Friday, December 5, 2008


I recently had to write my manifesto on holiness. Since I am a Nazarene, it seems that holiness should be a major part of my life, and since I call this The Revolutionary Nazarene, I decided to post it here. It's somewhat long (2 and a half pages single spaced), but I'm interested in putting it out there to see what others think. So, without further ado:


Holiness is possibly one of the most misunderstood words used in Christian circles. Holiness is used to define many things from a personal lifestyle to an entire movement of church growth. People take classes to define and discuss the term holiness. Pastors preach sermons on holiness. Men and women write books about holiness. So, why the confusion?

People are confused about holiness because it has been taught many different ways. For every person who claims to be a holiness thinker, there is a different theology and definition of what holiness actually is. That is why a member of a Nazarene Church may have heard five or six different ideas and thoughts on holiness. It gets confusing. Is there a way to determine who is correct? Is it possible that holiness does not have on static meaning?

Any good student of Wesley (or any of the Reformers) will begin her theology of holiness (or any theology for that matter) with Scripture. Scripture is given the primary place of importance because it is God’s Word, thus making it the primary source for all arguments, especially theological arguments.

But, with what Scripture should a good holiness theology begin? A good place to start is in the Torah. God tells his people to, “be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44, quoted by Peter in 1 Peter 1:16). Jesus also admonishes his followers to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). There is no doubt that there is a Biblical calling to each individual to be holy, or to be “like God.”

So, what does it mean to be holy or like God? What defines God? Throughout history, many adjectives are used to describe God, but one stands out above the rest in a Biblical sense. The apostle John sums it up very well when he says that “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

This would lead to the logical conclusion that holiness is in some way equal to love. The Old and New Testaments speak in one accord on this topic as well. When asked what the greatest of all the commandments is, Jesus replies with a saying that was known as the Shema. He says that the greatest commandment is to, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Jesus is quoting from the book of Deuteronomy, specifically Deut. 6:4-9.

The Shema, therefore, becomes the cornerstone of holiness. What is holiness? Holiness is love placed in the right place. Holiness is loving God with every part of a person’s being. John Wesley, regarded as one of the greatest holiness thinkers placed this verse into a place of importance also. In his famous work A Plain Account of Perfection, he quoted this verse more than any other, 17 times in his short document explaining, defining and teaching holiness (Olson 45).

There can be no argument that one of Christ’s chief concerns was in the way His Followers loved God (and in a natural progression, that love would overflow into the way those followers treated the people around them, see Matthew 22:39).

A follower of Wesley would, naturally, move from Scripture to what Christians in history have to say about holiness. What does Tradition speak to, regarding holiness? Some scholars compose entire works connecting the holiness doctrine to the tradition of the church, including the early church fathers from as early as the first and second centuries. In his work Exploring Christian Holiness, Paul Bassett says, “We must remain true to the past” (16). Traditionally, holiness has been imperative to the growing Christian. As early as 150 AD, holiness was described as the “norm” by Shepherd of Hermas (Bassett 30).

The Shepherd regarded sinless living as the norm for all baptized Christians. Sinless living often raises questions, especially in light of Scriptures such as 1 John 1:8. Is it possible for a Christian to live, in this life, without sin? A Wesleyan-Arminian thinker would say yes, it is possible. Is it the norm? It seems that tradition (and even Scripture to some degree, see Paul’s inner struggle in Romans) disagrees with sinlessness being the norm.

If holiness is the norm for Christians, and holiness is living up to God’s standards, but living without sin is not the norm for all Christians, then is holiness truly the norm for all Christians? It does not seem to be the norm.

But it could be.

Holiness speaks to the hope that Christ can radically transform each and every Christian completely. It may not be the norm for each Christian to live without sin, in fact many peoples’ experience would point to true holiness as the exception rather than the norm, but it is possible. If holiness is possible, then there is hope in this life to live without sin.

Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, in 1973, spoke to the experience of many Nazarenes in her book A Theology of Love. Mark Quanstrom, in his book A Century of Holiness Theology, dedicates an entire chapter to what Wynkoop called “The Credibility Gap.” Essentially, the credibility gap referenced the fact that holiness was not the norm for Christians (Quanstrom 137-169).

If a majority of Christians experience called into question the normalcy of holiness, then the rationality of a doctrine of holiness would also be called into question. Why should holiness be preached if it is an impossible standard? Should the standard be lowered? Should the doctrine be dropped completely? Experience was showing that holiness was not working as intended. The doctrine was flawed.

Unfortunately, many Nazarene pastors still preach a confusing doctrine of holiness, even 35 years after Wynkoop’s book. This causes people to be confused about holiness. Quite often, those confused people completely disregard the call to be holy.

2008 finds the Church in a difficult position. Should the doctrine of holiness still be taught as it has for a century (within the Church of the Nazarene), or should it be updated?

The Scriptures make it clear that since God is love, holiness is love. Holiness is, at its core about the way Christians relate to God.

Holiness and sin are primarily about relationships and about love. Holiness is best viewed as a right relationship with God. It is true that all Christians are entered into a personal relationship with God, but holiness is about more than that. There is a difference between simply a personal relationship with God and a “right” relationship with God. The call of Christians is to love God with their entire heart, their entire strength, their entire mind and their entire soul. It is when a person loves God with everything in them that they enter into holiness.

This is because holiness is the absence of sin, and sin is also defined by relation and love. Sin is loving other things (primarily self) more than God. The first commandment of the Ten Commandments is to have nothing above God. Nothing. Anytime a person puts something above God (whether it is another person, an image of another person, the country a person lives, money, etc), he or she is sinning.

So, love God. Love God with everything and in everything. Only when this happens can sin disappear and holiness becomes a reality. When a person loves God, holiness takes over.