Bible & Theology

Reductionism: The Enemy of the Holiness Message

At the turn of the twentieth century, Lelia N. Morris penned these words:

“Holiness unto the Lord” is our watchword and song,
“Holiness unto the Lord” as we’re marching along;
Sing it, shout it, loud and long,
“Holiness unto the Lord,” now and forever.

A watchword is a motto or slogan that expresses a core principle or belief. “Holiness unto the Lord” is like a pinned Tweet or the tagline of a website. Jesus died to sanctify his people (Heb. 13:12) and calls all men to be holy as God is holy (1 Pet. 1:13-2:12). Just as the high priest wore a turban engraved with the watchword, “Holiness Unto the Lord” (Exodus 28:36), “Holiness Unto the Lord” will be inscribed on the bells, pots, and bowls in the Messiah’s glorious Kingdom—everything will be set apart for His service (Zech. 14:20-21).

But what happens when people stop paying attention to our watchword? What happens when we wave the banner, but no one is listening? What happens when we sing the song, but no one has ears to hear? Sing it louder! Shout it longer! Or…is that the problem?

A watchword is powerful and meaningful because it is emphatic. But what makes something truly emphatic? Wesleyan theologian Fred Sanders writes about the nature of emphasis:

A blade is not all cutting edge. In fact, the cutting edge is the smallest part of the knife. The rest of the knife is the heavy heft of the broad, flat sides and the handle. Considered all by itself, the cutting edge is vanishingly small—a geometric concept instead of a useable object. Isolated from the great storehouse of all Christian truth, reductionist evangelicalism is a vanishingly small thing.

The same is true of the holiness message. Holiness is a right emphasis, but it is powerless when we present it apart from the broad body of Christian truth. Our problem is not that we have lost our emphasis, but that our emphasis is no longer emphatic—it is reductionistic. Driven by fear that we will lose the precious treasure that is our holiness heritage, some have resorted to shouting louder. But the only people who are listening are the people who respond to shouting. Many others sit back and wonder, what are we missing? The answer is where it has always been: the Bible.

While holiness is the cutting edge of the Bible, most of what we read is the heavy steel behind it. In Galatians, Paul devotes nearly five chapters of dense argument to defending his apostolic authority and the doctrine of justification by faith before he delivers his climactic blow—“walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16). The other New Testament books have a similar structure. Why do we think that we can pass over the foundational and doctrinal chapters and jump to the cutting edge of application and experience? Is it any surprise that when we deliver our blow, it is lacking the power of heavy steel?

Paul was emphatic about the message of the cross: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). But he was not reductionistic. Rather, “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). To see a genuine revival of holiness, we need a comprehensive assessment of our doctrine and ministry practices. The charge to ministers in one holiness church’s manual is astounding:

You cannot accomplish the salvation of souls by any other means than by doctrine and exhortation taken out of the Scriptures and by a life agreeable to those Scriptures. Lay it well to heart, then, how studious you ought to be in reading and learning the Holy Scriptures, how conscientious in framing your conduct by those Scriptures and how, for this cause, you ought to lay aside all worldly cares and studies.

If doctrine is essential, then theologically clarity should be first priority. When is the last time you heard someone teach or preach through an entire book of the Bible and allow the text to drive the emphasis? When is the last time you participated in a careful study of significant New Testament themes such as these:

  1. Church discipline (Matt. 18:15-20)
  2. Spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12)
  3. The resurrection of the body (1 Cor. 15:12-58)
  4. Identifying false teachers (1 Tim. 1:3-11)
  5. Roles and responsibilities of elders and deacons (1 Tim. 3:1-13)
  6. Equipping the saints for ministry (Eph. 4:11-16)

These are just a few examples of overlooked themes. More importantly, the New Testament explores at length the doctrine of justification by faith and its implications for the development of loving, Spirit-filled, service-driven, multi-ethnic communities of faith. We enjoy hearing the clear testimony, “I’m saved and (entirely) sanctified!” But how well do people actually understand the doctrine of justification by faith or the basic demands of the gospel? Do people know why or how to pursue undivided devotion to Christ in every area of life? Are we really emphatic, or just reductionistic?

The future of the holiness message largely depends on maintaining our holiness emphasis without becoming reductionistic. That means a return to faithful, systematic Biblical exposition and a comprehensive assessment of our ministry practices.