July 1, 2015

Holiness and the Pursuit of It

A while back I read the book, "The Pursuit of Holiness" by Jerry Bridges. I had read his other book, "The Pursuit of Godliness" a long time ago, and I remember how much it influenced my early Christian walk. Lately, I have been reminded of how much the Father desires that His children emulate His holiness. The word says, "Be holy," and as such, we are commended to strive for holiness in every area of our life.

Bridges writes, “Holiness is the perfection of all His other attributes: His power is holy power; His mercy is holy mercy; His wisdom is holy wisdom. It is His holiness more than any other attribute that makes Him worthy of our praise.” When we focus on God's holiness, we are able to frame our perspective and worldview to hold rightly against His plumb line. By this I mean that we are able to see clearly who He is and who we are and there is no mistaking the two. He is God, and we are mortal created flesh.

As I consider the ruling by the Supreme Court this past week, I am all the more challenged toward this direction. The Word encourages, no it mandates, a type of living that is different from that of the surrounding culture. The Old Testament and the New Testament both advocate a form of separation from the dominant culture. This means that the inward transformation in the life of a believer should be clearly recognizable by their outward actions. The world should see Christians as possessing something different, something unique, and something desirous. Yet, if you scan most professing Christians, there is little doubt of verifiable difference on face value. Yes, from the homes we live in to the cars we drive to the clothes we wear -- there is no difference in appearance.

Furthermore, in attitude and in action, most believers behave similarly to their non-religious neighbors. Granted, you might not find the local pastor down at the bar on a Friday night, but you might just find him drinking beer at home with his buddies. The same is true for that Godly wife and mother who professes Christian love, but who is the first one to spread the gossip about the neighbor down the street.  There is this mentality, this laziness, that says "so long as I clean myself up and make myself look good on the outside then I don't have to worry about what is happening on the inside of me." The problem with this mentality is that we keep our sin hidden and we allow it to coexist in our lives. We rationalize this sin, downplay its significance, and we champion God's grace, knowing that our sin's are forgiven. The root issue is that we choose to allow sin in our lives when the Word forbids it. We think we are powerless against it, but the Word says otherwise. We believe we are "sinners saved by grace," rather than "saints" who are redeemed and sanctified for a life of holiness. Yes, we live in this quasi-cultural place where our light is diminished, and our effectiveness as witnesses for the Gospel of Christ is watered down. We live right where the enemy wants us to live -- in between heaven and hell -- as saved but unholy children of a Holy God.

This is a lie from Satan, and we must refute it, challenge it, and walk away from it. Bridges states, “In the deceitfulness of our hearts, we sometimes play with temptation by entertaining the thought that we can always confess and later ask forgiveness. Such thinking is exceedingly dangerous. God’s judgement is without partiality. He never overlooks our sin. He never decides not to bother, since the sin is only a small one. No, God hates sin intensely whenever and wherever He finds it.” Furthermore, he writes, "We need to brace ourselves up and to realize that we are responsible for thoughts, attitudes, and actions. We need to reckon on the fact that we died to sin's reign, that it no longer has any dominion over us, that God has united us with the risen Christ in all His power and has given us the Holy Spirit to work in us. Only as we accept our responsibility and appropriate God's provisions will we make any progress in our pursuit of holiness.”

WOW! True testimony!

As we pursue holiness, we will come to see sin the same way that God sees it. We will find that we hate sin as much as He does, and in doing so, we will be to judge rightly, to use our biblical discernment to know when and if something is sinful, and how we are to respond to sinful thoughts, actions, or words. Yes, we will become people who are holy because of their relationship with a Holy and Awesome God.

Some Thoughts on Holiness

Many years ago, I became enamored by the holiness movement. If you are not familiar with it, then google some to learn about the history of this movement within evangelical Christianity. In sum, the holiness movement began in the 19th century with the Second Great Awakening, but is most generally thought to be an off-shoot of Weslyanism. Generally, this movement is embraced by many different adherents within Protestantism, and groups fall in a wide spectrum of belief statements. The main tenet of the holiness movement is the belief in Christian perfection, which suggests that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians are empowered to live a life without sin (willful sin). This means that because of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Christians may sin unwittingly as the Holy Spirit is transforming them, but they cannot engage in willful, habitual sin after their conversion to Christ. The main difference between Holiness advocates and general evangelicals is the position of progressive sanctification -- a process of sanctification whereby the believer cooperates with the Holy Spirit through a faith-walk and comes to progressive holiness (the end result is preparation for future glorification). Holiness adherents believe that sanctification takes place during the regeneration of the Holy Spirit at the time of baptism. This is called "entire sanctification." Moreover, holiness adherents believe in the whole canon of Scripture, and that the rules set forth by God in the Old Testament are valid for all believers. This means that behavioral rules are to guide the believer, and are useful to help the believer lead a holy life. Some groups address these rules as part of their statement of faith or their church membership guidelines. Common behavior rules include such things as:
  • Forbidding the consummation of alcohol, gambling, dancing, card playing or going to movies
Many evangelical Christians see holiness proponents as legalistic, stating that they do not need their church to tell them what they can and cannot do in their free time. Other groups, see these rules as simply conforming to a standard of holy behavior, and they feel that these rules provide for a conformity of Christian society, and a more self-controlled witness to the world.

The three groups still associated with the holiness movement are The Church of the Nazarene, the Wesleyan Church, and the Free Methodist Church. Unfortunately, as times have changed, so have associations with this movement. Many of the words used to describe holiness adherents have taken on different overtones since the later part of the 20th century. For example, fundamentalism, which was one of the terms used to describe churches that practiced holiness, has now come to symbolize radicalism. Likewise, the holiness term is most closely associated with the Pentecostal and Charismatic movement. While some Pentecostals and Apostolic Christians adhere to holiness behaviors, the primary difference is in the belief of speaking in tongues. Traditional holiness movement supporters rejected the belief of speaking in tongues. Therefore, holiness adherents today will be divided by those that follow the early Wesleyan founders and those that follow current Charismatic practices.

My View of Holiness

My early childhood was spent in mainline Protestant churches. My first experience with "holiness," was when I read Watchman Nee's book, "The Normal Christian Life." This book changed my view of Christianity in an instant, and I became convinced that my life, my ordinary life, was less than what God desired. Nee, a Christian missionary, brings a unique perspective to living a life predicated on holiness through application of Scripture and a life's work committed to serving the Lord Jesus Christ.  

At the time of my conversion, I was attending an Evangelical Lutheran Church. I came to faith as a child, but it wasn't until I started to attend this church, that my life became fixated on serving the Lord. In truth, I had little knowledge of God's word, and I felt so very inadequate when compared to my friends who grew up in Lutheran schools and attended church all their life. I felt that I knew nothing about God, other than I was convinced that I was saved (my Lutheran Pastor disagreed with me, but then he felt that because I wasn't raised as a Lutheran, I wasn't saved).

After high school graduation, I left this church and I attended a large Bible church. I had been invited to a bible study for college students, and I liked what I heard from the Student pastor. I started to attend weekly, and within two months, I found what I was looking for -- I found a systematic theology that taught me what it meant to be a Christ follower. I learned what it meant to follow Christ, and I was strongly encouraged to study the Bible, to learn as much as I could about the Word of God, and to seek out my calling as a child of God. This church was originally founded under the Disciples of Christ banner, which meant that their focus remained two-fold: seeking the lost and making disciples of them. I was a young believer with little "knowledge" about God, but over time, I grew to love the Word, and to see my life as something more than a warm and fuzzy feeling. I came to understand my place in God's Kingdom, and to learn how to live my life in light of that truth.

The church I attended was known locally as a "fundamentalist Christian Church." This church was a point of conflict for my Confessional Lutheran friends, who deemed it "satanic" because of the influence of legalism and the Church's belief in Christian perfection. I knew all about "that church on the hill where thousands of people were going to hell because of the heresy they were teaching each week." These dear people believed that while one might strive for perfection, but staunchly defended the view that perfection is unattainable this side of heaven. Unfortunately, I lost a good number of friends, people whom I assumed were my friends, when I made the decision to leave the Lutheran church and become a member of this Bible church. My Lutheran friends believed that this church taught salvation by works (because of the emphasis on holy living and Christian perfection) and not grace. This was not true at all, but because these people would not even attend the church to see for themselves, they condemned anyone who went there as "utterly lost." As I reflect back on my formative years as a young Christian, I can say that during my 10 years at this Bible church, I learned more about what it means to be a Christian, and what God expects from His followers as far as holiness and life-style choice. In fact, I would say that I became an ardent and passionate follower of Jesus Christ through my time spent at this church. I digress...

So what is Christian perfection? Christian perfection is often confused by people who do not understand what John Wesley believed when he wrote about sanctifying grace. Wesley believed that "Perfection is the process of sanctification which is both an instantaneous and a progressive work of grace." It is important to note that Wesley believed that "Christian perfection did not imply perfection of bodily health or an infallibility of judgment. It also does not mean one no longer violates the will of God, for involuntary transgressions remain." Rather, Wesley taught that born again believers, through the transformative work of grace, were given the power to choose not to sin. This doesn't mean that they are made perfect at the time of conversion, but rather that they are sanctified and work towards perfection through obedience to God and reliance upon the Holy Spirit as guide, helper, and defender. In short, "Wesley's perfection represents a change of life, a freedom from willful rebellion against God, impure intentions, and pride."

The church I attended taught that as a born-again Christian, I possessed the ability to refrain from sin. This didn't mean that I was free from sin, but rather that I could choose not to sin. Whereas before the cross of Christ, I had no power in me to deny the temptation to sin; after the cross of Christ, through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, I was able to live a holy life. Therefore, it is possible to "practice holiness," through the Holy Spirit, who controls our thought life, and our resultant actions.

For me, I embraced this teaching because it seemed to offer to me a way to live a life that was pleasing to God. In fact, I found that I loved everything about this church, their teachings, and the guidelines they offered to help young men and young women live lives of holiness.

Legalism and Works

Many Christian's today still revolt at the thought of legalism. They believe that any system of laws that prohibits a Christian from life-style choice runs contrary to the Word of God. However, for these believers, many of whom see the Old Testament as the cultural history of the Jews only, do not understand that the Holy God they serve has "holiness" at the very core of His nature. Thus, the idea that somehow God will permit unholy people to populate His New Kingdom seems acceptable to them. They do not understand sanctification nor do they understand that the transformative power of the Holy Spirit is delivered to help the believer progress, to change, to adapt to the holy standards of a Holy God.

I think if more Christian's would study holiness, they would come to recognize the error of their way. They would see that they cannot sin, willfully sin, and inherit the Kingdom of God. Remember the words of Paul, who was writing not to the Jews, but to Gentile believers and who commended them to remember the lives they formerly lived. The idea being that you cannot continue to walk in sin, to live in sinful desires and fleshly temptation. Peter 1:16 says it this way, "For the Scriptures say, "You must be holy because I am holy." He is reiterating the words from Leviticus 20:26, where it is written,

"You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own."

What Does This Mean to Me Today

I think this is something that has been on my heart and mind for a long time. I came to faith as a child. I was born-again while attending an Evangelical/Confessional Lutheran church. I was baptized, and I became a fervent follower of the Lord Jesus Christ during my time in a fundamentalist Bible church that taught holiness and Christian perfection. I rejected this line of teaching when I realized that it was impossible for me to live by this standard. I was not able to live a perfected life because of the sin in my life, my ex-husband's life, and the temptation I faced daily. I walked away from Christian perfection for a long time, a very long time.

Then, almost 20 years later, I embraced it again, but this time through a very different lens. I decided that I wanted a deeper relationship with the Lord, and I needed a way "back." I remembered the teaching I received through that church, the lessons I listened to and the Bible studies I attended. It all came flooding back to me, and for a time, I deviated into a form of perfection that had its roots in Anabaptist traditions (Brethren and Mennonite). I spent three years studying the word, looking at the teaching of God and the interpretation of men on such issues as outward appearance and Godly living. 

Now, it is ten years later, and I am studying the Word of God to understand the cultural mess the church is in today, which says, "everything is acceptable because of grace." In my observation of the youth culture in the Church, I see people who identify as Christ followers, but who openly advocate for social issues that run contrary to the word of God. Furthermore, I see Christian brothers and sisters who actively sport revealing clothing, who proudly show off their latest tattoo, and who  delight in marks (piercings) that seem more appropriate for the world than the church. Through all the rhetoric, religious, political, and social, I am afraid that I can no longer see any difference between the true Christ follower and the man on the street.

Something is wrong, clearly wrong, and I wonder if this little overlooked and often maligned aspect of Christianity -- the holiness of God -- is the root cause. Have we done what Paul said we should not do in his letter to the church at Rome? Romans 6:1 says,

"What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?"
I believe that in our "anything goes" culture, the Church has failed to teach people what it means to live a holy life. Furthermore, by downplaying the significance of the Old Testament teaching on holy living, the New Testament church has failed to grasp the seriousness of God's interest in holy living. We have accepted God's love, but we have refused His judgement. Yes, we have assumed that our loving God will overlook our sinful behavior because of His grace. We must rethink our standing, we must reconsider our approach into the Holy of Holies. Did not God say to Moses to remove his sandals for the ground on which he stood was holy?

"Do not come any closer," God said. "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5 NIV)
Perhaps if everyone who confesses the Lord Jesus Christ spent a little more time pondering the nature of God, specifically His holiness, well then, just perhaps our attitude, our behaviors, and our life-choices would change to align with a new appreciation for who God is.

"Then Joshua warned the people, 'You are not able to serve the LORD, for he is a holy and jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins'" (Joshua 24:19).

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