Within the holiness tradition, we confess the transforming work of God that we call entire sanctification. What does this confession mean for our own lives?
This concept can mean different things to different people. So is everyone right in his or her own interpretation, or does this concept have a specific meaning?
Recently, a longtime Nazarene was sharing his feelings with me about the state of affairs in the church related to the doctrine of holiness. After lamenting that we hear way too little about the experience of entire sanctification, he testified that he was entirely sanctified. I asked him what he meant, and he replied, "I'm no saint, but I am completely without sin in all that I do. I'm just immature."
His testimony was sincere. He truly believed he was without sin in all he did. Yet at the same time, he caused trouble in his church, he tore people down with his language, and he had alienated many of his family members. No one else would believe that he was without sin in all he did. As a Nazarene pastor and theologian, I left that conversation wondering how the church has failed sincere people such as this man.
How have we allowed people to become so self-deceived that they can believe they are entirely holy without being a saint?
In a course that I teach on the doctrine of holiness, I ask the students to name saints in our world. I want to know who college students think are saints, and what criteria they use to make this judgment. Mother Teresa is on almost everyone's list. When I ask them why they believe that Mother Teresa was a saint, most say it is because she was compassionate, loving, and merciful.
When I push them to tell me why these virtues are important for sainthood, students respond, "Because this is the way God is. God is compassionate, loving, and merciful." Intuitively, these students seem to know that saintliness and the nature of God go hand in hand.
The New Testament word for "saint" is actually the plural of the word we translate "holy." Saints are holy people, and holy people are saints. The biblical call to be made entirely holy is a call to be made a saint, a holy one. Because we misunderstand the biblical concept of sainthood, most people who seek the life of holiness never desire or intend to be saints.
I suppose people have many reasons why they want to be entirely sanctified without being saints. I have a hunch that a major reason is because we too easily focus on the right method of pursuing holiness rather than the essence of holiness. Some have emphasized that full consecration and faith are the only appropriate ways to experience entire sanctification. Others emphasize the enculturation, or socialization, that comes from diligence in the practices of the Christian community.
Many sincere Christians have mistaken the method for the reality of the experience of entire sanctification. The testimony "I am entirely sanctified" can all too easily mean simply a moment in life when one has fully consecrated one's life to God. This testimony is sincere. In the mind and heart of the one testifying, commitment to God has occurred.
The problem arises when we come to believe that our work of commitment is the same thing as God's work of grace.
Entire sanctification does require our full surrender and faith, but it takes much more than what we can do to experience the recovery of God's image in our lives.
It takes grace and God's Spirit acting upon us. When method becomes the end in itself, it will always leave us short of sainthood.
So, what is the essence of Christian holiness? Can we know the character of God? Is God's nature clearly expressed? We all know where God has fully revealed His image. Jesus is the "image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation" (Colossians 1:15). In the identity of Jesus Christ we know who God is and who we can become.
We are being transformed into the image of God revealed in Jesus from glory to glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). The criterion for Christian holiness can be nothing less than the image of God revealed in all that Jesus did and said. The words of a familiar hymn pray for this reality: "O to be like Thee! O to be like Thee, Blessed Redeemer, pure as Thou art! Come in Thy sweetness, come in Thy fullness. Stamp Thine own image deep on my heart."*
Where do we go from here? Are we to give up on the means and only focus on the essence? No. Surrender, faith, and the enculturation that come from diligence in the practices of the Christian community are a means of grace, but they are not the goal of Christian holiness.
The goals of Christian holiness are Christlikeness, godliness, and saintliness. At its heart, entire sanctification is God's formation of our lives into the image of God as clearly embodied in the words and deeds of Jesus Christ.
What are we to do? Surrender, believe, engage in every means of grace, and look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). We are invited to look at Jesus and look at ourselves. If there is a difference, we must confess it! What our world needs most are examples of God's nature. We need saints!
Stephen Green is senior pastor of Oklahoma City First Church of the Nazarene and W.N. King Chair of Biblical and Theological Studies at Southern Nazarene University.
* Thomas O. Chisholm, "O to Be Like Thee"
Holiness Today, November/December 2006
Please Note: This article was originally written in 2006. All facts, figures, and titles were accurate to the best of our knowledge at the time of publication but may have since changed.