How important is our growth into holiness? I have noticed over the years that the question of holiness continues to occupy the thoughts of many Christians. Some, arguing for justification by grace alone through faith alone have put the issue of holiness, or sanctification, into the important-but-not-necessary-for-our-faith category. Others insist holiness is necessary, and that according to Hebrews 12:14, “without holiness, no one will see God.” So, if you haven’t been transformed into a new creature in Christ that demonstrates reverent obedience to him, you are still in your sins, no matter what you profess.
A number of years ago, this battle over the necessity of sanctification spilled over into what was then called the “Lordship debate.” The central question was this: must we live under the Lordship of Jesus to be saved? On one side of the debate were those who argued that “the New Testament does not impose repentance upon the unsaved as a condition of salvation.” But, what about those passages in the Bible in which people are called upon to repent and believe? According to some, those verses simply call upon people to “change their minds.” Thus, since believing in Jesus for salvation is already a change of mind from what you previously believed, the two words, “repent and believe” are simply a way of saying the same thing twice. All salvation entails is that we believe that Jesus’ death is for me, and that I accept that truth for me.
On the other side of the debate were those who argued that this view amounted to “cheap grace,” which was never the teaching of the church throughout history. As a result, this dangerous view was giving millions of unconverted people false security by pronouncing them saved simply because they repeated a prayer. But the Bible never teaches that! Furthermore, this cheap grace has effectively weakened the church by filling it with individuals who profess Christ but whose lives are no different than the world. On top of that, it reduces a life of holiness to merely the “ideal,” rather than something that is essential, as Hebrews 12 insists.
But then came the response from the opposing side, which said that God justifies the sinner on the sole condition of faith in Christ, and not on the basis of righteous living. Anything else, they said, is simply works based theology. Hence, the definition of faith was again at issue. Faith, according to this group, must be seen as belief, trust and a conviction that what the Bible says about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus on our behalf is true. Furthermore, one theologian even argued that no passage in the book of Acts ever presses people to acknowledge that Jesus is their Lord in order to be saved. So as long as you believed that Christ died for you, and trusted Him as your Saviour, you were saved – regardless of how you lived. Now, to be fair, no one was arguing for a Christian faith without good works. Those who affirmed what had been called “free grace” were arguing that with the new birth comes a desire to do good works, but good works by themselves did not in any fashion contribute to salvation.
Again, the response from the other side was equally firm. Many of the phrases used in popular evangelicalism, they said, have no basis in the Bible. “Asking Jesus into your heart” is not a biblical phrase. Neither are many other ideas we have, such as accepting Jesus as Saviour and not as Lord. Romans 10:9 calls us to confess with our heart that Jesus is Lord in order to be saved. Or consider the context of so much of what Jesus taught, or that which is found in the book of James.
And so the debate went on. But does it matter? And is this a debate only for theologians, or is this significant in terms of the way we live our lives? Stay tuned, as over the next few weeks, I throw my hat into this thorny ring.