Archive: Scriptural Holiness: Our Forgotten Doctrine

By James D. McCallie, Associate Pastor, First Methodist Church, Vincennes, Indiana

An highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. – Isaiah 35:8

With these words, the sacred writer introduces us to a subject which is traditionally prominent in the witness of people called Methodists. It was the search for the Highway of Holiness which brought Methodists into being and which continues to give our church a reason for her existence. John Wesley commissioned the pioneer preachers whom he sent to America to “reform the continent and spread scriptural holiness over these lands.” This they set out to do in earnest.

The labor of these men and their successors left an indelible mark upon the religious life and moral climate of our nation. A movement for the promotion of holiness in the 19th century outgrew its Methodist beginnings. It touched every segment of American life during our most formative years, with people of many persuasions becoming seekers for holiness in terms of personal Christian experience. Had the challenge for this personal pursuit been allowed the fullest possible expression, the 19th century might have seen what one thoughtful observer of the times hoped could be a great and original ethical development, surpassing even the Protestant Reformation in importance.

But mainline Methodism, by the turn of the century, was leading and following American Christianity along a different course. Churches began to concentrate on building an ideal society and to lose sight of the pursuit of personal holiness, forgetting that no social order can be more holy than the persons who compose it. The backlash from this neglect is being felt in our time in the sagging stewardship, undisciplined membership, and shortage of leadership in our churches. And in American society, it is evident in the strange paradox of those who clamor for justice and dignity in unjust and undignified ways.

It is a matter of historical fact that the Church has exerted more creative and constructive influence upon society when persons have been singled out as candidates for holiness than when they have become lost in the crowd. It is also a matter of record that holiness, like judgment, must always begin with the household of God.

Perhaps we should begin by eliminating the misunderstandings attached to the word “holiness” and its equivalent term “sanctification.” Like all religious language, these terms deal with something intangible. Therefore, they are not as easily understood as most of the secular words we use. Too often, those who are fond of using these words have given them a bad reputation. A person is more “crankified” than “sanctified,” and who has a “holier-­than-thou” attitude toward everybody else, reveals a holiness so “full of holes” that intelligent people will have nothing to do with it.

But holiness is too prominent in Scripture to be cast aside merely because there are those who fail to do justice to its magnificence and splendor. Holiness needs to be redeemed and restored to its rightful place as the very heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing can be more at­ tractive or desirable than the God-likeness revealed in the life of Jesus. That’s what holiness is. Nevertheless, the goal of God­ likeness in terms of the life of Jesus Christ is considered by most people to be as impossible and impractical as it is desirable. To an age that demands technical and scientific perfection for every exploratory thrust into the outer space of the universe, it is strange, indeed, that the children of the church should be willing to settle for moral and spiritual imperfection with regard to the conquest of that inner space of the soul.

The Scriptures make holiness both possible and practical by placing the religious ideal in a familiar, secular setting. It is a highway-and it is paved with more than good intentions. It is meant to be traveled.

For those Jewish exiles to whom the promise was written centuries ago, it was a roadway leading across the desert from Babylon and captivity back to Jerusalem and the holy place where their God would meet with them. For early Christians, who heard and believed the words of Jesus, the imagery was changed only slightly to signify deliverance from sin’s captivity and entrance into eternal life. When Jesus said, “I am the Way,” He clearly identified with Isaiah’s Way of Holiness. It is no wonder that the first Christians were called followers of “the Way.”

All other religious systems are at best “ways” to God, revealing some truth and insight into the nature and character of God. But Christ is “The Way” in terms of revealing everything that we need to know and to do about God-likeness. He is the only way for us to become God-like. If Jesus were no more than a religious teacher – a setter of standards – then there would be nothing original or unique about Him. But if Jesus is Lord and Savior, He is not only a goal setter and an example for us to follow, He is the very route we must travel.

The Christian life has long been pictured as a road to be traveled. Bunyan’s great classic, The Pilgrim’s Progress, graphically describes the Christian life in terms of the difficult and dangerous paths that one would have encountered in the 17th century. In recent years we have moved from the wagon tracks of the wilderness, past Model “T” Fords and mud roads, even past the ribbons of superhighways which span the continent, to the invisible and uncharted lanes of space travel!

What possible meaning can we find in traveling the highway of holiness in the space age? Perhaps we can find in the rocket thrust a significant parallel. In high school I was told that the last great hurdle to overcome in space travel was the development of a rocket with powerful enough thrust to send the traveler soaring out beyond the pull of gravity, where he would be free to explore new worlds. Now that day is here! The timeless message of the New Testament makes a similar announcement: that the earthward pull of sin and death has been overcome by the resurrection of God’s crucified Son. The same spiritual pow­ er which raised Him from the dead can thrust us beyond our old selves into a realm where sin and death have no more pow­ er over us. As long as we submit to the thrust of this new life in Christ, we are energized to live creatively for God – free from the sinward bent of human nature. No wonder Charles Wesley could sing with poetic abandon:

Soar we now
where Christ has led,
Following our exalted Head.
Made like Him, like Him we rise,
Ours the cross, the grave,
the skies. Alleluia!

But let no one get the idea that the highway of holiness is a retreat from reality! Though a Christian’s head may be in the clouds, there is a sense in which his feet are firmly fixed on the ground! Our Lord has shown us that holiness ought to be as much at home in the market place as in the monastery. He who would walk the highway of holiness will find it running parallel with the common highways of life.

Much ancient and modern the­ ology has tried to complicate the route for us, but God’s Word keeps it simple and plain. Like the earthly and familiar roads which we travel, there are certain signs along the way which guide us. The sixth chapter of the Roman Letter calls our attention to three, the first of which is a sign of …

(1)  IDENTIFICATION. This sign tells us the starting point. This is the first requirement of mapping any route since you are likely to wander aimlessly un­less you know its relationship to your destination. The starting point for anyone traveling this highway is to know where you are in relation to God through Jesus Christ.

“Do you not know,” asks Paul, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3, 4). And again, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that … we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).

Be assured that the guilt resulting from all the sins you have ever committed is forgiven – that your baptism and reception into the Church has marked the beginning of a new life in Christ. For unless there was a time when you confessed the known sins in your life, turned from them in genuine regret and repentance, asked God to forgive you for Christ’s sake, then accepted by faith the fact that your sins are gone – unless you have done this, you will never find the interchange which gets you off the dead-end road of sin onto the holiness highway which leads to eternal life.

Whether you are young or old, you can know that Christ’s Spirit dwells in your heart. You need no longer be haunted by the sins of your past. Your con­ version might have come as a gentle breeze beyond the range of memory. Or it might have come in a whirlwind of emotion in an unforgettable moment. The method is not as important as the fact – the privilege of knowing that you have been born into the Kingdom of God as surely as a baby is born into this world, with all the possibilities of growth and maturity before you.

The second marker we encounter is a sign of . . .

(2) INFORMATION. This sign tells us which direction we are going, where we are going, and how far it is. Directional and mileage signs are easily over­ looked. It is easy to get on the wrong road, headed the wrong direction, if we do not pay careful attention to the signs.

So, St. Paul reminds us: “You also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).

The familiar King James Version translates it, “Reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God” which suggests to us some sort of calculation. With the New Testament as our road map, it is a good idea to calculate the destination, the distance, and the direction involved in our spiritual life’s journey.

As to the destination of holiness toward which God is leading us, we have Christ as our pattern. He once lived and died in a human body to prove His mastery of the human situation. That love toward God and man which motivated Christ can motivate us. The Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit can produce in the life of a Christian a perfect love, which meets the highest divine requirement ever made of humanity.

The distance from sin to holiness is generally measured by Scripture in terms of conscious choice rather than in terms of accident and ignorance.

Honest mistakes are no more incompatible with the display of perfect love in our Heavenly Father’s sight than the blunders of an obedient child in the service of his earthly father. In fact, a sincere effort to express perfect love may often be the occasion for error in view of our limited foresight, understanding, and control of circumstances. God graciously takes all this into account. He provides for such a margin of unavoidable error in the atoning death of His Son. And God guards us against incurring guilt by the restraining and renewing presence of His indwelling Spirit.

As to the direction which holiness takes, however, we must be careful not to rationalize away our shortcomings. For even honest mistakes may become sins if we carelessly fail to rectify them upon recognition. Holiness does not free us from the ability to sin; it only frees us from the necessity of sinning. And, try as we may, we cannot free ourselves from wrongly motivated actions and attitudes which arise out of the inherent corruption of our subconscious self. Like an iceberg in the ocean depths, some 7/8 of the real self lies hidden below the surface, beyond our conscious control. Unsuspecting seamen have driven great ships to their destruction by colliding with ice­ bergs. So it is that the unredeemed subconscious lurks as a hidden menace to the Christian’s future safety. We cannot steer completely clear of it. Nor can we long suppress it because it is a part of us. Only Christ, who knows the hidden depths of our being, can cleanse and bring our subconscious under control.

How, then, shall the subconscious be cleansed and brought under Christ’s control? Having been saved from the penalty of our guilty past, how shall we be saved from the potential of future sinning? Here is where the wholeness of holiness comes into focus. Even after conversion, we face a spiritual crisis in every temptation that we meet. Soon­ er or later we face the one big crisis of how to get rid of the conflict between the new self which we have become through identifying with Christ and the old self which keeps cropping up and pressuring us to yield against our better judgment to that which is contrary to Christ.

The first disciples of our Lord faced this crisis at the cross­ roads of Pentecost, where the last vestiges of the self-centered life gave way to the purifying presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Until that time, they had Christ and Christ had them – but He did not have their whole selves at His command.

Even though the first disciples were basically converted people, there were unconverted areas of their lives which required a further work of divine grace.

We find ourselves in the same predicament. It is basic to beginning the Christian life to let Jesus Christ be our personal Savior. But it is basic to continuing the Christian life and growing in it to let Him be Lord. Most, if not all of us, are just not able to see the implications of Christ’s Lordship until the depths of sin in the subconscious self are revealed and brought to focus in a crisis situation, where sin can be dealt with once and for all. The information sign which we need to consider stands somewhere along the road. When we find it and follow its directions-directions which tell us that there is for us a life of victory over sin-then we are not far from the third and final sign which is a sign of …

(3) CAPITULATION. This is the sign that tells us that there is a preferential highway ahead – that we must yield the right­-of-way.

Listen once more to the Scripture’s instruction:

“Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness.”

The secret is in surrender. That is letting God have all there is of you at His disposal – your dreams, your ambitions, your possessions, your all in order that sanctification may be complete and holiness may characterize your entire life, rather than just a part.

The “yield” sign has a qualification: “so now yield your members to righteousness for sanctification” (Romans 6:19). The now-ness indicates that it is a decision to be made the moment it is faced, in order to avoid possible collision with the will and purpose of God for your life. It also indicates that the yielding is an act which leads to a continuous attitude of surrender to God’s right-of-way all along the journey.

Romans 12: 1 and 2 is the grand climax to which this whole discussion is pointing. Addressed to “brethren” (Christians), this plea urges us to “make a decisive dedication” of body, mind, and will to God (see the Amplified New Testament) – a once­for-all unconditional surrender to God which conditions us for a constant life of surrender.

Dr.E. Stanley Jones, now past 80, has titled his latest book, Victory Through Surrender. From a lifetime of experience he writes:

“… lose yourself in the will of God by self-surrender and you will find yourself again … The surrender which seems downward, laying down your arms, is actually a surrender upwards. It is a surrender to creative love. This is not acquiescence. It is cooperation with the power that raised Jesus from the dead-that power when surrendered to and cooperated with will raise us from a dead noncontributive life to a creative fruitful one.”

Know where you are with God; consider where you are going with Him; and yield the right-of-way in your life’s program to Him.

This is the highway of holiness – a highway that will never lose its charm and challenge for the traveler.

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