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 A Discussion of Holiness Theology
DiscussionSummary of an Interview with Geoffrey J. Paxton

Editorial Note: Geoffrey J. Paxton is the principal of the Queensland Bible Institute, which is an interdenominational, evangelical Bible training college in Brisbane, Australia. For a number of years he has specialized in the study of the Reformation issues.

Editor: Mr. Paxton, do you consider that a wrong theology of holiness and sanctification "breeds" Pentecostalism?

Paxton: Yes, I do! The modern Pentecostal movement sprang out of a nineteenth-century American phenomenon known as the holiness movement. Its emphasis on what sanctification is and how it is achieved was a radical departure from Reformation theology.

This pseudo-holiness theology is rampant in the Protestant churches today, especially among good, conservative and earnest Christians. Although they may be opposed to the tongues movement, their theology is basically Pentecostal and they are unwittingly promoting Pentecostalism.

Editor: What are the chief characteristics of this false holiness theology?

Paxton: All good theology makes a distinction between justification and sanctification, but a common error is to divorce sanctification from justification. Sanctification is then viewed as a separate act of itself beyond (or above) the blessing of justification. This sort of sanctification may be viewed in the following ways:

(1) Justification is seen as God's work whereas sanctification is seen as our responsibility. Of course, few would articulate it as bluntly as this, but popular books on "victorious living" advocate special "preconditions," "secrets" and "keys" in which we must exercise ourselves if "God's best" is to become ours. This philosophy of activism may also be called Christian pietism.

(2) Sanctification is seen as completely the work of God. In this approach little or no stress is placed upon the activity of the believer. In fact we are told that such effort can be a hindrance to true sanctity. Here we are told to "Let go and let God." Here the blessed state is "utter yieldedness to Him," "complete abandonment," "allowing Him to live His life through us." This is quietism.

(3) Sanctification is seen in static categories. The emphasis is placed upon the quantity of faith, love, etc., in the believer. Sanctification is seen in terms of "qualities of being" which the believer possesses. Hence the gaze of the believer is on himself, inward and not outward, downward and not upward, self-centered and not Christ-centered. Hence we may call this emphasis "internalism" in contrast to "external ism." One only has to examine many of the popular hymn books to see this believer-oriented mentality.

(4) It is not surprising, then, in the light of these things, that much popular teaching on sanctification is implicitly (if not outright explicitly) perfectionistic. People are told that the higher life of sanctification is obtainable if only they measure up to two perfectionistic conditions: absolute surrender, and freedom from all known sin.

Absolute Surrender: Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross exhibited the only absolute surrender ever seen in this world. In the light of His absolute surrender and our own radical sinfulness of nature, we must flee from any confidence in even our acts of consecration and hide ourselves in the absolute surrender of our Substitute. The way of "holiness" teaching is to get the blessing based on our "absolute surrender" (which is an impossibility). The way of the gospel is to receive God's benefits based on Christ's absolute surrender on our behalf. The former is to advocate perfectionism. The latter is the Bible truth of righteousness by faith.

Freedom from All Known Sin: Certainly a son of God does not set himself to practice evil (I John 3:9), but who could say he is free from all known sin (unless he is utterly blind to the spirituality of the law and the radical fault of his nature)? The universal testimony of the prophets and apostles is that they knew they fell short of God's glory and they were conscious of imperfection in their best endeavors and holiest duties. The man who went down from the Temple acceptable to God was not the one who could find nothing amiss but the one who said, "God be merciful to me a sinner."

Editor: In what respects does such teaching differ from the Reformation understanding?

Paxton: The Reformers did not separate sanctification from justification in such a way as to make them unrelated and quite apart from each other. The idea of justification as the work of God and sanctification as the work of man finds no support in Reformation teaching. Professor Berkouwer reproduces the emphasis of the Reformers when he says, "We may never speak of sanctification as if we are entering — having gone through the gate of justification — upon a new, independent field of operation . . . "—G. C. Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification, p.42. In contrast to the pietism, quietism, internalism and perfectionism of "holiness" teachers, we may say:

(1) The Reformers were not pietistic. They did not stress the action of the Christian to the diminution of the grace of God. Faith was stressed in relation to sanctification as well as to justification. The initiative of the sovereign God was not lost sight of amid the constant exhortations to godliness. The imperative "ought" was not used to diminish the great indicative "is" of redemptive mercy and grace. Faith in God alone is the sponsor of good works as far as Luther was concerned.

(2) While the Reformers did not so play up the action of the believer as to play down the gracious initiative of God, neither did they stress the initiative of divine grace so as to exclude the response of the believer. The Reformers were not quietistic. According to Luther, faith precedes good works, and works follow faith. The Reformers did not teach faith which is removed from the concrete realities of daily existence. Rather, saving faith sponsors a life of devout acts. Both Luther and Calvin stressed the necessity for the believer to "work out" his salvation as well as stressing "For it is God which worketh . . . " (Phil. 2:12, 13). In so far as they stressed "For it is God which worketh . . . ," they excluded pietism; and in stressing "work out your own salvation," they excluded quietism.

(3) The Reformers were not internalistic in their thinking. To say this is not to say that either Luther or Calvin denied any internal work. However, the Reformers stressed the objective realities of salvation, the righteousness of Christ and the promise of God. Certainly the gaze of the believer was to be constantly fixed on the sovereign God, who has revealed Himself finally in the Word. In fact, this is the very nature of saving faith; it focuses itself upon God and His mercy.

(4) The Reformers did not tolerate perfectionism in any form this side of heaven. Perfectionism is the premature seizure of the glory that will be. Often in the churches, one hears of the defeat depicted (supposedly) in Romans 7 and the need for the victory revealed in Romans 8. This approach is highly suspect from two points: it has grave exegetical difficulties, and it fails to perceive precisely what Romans 8 is really saying.

The believer of Romans 8 is one who is called to suffer here and now (vs. 1 7, 18) and to realize that there is glory still to be revealed (v. 18). Such a believer is said to groan and travail. He has the first fruits of the Spirit (v.23). Rather than having the "all" here and now, the believer is waiting (v.23) because he is saved only in hope (v.24). Whereas today we are being told of the demonstration of fullness of an experience in the Spirit, Paul tells us that we do not see such fullness at all (v.24). In fact, our hope is the basis of our endurance (vs. 24, 25). To teach fullness of an experience in the Spirit here is to rob the believer of his hope. Could the emphasis upon the "here and now" be responsible for the great lack of interest in the Lord's return and the great "there and then"?

Editor: Are you against holiness?

Paxton: Certainly not. I am against false views of holiness which, in actual fact, inhibit if not prohibit true holiness. Holiness is being concerned about God's holiness, not our own. Of course, once we are concerned about God's holiness and once our attention is focused on such, we will image God, we will highlight what He eternally is by the way we live.

"Holiness" which is seen as something the believer achieves by dint of effort, or even by refusing to have anything to do with effort (!), is not the holiness of which the Bible speaks. Such "holiness,"with which a great many Christians are concerned, reflects an egoistic desire to "be something" or (and this I think is more often the case) to go through life untroubled and unscathed by its pressures and complexities! Hence self-interest and introspection often characterize such holiness-seekers. Merit-mentality is never far away either.

Editor: How does the common view of "holiness" inhibit real holiness?

Paxton: Because:  

Firstly, it inhibits real holiness in so far as it provides a substitute for the real thing. And such substitutes are not good enough.

Secondly, the common emphasis upon holiness concentrates very heavily upon the faith of the believer. We are constantly being urged to believe more, to have stronger faith, to be more yeilded, etc. This emphasis is most probably based upon the presupposition that faith is the product of human subjectivity. Now, in actuality, faith is not a product of human subjectivity. The way not to increase faith is to focus on faith. Faith is deepened by the highlighting of the great Object of faith — His person and work. Faith not only takes its value from its Object, but it is deepened by greater involvement with its Object, not itself.

Thirdly, the dominant approach to "holiness" wishes to eradicate the tension between the "already" and the "not yet" of the Biblical perspective.

I have often heard it said that only unbelief on the believer's part stops him from enjoying God's "all." "All that God has to give us is available only if ... " is a common assertion. Such teaching is a flagrant contradiction of the New Testament. This is no more clearly demonstrated than in the way Paul designates the Holy Spirit.

Paul designates the Spirit as first fruits (aparche) in Romans 8:23. Such emphasizes the beginning-character of the gift of the Spirit and focuses attention also (that is, in addition to, or alongside of, the present reality of the Spirit) on the expectation of the final, full harvest. Paul also refers to the Spirit as a pledge (arrabon) in Ephesians 1:14, etc. Referring to the Spirit as a pledge refers to the veracity of the promise of ultimate fulness and the validity of the Christian's expectation.

Hence, to speak of the Spirit in terms which obscure the "not yet" dimension is to distort the perspective of the New Testament. The way the "not yet" is obscured is by an unwarranted overemphasis upon the "already," the present gift of the Spirit, which is a glorious reality.

There is nothing which will disturb the true Biblical teaching upon holiness more than giving this penultimate age ultimate significance. We are not permitted to bring the ultimate "then" into the penultimate "now." This age is seen properly when it is seen in the light of the end, not when it is viewed as the end. In my opinion, this is one of the most urgently-needed emphases in the churches today.

Finally, real holiness is inhibited because of a failure to handle the Word of God correctly. Substitutes, faith-centered ness and false perspectives are only possible so long as we continue to refuse a proper approach to the Bible. Faulty handling of the Word must result in sub-Christian living. In many respects, there is no attention paid to laws of interpretation and the need of careful and informed exegesis. Chaos has and will continue to result while these tragic matters continue.