October 17, 2023

Quietism and Activism

Barry Cooper
Quietism and Activism

How do we grow as Christians? Do we passively “let go and let God,” or is it all about us and our hard work toward holiness? Today, Barry Cooper shows how the truth revealed in Scripture avoids both of these pitfalls.


In the beginning, before there was Broadband, there was Dial-Up. And it was very bad.

If, back in 1999, you wanted to watch the trailer for Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and many people did, you couldn’t just hit play on your computer, watch it, and then get on with your life like it was no biggie. Your state of the art 56k dial-up modem, with its top speeds of, well much less than 56k, meant that you had to wait. And wait. And there was nothing you could do to help it along. I literally went to bed for eight hours in the hope that it might be waiting for me in the morning.

This very passive and unsatisfactory state of affairs is my way of raising the topic of Quietism, which as a way of thinking, is more popular today than you might expect. Quietism says there’s nothing you can do to move your sanctification along. God does the work in you, and so you should just calmly wait and be passive in the process.

In recent years, there’ve been some high profile examples of this. Reacting against what they see as legalism or moralism - the call to “do more, try harder” in the Christian life - some teachers have swung so far the other way that they’ve effectively taught people there’s no need for a Christian to do anything at all. In a nutshell, stop thinking about what you ought to do, and reflect only on what Jesus has already done on your behalf.

Quietism has its roots in a 17th Century Roman Catholic movement. It’s most associated with a Spanish priest called Miguel de Molinos, a French mystic called Madame Guyon, and a French Archbishop and writer called Francois Fenelon.

They were associated with the idea that the sanctification of the Christian is exclusively the work of the Holy Spirit. In other words, as far as your personal godliness is concerned, there is nothing for you to do except get out of the way, and let God do all the work. Let go of your own will, and any illusion that you can affect your own sanctification in any way, and just allow God to do it. “Let go and let God” is the way some have characterized it.

Think of it as a spiritual car wash. Your job is to sit there while you pass through the various brushes and hoses and dryers, and do nothing. In fact, you’re actively discouraged from doing anything. Leave the car in neutral with the handbrake off, take your feet off the pedals, get your hands off the steering wheel, and don’t even think about touching the moonroof.

That, according to Quietism, is the Christian life. You must calmly resign yourself to the conveyor belt of sanctification, and don’t go getting any funny ideas about, you know, actually striving to live a holy life.

As is often the case with theological mistakes, you can also fall off the horse on the other side. There is an equal and opposite error to quietism, and it’s called activism. That’s the view that not only should you not be passive in the Christian life, actually your growth as a believer is ALL about you. You can’t be relying on the Holy Spirit to do anything for you. You’d better be working incredibly hard, ALL the time, otherwise you’ll never be sanctified.

Most of us tend to fall off the horse one way or the other. Are you more likely to be a quietist or an activist?

Well, Scripture rules out both. To take one particular verse, think about what the Apostle Paul says in Philippians chapter 2 verse 12: “...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling”. Ah, says the activist, there you are you see. I have to work out my own salvation. It’s all about me.

Not so fast, says Paul: “...work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

There you are you see, says the quietist, God does the working. To which Paul says, “Were you not listening to the first part of the sentence?” That’s not in Philippians by the way, but I hope you can see my point.

Scripture gives us a much more “wholistic” view of how we’re to understand the Christian life. We are to work, and work hard, for holiness, but as we do that, we do it in the knowledge that it is God who is working in us to make us more like Christ. And actually, according to Paul, the very reason that we keep striving for holiness is precisely because we know that God is working in us when we do so. If you knew that God would be at work in you when you are at work, wouldn’t that motivate you to work all the more?