This small essay was prepared for the Captain’s Course 2015 in the Sweden & Latvia Territory on the theme of Holiness. The main question was “Do people understand what holiness means?” with suggested follow up thought-provokers such as; Why is holiness important? Has holiness teaching disappeared from our corps, and why? Are there good examples of how the truth of holiness is brought forward in corps? How can we find new/different words in our teaching to describe the wonder of holiness? How can holiness be made concrete in the every-day?
I didn’t hold directly to the thought-provokers, but I reflected on the main things that occurred to me when thinking very surface-level about holiness. My main influence has been The Uprising, A Holy Revolution by Olivia Munn and Stephen Court – an unmissable resource.
Holiness isn’t just important. It’s not just a good idea or a gimmick or a bonus for Christians who’ve been Christians for long enough. It’s a command. It’s essential. And it affects everything. It’s revolutionary. (I’ve even heard it said that “Holiness is the solution to every problem”.)
But it’s been lost, or forgotten, or mishandled. Many people do not understand holiness, many are scared of holiness, and many think holiness and arrogance go hand in hand. Many have followed trends that have steered people away from holiness (for example “Authenticity”) and many think and/or experience that it’s simply impossible to be holy. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and there are many who experience a full, whole and free holy life. But for the most part, I would agree with many in suggesting that holiness is under-taught, under-embraced, and under-experienced to the detriment of personal lives and to the detriment of The Salvation Army.
People are scared of holiness. Holiness is difficult to understand and difficult to teach. There are a handful of different theories and understandings of how holiness works. Which one is right? Or more right? To quote from a recent article in the Officer Magazine such theories include: “The Blessing of a Clean Heart”, “Growth in Christlikeness”, “Perfect love”, “Wholly Sanctified”, “Grace-moments, and grace-work” and last but not least “Quanta of Holiness”. The writer used the “Quanta of Holiness” idea to try and bring all of the others together, helpfully showing that all of them can maybe be true at the same time. But he went one step too far into an Einstein photoelectric effect theory analogy for my brain to cope. And if I (someone who has done many years of higher education and enjoys theories and Einstein) can’t cope – how can we expect others to cope? It’s no wonder we are scared, even our officers are or have been scared to dive in and attempt to teach it. Is it actually complicated, or have we made it complicated?
I wonder if there’s also a sense of: “isn’t it arrogant for me to claim that I am holy? Or even strive after holiness?”
“It’s not arrogant to testify to the goodness of the Lord who has changed our filthy hearts. It is an act of humility as well as a praise offering to Jesus. Holiness is the opposite of self-absorption. As we said before , it’s about others and it’s about God. Out holiness is not merely to help us but also to help the world. And, testifying to holiness is not about us, either. It is about giving glory to the Lord and encouraging others to press in for the same. (The Uprising, p.160)
Even with that being cleverly said, it’s easy to understand why people might feel this way. Many have seen very poor examples of Christians claiming to be holy whilst not exhibiting the fruits of the Holy Spirit in their lives. If someone who testifies to being holy exhibits arrogance instead of humility, pride instead of kindness and compassion – then it’s understandable that people might not naturally want to aim in that direction.
And “Isn’t holiness just for mature Christians? Or those “extreme” types? My normal “lagom” Christianity is fine for me.” I’ve heard it said that because holiness is on another level it’s just an optional extra for those Christians who want to be a bit more extreme in their Christian life. It’s for the ones who want to serve the poor in the slums, it’s for the ones who become nuns and monks, it’s for the priests and the prophets but it’s not for us normal Christians. It’s not an optional extra and I agree with the writers of The Uprising when they suggest that we perhaps need to change our definition of the word “normal”:
“All that we see as normal may be far, far away from normality. All that we see as extreme may be more normal then anything that we know. We need a shift in our way of thinking. Perhaps those who claim to love Christ but sit in their pews and sacrifice a minimal amount to see the world transformed are actually the abnormal ones. Perhaps those Christians who believe, but continue to sin every day, are the abnormal ones. Maybe sacrifice is to be expected. Maybe purity is completely normal.” (The Uprising, p.105)
I’m not an authority on the subject, but I can imagine that this kind of extreme-is-the-new-normal Christianity doesn’t fit too well in Swedish culture. Or at least not as well as in perhaps the Americas or Eastern Europe, for example. Standing out from the crowd is the expectation of Christians who are called to “no longer conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” But standing out from the crowd isn’t easy in Sweden. Is this something that is holding us back?
I mentioned “trends” in Christianity that steer different generations of people through different experiences and expressions of Christianity in different time periods – not all of which are harmful, but several of which should be analysed a bit more closely. “In recent years, evangelical Christianity has made its imperfection a point of emphasis.” (Has ‘Authenticity’ Trumped Holiness?, 2014) “By focusing on brokenness as proof of our “realness” and “authenticity,” have evangelicals turned “being screwed up” into a badge of honor, its own sort of works righteousness? Has authenticity become a higher calling than, say, holiness?” (ibid) I’m not sure how much this trend has infiltrated Christianity in Sweden, but in Australia it’s inescapable. It’s the “only” way to “do church” these days. One has to emphasise everything that is dirty and rotten and broken and messy about ones life. Not acknowledge or confess for the sake of seeking forgiveness (necessarily) but actually emphasising such things for the sake of gaining some kind of ‘authenticity points’ among the crowd. It’s a fascinating trend, that on the surface tends to makes some kind of sense – we are our most honest selves, how can that be a bad thing? But like many other trends that make their way into Christianity, all have the capability of becoming their own form of religiosity. This focus on failure and dirtiness being “good things” doesn’t leave any room for hope or belief in a Jesus who actually saved us from that – so we don’t have to dwell in it anymore. It also doesn’t give holiness a place to exist at all – of course one can’t be authentic if one is striving to be good.
Last, and perhaps worst of all – many people believe that holiness is simply not possible. “Of course I’ll never be perfect”, “We will always sin – it’s not possible to not sin”. “Everybody has to sin everyday” is simply not true if we properly understand what sin really is. And going deep into that would take too long – but Wesley cleverly differentiated between sin improperly so-called and sin properly so-called. In far-too-simple words; intentional sin, and unintentional sin. Holiness means that you don’t voluntarily/intentionally transgress a known law of God. “You will still fall short of the glory of God. But you won’t intentionally sin.” (The Uprising, p.151) God has also commanded us to be Holy. And He is not a God who commands something without enabling it. He would never command something that was impossible to fulfil.
Each of these points could easily have been whole essays in themselves. When it comes to holiness, there is a lot to talk about, and a lot to explore. And it desperately needs to be taken seriously. It’s not just one of our doctrines, it’s not just something we sometimes talk about on Sunday mornings. It is an essential part of every Christian’s life. Why we want it, how we get it, and how it will revolutionise the world when everyone experiences it, are questions we need to keep asking, and finding answers for. What it looks like in our corps and how it can be better taught and therefore more fully experienced are perhaps the most essential focus points for our Army in this generation.
 Geoff Webb Doctrine for Today September-October 2015
 Olivia Munn & Stephen Court The Uprising: A Holy Revolution Melbourne 2007