Monday, July 23, 2007

How Holy Should They Be?

The Church of the Nazarene is in a kind of theological crisis. For all these years the doctrine of "entire sanctification" marked them theologically as clear descendants of John Wesley. However, as the Methodist-inspired denomination prepares to celebrate its centennial, there are brewing questions as to what this teaching implies - and whether it should be dropped or modified as they go into the future.

Founded in 1908 by former Methodist minister Phineas Bresee, the Church of the Nazarene embraced entire sanctification (ES) from its beginning as an "act of God, subsequent to regeneration, by which believers are made free from original sin, or depravity, and brought into a state of entire devotement [sic] to God, and the holy obedience of love made perfect." From the perspective of this Lutheran the doctrine of ES is confusing and troubling at the same time. It's clearly a Law-Gospel muddle.

For starters ES easily leads to a legalism that crowds out the Gospel. As Thomas Jay Oord, a Nazarene theologian, admitted, "A lot of the folks who have been around the church awhile thought of themselves as being characterized by things they don't do. You don't smoke, you don't drink, you don't go to dances, and in some parts of the denomination, you don't wear makeup or go to clubs or some parts of society." Oord admits that this kind of Christian expression "loses stem quickly" because it is not "something you can give your whole to."

And he's right. A church built only on the Law (and an overly restrictive one at that) will ultimately lead not to joy and fulfillment, but either to despair or pride. Given the condition of our state of original sin, the Christian is set up for instant failure by this kind of doctrine. You just can't do it.

Wesley, to his credit, did not believe that the Christian was sinless or immune from temptation. Still, ES clearly implies, if not states, that the Christian is preserved from original sin. So what is ES then? The doctrine appears to ride the theological fence trying to claim the ability to live a holy life by works, while leaving just enough 'wiggle room' for the reality of sin any Bible-believing Christian would be hard-pressed to deny out of hand.

In the end ES separates Christ from the Christian and leaves them only with their own inadequate efforts. The common understanding among Nazarenes, as demonstrated above, shows the logical end of such Law-based belief. How much more comforting to look to our baptisms and find Christ who makes us holy through the blessed sacrament by enveloping us in a robe of perfect righteousness. How much more edifying to live the Christian life in faith that Christ works through us, and even though we do not immediately perceive the effects, we still believe God is working. To the Nazarenes I would offer this: Go back to Christ and go no further.

[Source: Christianity Today, July 2007, "Identity 'Crisis'" by Brad A. Greenberg]

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