Do American Christians Need the Message of Grace or a Call to Holiness?
Will Willimon is a retired bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church and professor of Christian ministry at Duke Divinity School.
While we always need grace—grace defined by us Methodists as the gratuitous power of God to enable us to live transformed lives for God—Americans today are in desperate need of the disciplines of holiness. As a pastor, I know firsthand the morally chaotic, sadly devastated lives of those who thought it was possible to be good without God. The wreckage and superficiality of undisciplined lives surround us—and I'm not just talking about Donald Trump.
We Wesleyans believe that holiness is evidence of grace working in us. Too often, popular evangelical Christianity has stressed grace as what God in Christ has done for us; holiness churches stress grace as what God is daily doing in us and through us. Holiness is a name for what happens to us when a powerful, life-changing God commandeers our lives.
Grace is more than some benign, sweet syrup poured over us by a God who only says, "I love you just as you are; promise me you won't change a thing." Holiness of heart and life demonstrates to the world that Christ is able to not only love us as we are but also change us into what he would have us be. Holiness is Christ not only forgiving our sin but also redeeming us and utilizing us for his work in the world.
In other words, holiness is God's grace in action, enlisting us to work for God's will in the world.
Holiness gives us the courage to be in but not of the world. Flaccid Christians reduce Christianity to a personal feeling and are thereby left defenseless against the lures of American consumerist, militarist paganism. Holiness graces us with that which we do not naturally have—the ability to say, "No!"
The Christian faith is too demanding for lone individuals who only practice the faith's requirements when they feel like it; community commitment is essential. I'm encouraged that some, especially young adults, recognize this today: There has been an outbreak of holiness groups on college campuses—small cells of Christian students who covenant to routinely practice the same five or six disciplines (prayer, confession, Scripture study, and others).
Some of my neo-Calvinist and crypto-Calvinist friends are suspicious of this Wesleyan talk of moral, spiritual transformation. Is it really possible for sinners, even saved ones, to grow morally and spiritually while we inhabit sinful bodies? I grew up in South Carolina in the segregated South of Strom Thurmond and George Wallace. I know the pervasiveness and unavoidability of personal and social sin firsthand. True, even after 60 years of God's work on me and in me, I lack a fully sanctified life. Even so, I can see the fruits of sanctification and holiness practice in my life. Trust me: You wouldn't have wanted to know me before the grace of God commandeered me and made me more holy than if I had been left to my own devices.
Always Amazing: Grace
Halee Gray Scott is a professor and author who studies spiritual development and moral formation. Her book Brave New Women: A Survival Guide for Christian Women Leaders is due out next spring.
We need grace to see the need for holiness, and grace to desire holiness. Without grace, we get legalism, Christianity-by-rote—hardly worth anything, much less something that can change the world. Without holiness, we get the cheap grace Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of: "grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
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.
Meanwhile, holiness is viewed as dated and out of style by many Americans. Picture him in a polyester, buttoned-up-to-the-collar shirt and thick glasses perched on a hawkish nose. Holiness is often seen as an uptight prude, vacuuming every last drop of fun out of the room.
Both portrayals fail to capture the wonders of grace and holiness.
Grace is unmerited favor. It is the assurance that God remains committed to the work he has begun in us. Grace gently reminds us that the reservoirs of God's goodness will never run dry. Grace greets us with open arms when we finally realize our performance-based lifestyle will never work. Grace reminds us that everyone is invited to God's party—no one is beyond redemption or restoration.
Meanwhile, holiness reminds us that though God loves us just as we are, right where we are, his love does not end there. God's love wants to transform us and take us to higher places. Holiness confronts us when we're tempted to take shortcuts, compromise, or tell ourselves that the "little" things don't really matter.
Holiness provides a quick kick in the rear when we begin to settle in our journey with God. Holiness reminds us we can always become more Christlike. Holiness calls us to live in the world but act set apart.
So are American Christians in need of a message of grace or a call to more holiness? What we need is a message of "groliness"—a rich, textured blend of both. Grace and holiness are best friends meant to walk hand in hand in our lives. Holiness reminds us of our need for grace. We will always fall short of the call to holiness without God's free gift. Grace calls us to greater holiness and turns our eyes from self-righteousness to Jesus' self-sacrifice.
Remember the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. On the days we find ourselves with the big brother's holier-than-thou attitude, we need to be reminded of the message of grace. And on the days we find ourselves like the little brother, tempted to abuse our freedom in Christ, we need to be reminded of the call to holiness. The message of groliness invites us to experience the loving embrace of our Father and to grow into the fullness of all God has for us.