Holiness Unto the Lord

by Glenn on July 6, 2018

It was fascinating to spend time this past weekend at the quadrennial meeting of pastors and lay leaders of The Evangelical Church, a denomination known until recently as The Evangelical Church of North America. The national meetings occur every four years, at which point its supervising leader (the General Superintendent—a position more of influence than actual authority) is elected through an open ballot with the names of all eligible candidates. (In this case the national leader was re-elected to a third four-year term on the first ballot, with 65 out of 118 voting members selecting him.)  Regional meetings are held annually and regional leaders are selected by a similar election process within the context of those meetings.

The Evangelical Church is a small denomination within the larger world of evangelical churches and denominations. Each evangelical group, including, for example, The Evangelical Church, whose meetings I attended this weekend, and The Salvation Army, the church in which I grew up, have their own emphases, which is one of the reasons why there are so many denominations. My sense is that all the churches that make up the larger evangelical church movement have a relatively broad consensus on the following:

—The Bible is God’s revealed voice to people.
—God is both one and three—Father, Son (Jesus), and Holy Spirit.
—Human beings are sinners headed toward destruction.
—The death of Jesus on the cross provided the way for human beings to be saved.
—Salvation means life change, both within, through inner transformation, and without, through relationships with others.

All of these statements need to be defended, but are assumed here. And while I’m sure there are quibblers, I think these things are broadly accepted by evangelicals, even if they may be spoken of in different ways.

Within the evangelical group are a number of churches and denominations that are part of a holiness movement. (Yes, a movement within a movement.) The Evangelical Church, The Salvation Army, the Wesleyan Church, the Nazarene Church, and the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana), for example, make (or at least at one time made) one of their emphases the imperative, “holiness unto the Lord.”

It’s important to note, these churches that identify (or identified) as holiness churches would not necessarily have an easy time merging, if that were something they even wanted to pursue. While they share evangelical underpinnings and may have similar beliefs about holiness, they have widely differing views about governance and the roles of women, to name just two.

One of the priorities of the current leader of The Evangelical Church is for its pastors and, by extension, their churches to embrace their heritage as part of the holiness movement. He was, of course, speaking directly to this denomination and not other holiness churches let alone the entire evangelical movement. But talk of “holiness unto the Lord” is familiar to me from my days in The Salvation Army.

As the leader spoke this weekend about the need for holiness I was reminded of some thoughts from childhood. There are two:

One, the need for holiness is beyond dispute. There are many, many verses that provide (and, in this case, were used to provide) ample proof-texting for the need of holiness in a person’s life. There’s no question that the Bible speaks about and emphasizes holiness (for starters, Ephesians 1:4 and 4:24, 1 Thessalonians 4:7, Leviticus 11:44, 1 Peter 1:15–16, and Hebrews 12:10 and 13:12 quoted in his talk.)

Two, what exactly holiness means and how it is achieved are problematic and, therefore, hard to talk about.

To frame the issue, I think of salvation as occurring over time. When we talk about salvation we are actually talking about three time frames. First, there is the moment we put our faith in Jesus and are saved. That is the day our salvation begins. Last, there is the day we die and our salvation is finalized for all eternity.

The second is the time between when we are saved and when we die.

To put it in chronological order: We were saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved.

What does it mean that “we are being saved”? (Noting that some might object to the present participle,  indicating that it is accomplished over time.)

Holiness churches sometimes stress the need for a “second work of grace,” which seemed to be the case this weekend. While this idea is derived from the Bible, it’s not a Biblical term. This seems to align the holiness churches with, say, the Pentecostal movement, which talks about the baptism of the Holy Spirit (a Biblical term), which may occur when you are saved, but often occurs later and is sometimes associated with water baptism. The reason they don’t align is that the holiness churches and the Pentecostal churches differ in what the second work of grace/baptism of the Holy Spirit means in terms of outcome. The Pentecostal churches would stress the gifts of the Spirit, beginning with speaking in tongues. The holiness churches would stress a holy life.

Here’s one quote that was used by the leader this weekend.

“Entire sanctification is a state of righteousness and true holiness, which every regenerate believer may attain. It consists in being cleansed from all sin, loving God with all the heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.” (The Discipline: The Evangelical United Brethren in Christ, 1947)

I have a problem with that first sentence. First, sanctification and holiness are synonyms. Second, holiness and sanctification are different from righteousness. Holiness (sanctification) has to do with being set apart; righteousness has to do with right actions. So this first sentence is a bit like saying, “A is B and A,” which is a contradiction and a tautology.

Still the larger truth is there. After you are initially saved, you’re not done. There’s more saving that God wants to do in and through you until the day you die. But now the complications begin:

1. Is a holy life accomplished over time or in one moment? Some will talk about sanctification/holiness as a process; others will insist it’s an event accomplished in a moment of surrender, often public at an altar.

2. What is this “state” of being? Is a holy life the end of sinning? If not, what has changed? Some will insist that a holy life means you no longer sin, or at least are no longer tempted to sin. Is this even possible? What is possible in terms of living a holy life? Or, what does a holy life look like?

3. What is the difference between sanctification and “entire” sanctification? My sense of the scriptures that talk about holiness is that they refer to it in a binary way. Something is or is not holy, meaning it’s unnecessary to call something (or someone) “totally” or “entirely” holy. If it is binary, then we don’t need to talk about “entire” sanctification, because sanctified is what it is. If it is not binary, how do we differentiate Biblical sanctification from so-called “entire sanctification”?

4. How do we talk about holiness without describing it as righteousness? Holiness is often presented as a list of things you do and don’t do, which is righteousness. It was interesting, as this particular leader spoke, he emphasized that holiness is not legalism. That was a relief, frankly. I grew up in a legalistic environment, which I now see as a kind of self-righteousness. But once you begin to talk about holiness not in behavioral terms, the meaning gets a little fuzzy.

5. Who is doing the work of holiness? When a person is saved, most evangelicals would be careful to stress it’s God’s work. We are saved by grace through faith and even that faith comes from God is how Paul formulates it in Ephesians 2:8–9. If God saved us and will save us, isn’t it possible that he will be instrumental in our present saving? As it was presented this past weekend, God saves us initially, but now we need to live a holy life, so get to work! Be holy. God saved you so you could save yourself.

6. How do we preach holiness in a way that communicates well. Is there a way to describe holiness that is both concise and invites consensus? In other words, can it be defined simply and will a large group, for example the pastors in a denomination, understand and agree with the definition. Further, is there a way to communicate “holiness unto the Lord” that may be understood and practiced pragmatically by lay people so that it may be communicated to and demonstrated to others? Finally, is it possible that “entire sanctification” has a whiff of jargon about it? It might make sense to some of us in our little group, but will not be understood by people in other, even Christian, groups. It seems to me that I should be able to explain what it means to follow Jesus so that people who don’t follow Jesus or follow him within another Christian tradition will understand what I am talking about.

None of this is meant to be critical of any particular individual or organization as much as to identify that my own thinking on the subject is rather muddy. This is most decidedly an area where I need to spend some time reading and thinking and writing. It may or may not be a confusing issue, but I don’t have to be confused about that.

Some working principles, initial hypotheses, and thoughts:

1. Differences need to make a difference. We shouldn’t play games with semantics to try and differentiate what is essentially the same thing as something else.

2. Distinctions should not be pursued in isolation. Nor should we be elitist about our faith. We should be convinced it’s true, but we need some intellectual humility to acknowledge that other people from other Christian traditions are thinking about what it means to follow Jesus and are convinced of truth as well.

3. The distinctions between Christians and non-Christians is paramount to distinctions between one group of Christians and another. Obviously, we need to talk about holiness, without which “no one will see the Lord,” (Hebrews 12:14) but a life of holiness may be anathema to someone who is hell-bound.

4. Avoid majoring on the minors. Given the choice of major doctrine or minor distinctions, we should focus on the former. One of the useful aspects of the many denominations is that their individual emphases may affirm our particular emphases or point us to something that we are neglecting.

5. We need to pay attention to the danger of pride.  If I call people to a certain experience with God, it can be a little condescending. The call to be holy shouldn’t be separated from the call to follow Jesus, so that what is called a holy life cannot be construed as “Look what I have achieved. I have become holy. You people better get your acts together and be holy like me.” We should not talk about holiness apart from God.

6. Perhaps holiness is talked about more than we think. Rather than look at verses that mention holiness in isolation and try to formulate an extra-Biblical idea of what they might mean, perhaps pursuing holiness without which no one will see the Lord is more widely discussed in the Bible than we think.

7. We are talking about both an experience and a theory. I see a couple of dangers. First, the person talking about holiness needs to be careful not to make their experience with Christ the measure of what it means to follow Christ. Second, this is something lived, not theorized about.

More to come.