A young man from a rough background in Miami’s inner city became a believer.
The first time the young man heard about the doctrine of entire sanctification, he said, “That’s heresy!” He couldn’t see how it was possible to live in full surrender and victory over sin. And he couldn’t get past the word “perfect.”
I met that young man a few years ago. Perhaps you’ve met some like him in your town. Ever wondered, “How can we even disciple someone toward entire sanctification in a world like this?”
To answer that, let’s first look at what we need to overcome.
That young man is representative of an important dynamic in our culture: The “Nobody’s Perfect” Cultural Narrative.
Cultural Narratives vs. Holiness Theology
Humans are wired to understand life through stories. It’s the way we process events, pass on values, and create meaning. But it isn’t just individuals. Cultures tell themselves stories, too. Think about the stories our culture tells:
• Rags to Riches
• Evil Group vs. Courageous Man
• I’m a Victim
• And many more…
These narratives are powerful. They help us create sense out of the world and its complexity.
So what story does our culture tell itself about perfection?
Finish this sentence: “Well, nobody’s _______.” What word would most people in our culture put there? “Perfect.”
Why? Because there’s a deeply embedded cultural current that we are swimming against, and even we in the Wesleyan-Holiness world know the pull of it, even if we don’t agree with it!
This means that when we stand up and say, “I’ve been made ‘perfect in love’ by the power of the Holy Spirit,” it sounds not just wrongheaded but also arrogant in the cultural moment in which we live.
Cultural Narratives in the Holiness Revival
In the 1800s, human perfectibility and achievement were objects of fascination. Culturally, the USA was a potent blend of possibility thinking, spurred on by:
• The cultural currents of romanticism and transcendentalism
• Influence of authors such as Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, and Alcott
• The wonders of science and the Industrial revolution
It was a time of rapid social change, featuring events like the outlawing of slavery in Britain and the United States (within 30 years of each other!). It was the era of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days. The fastest travel that had ever been available in human history was building around the world: railroads, hot air balloons, steamships, and more. Medical advances were taking place as vaccines were starting to have a real impact on diseases.
All of this change was perceived as a positive. It led to a very hopeful cultural narrative: What next? How high can we go? Look what can be accomplished!
During this time, there was also a tremendous revival of Wesleyanism and teaching on Christian perfection. Movements and currents rising during this time included:
• The National Camp Meeting Association for the Promotion of Holiness
• Phoebe Palmer and the “Tuesday Meetings”
• The Methodist Church was planting 2 churches per day during the mid-1800s
• Holiness teaching crossed denominational boundaries and became ecumenical.
Of course, it was accomplished through the moving of the Holy Spirit. None of it was possible without His power!
But there’s more. While not desiring to take away from the sovereign power of God to overrule cultural currents, I want to point out that He sometimes uses them.
The cultural zeitgeist of that moment did not lend itself toward “nobody’s perfect.” Huge swaths of American culture were wearing what I call “possibility glasses.” And with those glasses, they saw Christian perfection as a perfectly reasonable solution and embraced it in large numbers. The Holiness Movement leaped across denominational barriers and impacted millions.
You might be thinking: but what can we do today?
God has called us to live in this age. We can’t afford to spend the one life we have wishing we could live in another era!
How can we move forward on discipling people in holiness in this era?
1. Focus on modeling holiness.
We’ve all been around someone in our past whose godliness and holiness we could not deny. Their combination of gentle and quiet boldness, the sense of the holy love of Jesus flowing from them… we couldn’t explain it any other way. We must let our lives be “the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing” (2 Corinthians 2:15, NKJV). Holiness moves from “impossible” to plausible, when people see it modeled!
2. Be patient and slow to over-spiritualize the objections of those you’re discipling.
We run the risk of alienating people if they do not quickly accept what we believe. It is far too easy to give up and say, “Well, they just don’t want holiness.”
Remember, they are swimming against a mighty current. The cultural narrative of “nobody’s perfect,” spiritual warfare against their holiness, the poor examples of many Christians, and a church world that is full of teaching of a grace that doesn’t transform. Patience is needed as their mind is renewed.
3. Liberally use Scripture, even more than systematic theology.
The call of Scripture is our basis for pointing our disciples toward the possibilities of grace. We must remind them to:
• “Perfect holiness” (2 Cor. 7:1)
• Be “entirely sanctified” (1 Thes. 5:23-24)
• Be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18)
• Be “perfect as your Father in heaven is” (Matthew 5:48)
• “Yield our bodies” (Romans 12:1)
• “Count yourselves dead to sin” (Romans 6:17-18)
• “Love God with all your heart” (Matthew 22:37)
God has given an abundant supply of phrases and metaphors for the work of holiness in our hearts. Let’s use the terminology God uses! I am not so worried about my disciples accepting my systematic theology; but I am concerned about them not experiencing the possibilities of grace!
4. Introduce old and modern sources of Scriptural teaching on holiness.
It’s important that your disciples know that holiness is both “timeless” (historically valid) and “timely” (currently relevant).
Find two or three old holiness books that you can recommend, and share those. Then, find someone teaching on holiness in a modern way. Books such as:
• Called To Be Holy by Dr. John Oswalt
• Holiness for Growing Christians by Dr. Allan Brown
• From the Classroom to the Heart by Dr. Paul Kaufman
• Pursuing Holiness Workbook by Rev. Darrell Stetler II
Discipling People in Holiness Can Be Done
Remember the young man who heard about Christian perfection and said, “That’s heresy”?
That young man’s name was Ronald Pauleus. He was fortunate to be mentored by a pastor in Florida who was Wesleyan-Arminian named Carl Guillame. Carl began teaching and training Ronald. He introduced Ronald to classic holiness writings, systematically studied the Bible with him, and modeled a life of holiness before him.
Ronald eventually became a convinced “Methodist.” By God’s grace, he came to experience what he called “a clean heart.” He attended and graduated from a holiness Bible college… and today he’s one of the pastors at my church in Oklahoma City!
Sure, society might be morally worse off than in years past. But it can be done!
This calls for patience with people AND with ourselves.
This calls for wisdom in our preaching and our choice of words.
This calls for consistency of holiness in our lives and homes.