Do American Christians Need the Message of Grace or a Call to Holiness?
Grace provides us with a vision of holiness, of what constitutes a holy life and our need—the world's need—for holiness. We need holiness not just because we're called to it, but also because it's the way people see we're different from the world.
We need a better understanding of holiness. Probably no word in English needs clarification so badly as the word holiness. In 2006, the Barna Group conducted a study analyzing the concept of holiness among Christians. When asked what holiness means, the most common reply, given by nearly one quarter of the respondents, was simply, "I don't know." Holiness (hagiasmos) literally means "set apart to God." The word is both spiritually and morally significant. Through Jesus' work on the cross, all believers stand in a position of holiness before God. As God's holy ones, we are also called to be personally holy, rooted in love and demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit.
We need grace to turn from sin and desire holiness. Right now, in many churches, we set the goal of attracting more people rather than creating deeper people. We substitute social justice advocacy for genuine inner transformation. We follow hard after therapists and self-help gurus rather than God and his holiness.
We need grace to stare down the sin in our lives, and grace to grieve it. Our desire for holiness is thwarted by the simple refusal to acknowledge the reality of sin. Recently, the Twitter feed of a popular spiritual formation ministry called upon their hundreds of followers to pray this prayer: "Lord Jesus, have mercy on me." But the ministry left a key line out of the prayer; the whole prayer is, "Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner." Why are we afraid to be candid about sin?
The aftertaste of the legalistic fire-and-brimstone sermons of the 20th century remains embedded in our consciousness. But what if we were honest about sin and connected it to the horrors of our time—poverty, domestic violence, sex trafficking, drug abuse, sex abuse, and child abuse? What if our answer is not just reactive but also proactive—becoming a holy people so that holiness spreads? C. S. Lewis wrote, "[Jesus] came to this world and became a man to spread the kind of life he has—by what I call 'a good infection.' Every Christian is to become a little Christ. The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else." Contrary to what many of us have believed at one point or another, real holiness isn't boring; it's so compelling it's contagious.
The beginning and end of holiness is grace. It's grace that cultivates our appetite for holiness and grace that moves us along, inch by inch, toward the kind of person God has called us to be.
We Need 'Groliness'
Margaret Feinberg is a popular speaker and author. Her latest book, Wonderstruck: Awaken to the Nearness of God, is out this month.
American Christians have misgivings about both grace and holiness, and for good reason. This dynamic duo is often misunderstood. Grace is all too often portrayed as a pushover. He seems to drop in on a whim, never asking or requiring anything of anyone. He's the toll-free number to call in every situation. Did you break any of the Ten Commandments or have a bad day that you took out on the checkout clerk? Call 1-800-GRACE, and he'll get you out scot-free. No bills. No cost. But such an understanding of grace as an unlimited get-out-of-jail-free card reduces its richness.