Any Christian theological tradition as it goes through time, ready to offer its witness to a new age, must be mindful of the basic marks of the church that make it the body of Christ in the world and not some other entity. In the fourth century, at the First Council of Constantinople in AD 381, the ancient ecumenical church affirmed four chief characteristics: the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. In light of this, the clarion call of historic eighteenth-century Methodism to “spread scriptural holiness over the land”1 was and remains, among other things, a celebration of the very identity of the church.
Holiness as Holy Love
Both John and Charles Wesley underscored the necessity of holiness in practical Christian living. When the Wesley brothers wrote about holiness they often employed the expression “holy love” to convey the full extent of their meaning. In fact, an examination of The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley reveals more than sixteen such uses.2 Indeed, so important was this expression to John Wesley in particular, which helped to specify a vital part of his own theological posture, that this expression repeatedly emerged in his letters, journals, sermons, and, of course, in his classic A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.3 One of the reasons this particular rhetoric was so important to Wesley is that he believed, judging from an examination of its numerous occurrences in his writings, that holy love has very much to do with the essence of who God is, that is, how the Most High has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. It’s hard to get more important than that.
Since God is love, which John Wesley refers to as the Almighty’s “darling attribute,”4 and the Most High is, of course, holy, then the great problem for humanity is that it is neither of these things and certainly not in the way that God is. In other words, sin in the form of both actual sins (plural), both of commission and omission, inward and outward, as well as inbred sin (singular), that is, an ongoing corrupted nature, have together barred the way. God is bliss, to be sure, the very essence of holiness, happiness, and love, but humanity by itself cannot find its way back to this bliss in whose image it was originally created. Again, the alienating, perverting, and disruptive power of sin blocks the way. This is why the phrase “holy love” by itself could never be, as odd as this may seem, an apt description, a suitable summary, of the practical theology of either John or Charles Wesley. Given the fallenness of humanity, this phrase simply describes the being of God. How, then, could holy love ever describe humanity? For that, two things will be required.
The Foundation and Reception of Holy Love
First of all, the atoning work of Jesus Christ, the God/Human, the Mediator, the one who can overcome the alienation, the chasm, the broad expanse between God and humanity, is absolutely necessary. Given the intensive and extensive nature of our sin and alienation, only someone who is not a part of the problem can redeem. So then, unless God comes, takes on flesh, becomes incarnate, and then descends to the lowest depths of torture, mocking, and shame at Golgotha, holy love, the very radiance of the divine life, would not be a possibility for any human being—none at all!
One of the reasons this particular rhetoric was so important to Wesley is that he believed, judging from an examination of its numerous occurrences in his writings, that holy love has very much to do with the essence of who God is, that is, how the Most High has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Second, though the atoning work of Christ at the cross is the basis, the foundation, for both the forgiveness of sins and for the renewal of our nature, these gifts must be communicated to humanity and received. In other words, provision has already been made by the Redeemer for all people, but such a provision must be embraced. How will this happen? How will this wonderful occurrence take place? In one word: grace! That is, unless grace is also in the picture, holy love cannot mark the lives of human beings, any human being. Indeed, men, women, and children, left to their own devices, would simply remain in their sins and be dominated by its guilt and power. Therefore, the proper summation of John Wesley’s practical theology, in particular, is both holiness (holy love) and grace (both free and cooperant)—never one without the other. Moreover, just how the holy love of God is communicated to believers is precisely the challenge of sanctification, the very lifeblood of the church.
Remarkably enough, not everyone wants to receive what provision Christ has made in his atoning work simply because the reception of the forgiveness of sins (justification) and holiness or holy love (the new birth) is very disruptive to the lives of sinners. In other words, the embracing of such salvific graces calls for both transformation and renewal that flow in the wake of repentance. Indeed, God loves us so very well in Jesus Christ that the Most High refuses to leave us where we are. We are, therefore, ever called forward into transcendence. However, some would rather hold onto their own sins by either failing to acknowledge them or if they are, after all, grudgingly recognized in moments of honesty and self-awareness, then they simply refuse to repent of these sins such that holy love, the presence of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, this miracle of grace, never happens.
The Possibility of Error and Misunderstanding
Thinking of sanctification as holiness and then taking up the rhetoric of holy love as John Wesley did in his own writings is helpful to illuminate not only the lives of believers as they are transformed by grace, but also the very nature of the church itself in its worldwide mission. Thus, if we reflect upon the phrase “holy love” for a moment, we immediately recognize that a tension, though not a contradiction, is in the offing. On the one hand, the word holiness as Wesley defined it involved both simplicity and purity. To illustrate, in a letter drafted to Miss March in 1771 he observed: “Always remember the essence of Christian holiness is simplicity and purity . . .”5 So understood, simplicity entails being rightly focused on God in all our doings; purity entails separation from what is unholy in terms of people, places, or things. On the other hand, the word love seems to be moving in a very different direction, so to speak. That is, love ever seeks communion, the embrace of the “other,” and as Jesus has taught us, love even includes the enemy in its circle of care and concern in terms of both good will and prayer (Matt. 5:44). The dynamic tension of holy love, then, the essence of sanctification, is emblematic of the identity of the church itself, as it is called out of the world to be a peculiar people, set apart, in which pearls are not cast before swine (Matt. 7:6), and yet, that same church is called to go into the world, seeking communion and embrace, in its glorious far-flung mission. This dynamic tension of out of and into can easily unravel in one of two ways, one of which, in particular, has led to the unenviable position of the Methodist church today.
The Problem of Holiness Apart from Love
Many Wesleyan traditions have emerged out of the great eighteenth-century revival that took place in Britain and elsewhere. Some of those traditions, however, have had difficulty exploring holiness or holy love in both a sophisticated and very balanced way. In the North American setting, for instance, from the nineteenth century forward, several more conservative traditions mistook their own social and cultural location as one of the best guides as to what holiness was all about. Mistaking a number of cultural taboos for what holiness meant in practical Christian living, these holiness leaders brought forth a host of dos and don’ts that was supposed to be descriptive of the beauty of holiness but, in the end, was actually more a reflection of a cultural or, better yet, subcultural vision of their own liking. These taboos, now mistaken for the very will of God or what constitutes holiness, are familiar to many of us today and they remain perplexing to some both inside and outside the church: no drinking alcohol, no attending the theatre, no going to the movies, no watching TV, no jewelry in any form (not even the wearing of wedding rings), no dancing, women must grow their hair long, and on and on it goes.
There are two key problems with such an approach to holiness. First of all, many in these Christian subcultures will actually begin to relish their own distinctiveness, being set apart from others precisely through the adoption of their taboos. Beyond this, some members will even begin to take comfort, on some level, in the separation between themselves and those “other” Christians beyond their tightly drawn subculture circles. Indeed, the theme of separation is so strong here that it might even produce a climate of alienation in so many social relationships even within the church. But what of holy love, a love that seeks communion and fellowship with the other? And what of Jesus, the one who attended Matthew’s feast, the one of whom it was said: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds” (Matt. 11:19)?
Second, Christian communities are free, of course, to take up a self-chosen and distinct way of life embracing any number of regulations. What they are not free to do, however, is to maintain that many, if not all of these strictures, are required of all Christians precisely in order to be holy. Consider this: Can a woman whose daughter takes ballet classes be holy? Can a man who enjoys a glass of wine with his wife at dinner be entirely sanctified? Could Jesus, the wine-drinking Jew, be utterly holy? We immediately see the problem with such a legalistic approach to holiness. It’s stumbling all over itself because it has taken the unessential, what Luther called adiaphora—that is, such things as ballet dancing, drinking wine, and hair length—and effectively made them essential. The subcultural taboos have now become hardened barriers between insiders and outliers. They now bar the way. In other words, so many unnecessary obstacles or stumbling blocks have now been thrown in the way of those outside the gates who want to come in and embrace Jesus. Such a legalistic approach, then, fails to understand holiness aright simply because, in the end, it fails to comprehend love aright. The dynamic tension entailed in holy love is hardly evident is this first error, the first misconfiguration, of holy love.6
The Problem of Love Apart from Holiness
The second way in which the dynamic tension of holy love is disrupted, especially in terms of the identity of the church as the body of Christ, is evident when love is, for all practical purposes, defined apart from holiness. Part of the difficulty here is the English language itself. Our one little word love, for instance, unlike its several Greek counterparts, has to do all sorts of double or even triple duty, from highlighting what’s entailed in the glorious worship of God to celebrating the degrading and enslaving aspects of particular human lusts. At other times love simply means self-will, however well-masked or hidden, in which the rhetoric of “I, me, and mine” predominates, or on a social level, in which the will of particular favored groups, an unswerving ethnocentrism, is advocated. If individuals are selfish, and they clearly are, then groups are inordinately so, as Reinhold Niebuhr has taught us so well. In other words, the word love so variously defined is quite a slippery one. It’s actually a weasel word. Its content, then, can be understood in an almost fill-in-the-blanks fashion. Our one little English word love does it all!
One of the key dangers, then, in terms of the definition of love, has to do with the threat of cultural accommodation or co-optation. In other words, the word love, even when it is used in the church, can be largely informed by broad movements, along with their leading ideas, that are dominant in any given culture. In this setting, in which love will basically be defined or, rather, redefined apart from holiness, the church runs the risk of having its very own language undermined by strong cultural and even political forces. Like the threat that the early church faced in terms of Gnosticism, the vocabulary of the faith such as sin, grace, salvation, love, and Christ, will indeed be employed, and so the naive among us may be misled, but such words will all be given new meanings. In effect, the ground has shifted beneath us.
When much of the vocabulary of the church has been redefined, in terms of powerful social, cultural, and political currents, then this is solid evidence that the regrettable event of narrative displacement has indeed occurred. Put another way, when this shift takes place, the gospel story of holy love rooted in the atoning work of Jesus Christ has effectively been switched out in which another story, an alien narrative, often championed by cultural elites, has now been declared to be the real meaning of the good news for all people. Indeed, ever since the General Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1972 championed theological diversity in its Book of Discipline, several key bishops and theologians throughout the decades have been busy retooling in search of newfangled narratives, often very partisan and political ones, more in tune with the times and with the spirit of the age than with the faithful, painstaking, and suffering witness of the historic church.
When the gospel has been politicized or enculturated in the church, especially among its ecclesiastical leaders (as well among as its boards and agencies), its self-appointed prophets rarely champion radical obedience to Jesus Christ in the pursuit of costly holiness but, instead, they promote the autonomous freedom celebrated in Western societies as individuals and groups are encouraged to give free vent to their own desires. Such “disciples” end up pursuing a mode of life, though it is very well-masked, that actually leaves human will (and that of the groups with which they identify) very much at the center of things. Freedom is no longer understood as the consequence of an arduous and disciplined life, in which the wayward dispositions of the heart and the errant desires of the community are overcome by the grace of God. Instead, freedom is now understood as the emergence of a vaunted expressive will, whether that of an individual or of a favored community, and whether it is holy or not. Bringing in the language of “justice” and “righteousness” and the like in such a co-opted and compromised setting serves to mask the self-deception of lives that are very much and remain unholy. In short, politics has edged out theology; humanity has displaced God. In the end, it’s all about us.
The Way Forward
In the face of these two misguided approaches, holiness apart from love, on the one hand, and love apart from holiness, on the other, the church is called by Jesus Christ, its head, to live in the midst of the dynamic tension of holy love. Flat-footed answers in the church, though they are easy and comfortable, and though they provide all sorts of social benefits, especially for its leaders, have not worked in the past; they will not work in the future. In fact, such answers have brought about the very crisis that Methodism is in today. What’s needed, then, in the face of this predicament, is nothing less than a reinvigorated Methodism that, on the one hand, is welcoming to all, in which nothing artificial has been thrown in the way, and that, on the other hand, calls all those who are welcomed to lay aside a sinful, self-referential will. Indeed, all those who are invited are called to take up the yoke of obedience in grace and through faith, by means of which they will discover real liberty, not the phony kind of liberty that the world offers, but real liberty, the kind that sets the captives free.
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1. Thomas Jackson, ed., The Works of John Wesley, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1978), 8:299.
2. John Wesley and Charles Wesley, The Poetical Works of John and Charles Wesley (London: Wesleyan Methodist Conference Office, 1868), 1:33, 1:169, 4:201, 4:319, 9:101, 9:188, 9:339, 10:106, 10:490, 11:32, 11:97, 11:315, 12:241, 12:379, 13:32, and 13:214. I am indebted to Dr. Ted Campbell for pointing out these references.
3. W. Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Works of John Wesley, bicentennial ed., vol. 20: Journals and Diaries III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991), 382–83; 457; Albert C. Outler, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vols. 1–4, The Sermons (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), 1:195, 312, 413; 2:40, 47, 334; Thomas Jackson, ed., The Works of John Wesley, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1978), 11:207–8; 11:368; 12:71.
4. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (Salem, OH: Schmul Publishers, no date), 637 [1 John 4:8].
5. John Telford, ed., The Letters of John Wesley, A.M., 8 vols. (London: The Epworth Press, 1931), 5:238. (To Miss March, April 14, 1771).
6. Another difficulty here is the confusion of an ethic suited to entire sanctification with that pertaining to a child of God, one now regenerated. Simply put, such an approach confuses the highest reaches of the Christian life with its very beginning. This misconception is also mirrored in the distinction between a reforming impulse within the church and the broader church itself. In other words, the ecclesiolae has been mistaken for the full ecclesia.