I have spent virtually my whole life in a denomination that has made high claims of the possibility of sinless perfection. Wesley admitted that some of his basic ideas about sanctification he derived from Quakers, with some modifications. I have listened to a great number of sermons and lectures on the topic of holiness in my time. Running throughout those many lectures and sermons I have noticed some recurring themes, which I have concluded are false and lead at best to a truncated view of holiness, at worst – to a shabby substitution for the real thing. What I would like to do is to describe six of these basic themes and contrast them with the one thing that Jesus says is necessary. The contrast – even more simply stated – is the contrast between a righteousness of our own and the righteousness of Christ.
I begin with communion and end with communion.
I. Not Slander
The Apostles Creed says “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, and the communion of saints”. We come to holiness not as isolated individuals but as members of the body of Christ. The Church universal consists of all those who have trusted Christ as their Savior, past, present, and future. We share with them in the benefits of the gospel. Of those who have gone before, we are the beneficiaries. Toward those who will come after, we have responsibilities. To cut ourselves off from this communion is arrogant, foolish, and self-destructive. Sectarianism generally is a very paltry and unedifying thing. One of my teachers, D Elton Trueblood, used to speak of “the magnitude of the church”. I always found it to be a very stirring vision and a very healthy thing to remember.
Commonly, defenders of holiness rely on slander to make their case. What sort of holiness could need slander and lies? Is the truth so feeble? Surely not. But in my lifetime, I’ve heard many of these lies.
The most basic of these lies is to claim that no other believers really care about holiness but us. That is simply false. It is a charge that Arminians frequently level at Calvin, for instance, despite the very large section of his Institutes devoted to the necessity of sanctification following upon justification. Calvinist and Arminian sermons often present Roman Catholics as equivalent to heathen and unbelievers, who use frequent confession as a license to sin. And, I have known a Catholic or two who portrayed all Protestants as latter-day Scarlet Letter-type Puritans. These are all breaches of the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic Church, and the communion of saints and call for repentance. Not that we should never critique one another’s views, or never dare to point out error. Ministers are to watch and to warn when the enemy approaches. A watchdog that does not bark at the enemy’s approach or has lost its bite is useless. We must bark. We must be willing to bite and chew, but, integrity requires that the charges be well-founded, otherwise we are guilty of bearing false witness.
For example, I heard a holiness lecturer once attempt to bolster his case by singling out the “once saved always saved” catchphrase of Southern Baptists. He reported on a Baptist preacher claiming that on the last day there would be holes in the ceilings of brothels where errant Baptists got raptured despite the compromising situation where the last trumpet discovered them. He presented this as characteristic of Baptist views.
I have heard plenty of Baptist preaching in my life. I have many Baptist relatives. I have never heard anything resembling this view, or its implication that Baptists do not care about holiness. The Baptists I know are earnest students of the Word, they work hard to provide for their families, to rear their children in the faith, and give sacrificially of their resources for the sake of others. Who knows if one Baptist preacher ever said such a thing? But to present the extreme case as characteristic of the whole is slander.
Poor Darwin also often takes a libelous beating. Doesn’t fairness require first a good-faith effort to find out what Darwin actually said and consider the evidence? Very often what happens is that conservative Christians who are very ignorant of science and the issues in question, wind up vehemently attacking things that Darwin never actually said. Jude says that the Archangel Michael refrained even from slandering Satan. He simply said, “the Lord rebuke you.” To show by our attacks that we have not bothered first to understand, fosters the unfortunate stereotype that conservative Christians are ignorant of science and determined to stay that way. Holiness does not need slander in its defense. The truth can carry its own load.
II. Holiness is not Primarily Conscious Holiness
Another one of these mistaken themes that I meet frequently is the view that holiness means consciousness. I heard a speaker some years who listed many examples from Scripture of people who were in his words “examples of holiness”. His point, as near as I could tell, was that we should imitate these examples. When he completed his lecture, he said he was eager to take questions. I asked him “what about the fact that none of these people he had listed regarded themselves as examples of holiness?” He did not answer my question. I think the reason is because it did not fit the scheme that he was elaborating. The examples of holiness in Scripture are not filled with a sense of their own moral rectitude. They are focused on God.
The root of this trouble lies in a too shallow view of sin. The frequently quoted definition of sin often attributed to Wesley is “conscious violation of known law”. Now conscious violation of known law – especially God’s law, is surely sin. But the roots of sin go much deeper than the conscious mind. I think Wesley understood this, but latter-day revivalism often has not.
The consequences of sin reach to the level of desires and this level is available to the conscious mind only to a very limited extent. Indeed, there is nothing about us that is unaffected by the consequences of sin. There is no unfallen aspect of our nature that we can rely on to pull us out of the mire. This includes our own will. The will is not independent of the consequences of sin. Whatever freedom Adam and Eve might have had, it is diminished in their offspring. None of us has a free will in the sense that they did.
I could easily go long on this business of free will. Here I just want to make a couple of summary statements: I believe in a responsible will, not a free will. To speak of those who are servants of their disorderly desires as having a free will is alien to Scripture. According to Paul sinners are slaves, not free.
God’s freedom is more clear to me than human freedom in that whatever he wills comes to pass. To speak of freedom in those who cannot bring about what they will, is nonsense. As Jeremiah prayed, “Thou knowest, O Lord, that the way of a man is not within him”. (Jer. 10:23) God sets limits to human will and it is good. This was the message to Job. God asked, “Do you set the limits? No you do not. But I do, and my limits make life possible”.
Thank God for the limits to human will. There were many sins that I would have eagerly committed in high school if I could just have found the opportunity, but I could not, even though I sought them diligently. I look back on those days now and I shudder when I think of how easily I could have thrown away my life had it not been for those limits. The Holy Spirit preserved my life, apart from consciousness.
Not to be conscious of ourselves as sinners does not demonstrate that we are holy in God’s eyes – only that we are holy in our own eyes – and that is not a very reliable criterion. As C. S. Lewis says “a man who is conscious of sin is a bad man. A man who is not conscious of sin is a really bad man.” If we are not conscious of sin, it may simply mean that God has given us up to a depraved mind. To be a sinner and not to know or be troubled by it, according to Romans 1-2 is the beginning of God’s wrath. There is no hope for such a person because they do not feel the pain of their condition. The ability to see ourselves as sinners is a spiritual gift. And, it is a gift which seems increasingly rare for Americans.
Psalm 19:12 asks “who can detect his own faults?” The implied answer is – no one. David ought to know. When Nathan told him the story of a powerful rich man who took a poor man’s only lamb, David was outraged, but he was blind to the fact that it was himself until Nathan bluntly said “thou art the man”. David was outraged at the anonymous stranger he did not know and blind to the condition of the man he knew best – himself. He had learned how to lie to himself, how to cover his own faults, and be harsh toward others, who were doing as he had done.
We are not sinners because we feel like we are sinners. We are sinners because God tells us we are.
How then do we acquire adequate self-knowledge? By the Word. The Word shows us what we are, both depths and heights. Such a bundle of contradictions are we that we may err on both sides at the same time – both too prideful and toop self-deprecating – a strange ambidextrousness. No amount of self-analysis can free us. Our fulfillment is only found as we go out of ourselves to Christ.
We gain self-knowledge through trials. We can imagine that we are doing well until some trial exposes us. The trial that we are ready for and feel equipped to handle is not a real trial. It is the ones where we think “this is the last thing in the world I thought I would ever have to go through”- those are real trials – the ones that words cannot express. Those teach us what it means to labor and be heavy laden. We learn poverty of spirit only at the end of our own resources.
Jesus tells us to pray “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”. If God does not answer that prayer, none of us is safe. We may think that we have closed every opening, fixed every flaw, but Satan knows our weaknesses and is far more powerful than we are. Apart from God’s protection, we are no contest to Satan.
Faith preserves us from many trials and sorrows but not all of them. God sanctifies us by preserving us in the midst of trials. We sanctify God by relying on him in the midst of trouble.
Another unfortunate implication of restricting holiness to consciousness is the implication that the less we know, the less we can be held accountable for – i.e. – if sin is conscious violation of known law – it follows that the less I know of the law – the less the problem of sin. So, if I want to be pure, I should pursue ignorance, or at least hold on to my ignorance as long as I can.
Many times I have heard preachers boast of their lack of learning as though purposeful ignorance was somehow a spiritual qualification. I remember one defender of holiness who began by confessing he did not know why he was asked to speak and really had not had time to prepare, but he was just going to give us “Jesus in his heart.” Then he yelled at us for two days. How do I know that was Jesus in his heart and not just an example of empty barrels making the most noise?
Pride of learning can be dangerous, but surely proud of being stupid is no safe haven. God is not going to look at our transcript to decide if we get into the kingdom, but he has commanded us to love him with our mind. If we dream of an instantaneous and effortless perfection, we need to ask ourselves whether laziness and lack of talent rather than extreme spirituality are the foundation.
III. Holiness is Not Primarily an Experience
This point is closely related to the previous point. Both involve focusing on ourselves and our own holiness rather than focusing on God. Experience is big business in America. Advertisers of all kinds promise us that appropriate consumption of goods and services will give us good experiences.
The Church in its efforts to grow by turning the gospel into merchandise and ministers into salesmen, focuses increasingly on providing experiences rather than telling the truth. Worship services are designed in order to produce the right emotional wallop. Some seminaries teach ministers more about preaching as theatrics rather than as telling the truth.
The word experience hardly appears in the Bible at all. The reason is that there really is no Hebrew or Greek word that corresponds directly to the modern English word experience. It ought to give us pause if we find ourselves placing priority on a word that scarcely appears in Scripture. We need to be careful that we not read alien meanings into the text.
Nowhere in Scripture are we told to have an experience of any type as though then our faith would be more firmly grounded than by simply relying on the Word of God. Furthermore, if it is experience of God that we are after, it is simply nonsense to tell people to experience something that only God can give, and God does not show up even for the exemplary Job until he is good and ready.
Well, you might ask, “What about the experience of being born again? Jesus told Nicodemus he had to be born again.” Yes. Jesus did tell Nicodemus he had to be born again. He also told him that it was no more under his control than the wind. This is very far from trying to manipulate people into a particular kind of experience, as though it is up to our will to make God’s Word effective. People who can be manipulated into something can be manipulated out of it.
The consistent message in Scripture is not to run here and there seeking powerful experiences, but to try to have faith in spite of how experience appears. It takes spiritual eyes to know what experiences mean. Experiences are not self-interpreting.
There are genuine encounters with God in Scripture but they are at God’s choosing and initiative. This is a basic difference between true prophets and false. False prophets do things to themselves to try to produce an experience. No true prophet ever set out seeking a direct experience of God. Experiences come purely at God’s initiative. True prophets simply focus on faithful obedience.
What about Elijah at Mount Horeb? Was he an exception? Elijah needed restoration. He was exhausted and he had Jezebel’s death sentence hanging over him. He spelled out his troubles to God in response to God’s question, “What you doing here in Elijah?” Then God sent a rock shattering wind, an earthquake, devouring fire, and then a still small voice. The refrain runs throughout that God was not in the earthquake, not in the wind, and not in the devouring fire. The text does not tell us that God was in the still small voice either. What Elijah needed was renewed confidence in God’s sovereignty. God answered him not with words but with deeds. How could Elijah be worried if the God who could jostle the mountains and split rocks with wind was on his side? The theme of the story is God’s sovereignty, not Elijah’s quest for experiences.
Job is also mentioned sometimes in this connection. When God finally shows up, he barrages Joe with a string of questions to which Job responds “I repent – before I knew you only by report, but now I know you face to face” – as though this is an argument for experiential religion over simply trusting the Word. First of all, report was the only way Job was able to know God before God showed up. This is part of what distinguishes Job from everyone else. Job was willing to let the Word alone be enough. For others, the Word alone is seldom enough.
Basic to the book of Job is the demonstration that direct experience of the presence of God is not under our control, and certainly not something we can take credit for. Indeed, one of the scariest aspects of the book of Job is that two of his friends claim direct revelation from God as the basis for their argument that Job is getting what he deserved! The friends, mind you, are working for Satan. The prophets also have plenty to say about lying visions.
No true prophet ever boasted of his experiences of God as though he could somehow take credit for them. But, it is very common in our day to treat experience as a superior way of knowing – i. e., “Experience is the best teacher”. This saying has several loopholes. For one, it is certainly true for fools. Indeed, for them, experience is the only teacher with any hope of success. Wise people learn from other people’s experiences. Focus on experience as teacher assumes that experiences are self- interpreting. They are not. Ask a policeman how many criminals learn from jail time that crime does not pay? They will tell you, as they have often told me, not often. Twelve spies entered Canaan, they all took in the same sensory information, but only two sized it up correctly, the two that had hearts of faith.
Preachers often retail their own experiences as though they were there evidence of superior holiness. But what if instead these are the people God can’t get through to any other way? What if they are the beginners rather than the experts at the spiritual life? The Corinthians were convinced that they had quickly come to the fullness of the kingdom and had even surpassed their spiritual father Paul, and now looked down on him for his weaknesses including lack of spirituality. Paul attacks them at this point, that their sense of quick attainment is a delusion. They have barely started. They must endure to the end. They are not done until they have participated in the resurrection. “If you think you stand – take heed”. To the Philippians Paul says of himself “I have not yet attained, but I press on”.
Lately, we have seen a proliferation of baptisms. For most of history there was one, then came two, and later three, and others have added still more. A thousand baptisms cannot replace the need for a continual appropriation of the grace of Christ, moment by moment, hour by hour, day by day, week by week, year by year, until the end.
IV. Holiness is not an Absence of Struggle, Sickness, Sorrow, or Setbacks
I heard a speaker once who owns a prosperous business. He told how before he had discovered Kenneth Copeland’s prosperity gospel, his family was sick and his business was not doing well. But, now that he knows the faith principles, his family is all healthy and his business is thriving. In the audience that day was young man I knew to be struggling with a cancerous brain tumor. Just walking and talking was hard for him, but he persevered in his studies, even though he could not be sure he would live to graduate. I thought to myself as I listened, now which of these takes more faith? To drive over here in your new Mercedes and talk about your healthy family and your prosperous business, or to struggle down the hallway to class, struggle to make your fingers write your papers, when you cannot be sure to survive until graduation? That was not a hard decision for me.
One of the most striking examples of faith I have ever seen was not driving a Mercedes somewhere to talk about a thriving business and a healthy family, but instead watching a paralyzed little girl at Brenner Children’s Hospital learning to drive a motorized wheelchair with her mouth, as her mother walked up and down the hallway with her providing encouragement.
There are some troubles that never really show up until a little holiness begins to sprout in us, a little bit of reliance on the Word. Sometimes God provides windfalls. Sometimes deliverance comes quickly and effortlessly. At other times God calls us to fight. God promised Canaan to Israel, but still they had to fight for it, and fight with perseverance.
IV. Holiness is Not the Same as the Reputation for Holiness
There are far more people seeking the reputation of holiness than seek holiness itself. Satan has no more effective allies then those who insinuate themselves into the Church’s leadership and then, in effect, blow themselves up when their hypocrisy becomes evident.
Here I can give a very long and sad list of examples I have known. We will let one be sufficient. A few years ago, I heard a great proponent of holiness solemnly announce that he had not sinned in twelve years, and he told us the circumstances surrounding the experience when sin no longer became a problem for him. He said it took place in an airport. And, he told us how it felt. A year later, I received the report that he had been dismissed from his teaching position for adultery that was occurring at the very time that he was professing his sinless perfection. It would not surprise me to hear that he met the woman at an airport. But, he had written several very popular books about highly spiritual topics, including holiness.
I have never found anything to be gained by professing our own holiness. If you are convinced that you are without sin, my advice is don’t tell me, show me, and not for just a little while, but to the finish line. Jesus never professed perfection, he simply demonstrated it.
VI. Holiness is not Measured by the number of our Scruples, but by Their Right Order.
The Pharisees had plenty of scruples but they were disordered. They aimed to protect Sabbath observance by their many meticulous regulations, yet they became angry when Jesus relieved suffering on the Sabbath. Some of the Corinthians were very scrupulous. Some of them thought they could only be Christian if they remained unmarried. Others thought they could only be Christian if they sent their unbelieving spouse away. Some were scrupulous about food and others about holidays. What they lacked was right order. They should have cared about the consequences of their freedom or scruples on others.
This was the principle that Paul elaborated to the Galatians as well. On the surface Paul’s attack on the scruples of the Galatians seems to go against the advice he gives to the strong at Corinth. Why does Paul here attack the scrupulous? The difference is that the Galatians were founding salvation on circumcision and diet. This put their salvation in jeopardy. In that case, the only responsible thing Paul can do as a minister of the gospel was to attack their false faith. BTK, the famous Wichita serial killer, lived in my old neighborhood in Park City, Kansas. I just narrowly missed having him as a Scout leader. He was head elder in his local Lutheran church, and he worked for the city in weed enforcement. He diligently went around measuring grass height and enforced city ordinances about weed control. Meanwhile, he amused himself by binding, torturing, and killing. Grass height, weed control, and Lutheran eldership, do not compensate for murder. It is a matter of right ordering.
VII. Communion – Unum Necessarium
Martha had an acute sense of her own righteousness. She was busy – busy about good things, to entertain Jesus. And she was indignant even at her own flesh and blood for not measuring up to her high standard. But Jesus surprised her when he commended her sister for simply paying attention to his teaching – for resting in his presence. This is what it all comes down to, focusing on Jesus in the fullest sense. Our greatest sin, the source of every other sin, is the breach of communion. Prayerlessness lies behind every other sin. But, every time we lift our minds to God we make a new beginning. Conversion is not a one-time thing that lies behind us and then life is downhill from there. Conversion is the entrance upon a penitential life, and that is not done until our battle is finished.