When I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary, which is a school with its roots in the Holiness Tradition, we used to joke about a caricature of holiness: “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t chew; and don’t go out with girls who do.” The reality of this statement is that it is, albeit tongue-in-cheek, a good summary of many people’s understandings of holiness.
There is a mistaken idea that one arrives at a holy state by following the rules, the commandments. In this line of reasoning, things such as smoking become a litmus test of sorts for holy living. You smoke? Then you are not grace-filled and not truly embracing the holiness tradition.
This is not right. Plain and simple.
Salvation, let alone holiness, is not found in following the rules. John Wesley wrote in The Character of a Methodist in 1742:
We do not place the whole of religion (as too many do, God knoweth) either in doing no harm, or in doing good, or in using the ordinances of God. No, not in all of them together; wherein we know by experience a man may labour many years, and at the end have no religion at all, no more than he had at the beginning. Much less in any one of these; or, it may be, in a scrap of one of them: Like her who fancies herself a virtuous woman, only because she is not a prostitute; or him who dreams he is an honest man, merely because he does not rob or steal. May the Lord God of my fathers preserve me from such a poor, starved religion as this! Were this the mark of a Methodist, I would sooner choose to be a sincere Jew, Turk, or Pagan.
If one wanted to be saved by following the rules, then one ought to be a part of a religion that rewards its adherents for following its rules. Christianity is exactly opposite this line of thinking. It is only when a Christian realizes that he or she cannot be good enough or righteous enough to earn God’s reward of salvation that we call on God for help, forgiveness, and enter into true repentance. When this happens, God gives us His grace to transform us from the inside out. Salvation is about that transformation.
Now, to be sure, when people are transformed/saved/born again/regenerated/justified they will naturally follow God, and that means obeying His commandments. But the key here is that this kind of living is the result of that saving relationship with God; it is the result of God the Spirit living in us. We do not follow the rules to get saved. We follow them because we love God for saving us.
And the same relationship between our lives and God’s grace is at work in the pursuit of holiness. We do not follow a long list of do’s and don’ts so we can earn more of God’s grace in our lives and thereby become holy. We become holy when we respond to God in love by opening ourselves up to more and more of His presence in our lives and allow Him to continue to transform us more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ.
It may seem like a subtle difference, but it is one that makes all the difference in the world.