The Beauty and Hope of the Holiness Message
As people are seated in Hughes Auditorium on the campus of Asbury College, their attention is directed immediately to the words above the organ, “Holiness unto the Lord.” This statement is rooted in Asbury’s Wesleyan Holiness tradition. While the meaning of “Holiness unto the Lord” is not immediately clear without a greater context in which to understand it, these words point to a beautiful possibility and hope in the present life. As such, let us take a moment to explore the reality to which it points.
To begin, we recognize the deepest longing of the human heart is to be fully God’s. Within each of us is the desire to love God without reservation, to live in faithful obedience to Him, and to give ourselves selflessly in love and service to other people, just as Christ did. This is the human yearning for holiness.
Every Christian knows this longing. It wells up inside of us at different times and in various ways. It comes to us in quiet moments of personal devotion or public worship when our souls experience God’s holy presence. It arises in moments of frustration when our best intentions to follow Christ falter and we fail God once again. It comes to us in moments of weariness from the unresolved conflict between our sinful impulses and the desire to follow God’s will. And it arises in moments when we serve others, but recognize our service is motivated by selfish ambitions. Time and again, as we go through life, our heart’s cry for holiness comes to the fore.
This longing should not come as any shock to us. In explaining the two greatest commandments and the summation of Old Testament law, Jesus taught that we are created by God to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Holiness is “nothing more and nothing less” than the fulfillment of Jesus’ teaching here. We are made to give ourselves to God and other people in love. Because we are made in the image and likeness of God, even though marred by sin, we are capable by God’s grace of reflecting divine love and walking in the righteousness of love. This longing is the way we are “wired” as human beings.
However, we recognize immediately the disparity between our internal motivations, outward actions and the holiest desires of our heart. While we may see love as our life’s purpose, we also know the apparent impossibility of fully walking in that love. Because of human sinfulness, the natural bent or proclivity of our heart is to love ourselves more than God and neighbor. While we may have a desire to love and serve God, our desire to please ourselves is stronger. As such, holy love does not come easily to us, but with great struggle. We naturally balk at the righteous requirements of love. Even when we want to serve God and to give ourselves selflessly to others, when “the rubber hits the road,” we falter all too often.
As Christians, therefore, we find ourselves in a frustrating predicament. One part of us longs to give ourselves completely to God and others in love, while another part, propelled by the natural inclination of our heart, seeks our own selfish ends. As such, we find that we do not have the internal power and resources to truly follow Christ. No amount of human will power can bring about the love for which we are made. We may desire to truly be a Christian, but not have the power to live the life to which we are called. We may desire to follow Christ in love, but not have the wherewithal to do so.
At this point a question must be asked. Is there something God can do in our present lives to liberate the holiest longings of our heart? Is there grace available through the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that can heal the distorted conditions of our lives?
Even if we don’t believe holy love is possible in our present lives, we must admit the idea is attractive. The prospect of a life defined by self-giving love of God and neighbor, which is the essence of holiness, is deeply beautiful. This is even more true for those who are confronted continually with their own depth of sin and grow exhausted with the ongoing internal war between “flesh” and “Spirit,” for those who yearn to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, yet lack the inner resources to be so, and for those who long for the full manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. To resolve the conflict of a divided life seems admittedly like a glorious dream and a stunning answer to our heart’s prayer.
However, what if the holiest longings of our heart can be realized in our present life? What if God makes possible the exchange of our “bent toward sinning” with a propensity to love God and neighbor, empowering us to walk in the righteousness of love? Wouldn’t we want to take advantage of it? The good news of Jesus Christ is God can set us free to love. This declaration and confession is not a source of pride, but a humble witness to the power of God “to save to the uttermost,” and an exhortation to struggling Christians to believe God to bring about the deepest longing of the human heart. This has been and continues to be the reading and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures down through the centuries of the Church.