What does holiness look like in 2012?
I haven’t blogged for two months. There have been a combination of reasons for this, the major one being other more pressing priorities; however, another reason was that I felt challenged by a question posed around that time by Abraham Garrett ‘what would holiness look like today’.
I wanted to answer this question the next time I blogged but unfortunately a lot of other equally important stuff got in the way.
Now, in that no man’s land that lurks between Christmas and New Year, I have a small window of opportunity in which I can post my thoughts.
What does holiness look like today?
It’s a good question because it is difficult to find very much Wesleyan holiness teaching written in the last 100 years. I offer that time frame deliberately even though it discounts Brengle’s contribution; I do so because Brengle’s understanding of holiness was quite different from that held by people like Wesley, Palmer, Finney et al. I’m also discounting the contribution of people like Ed Read and Allister Smith (probably in their case a little unfairly) because all they really did was reproduce old teachings in a format more acceptable to their day. I’m deliberately discounting the teachings of men like Coutts – saints though they undoubtedly were – the holiness they taught bore little resemblance to that which came out of the holiness movement in the late 19th Century. The point I’m trying to make is that since the early 1900’s there have been no real prophets of holiness clearly championing the cause of entire consecration.
I think this is because no one has really tried to tackle the question posed by Abraham Garrett – ‘what does holiness look like today?’ We can all paint a picture of holiness in its 19th century guise (at least those who have studied it can) but what does it look like today. If I were to be holy in a way that would be recognisable to Wesley, Booth or Finney the picture painted would be unattractive and dour by today’s standards.
The adoption of their holiness would mean no Nike trainers, no Starbucks Coffee, no Superdry or Hollister T-Shirts, no TV (let alone cable), no movies, no summer holidays, no BBQs on the beach, draconian Sabbath observance, no meals out with friends and so I could go on. Now one might argue that this is the very reason why the church is in decline, that the existence of all of the above in our lives is an indication of worldliness out of control, a sign of apostasy and maybe even in some cases hypocrisy. Some would argue that it is only in outlawing all these fleshly distractions once more that we will see the revival we all so eagerly seek. However such a view seeks to perpetrate a Christianity based on our answer to the question – ‘what would Finney do’ or ‘what would Booth do?’ instead of on the basis of ‘what would Jesus do?’ It is this recognition that leads us into the heart of the answer to the question ‘what does holiness look like today’?
The truth is that holiness always looks like Jesus. Now I am not peddling the watered down holiness that has recently become fashionable, I am not saying that holiness is ‘to be like Jesus’. Far too many people give Christlikeness as a definition of holiness without having any proper perception of what Christ was really like. Yes Christ was gentle, kind, slow to anger, meek and mild but to show this side of his character only is as bad as presenting him with long blonde hair, blue eyes and surrounded by multi-coloured children in contemporary national dress!
Jesus was also poor, nomadic and homeless he was also angry (on one occasion even violent), frustrated, a party goer, a friend of sinners, someone who turned water into wine, a man who indulged himself at great expense when he allowed a woman of disreputable character to massage expensive perfume into his feet and he was also (by the standards of the religious leaders of his day) a law breaker. All in all Jesus was an unpredictable rebel.
So the question ‘what does holiness look like today’ really needs translating into what ‘would Jesus look like today’? And this question needs asking with a full awareness that the answer might not be what we expect.
To properly understand Jesus and thereby understand holiness we need to look not at his actions but at his motives. Holiness is not about works it’s about fruit. It’s never about what we do but it is always about what God produces in and through us. Remember, the devil can produce counterfeit works but he cannot produce counterfeit fruit. The odd healing here and there might well suit his purposes but the Devil has nothing to gain by making a Christian forgiving or patient!
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognise them. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you, away from me, you evildoers!’ (Matthew 7:15-23)
Christ’s actions can predominantly be traced to several clear motives the most obvious being love. This love was an on-going three way transaction between himself, his Father and us. This motive manifested itself in a whole series of priorities which directed and governed Christ’s interaction with the world around him. Let’s just pause and consider them for a moment as they are also the hallmarks of contemporary holiness.
A hatred of hypocrisy – Jesus only ever condemned two groups of people according to the bible, paedophiles and hypocrites. Christ couldn’t abide hypocrisy and what a person thought about themselves very often (if not always) predetermined how he judged them and what he expected of them. The rich young ruler thought he was righteous and was commanded to give ‘all’ his wealth away. Zachaeus knew he was bad and only had to part with a fraction of his wealth. The Pharisee, Nicodemus, who approached Christ at night with the question ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’ was told he must be ‘born again’, whereas the woman caught in adultery, cast before the feet of Jesus in the daytime, he didn’t just forgive but he actually refused to condemn. This was the Jesus who told the religious authorities of his day (the equivalent of you and me) that ‘tax collectors’ and ‘prostitutes’ (words synonymous with sinner) would enter God’s kingdom first.
A hunger for social justice –Jesus always saw people for what they were. This gift was never more obvious than when the person he beheld was a victim. Jesus often saw those traditionally depicted as sinners, not as bad people but as victims. Sometimes this innate compassion would merge with his hatred of hypocrisy – this was particularly true where God’s name or law was used to manipulate and take advantage of the poor and weak. Nowhere is this more evident than in the cleansing of the temple when righteous anger led to him overturning tables and making a whip.
A visible association with sinners–Jesus socialised with those whom he came to save. He was a ‘friend’ to sinners not in the sentimental way we sometimes apply that phrase but in the literal sense – he actually made friends with those who deliberately disobeyed God. He hung out with them and went to their parties and even employed them. When Jesus called Matthew he was (by the standards of his day) an active sinner, sitting in his booth collecting taxes. Matthew was an unrepentant and deliberate collaborator with the Romans who at the time Jesus called him, was using his position to further his own material wealth and social status.
An eager evangelist – let’s not forget that Jesus did all of this to maximise the opportunities he had for effective evangelism. It was at these parties, in these friendships, with these people that he shared the ‘good news of the kingdom’.
This is what Jesus looked like 2000 years ago and today we have no reason to suspect that he would look any different. Where would we find him? We would find him in the company of unbelievers, at the movies, at the football game, going to parties, in night clubs – enjoying their company – not for his own pleasure alone but in order that he might save them. On a Sunday I have no doubt that he would be at Church but his mission field would be beyond the sanctuary. Sunday might be a time for recharging his batteries but his real work would take place Monday to Saturday.
So back to the question – what should holiness look like today? Such a life should be motivated and empowered by God’s love clearly expressed in a selfless love for others. Its hallmarks will always be compassion rather than judgement, forgiveness rather than condemnation, understanding rather than prejudice. Does it wear designer t-shirts and trainers; does it go to Starbucks, hang out at the movies and watch football on a Sunday afternoon? If in doing so it cuts through those demonic barriers designed to separate the evangelist from the unsaved then yes it does! Does it present to the world a self-righteous, supercilious, puritanical and morbid persona or does it express a life ‘lived in all its fullness’?
Holiness like this does not set us free from the demands of sacrifice quite the contrary. How can I safely wander among ‘the sites that dazzle’ and ‘the tempting sounds’, how can I (metaphorically speaking) have my feet massaged by a prostitute and attend all night parties? Only when I have made a definite, heartfelt, Gethsemane-like surrender of my will, only when I have made a blood-sweated commitment not to sin, only when I am determined to wear the full of armour of God can I move safely in such dangerous territory. To attempt to set up a mission without such consecration would lead to abject failure and certain damnation.
Neither does holiness like this set us free from the demands of full consecration for it is only when ‘my all is in the Master’s hands for him to bless and break’ that my life can become ‘a cup overfilled, a table spread’ whereby ‘other souls refreshed and fed may share his life through mine.’
To be holy in 2012 is to be fully ‘in the world’ yet completely and utterly not ‘of it’.
This holiness and its rediscovery will prove to be the salvation of the Salvation Army.