I grew up within the ranks of the American Holiness Movement. As a lad I believe that the holiness people were God's choice instruments to preserve and propagate the real truth of the gospel. It seemed God had truly given us marvelous light.
After leaving home I began to prepare for my call to the ministry. I studied theology in a holiness Bible college. I learned the terminology and the proof texts well. During this time I met several wonderful people whom I believed graced the gospel. But these outstanding individuals were the exceptions rather than the norm.
There were some real problems as well. I had difficulty understanding why our movement for the most part operated on the defensive. If we were right, then God was for us. Who was going to be against us? Paul had asked that question in his letter to the Romans and had listed a lot bigger enemies than we were fighting.
Although his enemies were bigger, Paul's bugle call was "victory." We were "more than conquerors." But our movement had the same deficiencies that plagued other movements. There were inconsistency, critical spirits, and prejudice. Legalism held us together organizationally while we were miles apart on the inside. The circle was small and getting smaller while the entrances were guarded to keep us pure.
Of course there were exceptions. Thank God for them everyone. When I think of them I am reminded of people Bill Hybels describes in his book Honest to God
Their character is deeper, their ideas fresher, their spirits softer, their courage greater, their leadership stronger, their concerns broader, their compassion more genuine, and their convictions more concrete. They have joy in difficulties, and wisdom beyond their years.
They knew how to genuinely love beyond borders. But if we had it right, why did we not produce more people of this quality? I soon learned that this question haunted many of my background. Excuses were offered. "People are too carnal." "No one wants holiness in these days." Yet I knew that was not getting to the heart of the question.
I began to look for answers. Since holiness was our distinctive I wanted to know it well. I began in my first pastorate to read the current books of prominent authors on the subject. Then I began to work back. I read Wesley's Plain Account of Christian Perfection and was so intrigued that I foraged into his journal and sermons.
I began to notice some obvious differences in Wesley's approach to the subject. Until that time holiness to me was the result of a second work of grace known as entire sanctification. As a pastor, I understood that my job was to hurry the unconverted to conversion and then on to holiness. Without this second crisis no one would see the Lord. In this context I heard numerous sermons from Hebrews 12:14 on "holiness or hell."
Over a period of seven years I read Wesley and I studied the Word. No thoughtful reader of the Bible can escape our obligation to live a holy life. It is clearly the will of God. The job of the Old Testament priest was to help the people distinguish between the common and the holy. The New Testament minister must do no less. But until we properly understand holiness we are unable to lead our people.
I have concluded that we have been our own worst enemy. The doctrine we loved and the experience we proclaimed has suffered more at the hands of her friends than her foes. While we thought of ourselves as Wesleyan-Arminians regarding theology it became apparent we had subtle shifts from Wesley and the Word which have produced disastrous consequences.
For example, notice the use of the words "holiness" or "sanctification" to describe the work of entire sanctification. To Wesley holiness was descriptive of Christian experience from the new birth onward. A new Christian who had been justified and regenerated was a holy person. The difference between the new birth and entire sanctification was one of "degree and not kind." And Wesley also stated, "the term sanctified is continually applied by St. Paul to all that were justified;" and "that by this term alone, he [Paul] rarely, if ever, means, saved from all sin...."
Consider the results from not grasping these definitions. We have preached entire sanctification where it was not and neglected it where it was taught. The precepts and examples that we use to guide our people into this great work are often those Wesley used to teach the new birth. It is amazing to look at Wesley's thirty texts from which he taught Christian perfection and compare that list to the popular holiness texts used today.
No doubt the greatest damage done has been to our understanding of the new birth. The glory of becoming a new creature, of passing from death unto life, of becoming sons of the living God has been short-changed to a second rate experience. Instead of singing "I'm a child of the King" with confidence encouraged by the Scriptures, we are taught to believe "not yet."
By describing the new birth as an experience that is insecure, we have shaken the very confidence that is needed in the lives of believers to help them survive. We have often undermined the work of God by attempting to push people prematurely to Christian maturity.
Think of the misappropriation of Hebrews 12:14 as a text teaching all those who have only the experience of the new birth will go to hell! From what are they saved? The same book that earlier encourages the believer not to throw away his confidence (10:35) has been the tool of promoting despair in the ranks of the holiness movement.
What we accept in theory will influence our practices. If we believe that the new birth is an insecure condition, then we are compelled to drive people to safety. This does not allow the believer time to build much of a foundation on which the rest of his life is to be developed. He often does not learn to discern the leadership of the Holy Spirit in establishing God's will for himself. Wesley was asked, "In what manner should we preach sanctification?" He answered, "Scarce at all to those who are not pressing forward; to those who are, always by way of promise; always by way of promise; always drawing rather than driving."
It seems clear that the early Methodists led their people by helping them focus on what they could be rather than on berating them for what they were not. Encouragement was used instead of discouragement. Their method was patience, not pressure. Could this not be part of the difference between the quality of their converts and our own? Would not a rediscovery of the dynamics within our own heritage get us back on track and make us a positive force once more?