Whatever Happened to Holiness?
By Kevin Probst
Many of the older generation (those my parent’s age) believed in entire sanctification. They professed it and modeled it in their lives at home and at work. The next generation received the message of entire sanctification but it didn’t quite work for them like it did for their parents. The following generation, my young adult sons, heard the message but they were very skeptical. They were ignorant and indifferent because they haven’t heard the message so often nor as clearly as the previous generations.
The message of entire sanctification is now shrouded in doubt among many in the holiness movement. A large number in my generation were disillusioned by the strong legalism attached to the movement in their younger years. Others were soured on holiness when professing members in the movement erupted in anger and failed to get along with each other. Some drifted away from the message of holiness because of the antiquated words that were being used to describe the experience. 17th century English made it more difficult rather than easier to understand.
Some have doubted second blessing holiness because many of the Biblical texts used to defend the doctrine were skillfully refuted by well-respected preachers and theologians who opposed the movement. Many were frightened away or overwhelmed with doubt when they saw that larger numbers were choosing a different path to follow. Others were turned off by the “my four and no more” attitude within the movement, a sort of isolationism that contradicted Wesley’s idea of ministering to all levels of society.
The very meaning of sanctification is to separate ourselves from sin, to separate ourselves unto a holy God. This idea may be misinterpreted by skeptics as a snobbish refusal to interact with the present culture, a sort of creepy monasticism. Those who are leery of holiness often envision a people who are border-line weird because they refuse to flow with the cultural trends. Christ was the perfect example of a man who separated himself from the sin of a culture, but he never withdrew from the culture itself. He was very much a part of the community. He interacted, he worked as a carpenter, he went fishing with the guys. Jesus organized a fish fry on the beach for his best friends and he loved to celebrate at weddings.
What will happen to the movement proclaiming holiness? It’s not going to disappear. It is founded in the Word of God and God’s word is eternal. Leviticus 19:2 is always going to say, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Doesn’t sound like an option to me, sounds more like a command. Hebrews 12:14 is always going to say, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” This holiness proclaimed in both the old and the new testaments is essential if we are to live in complete obedience to God and if we are to receive our passport into the Kingdom of Heaven.
The holiness movement seems to be floundering about looking for direction. Ironically, while those who call themselves holiness are looking for ways to revive the movement there is a growing, healthy and vibrant interest in holiness among denominations and people who have not been a part of the movement traditionally. There is a great interest among the younger generation in purity and morality. They want very much to address immorality in the culture and they are extremely motivated to express their Christian beliefs by performing acts of service for those who are needy in our society. They are most put off by those in the older generations who claim Christianity but fail to demonstrate it in their daily lives.
The holiness movement has been hurt by the many distortions we’ve introduced as time has passed. As a government teacher I often tell my students that democracy as we practice it today is not at all what our founding fathers intended it to be. As the tree grows we tend to follow the branches further and further away from the tree. I’m not sure the Wesleyan movement is anything at all what John Wesley intended it to be. I’m not even sure our practice of Christianity is anything like Christ intended for it to be.
I don’t believe embracing a plethora of new ideas that are emerging from the seeker -friendly movement or the ‘big’ church movement is going to revive the holiness movement. I think it would be better to prune the tree and try to return closer to the trunk. Wouldn’t it be better if we simplified things and erased all the distorted human contributions and returned to and reevaluated our favorite proof-texts. Wouldn’t it be better to make the Bible our primary source for learning about holiness rather than the works of Wesley, Brengle or Bresee? Wouldn’t it be wiser to find a scriptural truth and apply it to human experience rather than find a human experience and try to find a scripture to justify it?
I think in some ways our culture has outrun our doctrine. Truth never changes but it must be reborn in the heart of every generation. Words become archaic and obsolete. Phrases that held meaning to our grandfathers don’t hold the same meaning to our grandsons. The holiness movement needs the reaffirmation of scripture but it also needs revision and renewal. The nails in the house are rusty and weak. It may be time to tear down and rebuild or at least remodel.
Kevin Probst - Is a teacher of Apologetics and History at Calvary Christian School and Associate Pastor of Crosspointe Nazarene Church church in Columbus, Georgia.