Ordo Salutis: Holiness
The distinctive mark of John Wesley’s theology has always been his theology of holiness. Wesley spoke of “Christian perfection.” By this he did not mean sinlessness or that we would be made perfect in this life. The adjective “Christian” modifies the meaning of “perfection.” Let’s first define what holiness is not:
- Holiness is not absolute perfection. The Christian is still tempted, still able to sin. It is not as if we are exalted to a state of absolute judgment or knowledge or performance.
- Holiness is not superiority. He or she is not a super Christian, as if holiness is only for the select few pastors and missionaries.
- Holiness is not immunity from life’s problems. We will never reach a point where we are exempt from suffering or from Satan’s tempting.
- Holiness is not a static (non-moving) experience. Wesley taught that a person could be made holy in an instant, like conversion, but this instant is never separated from one’s entire walk with God. It is part of the process, not the end goal of the process.
Steve Harper, commenting on Wesley’s theology, says holiness is singleness of intention. This is in contrast to what Dallas Willard mentioned about duplicity of the heart. We are no longer duplicitous and deceitful but only will and desire what God wills and desires. This emphasizes that being is just as important as doing. Our primary intention is to love God with all our heart and to love others.
Harper is helpful in an illustration as to how this can be called perfect love while still leaving room for sin:
“When each of my children were small, they had the bright idea to bring Mommy some flowers. Never mind that they plucked the flowers from the bed Mommy had worked hard to cultivate. Never mind that they may have even taken flowers from the neighbor’s bed! Their one desire was to please Mommy and to show their love for her” (The Way to Heaven, p. 84).
He then goes on to say how his wife did not reject their gift but gladly accepted it and put the flowers in a vase. We cannot hope to match God in actions but we can hope to match Him in intentions. Our controlling desire can be God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. Perfect love, however, starts with the heart and motives and our actions begin to line up with them.
Second, holiness is power over sin. Wesley did not believe there was ever a time when a person had to sin. God’s grace is always greater than the lure of temptation. And if you think about it, this is really matching one’s singleness of intent to action. When given the choice of sinning or loving, we can choose to love each time. This doesn’t come automatically–note how we’re talking about holiness toward the end of the ordo salutis–but with God’s grace and our practice.
Third, holiness is radical dependence on Christ. This is the idea in John 15, where Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. Apart from him we can do nothing. I find this facet of holiness the most intriguing and most emphasized in contemporary holiness circles today. We use phrases like “fully devoted disciples” or “wholly surrendered to Christ.” The surrender, both instantaneous and ongoing, becomes the focal point, but we soon lose sight of God giving us power over sin. We get tired of ongoing surrender, wondering if our hearts and hands will ever synchronize. If holiness is radical dependence on Christ, then the act of surrender ought not be the focal point, but the One we surrender to ought.
Fourth, holiness is equipment for ministry. We are set apart for service to God. Holiness is always a social experience: it always fleshes itself out in love for others expressed in service with other Christians. There is a reason why Harper listed this last, and why I agree with the order. Namely, it is dangerous to skip straight to empowerment for ministry because that tends to be an easy disguise for any number of intentions that are unholy. We serve out of who we are; we serve out of the Spirit’s power; and we are eager to serve because in service we can display Christ’s love.