In the third century, Antony became the leader of "the greatest organized quest for perfection in history." This movement became monasticism and it emphasized renunciation of the world. Drawing from the asceticism of the pagan Stoic and Cynic philosophers, monasticism emphasized chastity, temperance, detachment, resignation, and martyrdom. Ascetic spirituality used the kenosis passage of Philippians 2:7 as a model for self denial. Over time this emptying of one's self was codified into celibacy, poverty, and obedience to the pope
But historic monasticism cannot be dismissed by Protestants, since it predated the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy. Error has a way of being recycled and adapted. Within the modern holiness movement another strain of monasticism developed.
First, however, was the rise of Methodism in the 18th century. John Wesley believed that God had raised up the Methodists to spread scriptural holiness across the land. Never before within Protestantism had holy living been made the central doctrine.
Wesley was keenly aware of trends and movements across church history. Without attempting to describe Wesley's full-blown theology of Christian perfection, his emphasis was both biblical and reasonable. Wesley avoided fanaticism and emphasized moderation. His doctrine of perfection never implied Plato's absolute perfection. Rather it was Aristotle's utilitarian perfection which held that an object is perfect when it performs the function for which it was created. In our case, it is a perfection of love. We are to love God with our total being and our neighbor as ourselves. God looks at our motive not our performance. When we act out of love, he imputes perfection to those actions. For Wesley, a Stoic and a Christian were very different.
For the purposes of this analysis, it needs to be emphasized that Wesley taught salvation from beginning to end was the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. Wesleyan theology deals with preliminary grace, justifying grace, and perfecting grace — but it is all grace. We cannot make ourselves holy through our works. Deliverance from sin was provided through the atonement of Christ and is to be received by faith. And Wesley argued that if our complete sanctification is by faith, we should expect it every moment. He preached, "Believe that he is not only able, but willing to do it now! Not when you come to die; not at any distant time; now tomorrow, but today. He will then enable you to believe, it is done, according to his word."
Wesley recognized that many people go for years before they get serious about their walk with God, but if our sanctification is ever entire, it must be received by a simple act of faith in the cleansing of the blood of Christ. Paul asks the Galatian church, "Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Gal 3:3). Obedience to God's commandments is the result of salvation, but it can never be the condition for salvation.
I once heard a man preach three steps to entire sanctification. He taught that we must rejoice evermore, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in everything. Of course, that is the result of being made perfect in love but not the requirements.
If all our thoughts and all our actions are tainted by sin, then it is absurd to teach that we can sanctify ourselves through self denial. Where is the cross? Why does scripture teach that the blood cleanses, if we can clean up our act through self discipline? The ugly truth, confirmed by history, is that those who have attempted to make themselves holy have often become proud of their superior state. Thomas Merton wrote that a man "can spend forty or fifty or sixty years in the monastery and still have a bad temper." Protestants are not exempt from this tendency, even if they never entered a monastery. The dynamics are the same whether the subject is Roman Catholic or Protestant.
This brings us to our case study within the Bible Missionary Church. The American holiness movement claimed John Wesley as their theological father, but substituted the theology of Charles Finney and Phoebe Palmer. This resulted in an imbalance which emphasized a second blessing experience above the ethical priority of living a holy life. Wesleyan theology taught initial, entire, progressive, and final sanctification. The holiness movement conflated this to a "second blessing" experience which became the ticket to heaven.
The holiness movement morphed into a spectrum of emphases. Phoebe Palmer's name-it-and-claim-it sanctification replaced faith with presumption. But at the far right the radical holiness movement replaced faith with works. Notice Wesley's priority of reasonableness has now been replaced by radical extremism. A kind of one-upmanship has developed in which each preacher is more spiritual than the previous one by pushing self denial and consecration to logical absurdities.
In his classic book, Your God Is Too Small (1952), J. B. Phillips wrote, "If they were completely honest, many people would have to admit that God is to them an almost entirely negative force in their lives." But he continued, "There must be compensations in the worship of such a god" and he identifies one compensation as "the comforting idea of being 'something special.'"
Worshippers of the negative god often comfort themselves by feeling that what is good enough for "the world" is not good enough for them: the chosen, the unique. Even though this means a life denuded of the beauties of art, of normal pleasures and recreation, a life cramped in all normal means of expression-that is a small price to pay for being the separate, the unique.
I am relying on the accounts of those who at the box factory in Nampa, Idaho in 1955 where the Bible Missionary Church began. They say it was a genuine move of God. I have no reason to doubt their testimony. Everyone within this denomination did not agree on every issue, but over time an emphasis on "death route holiness" developed. "Death route holiness" emphasized the necessity to die to the world and to the flesh in order to become holy. Historically, theologians of various stripes have taught mortification, but this "death route" theology is an aberration.
Radical holiness preachers were sometimes described as "bone scrapers." They zeroed in on "carnality." In doing so they presented "carnality" as a substance which had to be eradicated. Ironically, the Bible never uses the term "carnality." The concept comes from Gnostic or dualistic philosophy which teaches that which is physical is evil. Nor does Scripture describe Christians as "carnal" in an unqualified sense. In fact Romans 8:8 declares that those who are carnal cannot please God. Yet the following verse explains that the regenerate are no longer in the flesh or carnal, but in the Spirit. And v 5 says that those who are saved please God because they have set their mind on that which the Spirit desires.
Romans 8:13 teaches that these believers are to constantly put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit. This is a present-tense command. It is to become a way of life for believers to kill temptation and sinful desires. This is the equivalent of Galatians 5:16, "Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh."
But this mortification must be done through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is not a condition which must be met in order to receive the Holy Spirit. Rather, it is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit within the Christian.
The "death route," however, required a seeker to empty himself of sin in order to receive the Holy Spirit. This self renunciation resulted in a denial of our personality. God never requires us to die to self. We do, however, need deliverance from self-centeredness.
Wesley taught that love of self was not a sin, but an indisputable duty. Mildred Wynkoop explained, "The personality is the self. Remove the self and no personality remains."
In Eastern mysticism, however, pantheism teaches a perfection which results in the loss of self identity. William Burt Pope, generally regarded as the prince of Wesleyan theologians, objected to this Hindi perfection which seeks nirvana in which we are absorbed into the divine. This pagan philosophy, however, was baptized into Christianity through the teaching of theosis or deification.
In contrast, biblical perfection teaches that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. When Isaiah had a revelation of God, it did not result in the loss of his ego. Instead, Isaiah was conscious that he was unclean. God purged his sin, but did not destroy his self identity.
Thus, we must distinguish between self and sin. It is not a sin to be human. This fundamental error of Gnosticism meant that Jesus Christ could not actually become fully human. But he was through the Incarnation and John says anyone who denies the humanity of Christ is antichrist. The error of radical holiness teaching was their appropriation of this historical heresy, without knowing the history of heresy.
We must also distinguish between consecration and sanctification. There are no unsurrendered Christians. However, in Romans 12:1-2 Paul calls upon Christians to make a deeper surrender. But this appeal to yield to the progressive realization of God's purpose for us is based upon reason. Paul said it is the logical thing to do. It is logical because God is good and can be trusted. But it becomes a struggle when God is perceived as stern and hard to please.
God does not bypass our minds and require some radical self effacement. Our submission does not make us holy. We are not transformed by self denial. The result of transformation is Christlikeness and that transformation is the work of the Holy Spirit. The picture of a mature, Christlike believer is captured in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
But the most influential Bible Missionary evangelist, H. B. Huffman, popularized the doctrine of dying like an old "yeller" dog as the way to entire sanctification. The implication is that if an old, mangy, yeller dog can crawl under the front porch and die unnoticed and unappreciated, so we must also die to relationships, reputation, and possessions.
But we are not dogs! We are created in the image and likeness of God. Christian perfection is better understood as healing and wholeness, rather than brokenness and self effacement. It is salvation to the uttermost based upon the possibilities of grace. It is abundant life, not emotional suicide. It is unbroken fellowship with God, not dysfunctional bondage. Sanctification is not a demeaning experience, it is a restorative process.
The result of this dog theology, however, is that it allows those who have "paid the price" and "died like an old yeller dog" to treat their fellow man like dogs. Stories circulate about their board meetings which were reported to be knock-down-drag-out confrontations — worse than a barroom brawl.
In my attempt to grasp this emphasis, I contacted a man of God who served Jesus as a pastor within the context of the Bible Missionary Church. Several years ago we talked for an hour as he described their doctrine of a "Christless holiness." Recently, I expressed my concerns about this emphasis and he replied,
It sounds to me like you are on to that yellow-dog-business. This is what I finally came to. Holiness (so called) that is not Christ-centered is nothing more nor less than religious humanism. Some (sad to say) teach making restitutions as a way to undo sin rather than trusting Jesus to forgive sins. They teach salvation by keeping the law with the power of Pentecost. These are the same ones that have replaced John 3:16 with 1John 1:7. Nobody ever got saved by walking in the light; nobody ever got sanctified by walking in the light; Jesus does it by Grace (unmerited) through faith.
I have also been troubled by a testimony I read in a new book, The Radical Holiness Movement in the Christian Tradition. Lillian Harvey, was not part of the Bible Missionary Church. In fact, she and her family ultimately could not find a church which was spiritual enough to suit them. In her quest to "die out," she eventually came to the point of renouncing marriage. Yet Hebrews 13:4 declares that marriage is honorable. Here the lines between Roman celibacy and the Protestant "death route" begin to blur.
Lillian's testimony also included her struggle to jump up and down on the sidewalk, praising God in public. Because she struggled to die to the flesh, she entered "five years of darkness" which was lifted only when she became willing to testify publically on a trolley bus. During that five year period, she remained outwardly devout and was "living in hell." For the rest of her life, she believed that if she ever disobeyed God again she might revert back to this "hell."
This is a pathetic and pathological testimony of "Christless holiness." God gave us some inhibitions and it is not a sin to observe social conventions and etiquette. But the greatest distortion concerns the nature of God. People who cower under this kind of God, tend to abuse their own children. And there seems to be a high incident of child abuse and molestation within this ultraconservative subculture.
The second dynamic is that popery is not restricted to the Roman church. Those who tried to minister under this distortion of holiness were told that they should be willing to suffer any deprivation for the sake of the church. The history of legalism is strewn with the wreckage of sincere men and women who put up with abuse, control, manipulation, and neglect all for the "cause of Christ." But Christ had not demanded such abuse be accepted. This was the requirement of a man-made organization.
Today, the Bible Missionary Church is but a shadow of its former self. Before his death in 1980, Huffman had precipitated two divisions within the Bible Missionary Church over his domineering leadership and "dying out" theology. Not surprisingly, he blamed the problem on "carnality."
Things came to a head once more in 1987 when the general conference cast 103 ballots to elect a general moderator. Beneath the surface, one of the lingering issues which caused disagreement was the "death route" doctrine. Still deadlocked, ultimately the general moderator was determined by board action.
It should be noted that the International Fellowship of Bible Churches was organized the following years, "largely because of negative experiences with controversy and hierarchical polity." For many of these men, it was a grace awakening that caused them to leave. But the lasting influence of the Bible Missionary Church is that those who have worked through this "yellow dog holiness" doctrine intellectually, tend to revert back to it in their relationships with other believers.
Let us be clear. Jesus Christ paid the full price of our salvation at the cross. We can add nothing to his finish work. Salvation is a salvation from the bondage and power of sin, but that salvation is the gracious gift of God. We cannot make ourselves holy. Paul warned in Colossians 2:21-23,
"Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!" These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.
With the slogan "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!," Paul is ridiculing such a reduction of spirituality to a graceless set of regulations. In the 4th century, Chrysostom wrote, "Mark how he makes sport of them, handle not, touch not, taste not, as though they were keeping themselves clear of some great matters."
Certainly we are to seek first the kingdom agenda of Christ and across the centuries believers have died for their faith. We should be willing to do the same, if circumstances require the ultimate sacrifice. But we do so out of love and not out of fear. We would do so because we are saved and not in a futile attempt to save ourselves. "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing" (1 Cor 13:3).
A. W. Tozer was not afraid to tell it like it is. But one of his most astounding statements declares, "I have found God to be cordial and generous and in every way easy to live with." Unfortunately, some who claim to be his followers can be as mean as snakes.
But truly holy people are gracious people. Holiness without love is legalism. Love without holiness is antinomianism. We must insist on "holy love." Mildred Wynkoop said that love takes the harshness out of holiness.