Holiness: Living Like Christ
In terms of people, holiness is about moral purity and covenantal love. But without theological foundations concerning the character of God and the doctrine of sanctification, many have mistaken notions about holiness. George Paul Wood, executive editor of Enrichment, interviewed Carol Taylor, president, Vanguard University, Costa Mesa, California; Don Meyer, president, Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, Pennsylvania; and Byron Klaus, president, Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, Springfield, Missouri. These seasoned Assemblies of God theologians, leaders, and teachers are preparing students for life and ministry. In this lucid interview, they address the issue of holiness in both its authentic and counterfeit forms.
How would you describe the word “holiness”?
Taylor: Holiness is everything that looks like Christ — what is sacred, worthy of worship, set apart, and consecrated. Holiness is everything that sounds like Him, acts like Him, and walks like Him.
Meyer: I agree. Additionally, I think of two things — that which is separate from all that contaminates and secondly anything that is contrary to the holiness of God. Holiness is not only the avoidance of things that contaminate it is also the presence of that which is righteous.
Klaus: Hebrews 12 talks about running a race and laying aside anything that will keep us from running the race. We look at track stars today. They have aerodynamic clothing. They shave their bodies. They eliminate anything that keeps them from the one-thousandth of a second that will be the difference between winning and losing. We are to lay aside any negative activity or character quality that casts a shadow on Jesus and does not reflect His goodness. Anything in our lives that hinders our running the race effectively is a problem with reflecting His holiness.
Who exemplifies the quality of holiness in a way that impacts and inspires you?
Klaus: Holiness to me is most personified in people whose lives speak of personal sacrifice. I am thinking of a person I was with in a country where it is illegal to be a Christian. His family was living in a situation where their lives were constantly in danger. I lived with this family in what we call primitive settings — no electricity or running water. But I saw the joy of the Lord in their lives. They could not have been happier.
This brother said, “Byron, I love where I am. I am in the middle of what God wants me to do. But one thing I would like when I retire is a flush toilet.” His statement overwhelmed me. This was not about, “Oh, we’re sacrificing; we’re so holy.” It was about, “We are having the time of our lives.”
So when I think about holiness, I think about sacrifice — not in terms of, “Look at what I am giving up” — but in terms of getting rid of anything that keeps me from the call of God on my life. I think about people who are minimally encumbered by the human attachments that are supposed to give us significance. These people are truly separated unto holiness and to the cause of Jesus Christ.
Meyer: Years ago at a camp service in Lake Geneva, Minnesota, I was talking with U.S. Grant, a long-time pastor from Kansas City. The church he pastored had some challenges after he left. One person sitting with us wanted to hear a little juicy news concerning what was going on in Grant’s former church. This person asked, “How are things going at the church?” I will never forget his answer. It was an example of godly character.
Grant got this whimsical look in his face, glanced out over the lake, and gently said, “You know, I’d rather talk about how the fish are biting out there on the lake than talk about that.” And he just laughed. I thought, What a mark of a man of God, to shift a mention from the trivial and the unnecessary to that which would honor God. This reminded me of a holy life lived out in our daily walk.
My father died my junior year in high school. My mother’s influence was so profound. She lived out the simplicity of the Christian life before my three siblings and me. I also think of A. Robertson McQuilkin, who wrote A Promise Kept. He resigned from Columbia Bible College and Seminary — now International University — to care for his wife, Muriel, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. After Muriel died, he spoke in our chapel about sacrifice. He only talked about it because we invited him to. He said a woman often stands by her man, but rare is the man who stands by his woman, especially in circumstances like that.
These kinds of people create an updraft in my spirit as models of holiness. J. Robert Ashcroft often said, “The spirit of education is the education of the spirit.” His influence as a servant leader helped Valley Forge Christian College remain open at a very critical time a number of years ago. The echoes of that remain on our campus today. We are debtors to this kind of influence around us by people who live holy lives.
Taylor: When I was a student at Evangel University, I visited a small country church in Kansas, where the district had asked my grandfather to serve in his retirement. It was a midweek service, testimony time. They invited me to say something as the visiting college student. After I spoke, an elderly, blind woman, whose grandson had brought her to church, began talking about how she loved her time in the Word. She began quoting long passages of the Psalms. What struck me was this incredible sense of joy that exuded from her.
I was convicted. I had focused on wanting to know about God. She exuded this incredible relationship. I spent the rest of the evening in tears because I realized I wanted what she had — that intimate relationship, that joy, that sense of belonging and being part of something so vast and beautiful. I realized I had seen a holy woman where the presence and joy of Christ had captivated her life.
This woman inspired the notion that it does not matter what knowledge we acquire if we have lost touch with the Author of the Book. We serve out of a relationship with Christ. We can only give what we have received. That evening influenced my life. It created in me a desire to never lose that sense of wonder of knowing that it is all about a relationship with Christ. If we do this, then everything we study about the Word and loving God with our minds, we don’t lose sight of the Great Commandment, which is to love God not just with our minds, but also with our hearts and service.
In the world of academia, the tendency is to get lost in loving God only with our minds. The Great Commandment is a wonderful reminder that we do not get to choose whether we will love Him with our mind, love Him with our heart, or love Him in service. All three are necessary to live a holy, righteous life.
What are some examples of counterfeit forms of holiness? What damage does counterfeit holiness cause?
Klaus: I think the activities we don’t participate in and places we don’t go as a measure of our holiness may give deference to separation from the world, but it also creates a sense of false pride. I know people who did not do certain things, did not go to certain places, yet they were the meanest people I know. They cut you off at the knees. They were mean to the core, and yet people perceived them as holy. That does not reflect Jesus fairly in a world that is already clueless about who Jesus is.
Taylor: In counterfeit holiness, people focus on forms and forget about transformation. There is a sense that somehow our lives are bifurcated. We have a list of things we do or do not do that somehow make us holy — as if holiness works from the outside in. That is hurtful. We forget holiness works from the inside out.
Holiness begins with transformation, and changes everything, especially our hearts. We become convicted at the thought of cutting someone off at the knees or being nasty skunks. Perhaps more than anything, this behavior shows a lack of evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, a lack of graciousness. This bifurcation of our lives not only hurts those in the church, but it hurts those who see it as a reason not to be affiliated with the church. It is this larger harm that is done to the Christian witness.
Meyer: Early in my Pentecostal journey I encountered a lot of the counterfeit expressions of what it means to be filled with the Spirit. I genuinely thought anyone who spoke in tongues was filled with the Spirit, only to discover that their lives and speech did not always coincide. The fruit, as Carol has said, did not measure up. I had relatives who broke their glasses in prayer meetings as a display of faith that God was going to heal their eyesight. Two weeks later when deer hunting season came and they couldn’t see the antlers on the deer, they had to get glasses. As a young person, I wondered if they would wear them to the next prayer meeting? Some of them didn’t.
Others, in expressing how to live a holy life said, “Don’t waste your time preparing for ministry. God will purify you and you don’t need all these tools.” This advice almost ruined my life. Someone else said that the time you take to sharpen your tools is never wasted. This changed my life. On the counterfeit side, we probably all know about the casualties. But for the grace of God, there was opportunity for some of that casualty to affect my life. This is a serious topic — we must understand the genuine against the counterfeit.
What guidance does the Bible provide in distinguishing between authentic and counterfeit forms of holiness? Can we distinguish these in terms of motivation, content, and trajectory?
Taylor: True holiness provides a transformation; it changes the way we live in community, the places we go, the things we read, and what we watch on TV or in theaters. But it is not because of the rules or a list of things you cannot do. Holiness comes because our desires have changed.
One of the challenges in Christian education is helping students nurture an internal relationship with Christ that informs the decisions they make. We want them to make good decisions, not simply because the basis for their decisions is written as a requirement and expectation for community. A tension exists, however, between helping students nurture an internal relationship with Christ and telling them we are going to help them by holding them accountable to community standards. But if it only stops with following rules, we have failed our students.
When Henri Nouwen met Mother Theresa, he asked her how he could live out his vocational calling. She simply said, “If you spend an hour a day in adoration of Christ, and then don’t do anything you know is wrong, you will be okay.” We need a way to make that our code of conduct. Every day spend an hour adoring Christ. Think of all the verses that talk about seeking His face. Think about how different we would live if we committed ourselves to adoring Him first. So it’s love God, then do what you will.
Meyer: The Book of Exodus tells us where the Ten Commandments fit in the context of holiness. Some non-Christians say, “All you need to do is obey the Ten Commandments and you will please God.” But they do not understand the context of the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 7 through 19, we read of the plagues and how God redeemed Israel out of Egypt. God bore them out on eagles’ wings; they were redeemed as the people of God. They became His people before receiving the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20. The Ten Commandments are God speaking, “in view of your being My people.” This is the relationship piece: “Here are the regulations that will measure your relationship. All I ask of you is that you have no other gods, no other rivals, and that your speech, conduct, and vertical and horizontal behavior reflect that relationship.”
In Ephesians 1–3, Paul gives the doctrine of how we, in the purpose of God, become members of the Church. Ephesians 4–6 tells us that our conduct must be worthy of that position. We have established a relationship with God because we are redeemed as the people of God, and then the process follows. Gordon Fee said, “A Christian is one who really wants to become one.” He was not talking about the new birth. He was talking about the process of becoming like Jesus after salvation.
Our challenge with the next generation is for this relationship to be right. This has to be a priority. But the regulations, guidelines, scriptural principles, and standards are necessary. They measure the quality of the relationship. So if I am crossing boundaries that are inappropriate, this reflects something I need at the core of my relationship. I can say to my wife that I love her, but I’m not going to ask her, “How much can I get by with and you will still allow me to be your husband?” The relationship and the regulations are in balance together. The relationship is not enhanced by the regulations; it’s measured by the regulations.
Klaus: At AGTS we work hard at spiritual formation. Our accreditation is connected to what we call a standard for “readiness for ministry.” Our accreditors review us on whether or not we are spiritually forming the people who will be leading a congregation.
We need to look biblically at what [holiness] means. We have our own context where we see good and bad examples. But it is important that the Pentecostal movement have some dimensions of holiness. The Assemblies of God has that.
Wesleyan and holiness groups are holiness oriented; they believe in a distinct crisis experience of sanctification. Pentecostals need to have a historical perspective on holiness as well. This perspective provides a rich resource that helps us understand what holiness means in a 21st-century context.
Wesley lived in a context of huge change in English society. He preached to factory and coal workers who lived rough lives. He realized someone needed to hold them accountable and challenge them to understand there were certain things in their lives that needed changing. Wesley created an accountability framework that allowed fellow believers to ask: Where did you spend your paycheck last week? Did you spend it at the pub, or did you spend it on milk and bread for your kids?
This approach may seem cursory, but it helps to get to the heart of the issue of holiness. Accountability supports the alignment of the inward transformed life with the outward expression of the Christian life. Holiness is not just an individualistic, pietistic journey between Jesus and us. Our journey coexists in the context of like-followers of Jesus. He calls us to accountability, so we can reflect to the world what it means to be reconciled to God and to one another corporately.
What is the Church’s role in contemporary society in communicating what holiness is and helping believers live out that total conversion in their lives?
Meyer: To be relevant is certainly the desire of all of us. Os Guinness says in his book, Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance, that the Church, in its quest to be relevant, has become irrelevant. Without the distinctives of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, there is nothing that causes us to seek holiness. The early believers’ love for one another was the example of being a follower of Jesus. People would see their good works and glorify God.
How do we influence a culture with these kinds of realities when the culture wants to squeeze us into its mold? That is the challenge our young people face. They will need to figure out with their generation of leadership how to live this out in a way that will influence — without compromise of the core reality — how they live a holy life.
Taylor: I think about the book, The Holy Spirit Is Not for Sale,by Lee Grady. He was editor of Charisma. He saw what God is doing in the world today, but he also saw the number of failed ministries. One of the things he stresses is a call that says we need to move from the sensational back to the supernatural; to move from the sense of creating superstars in ministry, to a call to servanthood and sacrifice. This is at the heart of what we are talking about.
Klaus: Because I try to be a missiologist, I look at the holiness movement in the U.S. as an offshoot of Wesley’s focus. That movement, at the end of the 19th century, propels or parallels a huge mission-sending effort in North America and Western Europe.
Holiness has not always been about ourselves and how “holy” or pure we are, but it is about an encounter with God that changes us so we commit ourselves to His cause. This is critical to the cause of Jesus Christ, however it expresses itself — in traditional evangelism or in reflecting Christ’s kingdom in the marketplace. We must have people who are not about themselves, but have been so captured by an encounter with Jesus Christ they will do anything to reflect Him in this world.
What are your students teaching you about authentic holiness? What areas are they calling the Church to refocus its attention on and to practice a holiness that is more integral and more biblical?
Taylor: Students are teaching us what every generation learns — holiness is about an authentic relationship with Christ. What I see in particular with this generation are some surprising places where holiness shines. It is more than just having the right set of beliefs; it’s how we live that out. This is a real emphasis with young people today, particularly in their passion for justice. We are seeing it lived outside the traditional ways we think.
Byron’s daughter, Olivia, has a passion for abused women. She is living that out. This passionate pursuit of justice, and an equal passion for authenticity, is a hallmark in this generation. They detect what they sense as being inauthentic. They want what’s real, what’s authentic, and they want to do something with it. They want to work with the homeless; they care about abuse; they care about orphans; and they don’t see a disconnect between living that out and communicating the gospel while they are engaged in what they would call holiness.
Meyer: I agree. I often meditate on writings by Elton Trueblood, particularly his Alternative to Futility. He says in the past our Roman Catholic friends would eat no meat on Fridays. Our Quaker friends had their dress code. This created “enormous moral strength which grew out of a common commitment to certain identification factors.” He was not advocating we go back to those habits again, but the haunting question is what do we have to replace them with, as we are living out what we define as a holy life today?
As we challenge this generation of young people, we need to empower them with a sound biblical theology regarding the character of God. Then we need to release them to live out these themes of justice and integrity in the expressions that are consistent in their lives. This is really critical. It is going to be part of the discovery piece of this next generation.
Klaus: I had a conversation this morning with John Koeshall, who with his wife, Anita, are serving as our Hogan Professors of World Mission at AGTS. They have spent the last 30 years in Europe on university campuses discipling young people. They have incredible stories of how unbelievers, atheists, and Nazis have come to faith in Jesus Christ.
He was just at Sam Houston State in Huntsville, Texas, with a Chi Alpha ministry where he ministered to 700 students. He worked with small groups that are part of that Chi Alpha. What he said was amazing, “These students come from all kinds of broken backgrounds. They don’t have any Christian history whatsoever; they are in various stages in their Christian walk. But the pure stuff I heard when I was a kid is the stuff I’m talking to them about now. The sacrifice issues, simple messages, unadulterated stuff, these students are eating it up.”
About half the kids in our Assemblies of God schools are coming from blended families and single-parent situations. They bring baggage that no kid should have to work through. But in that context, because there is such discontinuity with even bad versions of Christianity, they come with the capability to sense what’s real and what isn’t. The simple messages we have been talking about today will find resonance with students who have not been overly religious — socialized into religion as an organized thing.
What blind spots or challenges will younger generations have to face in their quest for personal holiness?
Meyer: One thing that comes to mind is a “casualization” of the culture where a sense of the magnitude of the holiness of God can get lost. Recently I was praying with someone and I invited him to lead in prayer. He started out, “Dear Daddy.” Now that was intimate and very personal, and in some ways was special. But I must say it felt a bit too informal, to approach God in that way. I think of a restoration of, to use John Piper’s terminology, the supremacy of God. In this younger generation, especially when the accoutrements of the world of religious activity are dissolving, formality is gone. Our sanctuaries are becoming more casual. How will we now reinforce a sense of the majesty and the greatness of God?
Klaus: I have lived long enough to realize that as I look at the descriptors of current young adults, while the flavors may be different, the song is still the same. We are naÃ¯ve and disconnected from history if we think today’s generation doesn’t have the same passions early in life as we did when we were their age.
The real question is, how do we have effectiveness over a protracted period of time? Young adults today have to navigate this passion in a climate that will tempt them to become addicted to novelty, particularly through technology. They have great skills to navigate that. Novelties that are humanly derived can hamstring the incredible passion that young adults have today. I think the question is going to be, as Don has said, will they, through the din of humanly devised distraction, have a homing signal that comes from an encounter with Jesus Christ that is transforming and regularly embellished? Will they keep that in mind as they navigate the incredible sense of distraction the world presents to them?
Taylor: It goes back to what Don said — the casualness of the holy. Students today throw the word “awesome” around to describe an In-And-Out Hamburger, here on the West Coast, or Andy’s frozen custard in Springfield, Missouri. But we talk about Andy’s and In-and-Out with the same words we use to describe God. I sometimes tell students, “In-and-Out Burgers are great, but only God is awesome.”
One of the challenges is that in the casualness of our churches, we want our students to be able to address Abba and say “Daddy,” especially students who come from broken homes where their image of a father is anything but a loving, caring Father who embraces them and will never forsake them. At the same time, we want them to see God as awesome and full of awe.
Another is the reality that we are living in a post-Christian culture. Almost Christian, a recent book based on Pew-funded research, looks at thousands of today’s generation of young people in churches. For the majority of these students, their Christian faith is more “Christian-ish.” That is how they describe it. It is about being nice, about being accepting, but it is not about the deep claims of following Christ. That presents a huge challenge, even in our churches. This is where many of our students are coming from.
One of our challenges is helping students be captured and captivated by who Christ is and to see Him as far bigger than anything they can think or imagine. We want them to see the beauty of His holiness, and as part of that, to be discerning. What concerns me is that some of our students have a difficult time discerning between a Lady Gaga concert and a worship concert. They are both ecstatic experiences, and they can move from one to the other and not understand that one is a road to life, and the other is a road to death. The challenge is helping students live discerning lives.