympics

In this passage, Paul uses a phrase he repeats elsewhere — “self-control” (see Acts 24:25; 1 Corinthians 7:5, 7:9, 9:25, Galatians 5:23; 2 Timothy 3:3; Titius 1:8; 2 Peter 1:6). The use in Galatians 5:23 makes it clear that this “self-control” is the fruit of the Spirit. Still, the Spirit does not bypass the self. The resulting cooperative effort is called “self-control,” a fruit of the Spirit that does not fit with quietist passivity that attributes no real role for the self.

Very early in my Christian life, I came under the influence of quietist thinking and parroted it with gusto. The teachers I heard it from spoke with such skill it “sounded right.” There are many individual passages that challenged my quietist view, but it was the cumulative effect of all of the exhortations in the New Testament that confronted me with greater force than I could withstand.

Not one exhortation was addressed to the Holy Spirit. They were all addressed to individual Christians — clearly implying that God expected them to do some things and not do others. Furthermore, I could not deny that it is believers who will give an account for their lives — meaning God was holding them responsible.

So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:12)

The disjunction I had proclaimed, “The Christian life is not your responsibility it is your response to His ability,” was a demonstrably false one. God’s ability does not negate my responsibility. I must choose and strive with all of the power He provides. Divine empowerment and human choice are not contradictory — they blend together in the “Christ in us” lifestyle. Paul illustrates how these two blended in his ministry:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them, yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10 NASB).

Any preacher called to preach knows just what Paul is saying. Without a message from God, the preacher has nothing to say, and without divine empowerment the preacher has no life to convey. Nevertheless, there is no good preaching without much hard work in preparation, and Spirit-empowered preaching is exhausting in itself. Translated to daily living, Paul described this blend as our purposefully and actively living and walking by the Spirit:

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.”  (Galatians 5:16)

If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”  (Galatians 5:25)

So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind.” (Galatians 4:17)

“for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light.” (Ephesians 5:8)

Therefore as you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him.” (Colossians 2:6)

The subject of these statements is, in each instance, “I” or “you.” God, Spirit, and Christ, are nowhere said to obey through us as passive subjects who have negated our will. We must live, choose, strive, and walk — all with conscious dependency on the power of the Spirit.

There are yet other passages that emphasize this human aspect or role in sanctified living, and these are a death blow to quietism.

“And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope until the end, so that you will not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” (Hebrews 6:11-12)

“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling;  for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)

“Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, and in your knowledge, self-control, and in your self-control, perseverance, and in your perseverance, godliness, and in your godliness, brotherly kindness, and in your brotherly kindness, love.” (2 Peter 1:5-7)

My quietism died under an enormous weight of Scripture and I awoke to a more powerful dynamic in my Christian walk.

One incident in my coming to a better understanding was also significant. I was teaching a home Bible study and in so doing I echoed the refrain I had heard many times from others, “Just rest and let Christ be who He is through you.” One young man respectfully asked me how he was to do that.

I realized I was being forced to publicly choose from three alternatives. First, I could side with the mystics who said to labor to negate or annihilate self — a clearly unscriptural path. Secondly, I could tell the young man to do nothing at all — which I knew went against the passages listed above. Finally, I could tell him to strive and fight the good fight (1 Timothy 4:12, 2 Timothy 4:7), but this would contradict the catchy slogan I had just parroted. I don’t remember what nonsense I mumbled in response, but I do remember the embarrassment I felt. I later had to admit that my quietistic sloganeering did not really mean anything in the world of real, Christian living.

I am now stuck with the less sophisticated-sounding truth. If asked how to live the sanctified life at this time, I can only reply with the same words Mary used in a different context: “Whatever He says to you, do it” (John 2:5). It is in active obedience that we find the miraculous, transforming power of God. 10 He has already told us many things to do in His Word, and we are obliged to obey with all of the power God supplies by His Spirit.

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18-20)

But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. (James 1:22)

© Copyright 2013, David Kowalski. All rights reserved. Links to this post are encouraged. Do not repost or republish without permission.


  1. A classic example of the nonsensical nature of much postmodern writing is the “Sokal Affair,” in which Alan Sokal had an essay consisting of pure nonsense successfully published in a respected, postmodern journal (see http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/index.html and http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html (the article itself)
  2. http://www.dhammatalks.net/Books7/Ajahn_Chah_The_Mind_Lets_Go_of_Itself.pdf (accessed 4-21-12).
  3. Madame Jeanne Guyon, Autobiography (http://www.ntslibrary.com/PDF%20Books/Madame%20Guyon%20Autobiography.pdf [p. 106, accessed 3-2-13])
  4. http://ia700407.us.archive.org/33/items/higherchristianlife00boarrich/higherchristianlife00boarrich.pdf (see especially pp. 91-186).
  5. See the following:

    1) J. I. Packer, “Sanctification — The Christian Grows in Grace” (http://www.monergism.com/sanctification_the_christian_g.php [accessed 3-2-13]).

    2 John G. Resinger, “Sanctification by Grace” (http://www.soundofgrace.com/jgr/index037.htm [accessed 3-2-13]).

    3) Kevin DeYoung, “Andy Naselli on Why Let Go and Let God Is a Nad Idea” (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/06/03/why-let-go-and-let-god-is-a-bad-idea/[assessed 3-2-13]).

  6. Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968),172.
  7. Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress, 1991), 115.
  8. R. C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Carol Stream, Illinois:Tyndale House, 1992), xix.
  9. All Scripture passages are taken from the New American Standard Bible.
  10. See my article at https://apologeticsindex.org/2860-obedience-and-enablement

Article details

Category: Column: David Kowalski, Mysticism, Practical Christian Living
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First published (or major update) on Sunday, March 3, 2013.
Last updated on May 18, 2023.

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One Response

  1. Lunar Eclipse April 11, 2013

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