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Relational Holiness:
An Integrative Paradigm for Our Time

Thomas Jay Oord

The Crisis of Holiness Theology

Few doubt that the theological distinctive of the holiness movement – sanctification – is misunderstood and underemphasized today. The classical terms of holiness – "Christian Perfection," "Entire Sanctification," "The Second Blessing," and "Baptism of the Holy Spirit" – no longer seize the imaginations of many people. Both those inside and outside the holiness movement seem to believe that holiness has become an irrelevant or extra dimension to contemporary Christian life.

Many today, from pastors and church leaders to biblical scholars and theologians, are increasingly realizing the need to explain holiness in accessible language. Such an explication would be aimed at a broad audience, build from a sound intellectual base, listen carefully to the life lessons emerging from Christian experience, and follow faithfully the prominent themes of Scripture. The hope is that a recasting of the biblical message of holiness of heart and life in terms, concepts, and language more faithful to Scripture as well as more in tune with modern thinking would return holiness to its rightful place of chief importance.

Michael Lodahl and I have recently made that attempt in Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love (Beacon Hill, 2005). There we argue that the lack of interest in the doctrine of holiness has partly to do with the interplay between theological assumptions and contemporary worldviews. Recent worldview shifts require a fresh proposal for how holiness might best be understood for our time. It is futile simply to recycle holiness sermons and literature from yesteryear hoping that the old-style holiness movement might be revived (see The Holiness Movement: Dead or Alive?).

We have proposed expressing the Christian life, and specifically holiness and sanctification, within the framework of relationship with both God and others. We believe that contemporary Christians will find this relational worldview particularly helpful for talking about holiness. Generally people today, including most Christians, can agree wholeheartedly with the view that persons become who they are out of decisions made in response to their environments. Believers argue, however, that the environment includes a Presence not acknowledged by unbelievers. For in God, say Christians, we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17:28).

According to the relational holiness proposal, God is the most important actor in everyone’s environment. God affects all others and does so in every moment. This is a significant part of what Wesley and others have called "prevenient grace" ("prevenient" describes something that comes first or before). This grace, which is none other than God reaching out first to his creatures and creation, surrounds and sustains every one of us. It is by this relational grace that all things exist.

God is also open to and affected by others, because Creator and creatures enjoy mutual relations. To say that these relations are mutual is to say that God interacts with us and we interact with God (see God’s Foreknowledge, Predestination, and Human Freedom). It is not to say that God and creatures are equal. The wonder of it all is that the God of the universe enjoys give-and-receive relations with everything that exists. Envisioning God and creatures as relational beings resides at the heart of relational holiness.

Contributing Notions of Holiness

Perhaps the key factor that contributes to the inability of holiness to seize contemporary imaginations is that diverse concepts of holiness exist. We have suggested an interpretative framework to order the chaos of meanings and make the heart of holiness understandable. This interpretative framework is grounded primarily in Scripture, but it also incorporates reason, Christian tradition, and contemporary experiences, including science. This interpretive framework suggests that there is a core notion or primary concept of holiness and that there are also contributing notions or related concepts. The core notion incorporates the truths expressed by contributing notions without negating those truths. In other words, rather than competing and sometimes mutually exclusive ideas of what holiness entails, we have proposed expressing holiness as a central concept with various inclusive aspects.

Most Christians believe that the meaning of holiness and sanctification must be found in the Bible if they are to consider these terms central to faith. To many people, the obvious way to search for the biblical meaning of holiness is the word-study approach. This method identifies passages that contain the words "holy," "holiness," "sanctification," and the like.

A study of biblical references pertaining to holiness, sanctification, and related words provide surprising results. The surprise is that the Bible offers a wide array of ideas about holiness and sanctification*. We find passages stating that Christ makes people holy, believers can make themselves holy, believers can make unbelievers holy, and altars can make offerings holy. We find that the Holy Spirit can sanctify, people should sanctify themselves, God sanctifies Jesus, Jesus sanctifies himself, and Jesus asks God to sanctify disciples. We discover that Jesus needed to be sanctified, food can be sanctified, people can be sanctified, unbelievers can be sanctified, and the church is sanctified.

*The problem is compounded in English translations where "holy" and "sanctify/sanctification" are different English terms. In both Hebrew and Greek the terms "holy" and "sanctify" come from the same root word.

This diversity of meanings should make us realize that understanding these terms requires more than looking up verses in the Bible. The word-study approach does not go far enough. Instead, we must make various interpretive decisions in order to identify the main themes of Scripture. Allowing this diversity to stand muddled only fosters a state of confusion. Such a state is one reason the holiness movement is currently in a crisis over its theological identity.

The Christian might respond to plurality in Scripture by claiming that this reveals the rich diversity of biblical meanings of holiness. This response seems justified, however, only if one also suggests a common theme that underlies or ties together this diversity. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to distinguish what the sympathetic reader calls "the Bible’s rich diversity" from what the unsympathetic reader calls confusion and chaos.

Identifying an inclusive understanding of holiness is the key to seeing how the diverse meanings of the Bible share some common theme. This sought-after inclusive understanding of holiness – what we have called "the core notion of holiness" – offers the interpretive key for recognizing an overarching unity that connects the diversity.

Several understandings of holiness offer themselves as candidates to be considered the core notion of holiness.

1. Holiness as Rules and Regulations

One of the ways of conceptualizing the central meaning of holiness or sanctification is to equate a holy life with keeping rules and regulations given by God. There are biblical reasons for understanding holiness as following rules and regulations. For example, , scholars have often labeled the series of religious rules listed in Leviticus, especially in chapters 17-26, as "the Holiness Code."

However, several problems arise when we regard the core meaning of holiness as following rules and regulations. Many raised in the holiness tradition are keenly aware of these problems. Perhaps chief among them is the tendency toward legalism in which keeping the rules becomes an end in itself. In addition, those who place their primary focus upon the keeping of rules report feeling a lack of deep satisfaction. The keeping of rules does not itself bring meaning to life. Finally, the lists of rules and regulations found in the Bible are long, and following them all would appear tedious and often irrelevant to Christians of even the earliest generations, not to mention those of the present era.

2. Holiness as Purity

The Apostle Paul urges his companions in Corinth to "cleanse [them]selves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God" (2 Cor. 7:1). Other passages in the Old and New Testaments suggest a link between holiness and purity.

A number of problems arise, however, when we consider purity the core notion of holiness. One problem is that understanding holiness primarily in terms of purity leads us back to the problems associated with keeping rules and regulations. That is, the quest for purity can become an end in itself, as well as raises questions of the relevance of a life defined in terms of purity. A second problem is that the emphasis upon remaining pure inclines us to focus solely upon avoiding sin rather than also upon doing good. Instead of engaging our world, those who concentrate on remaining pure tend to withdraw from the world.

3. Holiness as Being Set Apart and Separation

Most people are unaware that the biblical writers use the Hebrew word qodesh ("holy," "to make holy") and the Greek word hagios ("holy;" in verbal forms "to make holy") to talk about "holiness," "sanctification," and being "holy." These words typically mean "separate" or "being set apart." Understanding holiness and sanctification as separation or being set apart is important.

Still, certain problems arise when we promote separation as the core notion of holiness. First, the idea of holiness as being set apart is grounded in the idea that God is holy and that he is different and beyond that which is ordinary (the theological term here is "transcendence"). While it is especially important to consider how God is different from us, holiness as God’s transcendence does not account for why we should value holiness for us. Second, the idea of holiness applied to us suggests that as Christians we should be set apart from the ordinary realm of human existence and be different than "ordinary " people. However, being separate from others can easily foster an exclusionary attitude of "us vs. them." Third, simply being different for difference sake is ultimately unsatisfying. Although an important aspect, holiness as being set apart cannot function well as the core notion of holiness.

4. Holiness as Total Commitment

Yet another way to talk about holiness has to do with consecration, absolute devotion, or total commitment. The idea that we are to commit ourselves totally to God and thereby "have no other gods" is found in various forms throughout Scripture. Holiness leaders have understandably linked holiness – especially when connected to the phrase "entire sanctification" – to the idea of total commitment.

The problem with understanding holiness primarily in terms of total commitment has chiefly to do with its vagueness. Even if we specify that we are talking about total commitment to God, we need to ask, "Whose view of God do you mean?" Many Muslims, Jews, and Hindus might be considered part of the holiness movement in this broad sense of utter devotion to God. And some dastardly deeds are done by those claiming utter devotion to deity. While being utterly devoted to God is vital, we want some notion of the characteristics of that devotion, what a Christian life so lived would like in practical terms.

5. Holiness as Perfection

Matthew records Jesus as saying, "Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Mt. 5:48). The holiness movement has become well known in some circles – some would say notorious – for talking about perfection in this life. Clarifying in what ways one can be called "perfect" has been an ongoing and perhaps often unsuccessful project.

The main problem with equating holiness with perfection has to do with the various meanings of perfection. For instance, some equate perfection with lack of change. If holiness means lack of change, it is ridiculous to think that constantly changing creatures like ourselves could be perfect. Others use perfection in the sense of being fit for a specific purpose (see The English Term Perfect: Biblical and Philosophical Tensions). In this sense, almost anything can be perfect. Atheists can be holy if we define perfection in this way, so long as they fulfill their purpose as atheists. Still others speak of perfection in the sense of never having sinned. Because only God is morally perfect in this sense, it is difficult to see how this sense of perfection can be meaningfully applied to humans. Without important qualifications, perfection cannot serve as the core notion of holiness.

6. Holiness as Christ-likeness

The final notion of holiness to consider before talking about the core notion is not explicitly identified with holiness in the Bible. But one can make a case that Christ-likeness might be the integrative notion that connects the contributory notions of holiness we have considered.

The main problem with considering Christ-likeness the core notion of holiness is that, without clarification, it doesn’t tell us what about Christ ought to be imitated. Does being like Christ mean wearing sandals? Does it mean speaking Aramaic? (Frequent viewings of Mel Gibson’s, The Passion of the Christ, would be helpful if it does!) Does being Christ-like mean turning over the tables in your local church foyer that have money on them? We need something more specific to clarify what it means to be like Jesus.

The Core Notion of Holiness

In Relational Holiness, Michael Lodahl and I propose that love functions well as the core notion of holiness. Love provides the foundation and framework for faith. God’s love for us and our love in return, as well as our love for neighbors and ourselves, resides at the core of Christianity. Love provides holiness with the foundation it needs to flourish as the theological distinctive of the holiness tradition.

The argument that love serves well as the core of holiness does not rely primarily on a set of biblical passages showing an essential relationship between the two. Instead, the argument appeals to the most fundamental themes of the Bible. Only in appealing to these dominant themes can we account for the diverse biblical witness. And only then can we identify an integrative and inclusive notion of holiness.

To find the core themes of Christianity, we begin with the doctrine of God. We believe that the most fundamental claim about who God is – the very heart of an adequate doctrine of God – derives from this simple three-word sentence: "God is love" (John 4:8, 16, although the concept permeates Scripture). Although God has other attributes, none seem as central to the biblical witness and to Christianity. God’s essence is love, and God acts lovingly out of that essence.

God loves us and all creation, and God calls us to love in response. We are holy as God is holy when we love as God loves. To be holy is to love – love God, neighbors, and God’s creation, including ourselves. These are the greatest commandments and our primary focus as Christians. While other notions of holiness contribute something valuable to our general understanding, we contend that the core meaning of holiness is love.

Next to the word "God," the word "love" might be the most abused and multi-meaningful word in the English language. To clarify love as the core notion of holiness, therefore, we define love as acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. To love is to respond to the inspiration of others – especially God – and by that response advance genuine flourishing.

We imitate God’s love when we live in ways that bring abundant life to creation. Some of the most common expressions of love are actions such as forgiving, offering words of encouragement, donating money to the needy, displaying self-control, showing humility, trusting, respecting, showing compassion, telling the truth, being patient, liberating the captive and oppressed, and being kind.

The relations we have with others – especially our relation with God – largely determine what counts as love in any particular moment. The God who is active in every context desires to bless all creation. The fact that God will love is true in any and every context. How God loves depends upon the individuals and variables in each context.

God responds in just the right way. When we sin, God responds by acting in ways that call us to wholeness. When we love, God responds like a proud parent who enjoys the beauty and worth of what faithful children have done and who they are. And God always acts to deepen and develop an ongoing heritage of enriching friendship.

If we are to follow Paul’s instructions to "be imitators of God . . . and live in love as Christ loved us" (Eph 5:1-2), our love ought to be like God’s love. Depending on the circumstances, this may mean turning the other cheek, taking pleasure in and enhancing the beauty of creation, or establishing the bonds of community.

God’s prevenient grace sets the context for our responses, because God acts first to offer us abundant life. In terms of relational holiness, we say that God relates to us by acting first in every moment to provide us with opportunities for free action. Those opportunities arise out of God’s own actions, the actions of others, and our own previous actions. The relations we have with God and others set the context for each moment of our lives. God’s moment-by-moment call requires our response. God calls us to love according to the multi-layered relations in which we live. Among possible actions, God encourages us to choose that which promotes well-being.

When we choose the best to which God calls in any particular moment, we act in holiness. In that moment, we are "perfect as [our] Father in heaven is perfect." The ongoing life of loving God, others, and God’s creation, including ourselves, is the life of holiness. And today we need this adventure in holiness – understood in terms of relational love – more than ever.


After chapters that address issues of love in the Trinity and love in the practices of the Church, we conclude Relational Holiness by showing how the contributory notions of holiness are best understood when love undergirds them. For instance, love fulfills the intent of biblical moral codes and rules. When we love, we act in a morally pure fashion, and purity is a consequence of love. Christians are to be totally commitment to a loving God and to responding appropriately to God’s call of love. Being Christ-like means living lives of love. Being set apart is best understood as having to do with love, because those who choose love distinguish themselves as a community that seeks to promote well-being. And holiness as perfection is understandable when perfection is characterized as living in love. We hope that the holiness movement can identify holiness again as its theological distinctive when love is deemed its core notion.

Relational Holiness provides a framework for affirming various notions of holiness while understanding them as ultimately valuable when grounded in love. We hope that the message of Relational Holiness will inspire us all to love God, others, and all creation, including ourselves. And when we love, we bear witness to our sanctification.

See also "The Adventure of Relational Holiness," by Thomas Jay Oord and Michael Lodahl [external link]

Order Relational Holiness: Responding To The Call Of Love from Beacon Hill Press [external link]

Order Relational Holiness: Responding To The Call Of Love from Amazon [external link]

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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