There was a time in my life when I remember feeling a lot of pressure to choose between the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ or the importance of loving and serving other people. Around one group of people, I felt like talking about the need to read the Bible regularly and pray was seen as a form of escapism or navel gazing. Around the other group of people, I felt like concrete actions of love and service to others was fine, as long as it didn’t take away from the clear priority of spending one on one time with God. To be sure, I am oversimplifying the motivations of both groups. I don’t know about you, but I have felt at times like I was put in the awkward position of being asked to choose between cultivating a personal relationship with God or getting outside of myself and doing things for other people.
One day it occurred to me that this was a false choice. My faith calls me to say yes to both. Once I stopped wrestling with which one to pick, I started seeing how frequently Scripture emphasizes both a personal relationship with God and concrete actions that express love towards others. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment is, for example, he replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39)
Sometimes Christians are asked to choose between two things when they should affirm both of them.
As I have continued thinking about the relationship between sin and the Christian life, it seems to me that the conversation often puts radical forgiveness of past sins in contrast with deep transformation by an encounter with the living God.
Will you tell someone about how gracious and forgiving God is, or will you tell them about the possibility for living a new life that comes because of God’s grace?
The question is sometimes phrased in a way that implies that it is either/or, not both/and because there is a concern to avoid the perceived problems of one of them.
If you emphasize the depths of forgiveness that are available to us through Christ, the concern is that you may minimize the horror of sin. This is why I don’t like the cliché, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” This can quickly turn into cheap grace that presumes on God’s forgiveness as a way of excusing continued sin. I don’t really have to change, because God is forgiving. This view is effectively illustrated by the bumper sticker at the beginning of this post.
If you emphasize the reality that deep and lasting transformation (holiness) should come from an encounter with the living God, the concern is that you may heap judgment on someone who is still actively struggling with sin. A group of Christians that take holiness seriously may begin to veer away from their initial emphasis on the need for a transforming encounter with the Holy Spirit to a list of rules that define who is holy and who isn’t. This can quickly turn into legalism and pretending to be transformed, where Christians are most concerned to follow the rules and act the right way around each other. Ironically, and sadly, this also makes actual transformation by the grace of God that much more difficult.
And so, well-meaning Christians sign up to promote and defend either license or legalism, though of course neither group intends to do so at the outset. But that seems to be where each leads, particularly when separated from the other.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post that argued that Christians should not discount the possibility of real growth in holiness in this life, by the amazing grace of God. As I have thought about the conversation that followed, I have found myself coming back to the idea that Christians seem to feel pressure to choose between either believing that God forgives us when we make mistakes, or that God transforms us by the power of the Holy Spirit and makes us like his Son.
But, thanks be to God, Christians do not have to choose between forgiveness and transformation. The gospel offers us both. Indeed, we are sinners who are desperately in need of forgiveness. And holiness is not about what we can do for ourselves by our determined effort. Holiness is about what God is able and willing to do in us.
Christians in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition ought to particularly refuse to choose between forgiveness (justification) and holiness (sanctification), as Wesley himself was adamant that both were part of the Christian life. In her recent book, Discovering Christian Holiness: The Heart of Wesleyan-Holiness Theology, Diane Leclerc suggests that over the last generation Wesleyans have not been very good stewards of the message of holiness. She points to a crisis, which is not a crisis over how to communicate holiness, but a more devastating crisis of silence, “the lack of articulation of holiness” (15). As a result, Leclerc finds that “the pendulum seems to have swung from legalism to pessimism about victory over sin. Many of my students believe that sin is inevitable, pervasive, and enduring in a Christian’s life. Sadly, they seem to be unaware of a different way to live” (17).
Leclerc beautifully summarizes Wesley’s optimism of grace:
Sin need no longer reign in the heart. An outpouring of God’s love into the heart ‘excludes sin.’ We can live truly holy lives. As Wesley would say, to deny such optimism would make the power of sin greater than the power of grace – an option that should be unthinkable for Wesleyan-Holiness theology. (27)
In emphasizing the possibility of a Christian becoming holy such that love “excludes sin,” Wesley did not deny our need for forgiveness. In fact, he insisted that justification by faith was logically prior to the new birth and growth in holiness. Wesley was adamant that we are all in desperate need of God’s gracious forgiveness. But he also insisted that God wants to free us not only from guilt and condemnation, but also from the very things that have power over our lives that bring guilt and condemnation.
Holiness is not about our power or strength. It is about God. Which do we believe is more powerful, sin or God’s grace?
The remedy the Great Physician offers is not a partial treatment that requires us to continue limping through the rest of life. Rather, he makes our joyful obedience possible. He makes it possible for us to not only be servants of God, but to be sons and daughters of God.
So, are you for forgiveness or holiness? The best answer for Christians is: “Yes!” The gospel is not complete if it is not a word of forgiveness and a word of new possibility.
Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology & Wesleyan Studies at Seattle Pacific University. You can keep up with this blog on twitter @kevinwatson or on facebook at Vital Piety.