I can still hear the echo, mostly of my mother, telling me, "If you don't have something positive to say, be quiet." And it is still a good guide. On the other hand, if you have something important to say, you should say it. So, what do we have to say?
This is the really important question about our church and its tradition. Not how big we are or whether we are growing. Not whether we will survive or prosper. But do we have something important to say? I want to suggest that we do and what that might be. A vision of holiness is the vision that called us into being and shaped our tradition.
That vision is what we have to say. If we are going to be who we are, if we are not going to be simply lost in the blended identity of generic evangelicalism, this vision is what we have to say. That is not to say that this is about our ownership of the vision of holiness, as if it belongs to us. It is about whether the vision of holiness "owns" us—whether we belong totally to the God who gives it.
Some fear that our attention to this issue of our identity is too much about us—about the survival of our denomination, the prominence of our tradition. God help us not to make it about that. Rather, I am persuaded that the question really concerns the vitality and prominence of the vision of holiness.
So, explore with me. Let's consider together whether we have something constructive to say or whether we should be quiet. If we conclude that we have something important to say, let's determine to say it.
What is holiness? It is the possibility of being drawn into God's life, to live in God's kingdom. Holiness means being drawn into something larger than ourselves. Holiness is about more than just a personal experience. God's grand plan of redemption and restoration is holiness. It includes us, but it is not just about us. Holiness is God's work to correct the damage of sin and bring all of creation under His ordering rule.
When every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, it will be a very different world from the one we know. Isaiah 35 points to that new creation. Nature itself will be restored. This is the nature that Paul says in Romans 8 is "groaning" in anticipation, longing for its liberation from bondage to decay.
In the new creation, the desert will bloom and the wilderness will blossom. Lame persons will leap and the dumb will shout. Burning sand will become a pool. It will be a way of healing and safety and blessing. And it will be called the way of holiness. For where God reigns, living waters flow.
Where God rules, brokenness is healed. Where Jesus is Lord, life begins. The vision of holiness is the vision of God's triumph over sin.
What I have said so far is simply the message of the eschatological hope of Christianity. Christians across time and space would echo a resounding "Amen" to that hope. When we have voiced that vision we participate in the great chorus of believers. How wonderful to sing in that great choir! Our vision of holiness is not unique or sectarian. We are not advocating some "border" vision of Christian faith but rather standing at the very heart of Christian hope.
The holiness we are called to is not a different character of mercy, compassion, justice, or love than other Christian traditions. What we have to say—and what we have to say—is that this transforming reality of grace is possible now. It is not simply a future vision for which we wait in hopeful anticipation.
It is not the definition of holiness that formed us but its possibility. This is at the heart of the message of the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. The healing, transforming reality of God's new creation in Christ is available now.
The distinctive message behind our teaching of entire sanctification is its availability, its possibility. We have been shaped by the audacious belief that God's transforming grace makes holiness, God's new creation, possible in this life. We believe that the reality of that new creation—for all of creation and for each of us—can break into this broken reality now. It is not complete, but it has truly begun in a decisive way.
Many voices in the long conversation of the Church, and many voices today, say that such a transformation is only possible in eternity, not here, not now.
The Christian life is a journey toward God, but only tentatively. We may hope to experience a moderate degree of transformation but should expect that this life will always be spiritually conflicted. We will long for Christ but also be captive to sin and our deep longings for this world as long as we live in it. These voices are not only coming from outside our tradition.
There are voices calling energetically for an abandonment of this too idealistic and perhaps misguided notion that God can transform us. Rather, let's talk about our relation to a holy God, our participation in a holy liturgy, our commitment to social and cultural issues of holiness. Perhaps we have at times tended to think about the message of holiness too exclusively in terms of a second crisis experience, as if that were all there is to holiness.
When we decided that we weren't sure about a second crisis experience, we left holiness as a decisive reality behind. That is, we left behind the sense of imminent possibility, the expectation that God's transforming grace can be at work here, and now, in a way that redefines us as persons. Let me be clear. I want to affirm the idea of a second work of grace, a decisive experience. But what seems to be at stake here is more than the nature of a second crisis experience.
At the heart of the holiness message we have believed that God can, and will, act decisively in a way that transforms us. That confidence was behind the second crisis moment, but also every other "moment." It defined an expectant, confident posture toward God. We expect Him to forgive, heal, restore, and transform in a miracle of grace.
This means that we invite the reign of Christ in us in such a way that it orders everything we are and do. Disorder and conflict should be replaced by the settled rule of Christ, where we are as we were meant to be. Because we have been raised with Christ and our lives are now given to Him, we should set our minds and hearts on Him in such a way that we have "settled the question."
By God's grace, we put to death the patterns and captivity of death and become clothed in the character of Christ, living in such a way that Christ rules our lives. We are called to a moment, the realization of a new reality—not just a vague hope, but a compelling vision of what is possible in Christ—that we could come to the place where Christ is all in all; where the captivity of the sin of this world into which we were born no longer holds us; where we have set our minds and hearts in a single-minded focus on the things of Christ. That vision shapes and draws us. It is the reality in which and toward which we move.
That call, that expectation, forms the horizon of meaning that shapes us, not just in a second crisis moment, but in every moment.
The call tells us that this reality in some way can and should be completed in us. We expect God's transforming work to be a present reality that is so powerfully at work that it will come to define decisively who we are. When we cease to believe that, Christianity becomes a journey with no expectation of arrival—a process without an end. We lost track of the second crisis experience and with it the expectation of God's powerfully transformative intersection with human sin, brokenness, and need. We may be doing good things—practicing disciplines, administering mercy, seeking justice—but we're just traveling.
Here is what we have to say.
God's transforming grace is not a remote eschatological, or future, hope. It is available as a present reality.
The new creation begins now if we will let it. When human surrender places faith in the God who is available, miracles of new creation happen. The dominion of sin is broken. Its power to condemn is defeated.
Our alienation opens to reconciliation, our brokenness to healing, and our death to God's life. Not just in heaven. Not only in eternity. But right here. Right now. God's work of salvation—in every part—is His work of holiness . . . redeeming, restoring, and transforming sinful, broken, lost humanity. Delivering, reconciling, and healing. A new creation. God's work of new creation draws us into His life and the work of new creation that God is doing for the whole world. Thy kingdom come. That's something to say.
Carl Leth is dean of the School of Theology and Christian Ministry at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois.
Holiness Today, July/August 2008
Please note: This article was originally published in 2008. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at that time but may have since changed.