Sunday, May 13, 2018

How Holiness Theology Transformed My Understanding of Christianity

"As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” -1st Peter 1:14-16 ESV

Let me begin by saying that you should trust the scriptures over the words of any men.  We must trust the scriptures much more than Luther, Calvin, Arminius, Wesley, Edwards, Whitefield or any Pope or bishop.  Our faith in the scriptures must rise far, far above any allegiance to a theology, whether it be Arminian, Calvinist, Molinist, or Catholic.  

But we often struggle with an incomplete view of the scriptures.  We ignore or disregard scriptures that make us uncomfortable, or even those that don't fit neatly into our theology.  This is not good my brothers and sisters.  The scriptures are our highest authority, with God himself being above the scriptures of course, and the scriptures helping us to receive all truth, wisdom, and God's will from God.  Trust the scriptures.  That's my mission for life.  

For the past few months I've been learning about holiness theology.  And it's rocked my world.  I was originally trained in the dispensational, Calvinist-leaning Liberty University.  My greatest influences in Christianity have been Calvinist preachers, people like John Piper, Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald, and John MacArthur. But in my time in the Salvation Army, and now studying at Olivet Nazarene University's graduate program, I've come to learn about holiness theology, and it has changed my life.

I've come to believe that holiness to the Lord is the great missing piece of Christianity in modern evangelicalism.  In the face of so many multiplied evils in our world, many of us have thrown up our hands and rejected the truth of the scriptures: That we can be holy in a fallen world.

The blood of Jesus Christ has washed away the sins of those of us who believe.  But dare we believe that his blood is worth much more?  Dare we believe that the Holy Spirit, through our new birth, can really change our deepest desires and longings, so that we can live holy as He is holy?  

For the longest time I thought this was impossible.  I thought it was completely and truly impossible.  Why?  Because I struggled with sin everyday.  And to say that I struggled with sin, is to say that I lived in willful sin.  And I taught my mind to tolerate it.  I searched for scriptures that would defend my failures.  

I repeated mantras like: His grace is enough.  His grace covers all my sin. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ. 

I conveniently ignored scriptures that talked about continuance in sin as deadly to the Christian.  I trembled at the scriptures that read: "For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins" -Hebrews 10:26 ESV  

Sexual sin, lustful thoughts, and the like were always knocking at my door.  And here and there I would open.  But I would repent immediately after!  But this was not a true repentance.  This was simply playing games with God.  I was living in willful sin, while playing word games with God.  

'Once saved always saved' is a doctrine that gave me permission to sin.  It distorted my understanding of the word of God.  We must reject that doctrine as the body of Christ. (Scriptures: John 15, 1 Tim 1:19, Hebrews 3:14). Link to "scriptures on falling away.Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. I had to look past what I preferred, or what gave me blanket assurance, and look to the truth of the word. 

I like many believers struggled greatly with sin, in private.  But I wasn't willing to stay there. There was a dogged unyielding dissatisfaction.  There was a constant conviction of the Spirit within me, refusing to be ignored or silenced.

By God's grace, I soon found in the scriptures something that could help me overcome sin: The fear of the Lord (Matthew 10:18, Proverb 1:8, Eccle 12:13). And so each night I began praying a simple prayer: "Teach me to fear you Lord."  

"Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's[a] seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother."
-1 John 3:4-10 (ESV)

God answered my prayers over several weeks. I began to truly tremble before God. This fear spiked change, through discomfort. Sin sent me running, or more accurately, the fear of the Lord sent me running.  And I found myself with increasing desires to be holy.  

At that time, visitors came to our chapel and spoke on holiness.  Dr. Bill and Diane Uri spoke for the weekend in several sessions regarding holiness.  And I think for the first time I truly understood what holiness, and sanctification really meant.  Holiness is about a total yielding to the Lord, wherein He perfects our hearts and His Spirit lives fully through us.  I realized that holy living was not a work of man, or a list of rules, or a constantly unattainable goal, but that it was a work of God, and I must simply open myself up to it and be willing to respond to the Spirit's leading. During one of the sessions I listened to Diane preach, my eyes intently focused on her and for a moment I saw the face of Christ flash over her. And I was stunned.  Of course I didn't tell anyone, because I knew no one would believe me. 

At the conclusion of the weekend, a friend and I prayed privately, asking for the blessing. I prayed with Dr. Bill Uri at the mercy seat, asking for the blessing.  And so something very special began in my life. 

During that time we had begun studying sanctification in doctrine classes.  These classes provoked my imagination, and I eagerly began to embrace the concept of sanctification.  Though few seemed as enthused as I!  I found myself studying the handbook of doctrine carefully.  And I found myself mesmerized by a book by Diane LeClerc called "Discovering Christian Holiness."

At this time I was also beginning to study the concept of hell (on my own time) and I began to force myself to read scriptures about the wrath and judgment of God.  I realized that despite my discomfort with the scriptures about God's wrath, I knew if the Bible said these things about God they were true, and right, and good.  I began to dare to trust God in areas of serious friction.

I wrestled in prayer with God about heaven and hell and an increasing reality coming into my mind, that most people in our modern times who call themselves Christians, who live in willful sin, will not receive eternal life, but will be condemned to hell.  Today I tend to believe that were Jesus to return today, it's likely that only about 20% of His church would be ready. I can't prove that number of course, but I'd bet on it.  

These realizations were stark, painful, and disturbing.  I wrestled with these realities and wrestled in prayer with God each night, trying to understand the implications of these truths.  

But I really realized that Jesus is coming back, and He is coming back for a bride who is spotless, and blameless, and who have not soiled their robes (Revelation 3:4).  And I realized that would've excluded me just weeks prior, and indeed many, many others.  

I also began studying near death experiences (NDEs), prophecies, visions, and sermons regarding heaven, hell, and revelation.  It was interesting and useful to learn about some experiences people have had with the Lord.  Of course I was careful to test these testimonies according to the word of God and through prayer (Click here to view.)  

But it brought into my mind some of the realities of God's holiness and justice.  And it also made the real places of heaven and hell come to life in my mind, and the scriptures describing these realities began to jump off the page a bit more.  Don't ever box God in on what he can and can't do.  Or on what he chooses to do and not do. 

For those in the Salvation Army, don't forget that William Booth's ministry was rallied greatly by his vision of the lost, where the people were drowning in the oceans, and he knew he was called to help people out of the waters and into the safety of Christ.

Several strands were beginning to weave together in my heart and life to guide me toward understanding holiness. I had never understood before.  I had tried to comfort myself with scriptures like Romans 7:15-20, when Paul talked about doing what he did not want to do.  But I had to keep reading, and realize that Romans 7 was referring to a life before Christ, and Romans 8:5-8 continues into the life in Christ, where we live by the Spirit and deny the flesh.

So how does one live in the life of the Spirit?  How does one go on into maturity?  Indeed, Christian holiness, holiness theology, the biblical concept of total sanctification is simply moving on to maturity in Christ.

To live in holiness, to be fully sanctified is to be "set apart."  As it says in the word, in 2 Timothy 2:21 ESV, "Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work."

And we know that this work is not of us, but it is of God, who instructs us to respond to His sanctifying Spirit through willing obedience and consecration to all of God's work.  As it says in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (ESV) "Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ."

In my Christian life, these last five years, I've felt as if I were on a grand adventure.  I had become the pilgrim on his journey.  I had become the warrior in shining armor, fighting the noble cause.  I had been slaughtered at the cross of Christ, and I had died with Christ, and been reborn into his family. But for some reason something was missing.  No, that's wrong.  Nothing was missing, but I knew I was suppose to "go on" forward to more of this blessing.  I had received Christ, I had been born again of the Spirit, I had become a new person, with new hungers, but I knew Christ was calling me forward into maturity.  

But the problem was, like many today, I had learned to be comfortable in my sins, and to comfort myself of God's grace when being convicted by God's Spirit.  This was a deadly, dangerous and deceptive situation, which brings to mind the concept of a "seared conscience" (1 Timothy 4:2).  

Hebrews 6:1 (ESV) says, "Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity..."

This journey of growth in holiness was not a work done by man, and it was not spurned on by my own dogged determination, but it was born of God, pressed forward by God, and God himself breached the barrier, broke into the strongholds of sin, swept into my heart, and re-brandished my desires in perfect love.  

Total sanctification is the will of God for every believer.  God calls us to go on to the fullness of maturity in the Christian life.  This is done through a full yielding to the Lord of heaven and Earth.

This is done through consecration to God, giving all we have to Him.  Consecration means to turn over your whole self to God. That is a good way to pray, to "consecrate" yourself to God. Pray saying: "I give everything I have to you Lord, and everything I have is already yours." 

Daily prayers of repentance have been a blessing to me as well. Ask the Lord to search your heart and life, and convict you. Then things will come to mind, and you may pray: "Yes Lord, please forgive me for that, and I repent with a full heart, turning away from sin." It's good daily practice for growth. It's a powerful prayer that will stir deep change in your soul.

Of course we must do more than pray.  We must practice a lifestyle of holiness. We must wage, in all out warfare, battle with the dead sins of the past.  But holiness is not an outward list of rules to follow, it is an inward change wrought by the Spirit.  Our part is to wrestle, cry out for, and doggedly pursue this blessing from God.  Our outward actions will change, yes, but it is because of an inward transformation.  The love of Christ reshapes our heart, rends it, circumcises it, and transforms it.  

This blessing of full sanctification is not an end, in fact it is simply a moment of consummation, it is like a marriage ceremony, we have loved God, and now we are married fully to Christ in perfect love.  But it does not end there, no!  The marriage is just beginning, and the life of the marriage, the relationship, the passion only grows from that moment onward, forward, endlessly to death, and final glorification.

1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 ESV "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God"

Should the receiving of this blessing of surrender to God, of the transformed heart, puff us up with pride?  Not in the slightest brothers and sisters, and even the slightest pride that seeps out of the soul is a sign of a boisterous legalism.  

The heart of perfect love is first of all meek, humble, gentle, and undesirous of boasting. Love in fact does not boast (1 Cor 13). In fact what need is there of it after all?  We are on mission for God, fully consecrated to Him.  We do all to His glory, and none for our own.  How should we regard other Christians?  As more important than ourselves, as noble adventurers, as warriors of light who fight alongside of us.  Humility is the great sign of a sanctified believer.  But we are all moving forward inwardly toward that blessing, because God desires it for all of us.  Humility in quiet love, is what sanctification is. 

I did not think it was possible.  But at the outset, on my knees before God at the altar, was when I first began to believe that it was possible, somehow in the power of God.  And even that tiny mustard seed of faith was enough for God to use as a beachhead to strike through my soul, my heart, my affections, and my mind.  This was an intense process.  God's presence threw fear into my heart, fear for God.  At times I felt like I'd been sandblasted by the presence of God.  And his holiness struck fear into my depths. This was terribly uncomfortable and painful.  I felt at times like my soul was a windswept plain, a troubled, sinful wasteland of filth with the cloud of God's glory dancing upon it, in the moonlight of the midnight hour.  But somehow the next morning in that desert, the rain clouds burst forth, and the desert bloomed with glorious flowers.  

The beginning is to pursue this blessing.  Pursue it with the primal desire to know God and seek Him earnestly.  Ask Him for fear of Him, ask Him for terror of Him.  

This is an exciting moment.  The past two months have been so exciting, and I've come into a fullness of God's blessing of which I had never really thought possible.  I've come to know God in a more complete way.  I still struggle with temptations. I still battle selfishness. But new victories have been won.  And I don't live in the mindset that I'll always wrestle with willful sin.  That is not what God has called me to, to constant failure to defeat sin.  No.  We are more than conquerors through Him who loves us.  We will overcome the world completely.  And we must, if we hope to live eternally. 

My understanding of God in the past has been very much based around orthodoxy, around knowledge of God, knowledge of His word, and in strict prayer.  There was real relationship and love in this, don't get me wrong.  But the added dimension of orthopathy has helped me to understand a greater depth of God.  And I know this is just the beginning.  The fullness of God is dangerous.  It doesn't fit neatly into an orthodoxy.  But it doesn't breach or change biblical truth either.  It just magnifies it in ways I hadn't imagined.  It's like the words jump off the page, and God's glory comes closer than I'd have dared prior.  

Holiness theology has transformed my understanding of Christianity.  It has revolutionized my understanding of the Bible, of Jesus Christ, of the Christian life, and of relationship with the Father.  But really, it wasn't holiness theology that really transformed my understanding.  It was simply the vessel.  It was God almighty himself who has worked this transformation in my heart and life, and for that reason I fearfully give Him all the honor and glory.

We are not slaves to sin.  We are no longer sinners.  We are now born again followers of Jesus.  And we will overcome the world, and every sin that besets.  We are not called to struggle in an endless, hopeless battle of sin all of our days, sinning and repenting, over and over.  No.  That attitude leaves us in forever sin, and truly, damnation.  No.  We are not damned to sin forever, caught in a 50-50 battle.  No.  We are overcomers.  We will and are required to overcome the world.  And we will.  We most certainly will. We will always have temptations yes.  But we can break through in God's grace, in His Spirit, to a freedom of inclination, to true freedom from sin, where our affections, and our desires are fully rended to God. And though sin still knocks at the door, the door is closed. We can always open, but we may live in inclination to never do so again.  Amen. 

"...if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.." -1st Peter 1:17-23 ESV

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