Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Renovating Holiness: A View from the Dutch Pews (Ank Verhoeven)

Editor's Note: This essay is part of the Renovating Holiness project.  Ank Verhoeven is a pastor in the Netherlands, and this essay reflects a series of dialogs with the people and pastors of Vlaardingen Church of the Nazarene, a church of some 1,700 people. 
Vlaardingen Church of the Nazarene
    Personally, I feel torn.  I love theology; I really do.  I love to talk about it; I love to think about it; I love to study it.  But I so hate how it can divide people.
    I just read a discussion on Facebook, of all places, about creation versus evolution. There are arguments to and fro, but all seem to be missing the point of the relationship between God and man.  In a loving relationship people are never testing the words of their significant other to be scientifically true, are they?  It just matters if everything that is significant for the relationship is true, and more importantly, trustworthy.  Why should God’s Word be treated so differently?
    In the present discussion concerning entire sanctification, it is no different.  
There are arguments against arguments, dividing people more than unifying them.  In my opinion, that should never be the purpose of the discussion.  Is the Church of the Nazarene not the place where tolerance for differences in interpretation should be most expected and even valued?  I cannot accept the fact that a theological difference could lead to division in our denomination.  That is why I wanted to participate in the project of the formation of this book.
    I put myself to the task of discovering how the people of my own congregation perceive the concept of sanctification, hoping to find points that would bind us, instead of divide us.
    The Dutch are Calvinistic from origin.  A couple of years ago, there was an internet test issued on how much people score on a Calvinistic attitude towards life, and even atheists (and Nazarenes) scored well above 60%.  Calvinism among the Dutch is often characterized by remarks as: ‘If you’re born for a dime, you will never become a quarter,” or “If your head sticks out above the wheat on the field, don’t be surprised if you lose it in the mowing.”  All of these sayings are trying to make sure that you remain a very humble person.  Success is in no way applauded as it is in the United States.  The possibility of being holy or perfect, even in the meaning of John Wesley’s “Christian Perfection” is, therefore, hard for us Dutch to wrap our brains around.

    Although all of the members of my Dutch congregation, when they said yes to joining our church, confirmed their belief in sanctification and their longing for Christlikeness, hardly anyone I spoke with really even understood the concept of (entire) sanctification as it is presented in the Church’s Handbook or theology.  Hardly ever is it explicitly discussed in our church, nor in the small groups.  Consequently, I received a large variety of answers to questions on the topic.  After being presented with the concept in a compact, coherent way, most church members more or less agreed on the following points though.
    Most agree that a life of faith begins with the moment of justification, perceived as the will to surrender life to God, answered by God with the forgiveness of sins, and adoption into His family.  Old ways should be left behind, and a life with the Lord should be undertaken.  Then follows the “growing in grace.”  With the help of the Holy Spirit we need to put our “flesh” to death, and let our “new creation” take over our choices more and more.  This is perceived as pretty hard work. The end point of this process would be Christlikeness.  Being entirely sanctified is perceived as a synonym of being Christlike.
    A complication in thinking about the process of sanctification is that we see similar growth in people who are not Christians.  We can explain that somewhat through the concept of prevenient grace, but that does not completely take away the confusion it causes with the average church member.
    Another point of confusion is the fact that entire sanctification seems to be the end point of this “growing in grace,” while at the same time it is a gift from God, which should not be seen as a result, much less a “reward” for all our own hard work.  Although all members with whom I spoke realize that it is only by God’s Spirit that we are able to make better choices, it still feels like we are the ones doing the work to make that possible.  According to the stories about sanctification within our denomination, this gift of grace is however given for naught to some people at the moment of justification, at least seemingly without all the hard work of putting the “flesh” to death. This is perceived as quite unfair in relation to the hard work.
    In discussing the topic, most people gave up their attempt at understanding the concept at this point.  Even though at the beginning of the discussion most were very adamant in stating that they do believe in sanctification, here they conclude that they don’t quite understand the whole thought process around it.  They simply try to be good people and to live Christian lives, and if God decides to sanctify them one day, as in making them “Christlike,” that would be more than welcome.
    Interestingly, these difficulties towards sanctification and Christian perfection are no different now than in the days of John Wesley.  Reading A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, I find the same hurdles, addressed by Wesley.  For example, we (Christians) don’t know of any people who are completely without sin.  Wesley also addresses the argument of unfairness (If it is a gift from God, regardless of the good works of the person, why is it not given to everyone?), and of Biblical reference (Nobody but Jesus is perfect, not even in the Bible.).
    Apparently, sanctification and Christian perfection (as in Christlikeness) are not easily understood, nor easily believed in, if not experienced first, or even second hand.  The possibility of experiencing this ‘phenomenon’ unfortunately only seems to be present during times of revival.  This is also what is going on within the Church of the Nazarene.  Having started from a revival movement, in which people – so we are told – experienced and witnessed entire sanctification, we are now at a point that most members have never met anybody they might even suspect to be entirely sanctified.
    Personally, I feel we misunderstand the concept all together.  The terms are being used inconsistently and therefore lead to much confusion.  It is my belief that Scripture teaches us that by believing in Christ, we are in one instant entirely sanctified.  From that moment forward, our hearts are focused on Christ, longing to follow Him, and to become like Him.  Our flesh might very well still draw us to our sins, but our hearts are now willing to make the right choices.  The Holy Spirit is the sanctifying gift of grace to support us in that process.  Being sanctified in this sense is a “position”, or an attitude towards life. This is how Paul addresses the listeners of his letters as “holy people.”  This in no way means their outward lives are completely sanctified, as in perfect in every way, sinless, and in full union with Christ.  Why else would he urge the “holy people of Philippi” (Ph.1:1) to behave as God would want them in the second chapter?
    I discussed all of this at length with our own minister, and within some of the small groups of our church.  We concluded that we choose to believe in the possibility of entire sanctification as described in our Manual, but that we accept that the outward fulfillment, for reasons beyond our knowledge and understanding, (almost ?) only seems to happen in times of revival.  At other times an extensive period of “growing in grace,” as a joint enterprise of God and the believer, following the moment of justification, seems to be the common path of Christians.  This growing in grace is most definitely a work of God, not something we could do on our own.  (In this, the confusion about the non-believers remains.)
    Biblically, we apparently are sanctified and holy, simply because we believe, as Paul addresses all followers of Christ as holy in his letters.  We do not believe Paul meant to say all of those people were sanctified as meant by Wesley - not even “perfected in love.”  We believe this word was used to acknowledge those who chose to follow Christ as “set apart” (another definition of holy) from others, in this case for the purpose of spreading the Word and living the Gospel.  We could also agree with stating that this is another way of saying that our “spirits” are already sanctified by God, so that we can spread the Word and live the Gospel, but at the same time, the outer, practical consequences of this inner sanctification work out gradually over time.
    Although God might show us, at various times, and through various persons throughout history what an entirely sanctified person is like – maybe to remind us of what our full redemption will look like – we accept that we live in the ‘already not yet’ period in history. Nothing in Scripture suggests that the fulfillment is already complete, not of the world, nor of our own Christlikeness.
    We argue that the name the first Christians chose for themselves: “followers of the Way”, suggests two things.  Firstly, ‘followers’ suggests not having reached a destination (yet). Secondly, the “Way” (as Jesus calls Himself) also does not suggest a destination, but a dynamic future.  He did not call Himself the ‘endpoint’ in this sense.
    Also, John 1:12 states that by believing God has given us the possibility of becoming children of God.  He does not say we already are!  The flesh in which we now live in this world, might very well never allow us to be completely Christlike.  It is up to us to set our “flesh,” our egos aside as much as possible so the fruit of the Spirit can grow to fullness.  We do believe that our attempt and desire to do so is in itself pleasing to the One who loves us (not whether we are able and successful at it).
    We experience difficulty in accepting the title of holy for ourselves, even after discussing what this could entail according to Scripture. This might be due to our Calvinistic upbringing.
     As members of this congregation of the Church of the Nazarene, we therefore are committed to be followers of Christ, followers of the Way.  We have not arrived at our destination, if this is ever completely possible in this life (besides a few exceptions).  We do our best to make room for the light of Christ to shine through our lives and into the lives of others.  In that process, we hope to become more like Him, by His grace alone.

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