But another reason holiness teaching is accused as legalism is that some want to be “saved” but do not want to break with sin. As we shall see, the Bible teaches a holiness that strongly deals with the sin problem. In an attempt to express such scriptural truth, another misconception often surfaces.
Misconception No. 3: “Holiness” teaching claims that once a person is sanctified, it is impossible to sin since a state of perfection is obtained.
Before this misconception can be addressed, a working definition of “sin” must be established. We read in James 4:17, “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.”
Sin then is not an accident or mistake, but choosing wrong knowing God’s will. Sin is disobedience to God. John Wesley used the following as a working definition of sin, “A willful transgression of a known law of God.” This will be our working definition, as well. In addition to sinful acts of disobedience, the Bible also teaches that man is born with a sinful nature. Paul writes of this nature as something inherited because of Adam’s sin, (Romans 5:12-20) a master making us slaves to sin, (Romans 6:5-7, 16) and indwelling sin “warring against the law of (his) mind” (Romans 7:15-23). Sin then is two-fold, disobedience to God’s known law and a nature within that is contrary to God’s will.
What is the biblical message regarding sin and salvation and the holiness to which we are called? Both aspects of sin clearly keep us from having victory in Christ Jesus. There is no way we can earn salvation, “not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). But as we respond to the invitation to Christ to receive His gift bought with His blood – as we turn to Him, we must turn from sin. When some Pharisees and Sadducees came to John’s baptism, he told them to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8). When Peter preached after being filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, many asked, “What shall we do?” He told them to “repent (turn from sin), and…be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:37-38). And because some might misunderstand or abuse the fact that “where sin abounded, grace abounded much more,” (Romans 5:20) the Apostle Paul answers the questions that could arise, “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1) His answer was a resounding no. John wrote in his epistle, “Whoever abides in Him does not sin” (1 John 3:6). Christians are not saved from sin so they may continue in it. A Christianity where willful sinning continues is not the will of God. Consider this earthly lesson. If a man loved another woman before they were joined in marriage to his wife, should his bride be expected to allow him to continue this love relationship with the other woman? How absurd. It violates the very essence of the marriage bond. So to continue in sin after being joined with the One who gave His life for our sin violates the essence of the gift of salvation.
When Christians are sanctified, or made holy, the sinful nature referred to in Romans 5 is replaced by the inheritance of Christ, in chapter 6 it is crucified, and in chapter 7 he writes of being delivered from “this body of death.” This does not remove the ability to choose wrong and sin, but it changes the nature from which our actions come. Holiness is not teaching that it is impossible to sin after being made holy, but that it is possible not to sin because we are “partakers of the divine nature…” (2 Peter 1:4). Furthermore, sanctification does not make one perfect in the earthly sense of never making a mistake. The Greek word translated “perfect” in the New Testament is literally “complete” and simply means the transforming work on the heart is complete. However, there is still room for growth in grace and learning in righteousness.
So then a new aspect of the call to holiness is revealed. It is a call to turn from sin and let God deal with that sinful nature. That is why Paul could joyfully write, “But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end, everlasting life” (Romans 6:22). To be made holy frees us from the grip of sin so we can live a life pleasing to our Heavenly Father.
Gary Wilson is pastor of Lebanon First Church of the Nazarene. Preacher’s Corner features a new local preacher each month writing a column.