Holiness in Eclipse: Renewing the Church’s Passion for Holiness

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Holiness is a weighty biblical word. It is the goal of our election and redemption. It is God’s primary goal in all of His providential dealings with us. A passion for holiness is deeply implanted in the heart of everyone who is born again, and grows in intensity as we mature in faith and understanding. The Holy Spirit feeds this interest for holiness; one of His main tasks is to make us holy. Healthy Christians pray for growth in personal holiness and seek to practice it in their daily lives.

While holiness is especially prized in the Wesleyan tradition, Biblical holiness is God’s command and gift for the whole Church. Throughout history, holiness has been a leading mark of those who claim to be evangelical. It was a central emphasis embraced by the Reformers, Puritans, and Pietists. The Methodists, under John Wesley’s leadership, made scriptural holiness their main message and mission. The holiness revival in the last half of the 19th century was embraced by denominations of varying theological persuasions. The call to holiness has had a global impact through the writings of Oswald Chambers, Andrew Murray, A. W. Tozer, and Watchman Nee. Great 20th century scholars like John Stott, Dallas Willard, J. I. Packer, and Dennis Kinlaw have left a powerful witness that holiness of heart and life is central to Scripture, crucial to spiritual formation, and possible in the daily lives of ordinary Christians.

Why then, as we move deeper into the 21st century, is holiness in eclipse? Why has that which was formerly a passion and a priority throughout the whole church now become a secondary matter? Why has it waned even among those who claim the message of scriptural holiness as a birthright doctrine? 

In the Grip of a Self-Centered and Self-Absorbed Godliness 

In many cases, the contemporary Christian has made self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction their primary focus. This self-absorption pays mere lip service to the glory of God, the denial of self, and the way of the cross. J. I. Packer points out that holiness means godliness, and godliness is rooted in God-centeredness; those who think of God as existing for their benefit, rather than of themselves as existing for His praise, do not qualify as holy men and women. The other form of this distraction is self-absorption. Many Christians are nothing more than pulse-takers rather than others-lovers. They have missed the fact that the Holy God is a self-giving, others-loving Trinity, and that holy people will be like him.

Holiness of heart and life is central to Scripture, crucial to spiritual formation, and possible in the daily lives of ordinary Christians.

Doing has trumped being. It is not wrong to have a strong desire to accomplish something for God. We all want to make a difference. But God’s first concern is not what the Christian does, but who the Christian is. What we do will be according to what we are. Jesus does not primarily call us to do what He did, but to be as He was — permeated with holy love. Then the doing of what He did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in Him.

There is disillusionment, skepticism, and confusion with holiness terminology. Very often the packaging and language used to describe holiness and holy living strikes contemporary Christians as sterile, superficial, and irrelevant as they face the complexities and challenges of today’s world. The goal of communicating the message of biblical holiness is not to perpetuate a set of treasured phrases and clichés. Rather, it is to convey the powerful vision that God can transform every surrendered soul so thoroughly that loving Him and loving others becomes the all-consuming desire and delight of the soul. This frees the child of God to love Him “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

It may also be said that the terms we use to communicate Biblical holiness have often created confusion rather than clarity. This is especially so when we use language understood by our religious group rather than Biblical language that is more easily understood by the church at large. An intelligent young woman, who did not grow up in the Wesleyan tradition, but was exposed to it later in life, said this to me:

What has always been a challenge for me in regards to the Wesleyan message is its implication of “once-and-doneness.” In other words, once you become entirely sanctified that’s it! Yes, you continue to grow and seek to go deeper with God, but you should never have to truly go to battle with sin again; it’s conquered. This doesn’t square with Scripture and seems like a terrible oversimplification of the issue.

She is right of course. There is no better way to discredit the truth of scriptural holiness than to exaggerate what it is or is not.

We are insensitive to God’s holiness. Many contemporary Christians don’t think much about God’s holiness — His unique otherness that sets Him apart from everything else. We don’t tremble much, or at all, over the fact that He is a consuming fire who will destroy everything that is tainted by sin. We are not in tune with the biblical view of sin as “filth” nor the fact that there are ways of behaving that God hates. We are indifferent toward wrong and manifest little abhorrence of ungodly things (Jude 23). Such a spirit of apathy or insensitivity undermines a true passion for holiness.

How Can We Reverse the Eclipse?

Nothing of lasting significance can be done apart from divine aid and intervention, but I’ll add my own mite to the treasury of ideas. It has been almost three decades since Keith Drury gave an address at a Christian Holiness Partnership luncheon entitled The Holiness Movement is Dead. The response to his remarks was swift and partisan. Significant voices in the mainstream movement quickly agreed with Drury and published responses: “Why the Holiness Movement Died,” by Douglass Crossman (Arminian Magazine); “Why the Holiness Movement Died,” by Richard Taylor (God’s Revivalist); and “Why the Holiness Movement is Dead,” by Kenneth Collins (Asbury Theological Journal). Many voices that were less mainstream and more conservative viewed his remarks as either unduly pessimistic or grossly exaggerated.

The controversy that stormed on both sides of the argument following his remarks was in retrospect no more than a tempest in a teapot. The more mainstream holiness groups have only made feeble attempts to truly promote a more dynamic holiness message (one notable exception being the Francis Asbury Society). The more conservative groups have maintained a very public embrace of the holiness emphasis, yet still engage in mostly “term dropping.” What discussion they do give to it often lacks theological depth, careful biblical exposition, and practical life application. This leaves them vulnerable to a holiness message with more shibboleths than substance. The broader evangelical world is preoccupied with controversy over social and/or political issues on the one hand, and its desperate attempt to hold on to an evangelical culture that is increasingly bored with church on the other; they have little time or energy to pursue holiness as their early fathers did. Hence holiness is still in eclipse.

What Can be Done to Restore a Proper Emphasis on Holiness?

1. We need to reclaim the theological “high ground” of true biblical salvation. True biblical salvation is renewal into God’s image. It is not just “peace with God and a home in heaven.” Therefore, holiness, not the forgiveness of sin, is the primary goal of our election and redemption (1 Peter 1:15-16; 1 Thess. 4:3,7; 5:23; Eph. 1:4; 5:25-26; 2:10; Rom. 12:1; 2 Cor. 7:1). When we come to Christ, our whole nature is changed. We are not “just a sinner saved by grace.” There’s not an old nature and a new nature destined to an endless dogfight for power and control. No, the Bible says we have been born again; we are brand-new people, and are no longer sinners as our essential identity.

We are not simply people who receive forgiveness and get to go to heaven. Each of us is a person who has become someone he or she was not before. We are now, in terms of our deepest identity, saints, children of light, citizens of heaven—not only positionally and judicially, but actually. Becoming a Christian is not just getting something, no matter how wonderful that something may be. It is becoming someone—a holy man or woman who is being conformed to the image of Christ. We have been transformed and are being transformed as we walk in the power of the Spirit and allow the Word of God to dwell in us fully. 

Salvation is far more than what Christ has saved us from; it is also what He has saved us to. The goal is that “we may stand perfect and complete in all the will of God” (Col. 4:12) and that “the very God of peace sanctify [us] wholly; [so that our] whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23).

2. We need to stop apologizing for the language of scriptural holiness. There was a time when the broader culture believed in certain high ideals, just as the evangelical world once embraced biblical holiness. Sadly, this era has passed. The culture has deteriorated to the level that it mocks traditional goodness and scorns any moral path but the one that “leads to perdition.” The church too has lost its appetite for holiness, and instead of “going on unto perfection,” is embracing what Dallas Willard calls “miserable sinner” Christianity with its gospel of “sin management.” Real transformation of life and character have no part in the redemptive message. But this is not the position, the language, or the expectations of the Bible.

If we are to have any reasonable expectation of people pursuing holiness, then they must believe that personal holiness is not only possible but expected. It may sound humble to say, “I am a miserable fellow and cannot obey God as I ought,” but it’s simply not true. Titus 2:11 says, “For the grace of God . . . has appeared to all men, teaching us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” Biblical examples point to both the possibility and the clear expectation of holy living. For instance, we are told that Zechariah and Elizabeth “were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Lk 1:6). Job, according to God’s own testimony, was, “a blameless and upright man, who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:8). Paul said of himself, “You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you” (1 Thess. 2:10). Paul often commends the churches and his ministry partners for their obedience and godly example.

God calls us to be perfect — mature, complete, being brought to an appropriate end, blameless. When a thing is perfect it is as it ought to be.

God not only calls us to holiness but expects us to be holy (1 Thess. 4:7; 1 Peter 1:15-16). He calls us to be perfect — mature, complete, being brought to an appropriate end, blameless. When a thing is perfect it is as it ought to be. He expects us to stop practicing sin (1 John 3:10). He tells us we are “set free from sin” in order to become “servants to righteousness and holiness” (Romans 6). He expects Christians to be marked by virtues like love, joy, and peace, rather than vices like fornication, uncleanness, and selfish ambition (Galatians 5).

3. We need a properly balanced holiness that does not pit love against law. The very heart of holiness is the Spirit of love. Love to God and man, Jesus says, is the whole burden of the law. Paul adds that love is the first fruit of the Spirit, and without love the would-be Christian is nothing (Gal. 5:22; 1 Cor. 13:1-3). However, some Christians make the mistake of treating law (in the basic sense of God’s requirements for human lives) and love as if they were mutually exclusive. One is expected to choose between a religion of law or one of love. This is inconsistent with Scripture. To begin with, love is a command of the law (Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:36-40). To say the law doesn’t matter is to say that love doesn’t matter. Furthermore, Jesus connects loving Him and communion with the Father with keeping His commandments (John 14:15, 21). Jesus was both law incarnate and love incarnate. To follow His way of self-giving obedient love is holiness in its purest and most perfect expression.

4. If we want people to take holiness seriously, then we need to stop labeling Christians as “legalistic rule keepers” when they truly seek to please God by loving, careful obedience to Scripture. God has implanted a passion for righteousness deep in every born-again heart. The outworking of this is sincere careful obedience to what one knows the Bible commands and exhorts us to do. It is normal and healthy for a Christian to seek to apply both biblical command and principle to the way they live their daily lives. Even a casual reading of the Bible makes clear the expectation that virtue and principle should be lived out in ways that are “evident to all” (1 Tim. 4:15). A serious desire to please God and to walk in all the light of biblical teachings is not a legalistic scandal, but healthy Christianity. The fear that we will surrender salvation by grace if we stress obedience, righteousness, and holiness is utter nonsense. Rather than mock those who adhere closely to biblical truth, we should emulate them.

If we want people to take holiness seriously, then we need to stop labeling Christians as “legalistic rule keepers” when they truly seek to please God by loving, careful obedience to Scripture.

However, the Bible also makes it clear that there is a difference in careful obedience to all that the Bible commands and mere rule keeping. Holiness is more than basic morality and niceness. The Pharisees were externally moral, but their hearts were often full of iniquity. It is a very subtle slope we start down when we embrace sanctification by check-list. Check-list holiness is usually highly selective and does not take into account the idols of the heart. It is so much easier to measure the length of my wife’s skirt than it is to measure my likeness to Christ in the inner man. So, if we aren’t careful, our holiness becomes “skirt measuring” rather than “image bearing.”

5. We need to make much of Jesus.Holiness, simply put, is God-taught, Spirit-wrought Christlikeness. If, as the theologians tell us, holiness is the renewal of the image of God within us, then it should not surprise us that holiness lived out in man looks like Christ. He is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15) and the exact expression of His nature (Heb. 1:3). The whole objective of what God has done for us, and is doing in us, is conformity to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29).  The perfect human example of what it means to be holy is Christ.  His love (John 13:34), humility (Phil. 2:5-8), obedience (John 6:38; 14:31) and steadfastness (1 Pet. 4:1-2) show us what holiness in human skin looks like. If we faithfully lift up Jesus, we will faithfully lift up holiness.

Holiness may not be popular in the contemporary church or prominent in contemporary theology, but it is still the priority and passion of our heavenly Father. Hence our mission, our passion, and the ground of our triumph should be to spread scriptural holiness throughout the church and around the world.

Michael Averyhttps://livethedeeperlife.org/
Dr. Michael R. Avery is the President of Deeper Life Ministries and was named Chancellor of God’s Bible School & College in 2017 after serving as its President for 22 years.