TODAY'S BREATHING SPACE
Perhaps the most common question I’m asked in our church’s membership class is “How does the Church of the Nazarene differ from other churches?” My typical response goes something like this: “We have an optimistic view of the power of the Holy Spirit to change a life.” I go on to explain that all organizations, including churches, end up defending and even emphasizing whatever belief or practice sets them apart from others. The easiest examples even reveal their pet issue by featuring it in their name! For Seventh Day Adventists, the distinct issue is that the sabbath is Saturday - the seventh day; for Baptists, it’s baptism. This is their distinction and so this is what they end up talking about and, yes, defending.
Of the Church of the Nazarene’s 16 Articles of Faith, the one that “stands out” to most as “different” is #10: Christian Holiness and Entire Sanctification. The article begins with this: “We believe that sanctification is the work of God which transforms believers into the likeness of Christ.”
I believe my answer to the common question is true: Nazarenes embrace a position on the doctrine of sanctification that is especially high or hopeful, at least in comparison to most contemporary Christian tribes. To be clear, we believe a person can become Christlike.
Here’s my concern: we’re self-conscious about this.
In twenty years as a pastor in this denomination I’ve seen us treat “Article 10” like the crazy old aunt the family loves well when it’s “just us” but tries to keep hidden in a back bedroom when anyone else stops by for a visit. It’s like we’re just not sure we want others to hear what she has to say.
But it turns out, others have been saying the same thing for a very, very long time. Way before Phineas or Phoebe; more than a thousand years before John Wesley, others were testifying to the profound power of the Holy Spirit to change a life. Two on the list who might surprise you are the “greatest monk” and “the greatest pope.”1
Benedict of Nursia
At the end of the 5th century, as the sun was setting on the Roman Empire, a young man named Benedict left his hometown of Nursia to study in Rome. Disillusioned by the decay of the culture and the corruption in the church, Benedict dropped out of school to seek God in solitude as a hermit. After a couple years, so many others wanted to join the holy cave-dweller that he organized them into small residential communities (monasteries) and eventually wrote a “rule” for them to follow. This small book “regulated” their lives around a balance of prayer and work for the purpose of cultivating virtue. And embedded within Benedict’s wise instruction about formation and community is a remarkably hopeful view of the power of the Holy Spirit to change a life.
Here’s an example. In the longest chapter of the Rule, Benedict outlines a twelve step program for spiritual growth aimed at establishing “perfect love of God…” Through acts of surrender, one’s obedience to God which was once driven by “fear” and “performed with dread,” becomes motivated instead by “love for Christ, good habit and delight in virtue.”2 Benedict assures his monks that “all this the Lord will by the Holy Spirit graciously manifest in his workman now cleansed of vices and sins.”3 It sounds like a line out of Wesley’s “Plain Account of Christian Perfection” written 1200 years later.
Gregory the Great
Less than a century after Benedict a high-ranking Roman official named Gregory resigned his post and joined a monastery which followed Benedict’s Rule. Eventually, Gregory became pope and is today known as Gregory the Great, a “doctor” of the church. While serving as pope, Gregory interviewed four of Benedict’s disciples in order to write a brief biography of the monk in the then common form of a dialogue between a student and himself.4 Woven skillfully around the stories of Benedict, Gregory reveals insights into his own hopeful theology of sanctification. In one of the stories the monk warns a man against becoming a priest. Years later, driven by envy, the man ignores Benedict’s prophetic insight, presents himself for ordination, and promptly dies.
The student “dialoguing” with Pope Gregory reasons - with amazement - that Benedict must have “been aware of the hidden designs of Providence…”5 Gregory takes the occasion to teach that men can know the thoughts of God “in so far as they are one with him.”6 Gregory writes, “For all who follow the Lord wholeheartedly are living in spiritual union with him.”7 It is precisely Pope Gregory’s confidence in the possibility of a person’s experiencing intimate spiritual union with God in this life that reveals his high view of sanctification.
It’s a view that precedes (by nearly 1500 years!) but is in harmony with statements within The Church of the Nazarene’s Article 10 such as, “We believe that entire sanctification is that act of God…by which believers are…brought into a state of entire devotement to God, and the holy obedience of love made perfect.”
Of course, if pressed, I would root my case for a high view of the Spirit’s power to change a life in Holy Scripture. But so would those who hold to less optimistic views on this important doctrine! That’s why discerning the convictions of other key figures in the great history of the church is so helpful. It gives us a broader theological perspective with enough strength to pull the conversation up out of the rut of low expectations both for humanity and for God. We’re so suspicious of the reliability of a Spirit-filled life! A “gospel” that stops at “ask for forgiveness and hang on till heaven” shows no sign of the reality of Pentecost. It’s like we’ve been bullied for so long by the doctrine of total depravity that any message appearing to elevate the human soul to a truly spiritual level is suspect.
The unfortunate rarity of a Spirit-empowered church does not justify our withholding true hope! Communities within the Holiness tradition should boldly proclaim the message that motivated our movement from its beginning. It’s not new! It’s not “ours.” And it’s actually not very “different” if you consider the fully history of the church. Many have testified - including monks and popes… to the life-changing, sin-defeating, truly hopeful power of the Holy Spirit.
1. So called by Thomas Hodgkin in Italy and Her Invaders IV, Oxford 1896, p. 411.
2. Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 7, verses 67-69.
3. Rule of St. Benedict, chapter 7, verse 70.
4. Dialogues, Book 2: Life and Miracles of St. Benedict
5. ibid, p. 41.
6. ibid, p. 42.7. ibid, p. 42. Gregory supports his argument by quoting from St. Paul:
1 Corinthians 6:17 The man who unites himself to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.
1 Corinthians 2:11-12 For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him? In
the same way no one nows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We have not received the spirit of the
world but the Spirit who is from God, that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak,
not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual
words. The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Sprit of God, for they are
foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritual discerned. The spiritual man makes
judgments about all things, but he himself is not subject to any man’s judgment: “For who has known the mind of the
Lord that me may instruct him?” (referencing Isaiah 40:13) But we have the mind of Christ.