Dangling Spiritual Carrots vs. Reviving True Holiness

BY Wesley Biblical Seminary
August 4, 2017


by Dr. David Schreiner

I recently came across a 2006 publication by the Barna Research Group:

The Concept of Holiness Baffles Most Americans.” [1]

As you can see, it’s right down the alley of WBS. Moreover, it strikes a chord with me. As a 30-something, I am continually puzzled by where “holiness” sits in the discourse of the contemporary church. As Steve DeNeff put it in 1995, “Whatever Became of Holiness?” (Wesleyan Publishing House).

Baffled Believers

According to the article, a majority of people surveyed believe that holiness is “possible.” Whether “born again Christians” or not, among those surveyed, the rate is about three in every four. Moreover, about one-half of the people surveyed, again whether “born again” believers or not, could recall someone that they would describe as “holy.” As someone who grew up in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition and with a father that emphasized the importance of personal holiness, I found these figures encouraging. However, that quickly dissipated as I continued reading.

The researchers went onto to claim that adults most likely to say that they could identify someone as “holy” viewed holiness as something akin to a positive attitude. Conversely, those less likely to be able to point to a “holy” presence in their life tended to view holiness as a “spiritual condition.” So, according to the researchers, if holiness is understood as something generic, perhaps to the point of being rendered meaningless, there is a greater chance of people embracing it.


When the researchers probed further about the meaning of holiness, respondents gave a range of answers. Definitions included being “born again,” living a pure lifestyle, reflecting the character of God, etc. You get the point. Shockingly, the researchers declared that the most common answer was, “I don’t know.”


Now, I don’t want to go into a detailed analysis about the details of the survey, how they chose to word their questions, the nuances of their samples, etc. Rather, I want to focus on the problem. You see it, don’t you? Despite the fact that the concept of holiness oozes through Scripture, people don’t understand it! Can’t define it properly! Can’t identify it! And if people don’t understand it, then how can we expect them to embrace it as a reality of the Christian faith?

So, what’s there to do?

We need to take at least two steps.

Step 1: Reemphasize and Explain (Rethink and Repackage!)

First, Christian institutions (churches, academic institutions, etc.) must reemphasize and effectively explain holiness. And when I say this, they cannot be content with just giving “their definition” of the issue, as if everyone understands “their definition” or that “their definition” is all that matters. This typical practice only perpetuates the problem. Wesleyans spout their definitions, Free-Methodists theirs, Methodists theirs, and they all don’t think twice about it.

The status-quo is obviously not working.

The reality is that ideas and theological concepts have histories, and the theological concept of holiness is no different. By going back to the ancient Near East and realizing that holiness was a ubiquitous concept yet not inherently “theological,” one realizes that Israel’s understanding of holiness became an ideology that distinguished them from their environment. By tracing the concept through both Testaments, the biblical foundation frames a systematic discourse and orients those involved in that discourse. To put it bluntly, if the Church wants to explain holiness effectively, particularly to millennials and others, it has to be willing to go back to square-one, which means digging deep into ancient Israelite culture and the Old Testament.

Institutions associated with the holiness tradition MUST lead the way. Holiness is our calling card, but the unfortunate reality is that more and more people are ignoring it. We have to admit that we aren’t doing our job effectively. To do our job effectively may mean putting aside, at least for the moment, our cherished definitions and systems in order to rethink and repackage things.

Step 2: Discourse and Reestablish

Speaking of doing our job effectively, there needs to be a concerted effort for cordial discourse among different traditions, which is my second point. As Christopher Bounds detailed in his 2007 article, “What is the Current Range on Sanctification and What Ought a Wesleyan Believe on this Doctrine” (Asbury Journal, 62.2: 33–53), virtually every Protestant tradition has an opinion on the topic, however they choose to define it or what they choose to call it—holiness, sanctification, or something else. Indeed, for Wesleyan-holiness traditions the concept holds a prominent place. Yet virtually all traditions value it. And if all traditions value it, the possibility exists to reestablish it as a prominent, universal characteristic of the Christian faith.

Debunking the Carrot Myth

It bugs me when I hear people describe holiness or sanctification (again…whatever you want to call it for the sake of this discussion) as an unobtainable reality this side of heaven, as if it’s some spiritual carrot dangling in front of our noses merely to keep us moving toward heaven. But perhaps even more frustrating is the realization that the holiness tradition is dropping the ball in communicating a focal point of our tradition.

I look around and I see people who crave both freedom and purpose. They don’t want suffocating expectations, but they want to know that there are standards and goals. I see people who want to achieve things, particularly those things that benefit others around them as well as themselves. Does not personal holiness offer these things? Does it not place in front of us a standard that is clearly defined, not by legalism but by a gracious person? Does it not promise to affect ourselves but also those with whom we come in contact?

[1] https://www.barna.com/research/the-concept-of-holiness-baffles-most-americans/

Jonathan Pielmayer