The Holiness Lies that are Killing the Church

The church was dying.  Every Sunday all over the country you could walk into mostly-empty sanctuaries that were built to hold hundreds of souls crying out to God.  The worst part was, the death was happening at the hands of the church itself.  It had no evangelism to speak of and no deep expression of community within its walls.  Most churches’ outreach amounted to feeding a couple hungry people out of what was left over after paying the bills.  

Its leadership was full of highly educated clergy who were highly lacking in passion.  This lack of passion and vision had become institutionalized to the point that passionate preaching, real outreach that brought in the wrong kind of people, and true evangelism that focused on turning hearts to Jesus was marginalized and even discouraged.

This was Wesley’s England.  This was where the Methodist movement began, and I wish it was further from our current situation. It was into that moment that Wesley spoke a scandalous message: scriptural holiness.  With passion and determination he crisscrossed England with his clear goal to “spread scriptural holiness across the land.”  

He was met with opposition.  When he used emotion in his sermons from the pulpit, he was shown the door.  When he was seen developing relationships with the people on the wrong side of the tracks, he was persona non grata in the elite religious circles, and when he began engaging in evangelism he was gossiped about in all the nearby sanctuaries.

As radical messages often do, his message sparked an awakening.  His message brought to life a movement of people committed to what he called “going on to perfection.”  Though they resisted it at every turn, this movement woke up the church all over eventually spreading across the ocean to America and ultimately all over the world.  His message was at the core of what God used to free people from the sin that held them hostage for years and restored people to their family, faith, and community.

We have lost that message. Travel across the country via a quick sampling of podcasts and you will find very few that speak of anything close to Wesley’s message of holiness.  Why is that?  Why has the church allowed its zeal to cool?  I believe we have bought into a couple of half-truths that have taken us out at the knees and helped us develop a tolerance against the call of the spirit to go on to holiness.

“I would be a hypocrite because I am not holy.” I think that if most church leaders were honest, deep within them they are afraid of being found wanting.  We are afraid that if we begin to take up the revolutionary message of Wesley that we would be exposed as hypocrites.  Wrong!  That assumes a very erroneous understanding of holiness.

The Bible is clear “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:9) holiness is not some sort of advanced self-help program where we work harder and harder at fixing ourselves until we have become perfect.  That is not possible.  Holiness begins with a clear sense of our ultimate powerlessness against sin.  Holiness begins with us saying “I can not do this on my own and I need help.”  A church leader who is afraid of being exposed as a hypocrite is a leader who is thinking far too much of themselves and far to little of God.

Scriptural holiness is recognizing the life-corrupting power of sin and our need for the grace of God to restore our life to what God desires most for us.  That is a life of holiness.

“But Scriptural Holiness excludes people, and might even hurt some”  That is absolutely right.  Study the Bible and you will see the fact that at the same time Jesus is opening his arms to embrace the whole world he is asking them to change.  Jesus doesn’t just say to the woman caught in adultery “It’s all good.  I’ve taken care of it.”  No!  He protects her, then restores her to the community and finally says “Go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11) The grace of God in the life of the believer calls them to holiness and empowers them to live those lives. When our church leaves behind that call we leave behind the second half of the Gospel message.

What about it hurting people?  Again, we find the truth.  It hurts when someone has the audacity to tell you you are wrong when you are.  It hurts when you discover you have made a mistake, and it especially hurts when you realize that mistake has caused others to follow down the same road.  Holiness hurts because it refuses to ignore our sin.  

But that is the kind of pain that brings healing.  The error in this concern is that hurting people is always bad.  Now, we don’t have to be mean to people, but sometimes God needs to say something that is going to hurt, and that’s ok.

What I love about Wesley’s message of scriptural holiness is that it defies any sort of modern marketing wisdom.  It is not cool.  It is not trendy.  It makes people mad, yet when we honestly offer people the fullness of the message that scriptural holiness contains, we offer them a changed life.  And changed lives change lives.  If we want to grow the church and recover from our downward spiral.  If we want to have a rebirth in this dying organization, I believe we must recover our message.  

That may mean struggling with our own sin.  It may mean being the vessel God uses to heal-hurt some people.  It may mean leaving the empty church buildings and heading out to the coal mines with Wesley.  However it happens, it is my prayer that we take up the charge once again and use our lives to spread scriptural holiness across the land.