God's Word for today

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Wesleyan Emphasis on Holiness

I submitted this paper recently for one of my examinations, but thought I'd post it here in case it may be of use to someone wanting to lead a discussion group on this subject.  The target group is intended to be youth, aged 16-17.  Some comments on its contents, suggestions for improvement, etc. would also be greatly appreciated.


Note: All activities to be conducted by the group are highlighted in bold italics.

Have each member come up with their own understanding of what it means to be holy.  Suggest some daft definitions, such as “a piece of wood that has been attacked by woodworm”.  Then ask the group to be more serious about a definition of holiness.  They’ll probably come up with concepts such as “perfection”, “doing the right thing”, “not breaking the rules”, etc.  Ask the group whether it is possible to do any of these things?

Scripture reading – A Call to Holy Living (I Peter 1: 13 – 2:3, NLT)
A Call To Holiness
1:13 So think clearly and exercise self-control.  Look forward to the gracious salvation that will come to you when Jesus Christ is revealed to the world.  14 So you must live as God’s obedient children.  Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires.  You didn’t know any better then.  15 But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy.  16 For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.”

17 And remember that the heavenly Father to whom you pray has no favorites [sic].  He will judge or reward you according to what you do.  So you must live in reverent fear of him during your time as “foreigners in the land.”  18 For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors.  And the ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver.  19 It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God.  20 God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but he has now revealed him to you in these last days.

21 Through Christ you have come to trust in God. And you have placed your faith and hope in God because he raised Christ from the dead and gave him great glory.

Living in Love with Fellow Believers
22 You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters.  Love each other deeply with all your heart.

23 For you have been born again, but not to a life that will quickly end.  Your new life will last forever because it comes from the eternal, living word of God.  24 As the Scriptures say, “People are like grass; their beauty is like a flower in the field.  The grass withers and the flower fades.  25 But the word of the Lord remains forever.”

And that word is the Good News that was preached to you.  2:1 So get rid of all evil behavior [sic].  Be done with all deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and all unkind speech.  2 Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation.  Cry out for this nourishment, 3 now that you have had a taste of the Lord’s kindness.

The nature of Christian holiness
Christian holiness may seem like some other-worldly state of being, experienced only by monks or people who have spent many years studying theology.  Or you may think that because you come to church every week, attend youth on a Friday night, don’t give your parents a hard time, and study hard at school, these things make you into a holy person.  But ponder the following scenarios, and indicate what you might do in each situation:

  • You’ve been invited to a friend’s party.  The invite tells you to just “bring yourself”, since all food, drinks, etc. will be laid on by the hosts.  When you arrive at the venue, you discover that there is nothing available to drink apart from beers and “coolers”.  You don’t normally drink alcoholic beverages, but you don’t want to appear too fussy.  Besides, all your friends are there, and you don’t want to look spare.
  • You’ve just turned 17 and are eligible to obtain a learner’s licence.  Because you will be studying in Durban next year, your parents have promised to buy you a small car – on condition that you obtain a driver’s licence.  However, the folks have offered to pay for driving lessons once you obtain your learner’s.  Unfortunately, the only booking you could obtain to sit for the learner’s test falls smack bang in the middle of your Matric preliminary examinations, and because you’ve been under pressure to get good marks in the prelims so as to gain entrance to university, you haven’t given your learner’s test too much priority.  The net result is that you end up failing your learner’s.  The next available booking is in two month’s time.  As you walk dejectedly into the school grounds the next morning, a friend informs you that he can “source” a learner’s licence for you, upon payment of R500.
  • You’ve always wanted to postpone having sex until you are married, because you believe that this is something that should be saved for that “special one”.  However, about six months ago you met someone who has totally swept you off your feet – so much so that you’re beginning to consider whether this person could perhaps be your lifelong soul mate some day.  While marriage is out of the question until you’ve completed your university studies, you start having fantasies of yourself and this person, aged mid-20s, standing at the altar in front of your minister.  This person has expressed similar feelings about you.  However, some of your classmates have begun to taunt you, questioning whether there’s something wrong with you because you’ve been going out with this person for six months without having “done it” yet.

Having discussed the above scenarios, you may have examined appropriate Christian ways to respond – ways that would be pleasing to God, or holy.  Or you may have come to the conclusion that being holy is an impossible task.  But God has called upon people to be holy since the beginning of time.

Because God had brought the people of Israel out from Egypt, rescuing them from slavery, God called upon them to be holy.  Likewise, God has delivered us from slavery to sin and death, having given is the “precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God”.  Just as God required the people of the old covenant to be holy, just as God is holy (Leviticus 19:2), so Peter requires the same from the new covenant people: “You must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy” (I Peter 1: 15) (NLT Study Bible, 2008: 2,129).

John Wesley recognised that it is not enough just to experience a “heart strangely warmed” at the moment at which you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.  That would be like getting your driver’s licence, saying that you’re qualified to drive a car, but never getting behind the steering wheel and actually driving.  That’s just dumb!  Surely the object of getting a licence is to enable you to drive?  But getting your licence doesn’t immediately make you the consummate driver, either – becoming a good driver requires skills that are acquired over many years, perhaps even involving advanced driver training.

So it is with your Christian walk.  What Wesley terms “sanctification”, “Scriptural holiness”, or “Christian perfection”, is in fact your journey towards living the kind of life that would be pleasing to Jesus.  After all, if Jesus gave his best for you, surely it’s reasonable for him to expect the same from you?

However, holiness is not something that happens overnight – it takes discipline, requires that you behave according to what you believe, and needs to become a “daily habit of the heart” (Storey, 2004: 14).  By God’s grace we are made holy in Christ, changing us into something we were not before.  Jesus restores our relationship with God – this is called “justification”.  But the Holy Spirit works within us, helping us to live holy lives as the image of God is restored in us – this is called “sanctification”.

Christian holiness – the personal dimension
If John Wesley was alive in 2010, he would probably view the Christian walk in terms of “putting your money where your mouth is”.  According to Wesley, “being a Christian is not just about getting together to talk, or sing, or even pray about how you feel about Jesus; it is about a new way of behaving, about joining a disciplined order, about practicing new habits of the heart” (Storey, 2004: 16).

To this end, Wesley insisted that all of his members be part of a class meeting – what we might call a cell group today – and each member of the class meeting were required to adhere to the following rules (Storey, 2004: 16):
  • Doing no harm – this entailed avoiding evil of every kind;
  • Doing good – not only in a personal sense, but also in the way one interacts with fellow human beings; and
  • Attending upon all the ordinances of God – this included regular attendance at worship, reading one’s Bible, taking part in Holy Communion, prayer, and fasting.
Members of class meetings held each other accountable for their spiritual walk with God, asking one another a series of rather hectic questions in the process.  Consider how you would feel about being asked some of the following questions (Olivier, 2010) that were asked of each other in the early class meetings:
  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am?  In other words, am I a hypocrite?  (No-one wants to be called that!)
  2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?
  3. Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told to me in confidence?  (In other words, if someone shares their deepest feelings, thoughts, and fears, can you keep your mouth shut?)
  4. Can I be trusted?
  5. Am I a slave to dress, friends, work, or habits?  (The old “everybody’s doing it” syndrome.)
  6. Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying?  (No-one likes being around someone who is self-centred and whining all the time.)
  7. Did the Bible live in me today?
  8. Do I give it time to speak to me everyday?
  9. Am I enjoying prayer?  (Note: The English of the 18th century may well take the word “enjoying” to mean “taking part in”, but if we understand this word in its modern context, is prayer a source of enjoyment to us?)
  10. When did I last speak to someone else about my faith?
  11. Do I pray about the money I spend?  (How we spend our money reflects where our heart lies.)
  12. Do I get to bed on time and get up on time?  (This speaks of discipline in one’s personal habits.)
  13. Do I disobey God in anything?
  14. Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
  15. Am I defeated in any part of my life?
  16. Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy, or distrustful?
  17. How do I spend my spare time?
  18. Am I proud?  (This is not speaking about pride in one’s achievements or in the achievements of others, but rather of an arrogant form of pride.)
  19. Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican?  (We have a long way to go, and even when we are doing our best to live holy lives, we must remember that often the only difference between us and the out-and-out sinner, is Christ.)
  20. Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard?  If so, what am I doing about it?  (Grudges are for parking cars in, not for holding against other people!)
  21. Do I grumble or complain constantly?
  22. Is Christ real to me?

Christian holiness – the social dimension
The Christian life, however, is not one that can be lived in isolation.  Imagine taking up a team sport, such as rugby, and going out to buy all the kit, obtain the best possible coaching, learn all the rules, and watch video footage of every game the Boks played during the previous World Cup – and then refuse to play the game with anyone else.  Not only would this be absurd, but it would also be impossible.  One simply cannot play rugby without involving others.

Yet as Christians we think that we can go it alone.  And as you will have seen from the questions discussed in the previous session, growing as a Christian comes from interacting with one another, holding one another accountable for one’s Christian walk.  So-called Christians who believe that they are in the Secret Service would not be considered to be true Christians by Wesley.  According to Storey, “a Wesleyan Christian is one who grows from the experience of the warmed heart into a life of disciplined love for God and neighbour, expressed in acts of devotion and worship, compassion and justice, and is willing to be held accountable to this by one’s fellow believers” (Storey, 2004: 17).

But social holiness cannot stop there.  While being a Christian according to these standards would be impressive enough, living like this would be incomplete.  Returning to our rugby analogy, it would not be enough simply to have all the kit, training, and skills.  It would also not be sufficient to assemble a team in order to play the game.  If one were to truly give something back to the game of rugby, one would need to be involved in some sort of development of younger and/or underprivileged players who have yet to benefit from the facilities you have enjoyed.

So it is with our Christian walk – it’s not enough to live a disciplined life so that we can become part of a “holy huddle” – Jesus calls us to make an impact on the world.  Inasmuch as the Spirit of the Lord anointed Jesus to “bring Good News to the poor … to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, [and] that the oppressed will be set free” (Luke 4: 18, NLT), so have we also been called by Jesus to share this “Good News” with the world.  In fact, Wesley’s main ministry thrust was to the poor and the marginalised of British society.  Indeed, it was Wesley’s work amongst the poor that shaped him as a person – so much so that he came to view being with the poor as being as much as a channel for God’s grace as receiving Communion.  As a result, Wesley came to discover that unless one engaged with the poor of the earth, one could not really call oneself a Christian (Storey, 2004: 19).

Challenge: Discuss ways in which one can carry out “acts of mercy” within your own community.  How do such acts reflect on you as a Christian?  In what way would one grow personally from the experience?

Conclusion: Bringing it all together
Holiness cannot be seen as having only a personal dimension or a social dimension.  It’s not “either / or”, but “and / both”.  Having personal holiness without the social dimension is little more than “playing at church”, while having social holiness without the personal dimension ends up simply being a “works programme”.  Action is meaningless without faith, yet faith without action is dead, according to James 5: 17.

Being a true Christian in the Wesleyan mould entails acts of piety (a search for inward peace with God); acts of charity (showing compassion by caring for the poor), and acts of justice (addressing structural poverty and becoming an agent for social change) (Storey, 2004: 19).  It is because of this three-fold witness that Wesley and his followers brought about much social change.  While none of this would have happened if it wasn’t for Wesley experience of a “heart strangely warmed”, nothing would have happened either id the “warmed heart experience” was all there was to being a Christian (Storey, 2004: 20).  Wesley needed both – and so do we.

Challenge for the week ahead: Identify and carry out one “act of mercy” that will make a meaningful difference in the life of someone else.  Reflect on what this meant for the person you helped, and reflect on how this impacted you personally as a Christian.


  1. Holy Bible, New Living Translation (2nd edition) (2008).  NLT Study Bible.  Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
  2. Olivier, RAJ (2010).  Class notes and discussions from course SYS102, Wesley and Social Holiness.  Unpublished documents.  Pietermaritzburg: Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary.
  3. Storey, PJ (2004).  And Are We Yet Alive?  Revisioning our Wesleyan Heritage in the New Southern Africa.  Cape Town: Methodist Publishing House.

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