Recently I attended a local church service and heard a sermon on sex that was bad on so many levels–structurally, logically, factually, and theologically. (The entire experience was redeemed by the worship band having done possibly the best arrangement of “Be Thou My Vision” that I have ever heard.) And, to wrap it all up, the pastor ended with an exhortation to resist sexual sins by “exercising your holiness option.”
Excuse me? Then he said it again; I hadn’t mis-heard. “Exercise your holiness option.” It was like they had a booster switch they could flip to throw them into light speed.
So now we have another whole slough of errors. First, I recognized that he was using the bad English definition of “holy” as meaning pure or sinless, rather than the definition of the Greek word, which essentially means “different.” It makes sense for God to say, “Be different as I am different,” rather than “Be sinless as I am sinless.” But, the latter is the interpretation I usually hear.
Can we choose to be sinless? I think the vast majority of theologians would answer “no.” We can desire to be sinless (I myself desire to be sinless, sometimes), but if the Bible is to be believed, getting there is beyond our grasp. The two main schools of thought are that 1) we can cooperate with God to become more Godlike; and 2) our wills are bound by our sinful nature and we depend entirely on God’s grace.
Paul, as well as Jesus (read through John), seem to lean towards the latter. I completely reject the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity as mischaracterizing both God and humanity. We are created in God’s image, destined for glory. “Total depravity” doesn’t fit into that picture. If you read through the Gospel of John, you may be struck by the fact that Jesus treats sin the same as a physical disease. Just as our bodies are subject to failure, we are also afflicted by the disease of sin. Not totally depraved, but afflicted and in need of grace and healing.
Paul made it clear that sanctification (holiness to some), just as with salvation, is a product of grace. In Galatians 3:3, he asks rhetorically, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” To the church in Corinth, he writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Sanctification, “holiness,” theosis, or becoming more Christ-like–whichever term you prefer–is a product of grace, of God’s direct work in us. It is not a matter of “exercising the holiness option.”
Grace matters. It is still a concept which many churches prefer to hold at arm’s length, as a church under grace tends refuses to fit in nice, neat boxes.
A few years ago, I took what I had found to be the best teaching on grace I had ever encountered and turned it into a book, The Gospel Uncensored. I still believe this to be the best book on grace that I’ve seen. It’s fairly short, easy to read, and directly to the point, primarily using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as the outline. People have told me how it’s changed their lives, how it’s their favorite book, and that they periodically re-read it. It’s that good (you can trust me, my name is on the cover).
There is no “holiness option.” The only 2 options are self-righteousness, and grace. I highly recommend grace.