How Holy Is Holiness?
1 Thessalonians 5:23
Rob Thomas has always been motivated more by recess, than by any other of his classes. For an hour one day when he was in the second grade, Rob had avoided working on his math sheet. Then the teacher told him that every problem would have to be done before he could go out for recess. Within two minutes, his teacher reported, he had written an answer for every problem. Unfortunately every answer was wrong, and the teacher sent the work sheet home for him to do over.
“You’ll have to do all these problems again,” his dad told him. “Why?” he asked. “They’re all wrong,” his dad replied. “So?” he shrugged. “Nobody’s perfect.”
Rob’s final phrase pretty much sums up why some people reject holiness. Even bumper stickers proclaim, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” And those who need more authority than a bumper sticker turns to 1 John 1:8, which clearly states, “If we say we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and refusing to accept the truth” (NLT).
In the face of worldly wisdom, bumper sticker wisdom, and 1 John 1:8, why do Salvationists insist on teaching holiness? For the simple fact that the Bible teaches “an initial experience, a continuing experience, an ultimate experience” (Handbook of Doctrine 118).
Deliverance from all sin and of being renewed in the image of God are themes that run throughout the Bible. Paul prayed that sanctification was his heart’s desire for the people of Thessalonica. “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess. 5:23 NIV).
The Bible commands that we be holy. “You must be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy,” (Lev. 19:2 NLT). (READ Matt. 5:48, Heb. 6:1). The Bible is full of examples of people who lived in a holy relationship with God. “Noah was a righteous man, the only blameless man” (Gen. 6:9 NLT ). Job was “blameless, a man of complete integrity” (Job 1:1 NLT). 1 John 4:17 says, “As we live in God, our love grows more perfect” (NLT).
There are so many other verses we could go too as evidence of the biblical teaching on holiness. But more important than that is this, the whole fabric of the Bible portrays a vision of people set apart into a holy relationship with our holy God.
The message of the Bible is not the bad news of defeat and enslavement to sin or of the awfulness of humanity. Rather, Scripture sings out the optimistic Good News that the grace of God is working to bring us victory over sin and into a holy, joyful relationship with Him.
1. What Is Holiness?
One reason people have so much trouble understanding the teaching of holiness is because, we have so many terms to explain it: perfect love, Christian perfection, entire sanctification, to name just a few.
At times Holiness theologians say that all these terms refer to the same experience. Other times, they want us to understand the subtle differences of these meanings. It is no wonder people look like a deer staring into car headlights.
My wife has told me on a number of occasions that watching football is boring. Because she doesn’t understand all the rules and terms of the game, even though I’ve explained them to her a number of times. Well I feel this same way when I watch hockey. As a kid I went to a hockey game in Kansas City when the old Kansas City Scouts were playing the Chicago Blackhawks. My uncle tried to explain to me, what offsides, icing, a two-line pass, and penalties that are unique to the game were. I didn’t get. So I began leafing through the program.
Suddenly, as is the custom in hockey games, a fight broke out among the players. I turned to my uncle and said, “This I understand!” A fight doesn’t have to break out in the church to help us understand holiness. In fact a fight over holiness would really complicate matters. But we do need an explanation that everyone can understand.
Here is what Salvationists believe, which many other Christians don’t: After conversion, but before death, a believer’s heart may be cleansed from all sin (Handbook of Doctrine 145). The expressions “entire sanctification,” “perfect love,” and “Christian perfection” are some of the terms Salvationists use to describe this experience.
However difficulty arises when the words “consecrate and consecration are used with the meaning of sanctify and sanctification. Reference to the Greek text or the New Testament shows that the writer used language which meant ‘to make holy’.” The Salvation Army uses these terms to make a distinction between man and God’s part in this experience. The use of “consecration” is man’s part in dedicating himself to God. While “sanctification” is God bestowing His holiness on the consecrated man (Handbook of Doctrine 149-150).
When two people decide to get married, they make a commitment to one another and decide that they will no longer live their lives separate from another. The day of their wedding the marriage relationship is as complete as it can be that day. But as the weeks and months of marriage continue, the couple can grow in the relationship.
Was this couple’s relationship less complete on the wedding day than it was at an anniversary many years later? No. It was as complete as it could be at each moment.
That is what holiness is like, as we grow each day in our relationship with God. We are perfect at each moment of growth, as a result of having a perfect God residing in us.
A little girl might play a simple one-hand piece on the piano for her first recital. The teacher could well exclaim, “That was Perfect!” Years later the grown woman, as an accomplished musician, could not play the same simple piece and have it called perfect. Much more would be expected of her.
When a person comes to love God with an undivided heart, the Bible says this is perfect love. That does not mean further growth is not possible. In fact, just the opposite is true. Once we love perfectly, or completely, that’s when growth becomes possible.
2. Can Holy People Sin?
Yes. Holiness is not a form of eternal security, teaching that once we’re in we’re in for good. The point of holiness is to restore people to the kind of holiness that Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall. They had a perfect relationship with God. Yet they chose to sin.
The goal and reasonable expectation of the entirely sanctified life are to not sin, as 1 John 2:1 makes clear: “My dear children, I am writing this to you so that you will not sin.” The expectation is that believers will live as Christ lived and do His will. Sanctified people not only do the will of God but also want to do the will of God. If we should sin, 1 John 2:1-2 answers that question. Confess it, seek forgiveness, stop doing it, and accept Christ’s atonement.
We must resist the temptation to deny that we have sinned, if indeed we have. And we should keep from giving sin a less offensive name, such as mistake, to downplay it. But at the same time, we should not call honest mistakes or poor judgement “sin” (Handbook of Doctrine 140).
A believer who does not “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6 NIV). Is not a candidate for holiness. The experience only comes after the new birth and growth in grace. Holiness involves spiritual maturity, so there is gradual leading to it.
Jim Jones, a 45-year-old landscaper, husband, and father of three in San Diego, describes his experience of holiness. He had been a Christian for 20 years, but only in the last year or so did it begin to gnaw at him. That he was missing something in his spiritual life.
“I was a believer, I had a powerful conversion experience, but there was no power in my life,” he said. “I rationalized when it came to sin, instead of being victorious over it. I was like everyone else around me: good folks who love God, love our neighbors, share our testimony when asked, and focus our lives on our rents, mortgage payments, jobs, and getting ahead.”
After spending a lot of time in God’s Word, he came upon Deut. 4:28-29: “There in a foreign land, you will worship idols made from wood and stone, gods that neither see nor hear nor eat nor smell. From there you will search again for the Lord your God. And if you search for him with all your heart and soul, you will find him” (NLT).
“I was so dissatisfied with my life at that point, and when I read this I decided that is what I wanted,” he said. “I felt like I only knew God as a concept, and now Jesus was saying to me what He said to His disciples in John 14: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time” (NIV)? “I wanted to know Christ as I had never known Him before.”
Driving down a two-lane highway home from his sister’s house in Ramona, CA, more than a year after his search began, Jim said, “I connected.” The presence of God filled his truck in such a way Jim began to weep. “On that drive I reached a new level of intimacy. And then I wondered how I could have known Christ so long and missed this!”
3. How Holy Is “Holiness?”
Brennan Manning in his Ragamuffin Gospel relates how one thought kept going through his mind while on a winter retreat. “Jesus did not say this on Calvary, though he could have, but he is saying it now; ‘I’m dying to be with you. I’m really dying to be with you,’ It was as if he were calling me for a second time. I realized that what I thought I knew was straw. I had scarcely glimpsed, I had never dreamed what his love could be. The Lord drove me deeper into solitude seeking not tongues, healing, prophecy, or good religious experience each time I prayed, but understanding and the quest for pure, passionate Presence” (168).
More important than human consecration or its length of time, is the fact that God entirely sanctifies. Cleansing from sin is not something we do for ourselves; it is a gift from God. But because it is God’s gift there is a certain mystery to it. We cannot schedule holiness to happen at our command (Purkiser 331).
Holiness is not the final goal of the Christian life. It’s a beginning point, a vital step in the lifelong process of being made more like Christ. Maintaining full fellowship with God is something the apostle Paul said was his lifelong passion. “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection! But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be” (Phil. 3:12).
Wesley said that the promise of holiness could be summed up this way, “Here is the substance of the great promise that we should be always holy, always happy; and being delivered from Satan and sin, from every uneasy and unholy temper, we shall joyfully love and serve God, in every thought, word and work” (Purkiser 299).
Though entire sanctification radically changes our desire and ability to show love, it rarely changes our basic personality. “Driven” sinners usually become “driven” Christians, and they may remain so through a lifetime of holiness. Laid-back sinners usually become laid-back Christians who rarely show signs of excitement when they obtain holiness. However many people have been discouraged because they didn’t match up to someone else’s experience.
From the time of Wesley, in the 1700’s, on through today, some people who believed they were holy have shown some unusual responses. Shouting, running, jumping, and weeping have all been described, and in some cases promoted, as evidence of holiness. But people with such physical demonstrations have had no better track record at growth in grace following their holiness experience than people who had no noticeable responses. Outward responses are not a dependable confirmation of the inward work of holiness (Drury 42-43).
The teaching of some Christians today that speaking in tongues is evidence of holiness can’t be supported either by Scripture or by experience. The real evidence of holiness cannot be precisely measured by human beings. For the evidence is increasing Christlikeness, in which the image of God is increasingly visible in a believer’s life (43, 70).
The idea of sinning every day in thought, word, and deed is so much less than victory over sin that the Bible promises. Through the years many Christians have settled for too little, emphasizing human frailness and the pervasiveness of sin. Caving into the argument that a person is doomed to stumble along in constant failure, they have lived defeated lives. Some have given up Christianity all together. Not only did individuals suffer personal defeat, but there is no telling how far back the kingdom of God has been set.
We were created in the image of God to live in holy fellowship with Him. Much of that fellowship was lost to sin. But the experience of heart holiness offers us restoration to God’s original plan.
The doctrine of holiness is the door that can lead us into that glorious, full, perfect fellowship with God.
Tonight we have heard about holiness. Now we know what it is and is not. We know that a holy person has the ability to sin. We know that holiness doesn’t make us more spiritual than anybody else.
Now that we know what are we going to do with and about holiness for our lives. Many of us may have experienced holiness but somewhere along the lines we became stale and stagnant. While others may still be struggling with the aspect of holiness being unobtainable. as we sing the song “Passion,” I would invite you to come and meet with the Lord here at the alter.
Some of you may still need to have a little more time in your decision about holiness in your life. As we sing the chorus “Fan the Flame in me,” come and meet with the Lord.
Barker, Kenneth. Reflecting God Study Bible NIV. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000.
Drury, Keith. Holiness for Ordinary People. Indianapolis: Wesleyan, 1994.
Manning, Brennan. The Ragamuffin Gospel. Portland: Multnomah, 1990.
New Living Translation Bible. Wheaton: Tyndale, 1998.
Purkiser, W. T. ed. Exploring Our Christian Faith. Kansas City: Beacon Hill, 1978.
The Salvation Army Handbook of Doctrine. London: Campfield Press, 1969.