Baggage surrounding the word “holiness”

suitcaseYou know a word has issues when you have to start qualifying it. Why does someone say they are a “born-again Christian”?  Shouldn’t “Christian” be enough? (Read more on that here.)

Similarly, Ken Abraham published a book in 1988 entitled Positive Holiness. But I wonder: For those in the holiness tradition, shouldn’t the unadorned word “holiness” be enough? Abraham added the qualifier “positive” because he admitted what we rarely do:

The word “holiness” has baggage.

Like at the airport, baggage comes in different shapes and sizes. Here are two kinds of baggage:

1. Legalistic holiness – This was nearly extinct but is seeing a resurgence in response to shifting mores in society. It is the judgmental, Pharisaical approach to religion with an emphasis upon rules and outward appearance. Here, holiness is defined by what we abstain from: “A good ______________ (fill in denominational affiliation) does not _____________.”

This can be trickier than it looks. No one is denying the moral content of Christian faith. Jesus affirmed the Ten Commandments (Matthew 19:16-21) which contain numerous negative commands, i.e. “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal,” etc. But the problem with legalistic holiness is that it never gets around to the positive side of the equation, the Great Commandment of Christ to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-34), itself a re-affirmation of Old Testament teaching (Deut. 6:4-5, Lev. 19:8). Rules devoid of love dry up the spirit.

2. Magical holiness  – Besides legalistic holiness, a second type of baggage is more subtle. I call it “magical holiness.” This well-meaning error is usually accompanied by calls to “revival,” to get back to a time when we really knew how to preach holiness! And so we plaster the word on our brochures and banners, and call holiness the “great hope.”

Yet hope in the New Testament is seldom attached to a religious experience, no matter how powerful that experience may be. Rather, our hope is Jesus!  Galatians 5:5 speaks of our hope to be made righteous, but Colossians 1:27 exemplifies the more usual pattern, where it is “Christ in us” that is our “hope of glory” (NIV). 1 Thessalonians 1:3 affirms the believers for their “hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (CEB). Likewise, Peter extols the “living hope” into which we have been born, a living hope made possible through the resurrection of Christ (1 Peter 1:3, NIV).

A comparison helps. When studying spiritual gifts, sometimes we speak of the importance of “seeking the Giver more than the gifts.” That’s good advice, and keeps us from overemphasizing spectacular manifestations. However, we forget that counsel when it comes to holiness theology. We urge our people to seek “entire sanctification.” But I wonder: Isn’t that seeking the gift rather than the Giver? And when we seek gifts first and foremost, we become like Simon the Magician, wanting the power without the relationship from which the power flows. (See Acts 8:9-24).

But you say: Did not Jesus call us to hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6)? Indeed, he did, yet that day on a hillside in Galilee, the people focused their attention on Jesus. They came to get to know this teacher better. They carefully listened to him, understanding intuitively that Jesus is the source of all righteousness. The order is important. If we desire holiness, seek first the Holy One.

Once we have sought Jesus for himself and not for what he can do in our lives, then we blossom into a growing, dynamic relationship with God. Later, in God’s timing, will God not transform us at a deeper level into the image of Christ? Paul affirms this clearly in Romans 8:31-32:

So what are we going to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He didn’t spare his son but gave him up for us all. Won’t he also freely give us all things with him? (CEB)

Seek the sanctifying experience only, and you make Jesus your magician. Seek Jesus for himself, and you can’t help but be transformed at every level of your being.

Jesus, the Holy One, is our hope! May we preach a positive Christ, one who fills us with love for God and others. And may we always remember: We serve Jesus not for what he can do for us, though he does much. Rather, we serve Jesus because he is enough.

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Photo credit: Pinstripes and Pearls

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2 thoughts on “Baggage surrounding the word “holiness”

  1. This post is so insightful! Thank you. It’s clear God has His hand on your life. I believe today in America we’re experiencing an issue with older, more traditional Christian vocabulary as we talk with a secular society. Words like ‘sin’ have been attached in the worlds’ eyes to shame, and the assumption we are trying somehow to manipulate them by shaming them into something, What are your thoughts to address or approach this — in choosing the right words to build a relationship and trust and yet still lay the foundation for key concepts such as atonement (which is another word with huge baggage! 🙂

    • Hello Jan, it’s always good to see someone revisiting an older post here at TIO. Thanks for your insightful comment.

      Though not a Roman Catholic, I see much wisdom in the new approach that Pope Francis is taking. Rather than leading with “sin,” he is leading with love. That does not mean that he has abandoned the RC church’s beliefs about sin and its negative effects in our lives. Instead, he has understood that God usually effects transformation in people’s lives through relationship. As a Nazarene, I would frame this as giving much space to the Holy Spirit to work in the lives of individuals. We do not need to cross every “i” and dot every “t.” We can trust the Holy Spirit to fill in the blanks, even as we direct individuals to immerse themselves in the Scriptures. I had a missions professor who had a hard time engaging nonbelievers, so he would pray: “Lord, please help those I’m trying to reach ask me the right question.” Too often, we are impatient, raising the “sin” questions ourselves and prematurely, thereby pushing people away and short-circuiting the process before we’ve even made people curious about Christ by our winsome and loving way of life.

      Not sure this answers all your questions, Jan, but it may at least be further food for thought.

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