Published in Global Passion: Marking George Verwer’s Contribution to World Mission, edited by David Greenlee (Carlisle, Cumbria: Authentic Lifestyle, 2003), pp. 11-19.
Dr. Ajith Fernando
Holiness, commonly understood in evangelical circles as ‘Christ-likeness’, is a very important theme in the New Testament. In a statistical study done on the Epistles of Paul, I found that 1400 of the 2005 verses in the Epistles, that is, about 70 per cent of the verses, are in some way connected with the call to be holy. This suggests that it should be an important theme in the teaching of the church today. In this article I hope to focus on the important place that the Bible gives to the part the Christian community plays in Christians becoming holy. I will call this process ‘mutual up-building’.
Much of the teaching relating to holiness in the New Testament is given in the plural, implying that growth in holiness takes place within the context of the body. A good example is 1 Corinthians 3:16-17: ‘Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.’ The ‘you’ here is plural.
In my study of Paul’s epistles I found several sub-themes that could be classified under the theme of mutual up-building. This is presented in the list below. I have generally left out statements that speak of up-building through the ministry of leaders, and primarily used the texts that indicate that ordinary Christians can help each other grow in holiness:
Our behaviour should aim at mutual up-building; Christian growth takes place in the context of the body: 26 verses
We are to admonish and teach each other: 8 verses
Gifts have been given to be used for mutual up-building: 2 verses
Prophecy is preferred to tongues because it builds others up: 17 verses
Corporate worship is a means God uses to help Christians grow: 4 verses
Christians are to help restore other Christians caught up in sin: 4 verses
Christians grow through observing the examples of other Christians: 30 verses. I included Paul’s example, though I have left out long passages like 1 Corinthians 9 where he describes the sacrifices he made for the gospel as an example to follow. This impressive list implies that reading biographies could be a great means of growth for the Christian.
When deciding on a course of action, we are sensitive to the possibility that other Christians may stumble because of things that we consider acceptable: 30 verses.
When I was a theological student I spoke on 2 Timothy 2:22 for my practical test in preaching. It says, ‘So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.’ I spoke about the need to flee youthful passions and pursue the virtuous qualities Paul mentioned. After the sermon my preaching professor remarked that I had not dealt with what is possibly the most important point in this verse: that we do the fleeing and the pursuing ‘along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.’
By this omission I was reflecting the typical evangelical distortion of Christian holiness by turning it into an individualistic rather than a corporate matter. God intends for us to battle for holiness along with fellow Christians. The Protestant Reformation rightly reacted against the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation through the church by returning to the biblical emphasis on individual salvation. Evangelical movements helped keep this in the forefront when it was later neglected within Protestant churches. But we must not forget that the Bible also teaches that Christians live and grow in community. We need ‘a move away from the . . . emphasis on the individual making up the church, and a move towards an understanding of the church as a formative phenomenon which acts on the life of the believer.’
The way Christians help each other grow in holiness is well expressed in Hebrews 10:25: ‘And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.’ Let me give one example how this verse works. Here is a Christian worker who, after straying a few times into some unclean sites on the Internet, finds that he is strongly compelled to go to pornographic sites. Thousands of Christian workers are struggling with this problem today. But this worker has a group he is accountable to. He shares his problem with the group and they set several guidelines for him including that he regularly reports to the group about his activity in this area. Now, whenever he is tempted to stray, he remembers that he has to report everything to his group. He knows that he may have to face disciplinary action over his failings. There is a check in his spirit that pulls him away from the path of temptation. The pathway is open for him to free himself from the stranglehold of pornography. The process of mutual up-building is described in much detail in Proverbs which has some rich statements on how friends help each other to live godly lives (e.g. Prov. 12:1, 15; 17:10; 19:27; 27:6).
No Theology of Groaning
I often speak in Sri Lanka on the need for Christian workers to have friends who can help them to grow spiritually and with whom they could share their struggles. Many have responded saying that they will not share their problems with other Christians because they have tried before and were deeply hurt. The growing church in Sri Lanka may have a theological problem that hinders Christian workers from sharing problems with friends. We may be concentrating so much on growth, praise and power in church life that we are presenting a Christianity that has no place for the biblical concept of groaning. When people groan about their weaknesses, others often respond wrongly, perhaps rejecting the groaner or telling others what was shared with them in confidence.
I have taken the term groaning from Romans 8:23, which says, ‘we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.’ Earlier Paul said, ‘the creation was subjected to futility’ as a result of the Fall (8:20). We do not get everything we want nor do we experience the fullness of perfection that God intends to give us in heaven. But we have a foretaste of it, for we ‘have the first fruits of the Spirit’ (8:23). We groan because of the disparity between what we will have in heaven and what we have now. Among the things we groan about is our struggle to live a holy life.
A good example of groaning is the lament of the Old Testament. The book of Psalms has about fity in which the psalmists complain to God about struggles. If the Holy Spirit inspired so many laments to be recorded in the Bible, then groaning must surely be part of the Christian life. Those who have a theology of lament will have a place for emphasizing honest expressions of struggle which can exist alongside an emphasis on growth, power and praise.
Sometimes we are so eager for growth that we become like advertisers who give only the positive side of a product and avoid talking about the unpleasant sides. Nowadays advertisers are required to mention negative aspects about their product. They usually do so as inconspicuously as possible. Many churches have not caught on to this practice yet! They know that people will be attracted to the church if the message presented shows all the wonderful things that God can do. Problems that Christians face are neglected for marketing reasons. This has happened for so long that many people do not have a place for groaning in their understanding of the Christian life.
When a Christian talks about his or her problems in this environment, other Christians don’t know what to do. Those who share could face rejection and public blame for not being good Christians. Therefore they learn to live without talking about their problems, unless it is the type of problem that could become a ‘prayer concern’. They will ask for prayer for healing and guidance and provision of a job or funds, but not for overcoming a hot temper or a bad habit or discouragement.
In a sense this is a defective understanding of grace. The biblical understanding of grace is so great that Christians do not need to fear facing up to their sin. Sin is never justified in the Bible and must always be condemned. Grace is greater than sin but grace cannot be applied unless we admit that we have sinned. Therefore, if we desire the fullness of God’s grace in our lives, we will be eager to confess our sin so as to open the door to a rich experience of grace. This is not done in a flippant or light way; we are grieved by sin. But we are so eager for cleansing that we will eagerly face up to the sin and seek forgiveness.
1 John 1:5 – 2:3 presents this paradox powerfully. John says, ‘My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin’ (1 John 2:1a) – sin is never condoned – ‘But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins’ (1 John 2:1b-2). God’s grace in Christ is so great that we do not need to fear to face up to sin. In fact we fear not facing up to it for we know that ‘if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7). We dread the prospect of forfeiting the fellowship and the cleansing by not walking in the light. So we will be eager to ‘confess our sins’ (1 John 1:9).
Defective theologies of groaning and grace can combine to produce a church where people are afraid to express their deep hurts and struggles to other Christians. When a leader has a problem like a deteriorating marriage or bondage to a harmful habit, he may have no one to talk to about it. He valiantly tries to overcome the problem through confession to God, prayer and making firm personal resolutions. But he is caught in a downward spiral, and there seems to be no way out. Finally the problem becomes public, and there is a terrible scandal. This could have been avoided if others had come in and helped this leader out of his mess.
New Testament Community: Life in the Raw
We learn a lot about community life from the description in the gospels of the life of Jesus and his disciples. There we find what I am calling ‘life in the raw’. There is no hiding of the problems of the disciples. Not only did the disciples face up to the problems, the Holy Spirit also saw it fit to have these problems recorded in Scripture so that we could learn something from them. The New Testament writers were not afraid to acknowledge the weaknesses of the first disciples who, at the time of writing, were the key leaders of the church.
Jesus is the only one in the Bible who is without sin. But the Gospels show even Jesus struggling at times. We see him weeping at the funeral of Lazarus (John 11:35). The Gospels do not hide the fact that Jesus really struggled with the will of God in the garden of Gethsemane. Luke describes his struggle thus: ‘And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground’ (Luke 22:44; see also Matt. 26:37; Mark 14:33). He was in agony because he was finding the will of God for him (bearing the sin of the world on a cross) so difficult to accept. He prays, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done’ (Luke 22:42; see also John 12:27). Strengthened by the results of this struggle, Jesus marches so triumphantly to the cross that those who came to arrest him ‘drew back and fell to the ground’ when he introduced himself to them (John 18:6)!
We often wish to avoid something that we know we should do, and Jesus’ frank confession of his feelings to God gives us the courage to express our apprehensions. When we do so, others in the community should not judge us but sympathies and help give us the courage to be obedient. Our expression of need provides the trigger for God’s work of strengthening us for tough challenges. The important thing is to be obedient. Those who never express their fears sometimes end up disobeying God. They have not really grappled with the problem and are not prepared when it comes, nor do they have anyone to encourage them at their time of need.
A healthy Christian community encourages its members to be open about faults and fears. Their desire for all of God, and their belief in the sufficiency of grace will urge them to confront sin and problems fearlessly and to look for God to use that to purify, teach and deepen the community. A community that deals with problems openly and biblically will become a community with a deep spirituality because God is able to minister and teach his deep truths through the grappling that takes place to solve the problem. This is what happened out of the blunders of the disciples recorded in the gospels. Each one produced some deep teaching by Christ which made facing up to it so worthwhile.
John Wesley’s Bands
Something like the group known as the ‘band’ which John Wesley advocated among the Methodists can be a great help in the growth in holiness of a Christian. A band was the equivalent of what we today call an accountability group. It is different to Wesley’s more popular ‘class meeting’ which was equivalent to a cell or house group. The class meeting was a heterogeneous group of people living in the same area who met to apply the Scriptures to daily life. Bands were homogeneous groups divided according to sex, age and marital status. Such restrictions encouraged the members to share private things about their personal lives. Wesley’s Rules of the Bands states: ‘The design of our meeting is to obey that command of God, “Confess your faults one to another, and pray for one another that ye may be healed” (James 5:16)’. Here Wesley listed six things that they intended to do at this meeting. Two are of special interest to us:
- To speak to each of us in order, freely and plainly, the true state of our souls, with the faults we have committed in thought, word and deed, and the temptations we have felt since our last meeting.
- To desire some person among us to speak his own state first, and then to ask the rest in order, as many and as searching questions as may be, concerning their state, sins, and temptations.
Today many Christian leaders have as their accountability group people that they do not work closely with. While ‘something is better than nothing’ perhaps this is not ideal to help us along the path to holiness. These people do not see us at work and must depend on our reporting to know our situation. Given the inclination of the human heart to deception, it is possible for us to give an inaccurate picture of what is really going on in our lives. For this reason it may be better for us to have an accountability group of people with whom we live and or work closely, such as members of the same church, organization or ministry team.
Given the huge problem with unholiness in today’s church, we should be giving more stress on the place that the Christian community has in helping Christians to become holy. I am delighted by the privilege of writing on this topic for a book published in honour of George Verwer. Through the honesty that characterizes his proclamation and writing he has given the church a very helpful example of ‘life in the raw’ and brought holiness down to a level that is practically applicable to fellow pilgrims like me!