“People of the Lie.” Further Thoughts on Holiness.

(I have moved the pod casts about holiness that were posted to this home page on March 8 and 15 to a newly created page entitled “Holiness.”

  1. If you want to access those podcasts, click on “Holiness” in the menu bar above.
  2. If you want to access the blogs of February 15 and 22 to which this post refers, click “Holiness” in the “categories” list to the right. Clicking there will show you the posts for February 15, February 22, and March 2 along with this post for April 26.)

Unconfessed Sin . . .

Scott Peck’s article “People of the Lie,” in The High Calling (pages 2 and 5 of the March-April issue, to access this issue click here ) recalled the concern I expressed in the February 22 blog about the tragedy of unconfessed sin in the Wesleyan-Holiness movement. In that blog I suggested that the claim to be “without sin,” though nuanced, has often, in fact, led to unconfessed sin in the lives of people who professed to be holy.  In Peck’s article, which is taken from his 1983 book by the same title, he argues that refusal to admit that we have sin allows sin to go unchecked and produces wickedness. Peck writes as a psychiatrist, but his insight rings true in Christian experience.

produces wickedness . . .

It was Peck’s use of the word “wicked” that got my attention. When I began to reflect on my life-long experience within the Wesleyan-Holiness movement, it appeared that much behavior had been motivated by un-crucified self-centeredness. This seemed to be true not just in one context or institution, but in a broad range of contexts. Even when maintaining certain standards pertaining to matters of dress or entertainment, we have often let things like criticism of others, intimidation, flattery, manipulation, shading of the truth to protect our own image, insistence on one’s own way (often invoking “Biblical” authority), refusal to be reconciled, and refusal to ask for or give forgiveness, go unchecked. Does this list remind you of the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21? We have also often failed to be “deeply kind, tender hearted, graciously forgiving one another and making allowance for one another as God in Christ has forgiven us” (Eph 4:32). We have not been “imitators of God, as dear children, walking in love as Christ also loved us and gave Himself for us . . .” and thus we have not been “an odor of sweetness” before God (Eph 5:1-2, my own translation of these verses).

which leads to hypocrisy and abuse . . .

Indeed, Peck is correct. Our failure to admit the presence of sin has led to “wickedness.” In our case, often to a hypocrisy in which holiness was defined by certain external standards while sins of the flesh and spirit were ignored provided people used the right words when talking about “holiness.” As per the February 22 blog, this situation has been exacerbated by a superficial approach to sanctification which prematurely called people to a “second experience.” The result was the short-circuiting of a true death to self-centeredness and thus failure to experience genuine fullness of the Spirit and surrender to the lordship of Christ (blog of February 15). When leaders have acted in this way there has been much harm to the body of Christ and to the people under their care, sometimes causing them to turn away from the Lord. One might dare to use the word “abuse.” Scot Peck’s article helped me see the seriousness of this situation, which my former colleague, Dr. Carey Vinzant, has been raising for several years.  We have too often claimed holiness, while actually practicing wickedness.

and calls for true repentance.

In my blog of February 22, I suggested some changes in the way we think about and articulate God’s call for holiness in order to address these concerns. I am still convinced that we need to do some hard re-thinking, re-examining of Scripture, and re-articulation along the lines suggested. However, now I am also convinced that something even more radical is necessary. Sin requires repentance, restitution, and change. (That sentence is intentionally redundant for emphasis—restitution and change are part of true repentance.) God calls us (I’m including myself) to humbly seek His forgiveness and, by the power of His Spirit, to change and to bring healing and restitution to those who have been hurt. Did not the Asbury revivals come when people who claimed to be holy repented of their sin? It is time for triumphalism to end.

Peck’s article was the final link in a chain that has clarified my thinking. Many thanks to the Francis Asbury Society, and to the editor Stan Key, for publishing this article in The High Calling.

 

 

 

Holiness Unto the Lord. Part Three: Hope for the People of God.

“Made for Holiness,” podcast #1 in the series on the Biblical Basis for Christian Holiness

“Lord, you have removed sin’s guilt from us so that we will not die for it as a crime. Now break sin’s power in us so we do not die from it as a disease. Help us put sin to death. Rom. 8: 13.” (Matthew Henry, A Way to Pray, edited and revised by O. Palmer Robertson, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010, p. 91). What a wonderful prayer for the people of God!

This prayer shows awareness of sins debilitating power and expresses urgency for deliverance. How the contemporary church needs to regain this awareness and urgency. Many seem to feel that, provided one has made a “decision” for Christ, sin doesn’t much matter. This situation is little different from the abuse of indulgences that Martin Luther faced in the sixteenth century—except then people actually had to pay something for their false assurance. Is it any surprise that the behavior of Christians differs little from that of unbelievers or that Christian leaders fall into open sin?

The Wesleyan movement has the potential to proclaim an alternate, more Biblical vision of salvation that offers health to the church at large. A small and ever-shrinking minority from our movement still clings to the formulaic understanding described in my last blog. Their approach has little that is attractive for most people seeking to know God more deeply. One student from a non-Wesleyan background told me that they were attracted to Wesley Biblical Seminary by disillusionment with the cheap grace they had been taught and by a desire for holiness, but were then alienated by the formulaic approach to holiness that made claims not reflected in the life of the community. The rest of the Wesleyan movement speaks with an often confused and ambivalent voice.

Several years ago, I was talking with a very distinguish and capable leader of one of the Wesleyan denominations. He told me that his denomination had abandoned the old way of looking at holiness but had not found a new or effective way to communicate the message of God’s transforming grace in the modern world. He also told me that many people viewed Wesley Biblical Seminary as an advocate for that old, ineffective way. I assured him that I followed a different approach and shared with him material from my course “The Biblical Basis for Christian Holiness.”.

Since I am retired, I can no longer speak for the leadership of Wesley Biblical Seminary, and the views I am expressing may not represent their views. However, I began to articulate what I believe to be a Biblical and effective understanding of holiness in the first of these three blogs. I attempted to address some errors in the second. God willing, I plan to continue this teaching with a series of short, 8 to 10 minute podcasts, beginning today. These podcasts will take those interested through the essence of that course on Biblical holiness. Look for a new podcast each Thursday. Be prepare for a fascinating journey through Scripture. You will find the first of these podcasts, “Made for Holiness,” at the top of this blog. Listen today.

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.