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.”