Sin and Holiness
Sin and Holiness are ultimately about relationship and identity. Holiness is finding our worth and identity in our relationship with Christ. No one else is adequate for that purpose. If we look to anyone or anything else as the foundational source of our identity or sense of self-worth, that alternative will prove inadequate. It then hurts to feel worthless, or to fear that we may be exposed as worthless. Relationship with God, within which we can see and learn to embrace his assessment of who we are and what we're worth, is the only adequate source of identity, and the supreme relationship for which we were born.
We are born with a tendency to look to inadequate sources of self-worth and identity. That is original sin. Every sinful deed then is either a search for worth in some inadequate source, or an effort to medicate the pain of feeling worthless. We have an affair or get drunk or jostle for position or tear down others either to feel valuable or to medicate the pain of not feeling valuable. When those efforts fail, it increases our shame and sense of worthlessness, so we try harder to medicate or to extract from someone or something a sense that we are valuable. We are resistant to appeals to abandon our sin because that appeal sounds like a call to abandon our search for worth, acknowledge our utter irremediable worthlessness, and remain forever in unbearable, raw, unmedicated pain. An appeal to simply abandon our search for worth is essentially an invitation to hell, not heaven. We love only because he first loved us. We abandon inadequate sources of worth, only when we embrace the ultimate source of worth – relationship with the God who is Love.
John Wesley wrote:
We start with the objective truth, found in I John 4:8 and 4:16 that “God is love.” We recognize that love has no value for us until it is recognized, received and experienced. If love means anything at all, it must mean something about value. If we say we love something, we mean it has value to us. Jesus says of us in Matthew 10:31: "don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to him than a whole flock of sparrows." Being born in sin must at least in part mean to be born without the knowledge that God is love, and without the knowledge that we are innately valuable to him.
We are isolated and disconnected and without the capacity to love and be loved – to live in intimate relationship as we were designed to live. We do not and cannot love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, or our neighbor as ourselves. To fulfill the greatest commandment, and the second one that is like it, means to live in deep, pure, perfect love relationship with God and each other. We are born for relationship. It is our destiny. We have no other or higher purpose. As a church, we have no other purpose but to model those relationships in such a way as to draw people to Christ, who alone can restore them to those relationships which are the cry of their hearts. We are to spend our lives modeling and nurturing those restored relationships. In that context alone can we find holiness, healing and spiritual growth.
We grow spiritually, emotionally and relationally by surrendering all our doubt and fear in complete trust of the character of God toward us and by then consequently being drawn into ever closer relationship with him and each other. We grow by learning to recognize behind the sin in our lives the fundamental lies about God and ourselves that are expressed by that sin. We learn to recognize in those behaviors that we are looking to something besides Christ to give us a sense of worth and identity. We grow by learning in all the details of our emotions and relationships to let God's love replace our fear. In this way we "work out [our] own salvation” and are “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds."
I believe it is possible to believe, to see, to know much more genuinely and deeply and consistently than we do, that God is love, that he loves us – me – not generically or in some special restricted God way that has nothing really to do with me, but really, in the normal dictionary sense of the word love, like a father loves a child, good or bad. I can grow in my ability to approach God with freedom and confidence because he likes me, sees present real value in me, enjoys me, feels affection for me, admires me, the way any decent parent does even a wayward child.
That growing confidence in the character of God and in his assessment of my worth will inevitably shape the way I relate to him, my eagerness to spend time with him, my capacity to feel in my reading of scripture his real love lavished on me personally. It will also inevitably cause me to become more and more like the one in whose love I revel. I will begin more and more to share his perspective not only of myself, but of the world around me. I will grow more and more from the role of the prodigal son or his older brother into the role of the father. We are to be imitators of God.
I will more and more see the worth of his other children through his eyes as I am coming to see my own – I will, in fact, come to love my neighbor as myself. I will come more and more to see with sympathetic and compassionate concern rather than judgmental and condemning “concern” the pain and the fear and the struggle and the failure and the bondage to lies of his other children, as he does. I will become more instinctively concerned with how to more effectively reflect to them who they really are, and who God really is – to strive for their well-being for their sake with the self-sacrificing love of the Father.
That process of consistently, deliberately choosing “more love” both as receiver and giver is, in fact, the “royal way”, the “heaven of heavens.” That is what we mean – or should mean – when we talk about spiritual formation or growth in grace, or spiritual growth or holiness or piety or any other similar phrase.
The post-modern, developed world in the 21st century is hungry for holiness. This message resonates with them. I have the testimonies that say so. I’ve seen them get saved, sanctified, abandon their sins, embrace scripture, embrace the Church, embrace ministry responsibilities and embrace ongoing personal transformation. A thoroughgoing theology of love draws people into a real encounter with God and a lifetime of lived-out grace. I believe that God has raised us up for such a time as this.