Summary: The many ideas on holiness lead to the misconception that it is unattainable here on Earth.
How Holy Is Holiness?
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).