My upbringing was in the holiness movement. The church I attended (no one was a member) was the Church of God in Drayton Valley. They are a part of what is called “the Church of God Reformation Movement.” They claim not to be a denomination and have a unique polity in a sense. They are today thoroughly evangelical and in many ways (in my view) somewhat indistinguishable from the broader evangelical movement as a whole.

Last February a group including representatives from the CoG and nine other holiness groups published a document called The Holiness Manifesto. Christianity Today reprinted it in March along with an interview of one of the spokesmen under the title “Holiness Without the Legalism“.

You can read all this for yourself if you like. It all sounds like bafflegab to me, i.e., a whole lot of verbiage sounding substantive but saying practically nothing.

The reason I comment on this subject is that the ‘anti-legalism’ rhetoric is very familiar to those of us who are independent Baptists. Evangelicals have been regularly taking shots at Fundamentalists in general with the charge of ‘legalism’. Today, the faux-fundies (aka, Young Fundamentalists, New Fundamentalists, Historic Fundamentalists) raise the same charge against the Fundamentalist Movement.

The title of the article, “Holiness Without the Legalism” is what caught my eye this morning. (I admit I am way behind the times in keeping up with CT! That could be a good thing.) When an evangelical or a faux-fundie uses the term “legalism”, they usually mean pastoral imposition of moral standards of some kind. We should admit that real spiritual life and holiness from the heart are impossible to achieve merely by imposing external standards. No one became holy because their dress was acceptable to the fundamentalist community. No one became holy by having the proper haircut. Etc.

But the fear of legalism mutes all hints at helping people get any kind of handle on how to live. What does a holy heart look like in today’s world? If you read the Holiness Manifesto, you come away with this: be nice. The closest they come to specifics is this:

live lives that are devout, pure, and reconciled

and this

care for the earth

What is the believer to do? What exactly is the Holiness Manifesto calling people to? (And what would the founders of the Holiness movement say? I think of Daniel S. Warner, the founder of the Church of God. He was a forthright advocate of holy living and separation from the world. Alas, we live in a different world today.)

A cursory study of the words used in the New Testament regarding holiness leads one to these conclusions: Holiness means devotion to God and living lives of moral purity. In a practical sense it means that you should be involved in the regular faithful committed worship of God. You should be involved in everything a Bible preaching church does to worship God. And you should turn away from every expression of evil we find in the world today. Everything connected with sexual immorality should be eschewed: that would include suggestive television, movies, music and the like. By music, we mean the sound, not just the words. Everything connected with violence, might makes right, power and exploitation of others should be eschewed: that would include much popular entertainment, including those already mentioned, many video games, gambling, drinking (as an exploitation of the weakness of many), and so on. Everything connected with addiction should be eschewed (all things are lawful but I will not be brought under the power of any).

And all this eschewing should come from the heart, because I want to please God, not my preacher or anyone else.

If that’s legalism, then I’m all for Holines By Legalism.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3