The link between holiness and salvation

John Wesley wrote that without holiness no one will see the Lord, quoting Hebrews. He thought “going on to perfection” was crucial because being pardoned without being sanctified could lead to backsliding that could erase justification. Rather than the “door” and “house” metaphor that we hear so much about, justification was something like hanging on he edge of a cliff. If we did not pull ourselves up, we were liable to fall off again.

Such images are troubling, of course. My read on Wesley is that he was even more troubled by people who went by the name of Christian but did not live in any way like Christ. He saw outward religion as false religion. He insisted that Christians should be deeply anxious about their salvation. This is what made assurance such a gift. Aldersgate was such a big moment for Wesley because he had been so anxious for so long about his faith. In his approach to these questions, Wesley gave the early Methodists powerful incentives for discipleship.

Absent his theological framework, what do our calls to discipleship amount to? Is it a kind of consumeristic spiritual self-help? Does our call to discipleship end up saying nothing more than “Your life will be richer and better when you are aligned with God’s purposes for your life”?

It feels to me that such a stance is based on the assumption that the way to heaven (or the kingdom) is broad and not narrow. We can afford to relax because, hey, God is going to cut all some slack for basically good intentions. All the stuff about holiness is just a way to keep the primitives in line.

That may not be what people mean by the things they say and do, but it feels like there is a lot more intensity and gravity in Wesley’s discussions about discipleship (a word I don’t believe he used) and salvation than there is in ours.


12 thoughts on “The link between holiness and salvation

  1. I’m afraid that you’re trapped in a forensic view of salvation. And I think the irony is that a forensic rather than therapeutic view of salvation results in a lack of interest in holiness. If salvation is all about the satisfaction of God’s wrath against me, then my theological emphasis is naturally going to be on the fact that I can do nothing to earn it, which results in a gospel of justification without sanctification. There’s no impetus to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit if I’m being evaluated by God on the basis of my “faith” alone. What I will try to do instead is believe the “right things” about God. This may include being “right” in terms of my sexuality and other behaviors just like the Pharisees were, but it won’t give me the purity of heart that makes me able to see God. Many Christians today have figured out how to be insufferably sanctimonious without being holy.

    The Eastern Orthodox therapeutic understanding of salvation that Wesleyan thought leans toward sees the importance of justification as God gaining our trust so that He can sanctify us into His image. What you caricature as self-help — “Your life will be richer and better when you are aligned with God’s purposes for your life” — is not a bad depiction of the therapeutic view of salvation. It doesn’t “widen the gate” to describe holiness in terms of our benefit. Augustine wrote a book about happiness in which he made the exact argument in favor of pursuing holiness that you summarized in the above sentence. The need for holiness to be something arduous and “sacrificial” reveals a vested interest in earning something through holiness, i.e. the kind of meritocracy that justification delivers us from.

    Being holy is incredibly difficult and of course impossible without God’s constant intervention and empowerment. The reason to pursue holine is not because God’s loving acceptance of us is anything other than unconditional (which is the realization that makes it possible to pursue holiness for the right reason in the first place). The reason to desire a pure heart uncluttered by sin is because the assurance of God’s love is a pretty empty realization to have without being able to see His glory. And God’s beauty really is amazing enough that desiring to experience what the Catholics call the beatific vision is a goal worth giving our lives to.

    1. Morgan,

      I’m not aware of being trapped in anything, but perhaps I am unaware. And I’m pretty sure John Wesley is trapped in here with me, where ever we are. At least, my attempt was to describe accurately his understanding of justification and sanctification. If I got it at all close, then, I do not see how your claim that such a view of justification leads to antinomianism. Wesley could be accused of many things, but not that.

      1. I’m not sure this is a legitimate claim to make, but I would argue that Wesley didn’t realize how Eastern Orthodox his theological discoveries were because he only had Western, Anselmian/Augustinian language for talking about salvation and holiness. In any case, the implications of his theological system lead away from a forensic account of salvation and toward an Eastern understanding of salvation as theosis. I also wonder how much of what Wesley said in his sermons reflects his polemical constant in which he was under constant assault from every direction: Moravians, Calvinists, etc. I imagine he had a lot of incentive to guard his words against appearing too soft in their description of God because then Whitefield and Toplady would pounce all over him. In any case, I think holiness is best understood as the quest to see God and experience Him richly just like Hebrews describes it rather than a quest to avoid God’s punishment which to me impoverishes our appreciation for it.

        1. Wesley was aware of the Greek fathers and quoted some of them in various places. I’ve heard the theory about equating Wesley’s views of sanctification with theosis, but I’m not sure how well established that is. My take on the couple things I’ve read is that it is much more speculative than established at this point.

        2. A reading of the Hebrew find liberal vs orthodox understanding and emphasis.
          If you read the “reformed” theology of the Jews the emphasis will be very different than the orthodox view.
          Law vs works and penalty have been the arguement since before Gamliel.
          Christianity incorporates Grace and Law compatable with one another not at war with one another and the penalties are defined just as harsh in the NT.

          What Jesus taught:
          “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
          “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
          No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
          “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” Luke 16

          Is that less scary than anything found in the OT, … turning back?

          God’s Peace.

    2. God is made dependant on man?
      It is man’s actions that determine Gods actions and or ability to proceed?

      1. In the forensic account of salvation, YES, God is made dependent on man, because God proceeds with salvation or damnation in response to man’s actions. It’s basically works-righteousness, and however “faith” is defined, it becomes the work that “saves.”

        1. Does God use creative ways to change the mind of man?
          WIll God’s will be done?

          I think the answer is yes to both?
          Jonah comes to mind first.
          So God’s will, in spite if man, will be done, one way or the other.:)
          The seperation of wheat and tares?

          God calls.
          God baptises man with his spirit.
          God equips man.
          God changes man.
          God upholds man.
          God strengthens man.
          By God’s strength man overcomes.
          Where do you see man?

    3. “forensic view of salvation.”

      Is what you are trying to say is “trapped in the Law of Salvation”?
      Some are trapped in the “spirit of salavation”.
      Nothing physical. Nothing is really real. No law. All is spirit.
      The problem with “trapped in the spirit thinking” is nothing can really come to fruition because nothing is realy real.
      Where do you fall?

  2. Holiness is the exact opposite of “profane”.
    Profane is:
    1. Marked by contempt or irreverence for what is sacred.
    2. Nonreligious in subject matter, form, or use; secular: sacred and profane music.
    3. Not admitted into a body of secret knowledge or ritual; uninitiated.
    4. Vulgar; coarse.
    Verb 1. profane – corrupt morally or by intemperance or sensuality; “debauch the young people with wine and women”; “Socrates was accused of corrupting young men”; “Do school counselors subvert young children?”; “corrupt the morals”

    Faith without works is a dead faith.
    Wesley reflects on the hypocricy of actions or lifestyle of some pitted against the call for holiness.
    If there are works of the spirit in those that call themselves Christian or consider themselves members of the body there should be evidence of those works expressed in the life they live and/or the works they do.

    ” If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be made known unto them who watch over that soul as they that must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways; we will bear with him for a season: But then if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls. JOHN WESLEY, CHARLES WESLEY. ”

  3. Wesley understood the concept of a “separate people”, a holy people.
    He understood the theme and ran with it.

    Wesley’s Notes
    “Egypt and Canaan” – These two nations he mentions, because their habitation and conversation among them made their evil example in the following matters more dangerous. But under them he includes all other nations.”
    Lev. 18:3

    Wesley notes beg the question, “What where the Egypt and Canaanite practices?

    Leviticus 18 deals with sexual purity but God reminds Moses:
    You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees. I am the Lord your God. Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord.

    The Egyptians and Canaanites were the example God chose to use of an “unholy” people.
    A “holy people” would not be doing what they did.
    Since there are no qualifiers attached to the command, the practices of the Egyptians and Canaanites would have been practiced in every day life as well as in the temple worship of their gods.
    Wesley points to the fact God included “all the nations” accountable to God’s Holy Law.

    The New Testament upholds those truths.
    Don’t misunderstand why I have come. I did not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets. No, I came to accomplish their purpose. Matthew 5

    Wesley’s Notes:
    Think not – Do not imagine, fear, hope, that I am come – Like your teachers, to destroy the law or the prophets. I am not come to destroy – The moral law, but to fulfil – To establish, illustrate, and explain its highest meaning, both by my life and doctrine.

  4. John,
    I think that you have spoken a truth that we need to hear. Whether justification is forensic or therapeutic, I have found that the path is narrower the longer I walk it. Doing real good is difficult and many “good” things distract me from my devotion to Christ (the best thing) and my loving him by keeping his commandments (John 14:15). I am convinced that Paul has it right when he says, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) Keep reminding us of the need for personal holiness and sanctification. Whether we can lose our salvation or not, failing to be holy (i.e. committed to Christ and open to being formed in His image) is disobedience and shows that we do not love Him.

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