Holiness is of God

Late in his ministry, John Wesley looked back at the early days of Methodism and described in his sermon “The General Spread of the Gospel” the truths first proclaimed by the Oxford students who started the movement:

Let us observe what God has done already. Between fifty and sixty years ago, God raised up a few young men, in the University of Oxford, to testify those grand truths, which were then little attended to: — That without holiness no man shall see the Lord; — that this holiness is the work of God, who worketh in us both to will and to do; — that he doeth it of his own good pleasure, merely for the merits of Christ; — that this holiness is the mind that was in Christ; enabling us to walk as he also walked; — that no man can be thus sanctified till he is justified; — and, that we are justified by faith alone. These great truths they declared on all occasions, in private and in public; having no design but to promote the glory of God, and no desire but to save souls from death.

Pulling this apart, we can list the key doctrines, according to Wesley, as these.

  1. Without holiness no one will see the Lord
  2. This holiness is the work of God who works in us both to will and do
  3. This holiness is grace, merited not by us but by Christ
  4. This holiness is having the same mind that was in Christ, enabling us to walk as he walked
  5. This holiness, or sanctification, must follow justification
  6. Justification is by faith alone

I wrote about point 1 in a recent post.

I wonder how we can communicate point 2: Holiness is the work of God — from first to last — who works in us both to will and do good. It seems people have a hard time hearing it.

In a recent comment here, someone wrote that telling a person to “try harder” when they cannot fulfill the demands of the law is not very helpful.

I agree, 100 percent. “Try harder” is at its heart Pelagian. It is why Pelagianism was actually a very harsh theology. If you were not holy, Pelagians said, the problem is that you did not work hard enough at it. A lot of Christianity, I think, is unintentionally Pelagian in that way.

What orthodox Christianity has taught since the settlement of the Pelagian controversy is that it is not our effort that makes us holy. God works in us so we can will and do what God desires.

What we are called to do is to trust in the grace we have been given. This grace stirs in us, convicting us when we do wrong, and drawing us to do right. But it is God’s initiative. We respond.

I’m not sure how to explain this. I think part of the problem is that it is all grounded on a doctrine of original sin and human depravity that is not well received in the church today.


8 thoughts on “Holiness is of God

  1. To understand holiness…we have to take the time and have a relationship with the Most Holy- our Lord Jesus Christ.He is the one person in our lives that we need to be in tune with. If we can hear His voice in our lives, then we will understand Holiness.

  2. John,
    This post is very timely for me and addresses an important topic for all Christ believers and followers – Grace (God’s Riches at Christ Expense). This topic and what it means to be Holy as God is Holy is getting a lot of attention these days (I wonder why?). Rick Warren has a new series called the “Good News about Grace.” There is also a “New Grace Movement” that is creating quite a stir among Evangelicals with their radical views on Grace and sanctification. Michael Brown has recently published a response to this movement called “Hyper Grace.”

    No one seems to be arguing with justification by faith alone except for some in the Messianic Judaism Movement who are questioning the validity of Sola Fide, The point of contention seems to be around the concept of sanctification and being Holy. The horns of this dilemma is the classical tension between the Law and Legalism versus Grace and Freedom in Christ. At the extremes, you have bondage and antinomianism.

    I am convinced that God’s Way lies somewhere between these two poles. Not a compromise or middle ground, but a third way, His Way. I believe Wesley’s concept of Grace is helpful in understanding God’s Grace, which Rick Warren says is essential for understanding the Christian Faith. I would characterize Wesley’s concept of Grace as progressive – we are and we are yet to be. I think this same principle can be applied to being and becoming sanctified or Holy.

    What do you think?


    1. I’m not sure I follow all you say well enough to have a good reply. I know only a bit about Rick Warren’s take on these questions and nothing really about Brown.

      I do agree with you that antinomianism is one hazard. I see the other as more of a works righteousness. Bondage is a problem, but I don’t see it as antithetical to antinomianism so much as the state that comes before we get into question of antinomianism and works righteousness.

      I, of course, find Wesley helpful in these matters. I’m not sure if “progressive theology” has specific content, so don’t know if it applies to Wesley. He certainly saw sanctification as something that comes after justification.

  3. Great post and discussion. I have been thinking frequently lately of the tension between grace and our effort. Grace is the source everything we truly need. Our participation in this process of grace comes down to availability. There is no power in our making ourselves available, but He won’t work without our permission. The legalistic approach of “duty” can’t make us holy, but when we make our hearts available to God’s work in our lives through spiritual disciplines, He showers us with the blessings of His grace. Isn’t the third way seeking first the Kingdom of God?

    1. I certainly endorse the “seek ye first” approach. I’m not sure I’ve thought through it enough to offer it as a “third way.” For one, I don’t think I find duty as dirty a word as you do. Doing duty may be the way we make ourselves available for grace. Perhaps I misunderstand.

      1. I don’t think of duty as a dirty word and agree that duty is frequently the way we make ourselves available to grace. However, I find that when I encourage others to “duty” or spiritual disciplines, I seem to hear an echo in my words of works righteousness that I don’t intend to be the message. Encouraging others to holiness; to seek the Lord, accept God’s grace, and be filled with the Spirit are the goals of reconciliation.

        Communicating the beauty of that grace filled relationship which is opened up by following discipline is difficult without essentially sounding like you are saying “try harder”.

        Thank you for your writing!

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