Christ, doctrine, & holiness

Joel Watts writes that matters of sexuality are not about Christ or doctrine, but holiness.

For me, the via media focuses on Christ. As a subset of this, it focuses on orthodox doctrines of the Church. For most of us, the issue of homosexuality is not a doctrinal matter (i.e., Trinity, baptism, episcopal authority) but is a matter (in Wesleyan terms) of holiness. That is why I can focus on episcopal authority even while arguing for inclusion. I can focus on orthodoxy, hold to prima scripture, and attempt to be a part of the Great Tradition while arguing for inclusion.

The way his words flow here, it reads to me as if he is saying orthodox doctrine is “a subset” of a focus on Christ but that holiness is not. Perhaps he is merely saying holiness is a different subset of the focus on Christ. Or maybe he is saying holiness is a subset of doctrine. I’m not entirely sure.

In any event, he has me puzzling a bit about the relationship between doctrine and holiness. I’ve always taken holiness — which is another word for sanctification which for Wesley is another word for salvation — to be itself part of the doctrine of the Christian Church. Holiness is what it means to live out our baptismal vows. It is what it means to be saved.

I don’t see how we can disagree about what it means to be holy and say we agree on the doctrines of justification and sanctification, for instance. Furthermore, if pressed, I’d argue that holiness comes before doctrine.

First, we focus on Christ. In this focus, what we notice overwhelmingly is his holiness. It is only after this that we begin to develop the superstructure of doctrine that gives shape and stability to our beliefs and practices. The Church was the church when all it had before it was the holiness of Christ. It did not have to wait for Nicea to become the church. All we needed was Christ and his holiness.

This is why questions about food laws and circumcision were existential issues for the church. They cut to the meaning of holiness.

Which is all a way of saying that I find matters of holiness more important than doctrine when it comes to Christian unity. And I think Wesley would agree.

This has little to do with the main point that Watts was trying to make about United Methodism and schism and so on, but it his post got my gears moving.

When it comes to questions of doctrine vs. questions of holiness, which do you think is more crucial for the unity of the church and the life of the Christian?

No holiness, no glory

From John Wesley’s “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, Part I”:

I not only allow, but vehemently contend, that none shall enter into glory who is not holy on earth, as well as in heart, as “in all manner of conversation.” I cry aloud, “Let all that have believed, be careful to maintain good works;” and “Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from all iniquity.” I exhort even those who are conscious they do not believe: “Cease to do evil, learn to do well: The kingdom of heaven is at hand;” therefore, “repent, and bring forth fruits meet for repentance.”

Wesley offered these words as defense against the charge that his preaching of justification by faith alone undermined good works. I think most people who read my blog probably hear his words with a degree of resistance to the first line. We are not comfortable — for the most part — with the assertion that those who are not entirely holy will not enter into glory. It smacks of the most hated thing among us — exclusion.

And so, it is important for Methodists of all stripes to come to terms with Wesley on this point. We like to trot him out to reinforce our messages about love and works of mercy. But we tend to keep him in the basement when he talks about holiness.

Talking about being a Methodist or quoting John Wesley without understanding the central importance of holiness — complete and total holiness — to his theology is a bit like saying you are playing the game of baseball but removing home plate from the field. You can describe a lot of the action that goes on, but the point of the whole enterprise has been removed.

And this is why some of us are so vexed by what appears to be a cavalier attitude about questions regarding the meaning of holiness. People offer proposals to rewrite our understanding of Christian morality but reject all questions about what those proposals mean for closely related questions of Christian holiness. If we believe with Wesley that holiness of heart and life is essential to salvation, then we have to understand what holiness is and does and looks like.

At least, some of us feel that to be true.

Everything?

By his divine power the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness through the knowledge of the one who called us by his own honor and glory. (2 Peter 1:3, CEB)

The last couple of days I have been deeply challenged by this verse.

Do we believe — do I believe in the sense of deep trust — that the Lord has given us everything we need for life and godliness? Everything?

Abraham’s blessing

I will bless those who bless you,
    and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
    will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:3, NIV)

The Christian claim has always been that we are children of Abraham through faith (Rom. 4:16). If that is so, we are the people through whom all the peoples of the earth should be blessed. Or if the footnote in my Bible is more correct, all the earth should use our name as a blessing.

Abraham was called by God and set apart so that through him all the peoples of the earth might be blessed.

I often forget this aspect of holiness. God calls us to be a people set apart from the world and its ways so that the world might be blessed by and through the church. Holiness is a means to God’s ends, not something we strive for in and of itself.

And it is necessary. We cannot be the means of God’s blessing if we are not holy, if we do not respond to the call to be a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. God could arrange it without us, but God has chosen to call a people to holiness so we might carry the blessing of Abraham to the world.

I think this is why the Bible spends so many words discussing holiness, urging holiness, teaching holiness, and explaining the means by which holiness is secured and regained. It is why we need our sins forgiven. We cannot be God’s holy people and be sinning. It is why we need to forgive each other. As God’s called people, it is not our place to refuse those whom God has forgiven. It is why our holiness can never be about hiding safely behind walls. Our vocation is to be a blessing to God’s beloved children.

“I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (Genesis 22:17-18, NIV)

What we believe, how we live

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:14-16, NIV)

From Romans to Jude, the epistles are jammed full of instruction on what it means to live as the people of Jesus Christ. The apostles teach that how we live is an expression of what we believe about God. Our claims that Jesus Christ is Lord and judge and that the Holy Spirit is the source of life are not just lovely notions. They call forth particular responses.

As James reminds us, we cannot have faith that does not show forth in works.

Methodists of all stripes — at least until we gave up listening to John Wesley — have believed that orthodoxy is not nearly as important as holy living. Devils, the saying goes, are orthodox on every point, and yet are devils still.

Of course, Methodists and Wesleyans are as orthodox as they come. We recite the Nicene Creed with nary a crossed finger or wink of the eye. But this is not the heart of the matter for us. Orthodoxy that does not lead us to holy lives is not worth the name. It is, rather, a false front used to hide the dry bones inside.

As Peter writes: “Be holy in all you do.”