The Center for Faith & Culture—Olivet Nazarene University


Holiness Directions

In the Battle of the Bulge during the Second World War one of the strategies of the counter-attack of the German army was misdirection. German soldiers slipped behind Allied lines and changed road signs. This simple sabotage created havoc as Allied troops and support units took the wrong direction, ending up somewhere they didn’t mean to go. Unraveling these mix-ups confused the response of the Allies to the advance of the German army, placing them further at risk. It matters whether we pay attention to our directions.

In the conversation concerning holiness, we are sometimes unsure of our directions. It seems to me that we sometimes use language – or make assumptions about language – that are not accurate. We may agree, thinking we mean the same thing when, in fact, we are talking about quite different things. Or, we may disagree, thinking we are talking about very different things when, in fact, we mean the same, or similar, things. For effective communication and exchange of ideas, we need to first be sure we mean the same things when we use common language. That may not resolve all our differences, but it will help us to focus on the real issues.

I would like to consider three direction “signs” that I suspect are not always clear in our conversations about holiness.

1) Our Distinctive Understanding of Holiness
As a tradition we have been experiencing growing pains, emerging from a movement “adolescence” to discover the world outside our boundaries. I applaud and celebrate this. I am old enough to recall an often unhealthy sectarianism that tended to de-Christianize other folks to affirm our place in God’s story. We have discovered that we are not the only folks who have been interested in holiness. We have had to surrender the expectation of a privileged place near the “Eastern Gate” with front-row seats in the Kingdom of Heaven.

As helpful as this has been, it has also created some problems for us. We are confused about what we bring to the greater Church. If holiness is not “our” message, what are we about? One response to that question has been to recognize the centrality of the idea of holiness in the broader Christian tradition. This allows us to celebrate the reality that when we preach and teach holiness we are echoing the heart of the Christian Faith across time, space and traditions. That’s good news.

The problem comes when we try to clarify what it is about holiness that has distinctively shaped us. The Holiness Manifesto is a good example. For three years representatives of ten holiness denominations met, in part to rearticulate the unique heritage of the holiness movement. The Holiness Manifesto, which was the product of their efforts, articulates holiness positively and constructively. It must also be said that the Holiness Manifesto articulates an understanding of holiness that virtually any tradition of the Christian Faith can affirm.

At one level I celebrate that. But it fails to articulate the unique or distinctive heritage of the holiness movement. So, here is a clarification I would like to suggest. The distinctive contribution of the Wesleyan-holiness movement has not been a distinct definition of what holiness is. We don’t have our own “brand” of holiness. What the Wesleyan-holiness movement has distinctively brought to the “conversation” has not been what holiness is, but the radically optimistic expectation of its possibility. The bold optimism of our tradition has held that radical transformation into the life of holiness is really possible in this life. That bold expectation defined our understanding and experience of the entire Christian journey, not just the moment of entire sanctification. The call to, and the possibility of, entire sanctification was the capstone of this expectation.

This is why the idea of radical transformation is so prevalent in our tradition. We believe that these ideas of holiness – really so universal in the Christian tradition – describe realities that God can produce in our lives. We believe that the reality (not the definition) of holiness can “capture” us, through the work of the Holy Spirit, creating this new reality in our lives.

2) Holiness and Love
We have rediscovered love. We are called to love God and love each other. Holiness is love expelling sin, love for the outsider, love as grace and mercy. Legalism has been ousted. God is love.

I’m glad. I saw enough legalism and loveless “holiness” to question whether holiness was even something I wanted. We should be people who love.

But what do we mean? There are at least two different ways we are talking about holiness and love. When we agree about love, we may be agreeing to something different than what we mean.

One way of talking about love is to talk about being loving. That is, to consider love as a manner of relating to others, a kind of behavior. The key question is “am I being loving?” We answer that question by considering our attitudes, actions or behavior to assess their character as loving. We are forced to consider – or create – standards by which to measure our loving. For instance, one standard is to consider whether our actions toward others enhances or produces “flourishing,” a philosophical concept defining health. Another standard might concern being kind, a benevolent social behavior.  A third could consider granting significance, a socio-political redefinition. That doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t explicitly Christian. Jesus becomes a helpful model of loving, even exemplary. Nevertheless, the key issue is my appropriate expression or action. How I am loving?

Traditionally – in the long conversation of the church – love has been considered a matter of direction, the way our relations are directed. Loving rightly has been, first of all, loving God. This assumes that our fundamental problem is not “how” we love but “who” or “what” we love most, above all else. We are created to love God in a primary relationship of love. When we love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength we are able to love others rightly.  But only then. This disordered primary relationship is the fundamental human problem – which then plays out in other relations toward human society and even the natural world.

Loving God first is not just a question of priority. It defines the character of love. Love is shaped and determined by obedience to God’s will and conformity to his character. It means being in harmony with the life and values of his Kingdom.

Our understanding of this “direction” determines the fundamental call of love. Is it to be loving, a kind of behavior or manner of relating? Or is it our fundamental need for a restored relationship with God as the primary focus of our love, the determining center of our identity?

3) Holiness and “Secondness”
Our conversations concerning holiness inevitably turn to the question of “secondness.” And here we are often plagued by misdirection. While there are many issues pertaining to “secondness,” let me suggest one clarification. We should understand the distinction of “secondness” as theologically normative rather than experientially normative. When we make a claim that this is theologically normative we are saying that this is what happens in a spiritual journey. This is what God does and what happens in us. When we make a claim that something is experientially normative we are saying that this is how this happens, how we experience it.

This distinction is true for other aspects of the process of salvation. For instance, we affirm that every person is the recipient of God’s prevenient grace. This is a foundational tenet of Wesleyan theology. We assert it as a universal theological reality. But not every person would say they have experienced prevenient grace. Not every person would have recognized at the time that what was happening in their lives was a result of prevenient grace. In fact, most would only be able to recognize and understand it after the fact. The theological or spiritual reality is universal but the self-perception of experience is uncertain.

When we get these confused, we create problems for ourselves. People hear a gospel that says you have to have a particular kind of experience that happens in a particular way. They may be frustrated that their experience is different – emotionally or contextually. Or, they may not interpret their experience in the same way. It is a short step from there to assume that “secondness” is not true as a theological or spiritual reality either. It is significant that Wesley was willing to allow the question of experience to remain open, but he was emphatic in calling us to the spiritual reality he defined theologically.

The key question in “secondness” is not really whether we experienced it in a certain way or always understand it when it happens. The key question should be, “Is this how God works?  Is this reality – theologically defined – what God wants to do in my life, in every life?” If it is, it functions as a spiritual roadmap of God’s desired work rather than as an experiential standard we measure our self-perception of experience against.  

This is, of course, a conversation. I don’t suppose that I have resolved these issues in this short article. I am hopeful that this might prompt us to consider more carefully the meanings we assume. We may choose to agree or disagree, go these directions or other directions – but we should at least be clear what directions we are headed. Because direction matters.


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