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The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit Series


The Spirit of Holiness: A Comparative Study

Wed, 14 Apr 2010 - 11:02 AM CST

By William W. Menzies

The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of holiness. God who by nature is whole, entire, without defilement, has destined His children to God-likeness. It is an important biblical truth that the Holy Spirit has been sent to mediate to men the benefits of the Atonement — convicting, regenerating, enabling, empowering. His function is best seen in terms of the ultimate purpose of God for men, as the Agent who will bring the sons of God into that place where they will truly be to the praise of His glory (Ephesians 1:12). Being thus set apart for God’s special purpose is simply the dictionary definition of holiness.1

Yet the term holiness has fallen on lean days. There are various reasons for this. All too often the internal, character-developing work of the Holy Spirit has been identified in the popular mind with that which is narrow and negative. The relative has been made absolute, and in truth the millstone of legalism has been made part of the doctrine of holiness. And the age is not sympathetic to that which is restrictive and regulative, but rather is bent on brushing aside restraints. However, it is not the purpose of this paper to belabor the present obvious cultural disaffection for holiness.

Another reason for the lack of emphasis on the Spirit of holiness, expressed among us, is the bewildering semantic sea on which one is cast adrift when he attempts to set sail in this direction. Few doctrines mean more things to more people than the doctrine of holiness or, if you please, sanctification. Sketched below are the range of Protestant opinions on the topic, stretched between the “right wing” of Reformation theology, Lutheranism, to the “left wing” of orthodox opinion, Wesleyanism. Perfectionistic views that go beyond the limits of Wesleyanism are considered here to be irrelevant. From these strands, those influences that appear in typical Assemblies of God statements are extracted. Join me, now, on this theological tour.

The Lutheran View

Two key historical situations affected the shaping of the Lutheran outlook on holiness. (It is surprising how much theology is historically conditioned.) One situation was the medieval Roman church, against whose “works-righteousness” Luther mounted his primary attack. The other situation was the so-called Radical Reformation, the perfectionists of the 1520s and 1530s whose bizarre behavior and disruptive doctrines threatened the stability of all 16th-century society, not just the Reformation movement. Lutheranism early developed a fear of “enthusiasm” or “pietism.”

Three key concepts in Lutheran theology help one understand this classical outlook regarding sanctification. First, a sharp distinction is drawn between “law and gospel.”2 The law is that which condemns; the gospel is that which liberates. The law is restrictive; the gospel heals. Fear of confusing law with gospel has led to a suspicion of all forms of pietism.

Another important concept is the “hiddenness of God.”3 God is pictured as operating always in hiddenness, for didn’t Christ come cloaked as a babe, and was he not mistaken as a criminal on the Cross? God discloses Himself in the midst of the daily tasks of life. To seek to live on a special plane is to demand that God disclose Himself openly.

The third idea is contained in the statement “always saved; always sinning.”4 Sin is viewed as any departure from the perfection of God; hence, finite man is always a sinner. It is the paradox of the gospel that in Christ, God can declare sinning man to be wrapped in righteousness. Hence, the liturgy weekly calls for corporate repentance, for we are always sinning. Warfield in his two-volume work, Perfectionism, terms this outlook “miserable sinner Christianity,” since there is little encouragement for improvement in the state of the believer.

Lest one brush aside the heavy-handed emphasis contained here on justification to the point where it practically minimizes personal holiness, let us count at least two worthwhile values: First, in Lutheranism there is a declaration of the awesome graciousness of God. Second, sin is viewed as exceedingly sinful.

The Reformed View

The Reformed view of sanctification must be seen in terms of the basic theological motif of Calvin: the glory of the sovereign God. The great systematician of the 16th century saw the elect of God declared to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ. This “positional holiness” bears the theological tag of justification. At the same time, the elect in actual experience, although infused with the grace of regeneration, are far from a level of perfection. The Calvinist, like the Lutheran, sees sin in large terms, as any falling short of the divine perfection. In this life, then, the actual holiness of the elect is never achieved; it is always relative and mixed. The elect bear always with them the marks of incompleteness and defilement. However, unlike the Lutheran position, there is a strong emphasis on the possibility of growth toward Christlikeness. In fact, such development is viewed as one of the marks of the elect.5 Hence, for the truly regenerate, there is an inevitability of growth in Christian character, for this is the work of the Holy Spirit whose task is only completed in the elect on the death of the saint.6 The great emphasis for the Reformed is gradual purification following justification; sanctification is the continuous process of developing the new life given at regeneration. This view, or some modification thereof, is held by a large segment of American Christianity.

The Keswick View

Keswick, an interdenominational movement largely associated with Reformed people, arose in the post-Civil-War period that spawned many “Deeper Life” and “Higher Life” groups. Its name derives from the conference grounds in the midlands of England where the first great conventions devoted to promoting holiness began. The Keswick movement is one of the more enduring of the groups that originated in the late 19th century.

The great emphasis of the Keswick conventions is that one can expect to live normally in victory over conscious, willful sin. The language most characteristic of this movement is counteraction.7 Based on Galatians 5, the warfare of the Christian life is pictured as an encounter between the Spirit of holiness and the tendency to sin, which is an ever-present reality, ready to seize the initiative should the believer for a moment not continue to exercise faith. In the proportion to which the believer yields to the indwelling Holy Spirit, he has a “maintained condition” (but not a fixed state) of victory over conscious sin.8

F.B. Meyer, Andrew Murray, H.C.G. Mottle, and Graham Scroggie are some of the biblical expositors who were frequent Keswick speakers. Perhaps best known popularly is the work of Hannah Whitall Smith, wife of the founder of Keswick, who wrote The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.

Christian and Missionary Alliance

A step beyond the Keswick teaching toward the Wesleyan position is that of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a denomination that came into being during the “Higher Life” episode of the post-Civil-War era. The Alliance view bears some resemblances to the Keswick view, especially in its insistence on positive terminology and its self-conscious efforts to evade the onus of “eradicationism.”9 “Present victory” is a frequent expression. The similarity to the Wesleyan position is in the emphatic announcement that sanctification is an experience of a crisis type subsequent to justification.10 Common to both the Keswick and the Wesleyan views is the definition of sin. Sin, with respect to the attainment possible in the Christian life, is viewed as a conscious violation of a known law. In this framework all statements about the possibility of victorious living are made.

The terminology of the Christian and Missionary Alliance with regard to the doctrine of holiness, or sanctification, is Christocentric. “Christ in you” is a repeated assertion, revealing the work of the sanctifying Spirit to be understood as exalting the Christ-life in the believer.11 For the one who has experienced the second blessing, the normal state of the sanctified is victory over conscious sin. Avoiding the danger of perfectionism, this victory is looked upon as relative, permitting of growth. The central emphasis, however, is not on progression, but on present victory. This crisis experience is entered into by an act of faith, in which the believer affirms his identification with the risen Lord.

The Wesleyan View

John Wesley’s influence not only has carried down through the Methodist bodies, but also has splashed over into a wider grouping of denominational and interdenominational societies, which are together referred to commonly as the “holiness movement.” A rather strong case can be made for this segment of American Christianity being the primary matrix of the modern Pentecostal movement.

In the early 18th century a spiritual refreshing touched Lutheranism on the European continent. The Pietist movement of Spener and Francke emphasized personal vital Christian experience in reaction to the arid scholasticism of 17th-century Lutheran orthodoxy. In England, and later in America, a similar movement developed, chiefly through the leadership of John Wesley in reaction to scholasticism and rationalism.

The common denominator of the holiness bodies is the distinctive Wesleyan teaching regarding “entire sanctification.” Wesley stated pointedly that justification is by itself imperfect. It is necessary, following the justification of the sinner, for a subsequent experience to occur in which the propensity to sin is rooted out, or “eradicated.” Wesley chose to term this experience positively as “perfect love.”12 His antagonists pressed him for further definition, including what this meant in relation to sin. He was forced to outline the limits of the sanctifying experience in terms of conscious violations of known laws, hence, limited to a relative perfection only.

If Lutheranism emphasizes the grace of God and the sinfulness of sin, Wesleyanism should be seen on the other end of the theological spectrum as a plea for present vital experience in which the goal God has destined for men is not entirely futuristic. Perhaps the greatest weakness of this view is its conception of sin as an entity that can be rooted out of the personality, rather than sin-as-relationship, which appears to the writer to be a more biblical concept.

The Range of Assemblies of God Views

The statement of fundamental truths of the Assemblies of God employs the term entire sanctification. However, that this term is not generally interpreted in a strict Wesleyan sense is easily discernible from a brief survey of some representative writers in the Assemblies of God. In fact, as we shall see, there is considerable breadth displayed, ranging in similarity from the Reformed view to the Keswick view.

Myer Pearlman writes, “Since the Spirit does not work magically, but in a vital and progressive manner, it is by degrees that the soul is renewed. Faith must be strengthened through many tests; love must be fortified to survive hardship and temptation. Allurements to sin must be overcome; tendencies and habits must be corrected. … The operation of the Spirit is progressive, going ‘from the heart to the surface, from the interior to the exterior.’ ”13 Pearlman’s emphasis is upon the progressive work of the Spirit, flowing continuously and progressively from regeneration, in the manner typical of Reformed theology. The baptism with the Holy Spirit is understood as an enduement of power for service, paralleled by another type of the Spirit’s operation, that is His progressive and continuous sanctifying action.

W.I. Evans writes, “All our physical senses are solicited by temptation because of the evil environment in which we live.”14 The power of sin as a dominating force is broken at regeneration, “Being delivered through Christ’s death from the power of sin, now we have a responsibility.”15 This responsibility is to yield ourselves to the domination of the Holy Spirit. “By the illumination, the power, the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, Calvary becomes effectual in its operation in us.”16 This emphasis on the present availability of victory over conscious sin through a continuous yielding to the ministry of the Holy Spirit bears a similarity in outlook, if not in terminology, to the Keswick “counteraction” view. It is nearer this view than the Alliance view since there is no emphasis on a crisis experience.

E.S. Williams, apparently sensing that much of the battling is about words, avoids the term sanctification altogether, in his theology notes. He prefers the topic, “Life of Victory.”17 There is a statement on the possibility of a present victorious life, but the limits are not defined, and one gathers readily that this is not to be understood as in any sense a static plateau of perfectionism arrived at through a crisis experience. The emphasis is general: one may be dominated either by the Spirit or by the flesh; the believer can cultivate one form of life or the other, with appropriate results to follow in each case, based on Romans 8. Certainly the believer is not expected to flounder in perpetual struggle and failure, for “the Spirit has come to guide into a holy life.”18


Much of the apparent conflict among the Protestant theologies of sanctification is obviously due to comparing unlike elements. Lutheran and Reformed views emphasize the sinfulness and depravity of man; sin is any departure from an absolute norm. The views that range from there over to the Wesleyan pole describe sin in terms of that for which man is personally, rationally responsible. In these views, man is not allowed to resign himself to an inevitable human condition, but he is challenged to appropriate the means of grace so the Spirit of holiness may effectually operate in his life.

Lutheran theology reminds us of the sinfulness of sin, and of the grace of God in clothing finite, sinful man with the perfection of Christ. Reformed theology points to the purpose of our existence, that we are to glorify God, that righteous living is a mark of the elect, and that progress is to be expected in the Christian life. The Keswick doctrine emphasizes the present, daily ministry of the Holy Spirit who comes to war against the intrusions of the flesh. The Alliance position points to the ministry of the Holy Spirit who comes to make real the Christ who dwells within. The Wesleyan position, howbeit couched in language difficult to sustain, has been the fountainhead of a yearning for vital Christian experience. Assemblies of God views on the subject reflect a basic affinity for the Reformed position, but with sufficient latitude to embrace a rather wide range of views that would challenge the believer to make room in his life for the Spirit of holiness.


1. Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. G.W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), I, 111.

2. Martin Luther, Disputation Against the Scholastics, 1517. (Unpublished translation by George W. Forell).

3. John Dillenberger, Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1961), 502.

4. Martin Luther, Ninety-Five Theses, No. 4 (Unpublished translation by George W. Forell).

5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translation F.W. Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1031.

6. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1946), III, 221.

7. Steven Barabas, So Great Salvation (Westwood, New Jersey: Revell, n.d.), 105.

8. Ibid., 90.

9. A.B. Simpson, Christ Our Sanctifier (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Christian Publication, 1963), 11.

10. Loc. cit.

11. Ibid. 12.

12. John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (London: Wesleyan-Methodist Book House, n.d.), 56–57.

13. Myer Pearlman, Knowing the Doctrines of the Bible (Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1937), 308.

14. William I. Evans, This River Must Flow (Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1954), 20–21.

15. Ibid., 23.

16. Ibid., 26.

17. E.S. Williams, Systematic Theology (Springfield, Missouri: Gospel Publishing House, 1953), III, 34.

18. Loc.cit.

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