An Integrative Paradigm for Our Time
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
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
*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
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
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
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]
Relational Holiness: Responding To The Call Of Love from
Beacon Hill Press [external link]
Relational Holiness: Responding To The Call Of Love from
Amazon [external link]