– March 2012
I was sitting in the barber’s chair when my barber, Tony, asked me what I was working on that day. I told him I was writing. He asked me what I was writing about. I told him I was writing on the subject of “holiness.” He grew very quiet and finally said, “That’s a subject nobody talks about. Of all the things that get talked about in here I have never heard anybody talk about holiness”.
Tony is right. Purity and moral excellence is certainly not in the top ten lists of today’s societal values. The media will only talk about it when they have the opportunity to mock a morally decent person as a hypocrite– otherwise the subject is just too boring. Movies typically cast the morally upright as some “out of touch simpleton” whose attempts to do the right thing are valued only for a few laughs. Sadly, most people have never heard a sound, scriptural discussion on holy living – not even in church.
The subject of holiness desperately needs to be re-discovered and re-introduced into the culture and values of America. That process should begin in the church. The practical presentation of holiness has long since been cast out of the pulpits and publishing houses of the people that made it a household word in America – the Methodists. Actually, many of the twentieth century holiness groups (descendants of Methodism) have also de-emphasized the message or abandoned it altogether in their quest for respectability and acceptance at the table with mainstream evangelicals. It is true that Evangelicalism has become the dominant expression of Christianity in America. But it is also true that the moral and spiritual life of the nation has collapsed while embracing its flimsy offers of cheap grace, the promise of heaven no matter how you live and the disgusting doctrinal conclusions that Christians are just “saved sinners” who are far from “perfect” but are “forgiven” nonetheless. It shouldn’t surprise any of us when surveys show that there is almost no difference at all in the core values between the churched and the unchurched in America! What is missing? Holiness!
The Biblical call to holiness leaves no room for Christians who want to coddle sin and live in a state of perpetual immaturity and worldliness. Not only does scriptural holiness teach that Christians can be liberated from willful sin and empowered to live lives of obedience to Christ; it also teaches that the Christian can be cleansed from the inner propensity to rebellion, selfishness and pride through the work of the Holy Spirit. A holy life is a life where spiritual and moral character is taking root and being lived out in a sensible, upright and godly way.
This is the message that birthed the Wesleyan Revival, took 19th century America by storm and raised the level of social and moral concern on two continents! The post-Civil War holiness revival impacted numerous denominations in America and influenced many Christian Leaders outside the Methodist holiness tradition. Oswald Chambers, a Scottish Baptist, was significantly affected both spiritually and theologically by his association with the American holiness movement. In his popular devotional My Utmost for His Highest he wrote, “Continually restate to yourself what the purpose of your life is. The destined end of man is not happiness, nor health, but holiness….God has one destined end for mankind, viz., holiness. Never tolerate through sympathy with yourself or with others any practice that is not in keeping with a holy God. Holiness means unsullied walking with the feet, unsullied talking with the tongue, unsullied thinking with the mind – every detail of the life under the scrutiny of God.”
Many in the broader holiness movement today would be embarrassed by Chambers words. They would see them as extreme, maybe even hypocritical. However, there is still a clear witness to the historic message of scriptural holiness! The Francis Asbury Society is a strong voice among Methodists. The mainline holiness groups still have a few scholars, pastors and laity who aren’t ashamed to lift the torch for scriptural holiness. The most welcoming home for the holiness message is among the Conservative Holiness Movement. They write it in their church disciplines, teach it in their Bible Colleges, preach it in their pulpits, editorialize it in their periodicals, celebrate it in their testimonies, and emphasize it in their conventions. For the most part, the CHM is strongly committed to the message of holiness.
However, providing the message of scriptural holiness a home and keeping it healthy are not one and the same. The Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement addresses this in Article V. The Call points out certain weaknesses that can and will undermine the message. Let me enumerate some of my own concerns with the CHM’s stewardship of the holiness message.
I am concerned about legalism. That scriptural holiness has behavioral and lifestyle ramifications cannot be argued: external matters are not unimportant. But when we turn our primary focus away from the heart and onto externals (usually particular standards of dress or modes of behavior) we are in danger of reducing holy virtue to custom and thereby trivializing both.
I am concerned about “works righteousness.” Holiness people take the formation of moral and spiritual character seriously. However, the balance between God’s work in us and our work in forming holy habits can get out of balance more easily than one might think. God graciously invites us to work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit through a variety of spiritual disciplines appropriate to our need, but it is always God at work in us. We have nothing that has not been given to us by the Holy Spirit. All holiness is God’s holiness in us! The temptation to believe that any progress forward is somehow our own doing can be a very real problem. The tendency to believe that careful obedience to Biblical principles or personal adherence to codes or cultures of lifestyle somehow earns merit or standing with God is a subtle form of pride that must be rooted out. Andrew Murray reminds us that, “There is no pride so dangerous, none so subtle and insidious, as the pride of holiness.” Deep devotion to Christ and careful attention to righteous living must be motivated by loving obedience or we will fall into the ditch of works righteousness.
I am concerned about perfectionism. Holy people have not attained a state of “sinless perfection” that renders them incapable of any wrong action. Holiness involves both purity and maturity. There is still much room for growth in the sanctified life. Holy habits deepen into fixed patterns of living as we learn to walk in the Spirit. We can and do make many mistakes. There may be times when our attitudes or actions are simply wrong. When that happens we should, in good old honest humility, exercise repentance, make amends and learn from our failures. We never learn from failures denied. Only by seeing them, admitting them, and mending them in total meekness will we follow Peter’s admonition to “grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). This is how holy people respond to failure. However, perfectionism cuts us off from our essential humanity, forcing us to deny who and what we really are, or to downplay or outright deny what we have done. When this happens we are simply pretending we are something we are not, and such duplicitous behavior is destructive. True holiness is not the breeding ground for pretentious behavior or self-righteousness. Rather it is the womb in which honesty and humility are nurtured.
I am concerned about message drift. There is a certain amount of tension and balance in which every Biblical truth must be held. The same is certainly true of the call to holiness. The balance wheel for holiness is unadulterated love for God and others. If holiness loses that balance, it will become a crotchety, sterile, loveless way of rules and regulations that values law over love. One ends up behaving like the Priest who valued unsullied hands for temple service more than helping the wounded Samaritan out of the ditch. It can also go the other direction and become nothing more than a mental ascent to a positional sanctification that is void of any real sanctity. The theological concept of being “in Christ” is reduced to nothing more than a convenient semantic cover-up for a life of sin and failure. I fear both extremes. Scriptural holiness will not take you down either path.
I am concerned about isolation. The CHM has made valiant attempts to honor the Biblical call to separation from the world but has simply become isolated from the world thereby hiding its candle under a bushel. The message of holiness needs to be lived out loudly in the market place of life and we are the people to do it! It needs to be broadcast over the Web, printed in books and argued as the path to true happiness for individuals and families.
My barber is right. You don’t hear talk about holiness in the barber shops, bakeries or board rooms of America. But the day will come when “Holiness unto the Lord” will resound throughout the earth and be part of an eternal conversation by those who have “pursued that holiness without which no man will see the Lord.” I want to be one who promotes the conversation now – don’t you?