Category: history

[Sermon] The Holiness Tradition

Mt Hawthorn Community Church, 9 January 2010

We are working our way slowly through a series based on Richard Foster’s book Streams of Living Water. Let me reorientate you to the idea of the streams. Foster describes six streams or traditions of spirituality.  Each one emphasises a different aspect of the Christian life. Each one can be traced back to Jesus himself.

  • The contemplative stream is a spirituality of prayer and intimacy with God.
  • The charismatic stream is a spirituality empowered by the Holy Spirit and emphasising spiritual gifts
  • The social justice stream is a spirituality of helping the poor and striving for a fairer world, working for the kingdom of God.
  • The evangelical stream is a spirituality nourished by the Bible and devoted to sharing the good news of God’s love with the world.
  • The incarnational stream is a spirituality of everyday life, following Jesus in the midst of daily living. It emphasises a faith lived in the world.
  • Today’s stream, the holiness stream is a spirituality of godly living flowing out of God’s holiness.

Foster emphasises that none of these streams are better than the others. Instead, a balanced faith draws from all six streams. We tend to feel comfortable in one or two streams and either neglect or downplay the importance of the others. In a church like ours which values diversity, most of us would agree with Foster’s assumption that each of the traditions has something to offer us, and at its best is life giving, drawing us closer to God.  But even if we agree with that in theory, certain streams will still cause us problems.

For many of us, the holiness stream will cause us problems. We say in derision about someone that they are ‘holier than thou’. We don’t feel comfortable talking about aspiring to holiness or being ‘godly’. It’s partly a prevailing cultural hostility toward the idea. It’s also related to the excesses of previous generations of Christians who focused so much on a particular version of being holy they ignored the other five streams. Richard Foster has a wonderful line in discussing the Holiness tradition – ‘Every tradition has its zealots’. The zealots of the holiness tradition are certainly prominent. But while mindful of the zealots, let’s be generous in seeking out the riches of this tradition too.

The holiness stream and the incarnational stream are in a perpetual balancing act. Incarnation is about entering into the world that God loves, and finding the beauty there. It’s the side of Jesus which loved to feast with the outcasts. In contrast, holiness is about refraining from the excesses and sins of the world and living up to God’s standards. It’s the side of Jesus which resisted the temptations in the desert and gave no false comfort to the rich young ruler.

I want to give an overview of the holiness stream through time, showing how it runs through  the Old Testament and into the New, and then stopping off at two points in church history to show how it is still flowing. Then, to finish off with I will talk about how we might hope to drink of this stream today.

Holiness in the Old Testament

In thinking about the holiness stream, we need to start not with our attempts to be holy, but with God’s holiness. Being holy is about being set apart and pure.

It’s a recurring theme in the life of the Ancient Israelites in the Old Testament. As we try to make sense of Numbers and Leviticus, we work our way through Holiness Codes, providing a framework of rules and regulations to ensure that God’s holiness is reflected in the holiness of the lives of his people, the Jews. Yet a lot of it seems to say much about their ancient culture and little about the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ.

What was God’s plan? What was God transforming them from – was it the first step forward? Did they hear God right? Were the later mistakes of the Pharisees the inevitable outcome of the type of holiness we find in Numbers and Leviticus?

Holiness in the New Testament

We already get hints at other places in the Old Testament – particularly in the prophets – that holiness as purity of heart and mind matters more to God than ritual or code. It’s out of that tradition which Jesus emerged. Jesus worked against some early zealots of the Holiness tradition, the more fanatical of the Pharisees. But he wasn’t rejecting holiness outright; he was redefining it and he was ensuring that it was balanced with the other streams of spirituality, so that purity did not preclude incarnation.

For many in the holiness tradition, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a key passage. It sums up what it means to live a godly life. To be holy is to hunger and thirst for righteousnesss. It is to be merciful. It is to be pure in heart. It is to make peace between people. Jesus tells us that the Old Testament command not to murder extends to murderous thoughts and murderous words. He tells us that the path of holiness is not to seek revenge but to turn the other cheek. Holiness is about quietly giving money, doing good, praying, fasting – not loudly to impress others.  He tells us that every good tree bears good fruit. To do these things he talks about is to build our house on the rock.

Of the writers in the New Testament, perhaps no-one has a greater concern with holy living than James, the brother of Jesus.  The epistle of James does not talk about Jesus, and yet it sounds more like the teachings of Jesus than anything Paul wrote.

James 1:19-27:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.

If they think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James has a concern for how we talk to each other. He tells us to be slow to anger. He finishes by speaking of not being ‘stained by the world’. I like to think that by the ‘world’ he doesn’t mean everyone outside the church, but everything outside God’s will, both in the church and beyond it. It is a pitfall of the holiness tradition to tend to set itself up against the world at large.

Paul was often talking about holy living, too. He emphasises that holiness is not just a personal characteristic, but something which needs to mark us a group of people, the church. He talks about the effects of sin, the way the actions of the immoral brother in the church at Corinth are like bad yeast affecting everyone else. I wonder what that means for us? We aren’t as close to each other as the early church, but sin still has a negative effect on the body as a whole. Conversely, pure and holy living has a good effect on the body as a whole.


Church History

Throughout the centuries of the church’s existence, different people have rediscovered the holiness stream and renewal and new movements have emerged. By renewal, I mean that the existing church has changed and had new life breathed into it. Often through church history, people have tried simply to renew the existing church, only to find themselves opposed by the establishment and squeezed out, creating a new movement.

I want to mention two holiness movements coming out of Britain which have had a big influence on Christianity today – the Puritans and the Methodists.  Because the holiness tradition is a spirituality, it can include movements with opposing theological beliefs. This is the case with these two movements, who represent two different approaches theologically, one Calvinist and one Arminian. I’m not a student of either of these two movements, and in trying to generalise about them, I’m sure I’ve done injustice to them. But here’s a sketch.


The first movement is the Puritans. For a number of us, it’s almost a swear word; for others, they are to be admired. Following the teachings of John Calvin, they emerged in the English Reformation, were strongest in the 17th century, and tried to purify the Anglicanism inherited from Henry VIII. For me, their biggest mistake was to attempt to make all England Puritan, to impose their vision on the entire church and by extension the entire country. Theologically, you can find the heirs of the Puritans amongst Calvinistic Baptists, Calvinistic Anglicans and Presbyterians.

The Puritans talked a lot about sin. Holiness was partly a matter of becoming aware of one’s sinfulness and then constantly examining one’s conscience to root out those sinful thoughts and actions. Paradoxically, good living was perhaps seen as proof that you were one of God’s elect – even though they emphasised so strongly that salvation was by grace alone. The Shorter Westminster Catechism was written by the Puritans to instruct children, and what it says about holiness is good. It takes the form of questions and answers.

35. What is Sanctification?

– Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.

36. What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification?

– The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification are:

  • assurance of God’s love
  • peace of conscience
  • joy in the Holy Ghost
  • increase of grace
  • and perseverance therein to the end.


May we know all these things too as God works in us.


John Wesley and Methodism

Quite different to the Puritans is the second holiness movement – Methodism, emerging from the teaching of John Wesley. In the eighteenth century, Wesley led a revival which saw thousands of people convert from nominal Christianity to a passionate, warm-hearted faith. Key to his thinking was the idea that the Holy Spirit is at work in believers, sanctifying them, that is, making them more holy. He emphasised that faith in Jesus saves us in order to do good works.  Wesley’s followers are more optimistic about our ability to be made holy.  Wesley wrote in 1739 on the character of a Methodist, saying:

And loving God, he loves his neighbour as himself… Love has purified his heart from envy, malice, wrath and every unkind temper… His one desire is the one design of his life, namely, to do not his own will, but the will of Him that sent him… As he loves God, so he keeps his commandments… All the talents he has, he constantly employs according to his Master’s will; every power and faculty of his soul, every member of his body… Nor do the customs of the world at all hinder his running the race which is set before him.

We will do well if we can live up to Wesley’s vision.

I’ve brought you these snapshots of the Puritans and Wesley because church history has such an invisible effect on what we think and do as Christians. For better and worse, many of our ideas of holiness have been shaped by or in reaction to either Puritans or Wesley.


Living Holiness Today

How do we drink of the holiness stream today? What does it mean to learn from this type of spirituality?

The sort of things Richard Foster suggests are the sort of things I don’t manage to sustain. At my best, I have attempted them, and they have worked in small ways, but then I have fallen away from them.

I’ve stopped hoping for a silver bullet that will put me on the right course for the rest of my life and keep me there. I’ve started to think that a person or a group or a sermon or a book will steer me in the right direction for a time. Inevitably this influence will wane, and I’ll find myself heading off course, not living in a holy way. And it’s then that God will put someone else in my path, calling me back to faithfulness.

With that in mind, I’ll bring you some of Richard Foster’s wisdom.

He says that through God’s grace, it is possible to grow in holiness. He strongly believes that spiritual disciplines make this growth possible.  Disciplines are things we can do which put us in a place where God can do what we cannot do. He writes:

By undertaking Disciplines of the spiritual life that we can do, we receive from God the ability to do things that under our own steam we simply cannot do, such as loving our enemies. The Disciplines, you see, place us into the divine stream of things in such a way that God is able to build within us deeply ingrained habits of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (Gal. 5:22b-23a).

He goes on to get more specific:

If we are struggling with pride, we learn service, which leads us into the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. If we are needing hope, we learn prayer and meditation, which usher us ever deeper into the heart of the Holy. If compulsions of one kind or another obsess us, we learn fasting, which teaches us to control all the senses by the grace of God. If we want faith, we learn worship, which shows us the Lord high and lifted up. And on it goes. Throughout we are training for holiness, planning for perfection.

How do we know when this growth is happening? He gives a description which touched me and which I’ve put above my desk:

Though we cannot see the work itself, we can detect some of its effects. We experience a new firmness of life-orientation. We experience a settled peace that we do not fully understand and cannot fully explain. We begin seeing everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good. And, most amazing of all, we begin to feel abiding, unconditional warm regard for all people.

May we all taste these things as we learn from the holiness tradition.


Yoder on Peace and War in the Middle Ages

John Howard Yoder’s Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution (Brazos, 2009) is a posthumously published, edited version of the notes Yoder distributed for his course in the subject.

In chapter 8 ‘The Career of the Just War’ and chapter 9 ‘The Peace Dimension of Medieval Moral Concern’, I am startled by his analysis of peace and war in the middle ages – but then, being startled is one of the joys of reading Yoder, and something I should have expected by now. He is always re-reading and reframing things we take for granted.

The early church was pacifist; the Constantinian church compromised this position, but Yoder describes various ways in which violence and war were restrained in the Middle Ages (476-1453), and parts of the church embodied a peace witness. These include:

  • Holy times and places – fighting was forbidden in certain places (cemeteries) and at certain times (Good Friday, after sunset)
  • Penitents – when a person confessed to a major offence, they might commit several months of their life around being a penitent, perhaps going on a pilgrimage as a penitent. A penitent was to be nonviolent and unarmed. ‘In the life of medieval Europe, therefore, people renouncing violence because they were Christian were a visible minority.’ (p.119)
  • Priests admonished princes when they went too far. There was an element of accountability.

Yoder argues that the shifts involved in the Reformation actually increased the church’s support of war:

Protestants have been taught to think of the Reformation of the sixteenth century as undoing the mistakes of the Middle Ages – papacy, sacraments, justification by works, and other things. But on the morality of war, our model for interpreting the Reformation has to be turned around. The Protestant Reformation goes further in the direction of making war acceptable. (115)

  • The Reformation dismantled the confession and penance, both of which restrained bloodshed.
  • The Reformation desacralized the world – everything was equally holy, or equally unholy; there were no holy places or holy times to avoid bloodshed.
  • Instead of the priest admonishing the prince, the chaplain emerges: ‘In the Reformation, the Protestant chaplain increasingly gives a religious mandate to what people do, whether it is celebrating marriages or justifying causes and crusades… The preachers are the people to make the case for the next war.’ (p.119)
  • The Reformation created nationalism as we know it today. Wars in the Middle Ages occurred within the Roman Catholic Church. Both parties ‘were at home in the same world, had the same moral heritage, and used the same yardsticks. They had a sense of being part of a wider civilization… The Reformation broke up the unity of the church and of the empire. It set aside the notion that enemy nations and adversary institutions have a claim on us. The beginning of nationalism in the modern sense – the notion that a nation constitutes a moral unit with no accountability to a wider community or culture – is a product of the Protestant Reformation.’ (p. 120-121)

    The obvious objection is the Crusades of the Middle Ages. Yoder spends a couple of pages dealing with them, but not with the same questions we have in mind, and so his explanation is not satisfactory. He looks at how the Crusades were justified by priests (and the limits – not always followed – which they placed on them) and the sense in which the Crusades were a synthesis of the holy war and the just war. He seems unaware of the damage the existence of the Crusades do to his case for the Middle Ages being a period where the church’s understanding of just war and its practices restrained war.

    However, the value of these chapters is as a corrective to the generalisations we tend to make about period of histories, including the assumption amongst evangelicals that the Reformation was purely and simply a turn for the better. It is also an instructive study of the ways in which, in the midst of a church which is not pacifist, we might hope for restraints on war and violence and practices which promote peace.


    The early church and war

    Back on my ANZAC Day post, there was some discussion in the comments about the early church and war. I haven’t done much reading on this, but The Mennonite has a good introductory article by David Brattston, putting forward the case for a strong witness against participation in the army by Christians in the first three centuries.

    Banishing art from the church

    Reading an English history book, I was disturbed by the account of Puritans smashing statues in the churches and whitewashing paintings of Bible scenes. The book is by Roy Strong, a Catholic, and so he has his bias, but it sounds to me like a terrible thing to do.

    It made me wonder if it is why evangelicalism has traditionally had such a low view of art. It is also makes sense of J.I. Packer – puritan to the bone – and his chapter in Knowing God which claims that any attempts to picture Christ in art is idolatry. (I can’t agree; it seems to misconstrue the nature of language. Are we meant not to picture the stories we read of Christ either?)

    In fact, reading English history has made me feel that a lot of bugbears of conservative evangelicalism have historical roots more than anything – another one being the anitpathy toward Catholicism, even when today Catholics don’t resemble the Catholics Calvin reacted against.

    Footwashing, rituals and the monarchy

    12When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

    Why isn’t footwashing an accepted church sacrament? The Anabaptists thought it should be. In John 13, Jesus clearly indicates it should be. Of course, more important than the ritual is the attitude of servanthood, but I think the ritual could remind us of the attitude.

    My wife and I washed each other’s feet at our wedding; I don’t think I even knew it was an Anabaptist practice then. Our old house church did it a few times too. Did it do any good? I’d like to think so. The other day, I suddenly recalled the ritual and it made me decide to try to be more servant-ish.

    But then last night I read this in Roy Strong’s History of Britain:

    It was customary for the monarch to wash the feet of as many poor people as their age each Maundy Thursday, thus emulating Christ washing those of the disciples before the Lord’s Supper. This ceremony… emphasised the sanctity of the ruler. (192)

    The miniature above is of Elizabeth I preparing to wash the feet of paupers. My first reaction is that it illustrates how little the ritual could mean, when it leaves the social inequalities and un-servant leadership unchanged. But I wonder if it did some good, if just a little of Christ’s original intent got through to the people watching and participating?

    Oh, it’s complicated!