FOCUS – Grace talkers and holiness pushers
I have noticed that many Christians have a particular doctrine or portion of Scripture to which they attach themselves. There are those who delight in reading the Pentateuch over and over. Others pour over the end time prophecies in Daniel and Revelation. My brother-in-law, Ken, is so well versed in creationism that he could give Darwin himself a run for his money. As for me, the subject over which I obsess has always been holiness.
I would like to think that John Wesley, Samuel Brengle, and all the corps officers I’ve ever had would be proud of me. Holiness, a doctrine we inherited from our Methodist lineage, is practically the heartbeat of Salvationism. We are part of a rather small branch of Christianity known as “holiness churches” (or, formerly, the “holiness movement”). This is a crucial part of our identity. After all, we are the church that is called to “save souls, grow saints, and serve suffering humanity” General John Gowans (R).
In truth, my own emphasis on holiness had thrown my spiritual understanding out of balance. It had led me to fear the word “grace.” For too long, I almost interpreted grace as the opposite of holiness. Though I knew that God’s grace was responsible for my salvation, conversation about grace somehow made me nervous. Some Christians I knew abused grace. For them, “grace” meant “license” the freedom to live however they wanted to live because they were saved by grace, not by works. It was my view that Christians fell into one of two categories: the holiness types, who were prepared to respond to God’s grace by presenting themselves as “living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1), and the grace types, who were content to revel in grace, so satisfied about what God did for them that they gave little concern to what they could do for him. I confess I believed that the holiness-pushers were superior to the grace-talkers.
I was well aware that constant grace-talk could lead to careless living. But I didn’t consider the danger of constant holiness-pushing. To a frightening extent, my idea of holiness centered around me, not Christ. “How good can I be, to the glory of Christ?” I wanted all honor to go to Christ, and I knew that only through his strength could I live a pure life. Yet somehow the focus was on me, on my actions. Those who dwell on grace dwell on Christ and his work. My preoccupation with holy living grew perilously close to a doctrine of salvation by works.
Dear reader, I know that you know that “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2: 8). And yet, I fear that the Army is in theological danger of devaluing grace as it emphasizes holiness. I have no contention with our written doctrine, but I am concerned with how it is being handled within our congregations. We must never abandon the doctrine of holiness. But perhaps we must incorporate grace more fully. Somewhere in the middle of the grace-talkers and the holiness-pushers is, I suspect, a balanced spirituality.
The thing I have grown to appreciate about grace is that since we’ve done nothing to earn it, we can do nothing to lose it. My husband taught me what that means. One night we were talking about our marriage, and I said to him, “I think you love me, but I don’t think you know why you love me.”
“No reason,” was his reply. I was dissatisfied. I wanted to hear him delineate all my finer qualities. But what he said was even better. “I just love you. I’ve loved you since I first saw you, and I will love you until I die. It’s unconditional. I just love you.”
It wasn’t the first time God used Rob as an example of his own brand of love, but perhaps it made the greatest impact. I knew at that moment that “graceful” love is irreversible love. And while we want to please our Master with pure living, if we fail, we are loved no less.
In the end, the important thing is that the focus is on Christ, not on ourselves and our works. Perhaps the greatest holiness hymn ever penned was our own Founder’s Song, O Boundless Salvation. Yet the Founder laced his hymn with the doctrine of grace, so the spotlight would be on the giver of it, not the receiver. Consider the words of the first verse: “O fulness of mercy, Christ brought from above, The whole world redeeming, so rich and so free…”
My New Year’s wish is that you and I will live victorious, holy lives. But should other people attempt to credit us for such living, we will have failed. All credit belongs to our gracious Savior, Jesus Christ. May all we do point toward him.