Holiness Unto the Lord. Part Two: The Marred Beauty of the Church

I ended last week’s blog, “Holiness Unto the Lord. Part One: The Beauty of Holiness,” with the question, “What has gone wrong?” Of course, there are godly people in the church. However, as we noted last week, institutions and churches associated with the Wesleyan movement often fail to display “the beauty of holiness” any more than non-Wesleyans do. This lack is particularly egregious because of the claims made by our movement to promote “holiness of heart and life.” In acknowledgment of this lack, large parts of the movement have abandoned any distinctive emphasis on holiness, sometimes replacing it with such general affirmations as belief in the “optimism of grace.”

Please bear with a brief description of what this self-centeredness looks like (as if we didn’t already know!). Then we will explore some possible causes particular to the holiness movement (that is, other than the general sinfulness of humanity!).

The prideful uncrucified ego thrives by contrasting itself favorably with others. It manifests a defensiveness against the slightest constructive suggestion and indulges heavily in the criticism of those who offer these suggestions. It works by flattery, and by favoritism toward those who flatter it, and intimidation against those who don’t. It is unwilling to admit wrong or ask forgiveness and refuses to seek reconciliation. It is willing to protect its own image by selective presentation (and thereby distortion) of the truth and by defaming the character of others. It may misuse Scripture, or play mind games (“if you don’t do what I say you’re not spiritual”), to insist on its own way—or the highway. It jealously defends its own rights and greedily seeks all that is its due.  All this sounds much like Paul’s “works of the flesh.” If you have not endured situations in the church characterized by such behavior, I rejoice with you.

Let me suggest two facets of Wesleyan thought that may have contributed to this situation. The first is an unhealthy emphasis on “secondness,” that is, on a “second” definite experience after conversion. Now the beauty of the Wesleyan movement has been its call to a deeper life with God. We described that life in last week’s blog as dying to one’s self-centeredness and being filled with God. There are other Biblical ways to describe it as well. However, the insistence on hustling new believers into a “second experience” has often trivialized the work of God. First, we are not to seek an experience, but to seek God. Second, it may be some time before a convert is truly aware of the need to die to his or her own self-centeredness. We have to allow God ‘s Spirit the opportunity to work in people’s lives. Moreover, everyone does not experience the work of God in the same way. Third, too often, then, people are prematurely hurried into an emotional “experience” that produces no change. They are now told to profess this experience using terms such as “entire sanctification.” They can check it off their list. The results are two-fold. Some people realize the artificiality involved and become disillusioned with the Gospel. Others slide into hypocrisy by rationalizing the sin that remains in their hearts and lives as due to ignorance or infirmity.

Such rationalization leads to a second issue. Sometimes Wesleyan thought has so emphasized victorious Christian living that it has not adequately dealt with the issue of continuing sin in the believer’s life. The converted person may err due to weakness or infirmity, but is not supposed to commit any intentional or willful sin. The person who has had a “second” experience of sanctification is supposed to be free even from the bent to sinning. After all, according to 1 John, “the one who is born of God does not sin because his seed remains in him and he cannot sin because he is born of God.” On these terms even one sin, or sinful desire, casts doubt on the genuineness of the person’s relationship with God.

In order to address this issue many have put great effort into distinguishing between willful or intentional sin, sin due to infirmity or ignorance, and temptation. John Wesley admitted that any falling short of God’s glory required the atonement, but defined “willful,” “intentional,” or “known” sins as “sins properly so called.” The true Christian was to live above such sins. Now there is a difference between willful disobedience and failure due to infirmity or ignorance. Old Testament Israel did not go into exile out of infirmity but because of persistent, intentional disobedience. Some acts are clearly intentional, some are not. However, the complexity of life and the deceptiveness of the human heart make it impossible to adequately categorize many shortcomings.

This situation has had two harmful results on the Christian life. Some sensitive souls are continually in bondage out of fear that they have sinned and broken their relationship with God. Once one member of a discipleship group I was leading confessed to sin. We asked him what he had done. With deep seriousness, he said that he had gone five miles over the speed limit (you can imagine the suppressed laughter). Others, as suggested above, justify the continuing presence of clearly sinful behavior—usually sins of the spirit—by hypocritically attributing these sins to infirmity. Both responses are very destructive of the spiritual life.

Now, as affirmed in last week’s blog, a believer can come to the place where he or she, by God’s grace, has died to self-centeredness and is walking in the power of the Spirit.  Such a person loves God and lives a victorious life of fellowship with God and reconciliation with brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, it is both unhealthy and a perversion of the truth for such a person to neglect the other statement in 1 John: “if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Such a person’s heart may be fixed on God but they are still subject to temptation and to living amid the conflicts and irritations of daily life. Things will arise for which this person needs to seek forgiveness in order to maintain fellowship with God. God will help them grow by exposing things in the Spirit-filled person’s life for which repentance is necessary. Sometimes he may use “sins of surprise” to uncover unrealized sins of the heart. The closer a person is walking with God, the more quickly that person deals with these issues. The surrendered life is ever sensitive to God’s convicting voice, ready to repent and easily reconciled without being in legalistic bondage because it is confident of the grace of a God who does not let his people go unless they persist in rejecting His convicting voice. Of course, one can still fall into known or intentional sin, but there is little need to determine whether questionable failures are “sins rightly so called,” the result of infirmity, or merely temptations. This Biblical understanding relieves the believer of morbid self-introspection for joyful living without condoning sin or excusing its continued presence.

Understood in this way the Wesleyan movement has a message of God’s empowering grace that accords with the Great Christian Tradition and offers hope and renewal not only to the Wesleyan movement but to the Christian world.

This blog has become longer than intended. Look for the third and final part next week: “Holiness Unto the Lord. Part Three: Hope for the People of God.”

Holiness Unto the Lord. Part One: The Beauty of Holiness


Since the late 1980’s I’ve taught a two-hour course entitled “The Biblical Basis for Christian Holiness.” From the beginning, this course has been designed to provide a holistic understanding of the Bible’s teaching on this subject in order that God might use this truth to confront us and make us holy. The person who has probably taken and audited more seminary-level courses than anyone I know told me that it was one of the two most significant courses he had experienced. Developing this course has been a rich experience for me that has clarified my thinking and shaped my walk with God.

We begin this course by describing the holiness of the believer as “walking in fellowship with God and reflecting His character.” In this blog I want to highlight what the Gospel of Mark can teach us about a deeper life of holiness. In Mark 1:16-20 we see the first disciples respond to Jesus’ call, followed in 2:15-17 by Levi the tax collector. It is clear that, as Jesus announced in 1:14-15, following him begins with repentance, with a turning away from the old sinful way of life. Only those who recognize the depth of their sin and the urgency of their need will be able to receive the salvation that He brings. If repentance is one side of the Gospel coin, then “believing the Gospel” is the other. This “believing” is clearly expressed by the way in which these first disciples embraced Jesus by following Him.

From the choice of the twelve in Mark 3:13-20 through Peter’s confession in 8:27-30 and the following journey to Jerusalem, Jesus focuses on those who have followed Him. By His actions and teaching He is revealing His identity to them as the God-Man, the one who, like the God of the Old Testament, can still the storm with a word, can feed a multitude in the wilderness, can drive out a legion of demons and restore a man’s sanity, indeed, who can forgive sin. Peter’ confession of Jesus as “the Christ” near Caesarea Phillipi shows that the disciples have begun to grasp this truth. They are followers. They are committed.

When they have thus committed themselves, Jesus announces that He is going to Jerusalem to suffer at the hands of the rulers, be crucified, and rise again (Mark 8:31-33). Then he announces that anyone who would come after Him “must deny himself, take up his cross” and follow Jesus (8:34-37). We who have followed Jesus are, along with these disciples, confronted with this same choice—turn back from following Him or deny ourselves and take up our cross in order to follow Him and go where He goes.

The long road from Caesarea Phillipi to Jerusalem and crucifixion stretches from Peter’s rebuke of Jesus (Mark 8:32) to James and John’s request for preeminence in 10:35-45. The disciples’ struggles on this road to crucifixion help us understand the meaning of “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Me.” This is a denial of oneself that leads to death. It is not, however, death to self-interest. God appeals to our self-interest when He offers us eternal glory. Our self-interest is not to be destroyed, but to be extended to our neighbor, whom we are to love as ourselves. The experience of the disciples on this road shows us, however, that Jesus is referring to the death of self-centeredness, self-promotion, and self-aggrandizement; to that competitive spirit that finds satisfaction in being honored above others, controlling others, having more than others. Notice how this section highlights the disciples arguing over who among them will be the greatest (Mark 9:33-37; 10:35-45). Observe their pride of group when they want Jesus to silence others who cast out evil spirits in his name (9:38-41), and their hubris in driving the children from Him (10:13-16). They are shocked at the all but insurmountable barrier presented by greed (10:17-27), and at the sexual purity required of the disciple (10:2-12). Like the blind man at Bethsaida (8:22-27), they see that Jesus is the Christ, but they have blurry vision. They have not yet become like Bartemaeus (8:46-52), who sees clearly, abandons all, and follows Jesus the Messiah “on the way” to the cross. This death to self-centeredness to which we are called is, of course, only possible through the work of Christ applied by the Spirit with whom Christ baptizes the people of God (Mark 10:45, 1:8).

What would characterize the community life of a people who had died to their own self-centeredness? Paul gives an appropriate description in the fourth chapter of Ephesians: “I implore you, then, I who am a prisoner in the Lord, walk worth of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with longsuffering, putting up with one another in love, striving to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). Or again at the end of this chapter, “be then kind, tender hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you” (4:32 NASB). In such a community Jesus’ words would find fulfillment: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for each other” (John 13:35).

When you look around at the churches you know, do you see this kind of life? I’m thinking particularly of churches in the Wesleyan or Holiness movement who claim as a distinctive “holiness of heart and life.” If the answer is no, then, what has gone wrong? That is the question we will address in next week’s blog, entitled, “Holiness Unto the Lord. Part Two: The Marred Beauty of the Church.”  Look for it next Thursday, Feb 22, 2018.

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24 ESV).


Tust and Obey2

Not long ago I was surprised to read that we are saved by “faith, not by obedience.” How easily the writer had identified “obedience” with Paul’s “works of the law” in Romans 3:28, ESV: “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” This error was in material written for the lay person. Sometimes, however, such confusion occurs in scholarly work.

A brief comparison between Paul’s “works of the law” (Romans 3, Galatians 3) and James’ “works” (James 2:14-16) will be instructive. On the surface, James seems to contradict Romans 3:28, quoted above, when he says: “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24 ESV).

In Paul’s discussion, faith verses works. Faith is reliance on God for our salvation. “Works,” in Paul’s usage, refers to things we do in order to put God in our debt or obtain merit from God. (This statement is true whether Paul is referring to Jewish practices such as circumcision and dietary laws or to the broader demands of the Old Testament law.) We do these “works” in order to earn our salvation as a matter of wages. Understood in this way, “faith” and “works” are opposite and incompatible. Either we trust in God and receive salvation as a gift through the work of Christ or we vainly try to earn that salvation by what we do. To attempt to earn our salvation in this way is, indeed, disobedience because it is diametrically opposed to the word of God.

In James, however, “faith” and “works” are close allies, not enemies. Here “works” or “deeds” refers to the things we do that flow from our reliance upon God for our salvation. These works are the fruit of faith. We cannot possibly depend on them as earning merit because they flow from dependence on our gracious God for salvation. It is common to say that such works are “evidence” of our faith. We may be saved by “faith alone” but that faith, if it is true living faith, is “never alone” but always attested by “works.” Does this way of describing the relationship between “faith” and “works” do justice to James straightforward statement, “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone”? I don’t think so. James is asserting a more intimate relationship between the two. Let’s look carefully at several of the things that he says.

He begins by implying that a claimed “faith” without corresponding “works” is invisible—that is, unsubstantiated (James 2:14-16). So, “works” are the “evidence” of faith. But what about his next assertion, that “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17 ESV). He goes on to say that “as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (2:26 ESV). “Works,” understood as trusting obedience, are not merely the “evidence” of faith, they are what makes faith alive. They are the animating principle of faith. James doesn’t liken faith to the life-giving spirit and works to the body, but faith to the body and works to the life-giving spirit. Finally, note what James 2:22 says about Abraham’s obedient offering of his son Isaac. By this “work” of obedience Abraham’s faith was “completed” or “made perfect,” brought to fulfillment. His faith became real in this act of obedience. God did not command Abraham to offer Isaac just to see if Abraham had faith, he commanded him to make this sacrifice so that, by Abraham’s obedience, that faith would become a concrete reality in his life. Let’s use the word “obedience” for “works” that flow from trusting in God. We might almost say that “faith” and “obedience” are two sides of the same coin, two ways of looking at the same reality.

This understanding of “faith and obedience” is confirmed when we turn to the book of Hebrews. On the basis of Heb 11:1-7 we can define faith as “living like God’s promise for the future is sure and his power in the present is real” (see Cockerill, Hebrews NICNT, Eerdmans, 2012: 520-21, 530-31). According to this definition, faith involves action. Thus, Hebrews can speak of faith and obedience, or, perhaps more often, of unbelief and disobedience, as virtually the same thing. For too long we have, gnostic-like, restricted “faith” to a mental act or inward disposition, rather than acknowledging that it refers to a way of life. The statement that we are saved “by faith, not obedience,” is not only Biblically inaccurate, but dangerous because it suggests the irrelevance of obedience so long as we have something that we call “faith.”

Thinking About God and Obeying God

ETS Panel5

Drs. Daryl McCarthy, Carey Vinzant, and Gareth Cockerill

On November 15, 2017 I heard two interesting papers: “John Wesley and His Reformational Worldview (by Daryl McCarthy) and “Compassionate Service in Spiritual Formation”(by Matt Friedeman). These papers were given in the Wesleyan Study Group during the annual conference of the Evangelical Theological Society. (The above picture is a panel discussion that was held as part of the same study group.) What particularly got my attention was the unplanned agreement between the two papers.

“Compassionate Service in Spiritual Formation” highlighted John Wesley’s urgent concern for acts of mercy and justice. According to Wesley, all believers must be personally involved on a regular basis in such things a feeding the hungry, ministering to the sick, and visiting those in prison, if they are to grow in grace. The presenter affirmed that the Wesleyan tradition had a “bias for action.”

McCarthy’s paper confirmed this understanding of Wesley. He argued that Wesley had a Reformational or Christian World and Life view on the basis of what Wesley did, not on the basis of what Wesley said or wrote. In addition to evangelism and discipleship, Wesley was involved in all sorts of social ministries (bettering the poor, visiting prisoners, improving the conditions of working people) and interested in virtually all branches of learning (medicine, agriculture, economics, etc.) and their practical application. His actions showed that he believed Christ was the Lord of all of life.

These two papers bear witness to the strength of the Wesleyan Movement—a commitment to action. But, as is so often true, this strength is also a weakness, for, as McCarthy’s paper indirectly testifies and Friedeman’s confirms, this emphasis on action has been accompanied by a corresponding lack of concern for theological thinking. The Wesleyan Movement has produced no worldview proponent comparable to Abraham Kuyper. Almost no contemporary, broadly influential theological writings reflect a Wesleyan viewpoint. Right thinking about God, however, is crucial to right action, as well as to proper spiritual formation and effective presentation of the faith to unbelievers.

Furthermore, this emphasis on action can easily subvert the God-centered orientation essential to the Christian life because it focuses on what we do. Too often the result of this self-focused orientation has been sterile legalism accompanied by unbiblical authoritarianism and the un-Christianizing of people who don’t follow our man-made rules (i.e. “do what we tell them to do”). Paul tells us that all of our “action” is meaningless without love. Furthermore, “Labor that does not spring out of worship is futile and can only be wood, hay, and stubble in the day that shall try every man’s work” (A. W. Tozer)

Intimate knowledge of God and true God-oriented worship are dependent, not on speculation, but on humble, right thinking about God based on divine revelation. A missionary friend of mine told me about an experience he had when he was a student at Fuller Seminary. Geoffrey Bromley was his advisor. One day in conversation with Bromley my friend said that he wasn’t interested in theology. Bromley’s shocked response went something like this: “Not interested in theology? Theology is the study of God. You’re not interested in God?” Proper theological thinking is crucial because God is God and is worthy of the best grace-aided thinking that we can offer Him. He is to be intelligently worshipped. Careful meditation on God’s self-revelation is a necessary safeguard against idolatry. We are to love God not only with all our “strength” but with all our “mind.”

Let’s change the self-oriented word “action” to the God-oriented word “obedience.” We are talking about the study of God (theology, “theo” = God, “ology”= “study) and obeying God. The object of both is to worship God truly and come to know Him intimately.  

We worship God and come to know Him both by doing our best to understand Him through studying His self-revelation and by obeying Him. The two work together. We study about God. Then we put the insight we have gained into practice through obedience. This obedience brings us closer to the Word of God and thus facilitates our understanding. Understanding leads to obedience. Obedience facilitates understanding. Modern Biblical interpreters call this intersection of understanding and obedience “the hermeneutical spiral.” Jesus articulated it when he said, “If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will know whether my teaching is from God” (John 7:17, Phillips).

Neglecting theology while focusing on action, then, runs the risk of dishonoring God, misdirecting our intended obedience, and focusing on ourselves and what we do rather than on God. It can easily degenerate into legalistic bondage. All of our thinking and our obedience is subservient to our knowing and loving him—which is the purpose of our lives! It is only within this interaction between thinking about God and obeying God in the context of Worship that theology and obedience function effectively in spiritual formation as God intended.