The Pursuit of “Holiness” Is Controversial

Transformation into a different personality is something God’s Spirit does to and for us. Our part is to spend time in the Spirit’s workshop—believers gathered around God’s Word and sharing its meaning for them.

What about a more aggressive approach? What can we do to move ourselves along more quickly to become more like Christ? The churches that emerged to pursue such holiness, I think, have done tremendous damage to the cause of biblical Christianity today.

A prime mover in that direction was the annual Keswick Conventions started in 1875 in the town of Keswick, England. These went a week-long with a featured biblical emphasis and speaker each day. The general topic was holiness and how we can, with the Spirit’s help, become more holy. Such conventions are still held today, but the movement peaked at the turn into the 20th century. Several church bodies emerged from it, chief of which is the Nazarene Church of today. Pentecostal churches, like Assemblies of God, took a different direction but emerged out of Nazarene churches.

One of the key distinctions in this “holiness” movement was between normal Christians and average Christians. “Normal” is meant here in the sense of the norm, being completely holy. John Wesley described that end result as perfection. We should aim to be perfect, which is possible in this life. The Wesleyan tradition was carried forward by the Methodists, one of the two largest church bodies in America in the early 20th century; the other is Baptists. Methodists are now one of the fastest declining mainline church bodies.

Here is the main point I want to make out of this short history. While the goal was changed hearts, the main result was a tremendous emphasis on “perfect” behavior. The natural human tendency was to look down on any sinful behavior that was less than perfect. Call it an inbred Christian superiority complex, which did not and does not go over well with marginal Christians and certainly not with unChristians. This scornful attitude provoked deep hostility among onlookers, who in recent politics were dismissed as “deplorables” by those with an attitude of “we know what’s best for you.”

For a born and bred Lutheran like myself, this aggressive pursuit of holiness is bewildering. Martin Luther was very clear that our old sinful nature, the flesh, continues to be with each of us even as we grow in our new life in Christ. It is when we drown the old nature through daily repentance that the Spirit can regenerate us and our new life in Christ can come forth and arise.

Luther himself has a phrase that must seem bewildering to “holiness” Protestants: pecca fortiter, sin boldly. That we, and he in particular, remain sinners was obvious. This life is not the dwelling place of righteousness; that comes in the next. When you don’t know what to do, don’t be afraid of sin. Confident of God’s grace in Christ, do what makes sense.

Much of Christian church history is intramural disputes—disagreements among Christ followers, like between Catholics and Lutherans, between Calvinists and Arminians. But the time of seeing American culture as basically Christian is over. Now all believers and their churches need to focus on the basic message of Christ and Paul. God is merciful and offers his grace to all. Healthy Spirit-shaped and grace-focused Christian churches can offer a way of life that overcomes lonely, meaningless, addicted life and replaces it with purpose, confident of God’s love and acceptance.

A friend has taken on leadership of a ministry in Cleveland that sends a Heaven Train bus to public housing areas on Saturdays to teach children Bible truths. It was started by Nazarene leaders, with whom he meets regularly. He shared with me a new, attractively done Nazarene catechism. As a Lutheran I could accept and applaud every article, although I would say more about the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. This Nazarene theology bears little resemblance to their description in one of my books on American church bodies. In mission to others, they have moved beyond their defining disputes a century ago.

God is doing great work in newer church bodies that face outward rather than inward. That’s a great goal for us in traditional mainline churches.

Scroll to Top