In my last post in this series: How I Came to see Holiness in a Brand New Way, pt 1, I briefly wrote about how my struggles with sin became a faith crisis. Addictive sin leads you into despair and makes you question every aspect of your beliefs. You wonder: is there something I’m supposed to know that’s supposed to help me get over this? Why is this easier for others but not for me?
As a Christian, an addiction to pornography led me to asking: Does Christianity have any real power? Can Jesus really save me from my sin? Or is Christianity just about forgiveness and then trying as hard as you can not to do it again?
I worked this out by doing lots and lots of reading. My views on holiness became mainly Puritan in their construct. But while my outward conduct changed in a big way, what I couldn’t quite change was what kept happening inside whenever temptations came or someone even just spoke about their own addictions. In short, I felt like my desires would never change – but I resolved that that’s just the way it is. Martin Luther was particularly helpful for me.
“No man is to despair of salvation just because he is aware of the lust of the flesh. Let him be aware of it so long as he does not yield to it. The passion of lust, wrath, and other vices may shake him, but they are not to get him down. Sin may assail him, but he is not to welcome it. Yes, the better Christian a man is, the more he will experience the heat of the conflict. This explains the many expressions of regret in the Psalms and in the entire Bible…. Everybody is to determine his peculiar weakness and guard against it. Watch and wrestle in spirit against your weakness. Even if you cannot completely overcome it, at least you ought to fight against it.” – Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians.
In his writings, Luther says a lot about the difference between having a desire and giving into a desire. This is fairly standard faire in Christian theology. I eventually decided to write a book called Holy Sinwhere I was going to contend that Jesus has already made us holy when he saved us (1 Corinthians 6:11) and therefore, we ought not to worry about how holy we really are but ought to just keep on fighting.
But when I found 1 Thessalonians 5:23,24 I was stumped. I simply couldn’t find any way to read this in any other way except to read a promise in it that at once both scared me and excited me. Could it be true?
1 Thessalonians 5:23 (NET)
Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy and may your spirit and soul and body be kept entirely blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is trustworthy, and he will in fact do this.
He will in fact do what? He will, in fact, make you completely holy. When? I checked other translations – the word ‘at [the coming]’ is often translated as ‘unto’ (Geneva Bible, KJV) – which is the same as ‘until’ – or translated as ‘for’ in other Bibles. This indicated, to me, that he would make us completely holy before he comes again. (The way the verse is written would indicate that even if you didn’t use ‘unto’ or ‘for’). The context of the scripture certainly implies that while the Thessalonians were holy and set apart for God, God would make them completely holy. (In my forthcoming book, Holy Sin I go into this scripture in more detail.)
I had previously read in John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection this:
“A Christian is so far perfect, as not to commit sin. This is the glorious privilege of every Christian, yea, though he be but a babe in Christ. But it is only of grown Christians it can be affirmed, they are in such a sense perfect, as, Secondly to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers. First, from evil or sinful thoughts… If, therefore, the heart be no longer evil, then evil thoughts no longer proceed out of it: For a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit… a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin.”
When I had first read this in Wesley’s book I was shocked. I had simply never heard this anywhere else before. I had thought he was just a well-known evangelist, but where did this come from? It was so different to anything else I had ever heard at all. In truth, it all seemed crazy. I read through the entire book and found it encouraging but perplexing. I wondered if it may be true – but decided that it probably wasn’t. Then months later I read 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24 and realised: this sounds like what Wesley was saying! But could it be true? Could it be that God would sanctify me completely? Wholly? Entirely?
I immediately researched this crazy notion. What I found was a whole new world I had simply never ever heard about. Not even the Methodists I knew (John Wesley was the founder of the Methodist church, for those that don’t know) had ever told me about this. In all my years of studying and learning and reading, I had simply never heard of this. I wondered why. Then I realised it’s because what it is promising seems so far out of reach and so absolutely amazing that it’s too difficult to believe. When I checked out what some of my favourite writers had to say about it (for many I had to dig deep) I discovered that it’s been something that’s been generally looked down upon.
Well that piqued my interest. I know I’m interested in heresies since it’s my job to know as a Christian writer, but was this really a heresy, as some called it?
Well, not wanting to be seen as crazy, I kept it all to myself and decided that if all these people who I respected so much didn’t see this in the Bible then it couldn’t be there. There must be some other way to read 1 Thessalonians 5:23, 24 and many other scriptures that looked like they could be saying something different than I thought they had before.
So I checked to see if there was any other way of reading it. I read plenty of explanations. I even asked one particular well-known and respected American evangelical who had come to visit my church what he thought. He told me he had actually been brought up in the teaching of ‘entire sanctification’ (what it’s commonly called) but he had changed his mind on it. But I found his explanations less than straightforward.
Then I started seeing it all over the Bible. I had heard that 1 John was Wesley’s favourite book, so I decided I would read it and see why that would be. 1 John is a difficult book and I’ve always found it particularly hard. But suddenly the book completely changed. I read it and read it and read it and couldn’t believe it. It seemed, that, in fact, you could see this there. Perhaps it was true! God wants to do a work in us where he will change our desires to be completely for him – where he will take out the root of sin and not just the guilt of sin (as Wesley put it). Where he will sanctify us completely! Where all those old desires will be gone and only the new remain! Where we will actually have victory in our battle with sin and will actually find ourselves in a place where those old desires mean nothing to us any more. Not in the next life but in this life.
I still found it difficult to believe. But yet, I knew that, if it was true, it was good news! And if it was good news, could it be wrong? Because the Gospel is good news. I also knew that, if it was true, it would sort out several issues in my spiritual walk and it would explain several other experiences and plenty of difficult scriptures.
But all of that is for the next post: How I Came to See Holiness in a Brand New Way pt 3