The Holiness Movement

(December 2004 – Volume 10, Issue 12) 

Pentecostalism was born in the cradle of the Holiness Movement of the nineteenth-century. The Holiness Movement actually traces its roots to John Wesley in the eighteenth-century, who taught sort of a two-tiered salvation. The first tier was conversion or justification, in which one is forgiven and freed from past sins. The second tier was “entire sanctification” which liberated one from their fallen nature, or at least the tendency toward sin. Revivalists, in the early 1800s, such as Asa Mahan (president of Oberlin College) and evangelist Charles Finney advanced Wesley’s theology. They taught “that sinners had the natural ability to believe, and that evangelistic methods could overcome their ‘moral’ inability through the persuasive power of the Gospel.” [1] “Finney and Mahan applied this same understanding to the Christian’s growth toward spiritual maturity…. To be sanctified, they insisted, required only the same kind of simple, instantaneous faith one exercised to be converted.” [2]

In 1836 both men experienced what they called “baptisms of the Holy Ghost” which they believed not only freed them from committing sin but also removed their tendency toward sin. Contributing to the spread of this “Holiness” doctrine were the popular camp meeting revivals of the first half of the 1800s, the ministry of Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) (who taught that sanctification could be reached instantaneously by an act of faith) and the “Prayer Revival” of 1857-1858 (sometimes called the Third Great Awakening). There was also much unrest in Methodist circles as many felt the denomination had lost its fervor. The Wesleyan Methodist (in 1843) and the Free Methodist (in 1860) left the denomination to form the first Holiness denominations. Until the 1890s the Holiness Movement was largely a Methodist phenomenon, but as the Methodists settled more into mainstream Christianity tensions escalated into a schism which resulted in new, non-Methodist, Holiness denominations. These included the Church of God, Anderson, Indiana (1880), Church of the Nazarene (1908) and Pilgrim Holiness Church (1897).

The Holiness adherents saw themselves as the true descendents of the Wesleys and practiced strict moral ethics, abstinence from worldly pleasures and amusements and a strong belief in entire sanctification (also known as the “second blessing” and the baptism of the Holy Spirit). More importantly “Holiness teaching offered 19th-century evangelicals a means of overcoming their sectarian conflicts. Doctrine might divide, but the experience of a pure heart would unite all true believers against the threats posed by religious formalism, atheism, and Roman Catholicism.” [3] This Holiness emphasis would continue to be spread throughout the 19th century by individuals and groups as diverse as the Salvation Army, Quakers, D. L. Moody, Hannah Whitall Smith, the Y.M.C.A., the Keswick Movement and Oswald Chambers. A brief explanation concerning some of those might prove helpful.

Hannah Whitall Smith was a Quaker revivalist who gave inspiration to the Keswick Movement and wrote The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life which is still in publication today. Hannah’s ministry was truncated by her husband’s questionable moral activities, but her legacy lives on. Speaking of the Keswick Movement, originally these were non-Methodist conferences in England which began in the 1870s. The Keswick Movement offered a modified Holiness doctrine called “Higher Life.” According to Higher Life theology the sin nature and tendency were not eradicated, just counteracted by the baptism of the Holy Spirit which ushered in joyful and victorious Christian living. D. L. Moody would be influenced and participate in the Keswick Movement, receiving his “baptism” in 1871. But Moody interpreted his Spirit baptism, not in terms of freedom from sin, but in endowment with power. This altered understanding of Spirit baptism distinguished the American Keswick Movement and had a great impact on the Bible institute movement at the turn of the twentieth-century.

Today the Holiness Movement lives on through the various Holiness denominations, the continued efforts of both the English and American Keswick Conferences and through the writings of Hannah Whitall Smith, Lettie Cowman (Streams in the Desert), Oswald Chambers (My Utmost for His Highest) and others.


It must be understood that much, if not most, of what Holiness teachers advocate, is biblically sound and spiritually helpful. These individuals have a true desire for godliness and their passion is contagious. The fly in the ointment is the view of Spirit baptism as a second work of God’s grace which ushers the believer immediately into another level of Christian experience, i.e. a “higher life.”

Charles Parham (Father of the Pentecostal Movement) would take the Holiness teachings to another level. He liked the idea of a super-level spirituality brought about by a crisis experience (i.e. Spirit baptism) but he also believed that Spirit baptism should be accompanied by manifestations of the Holy Spirit, especially tongues. In 1901 Parham and a handful of followers claimed to experience tongues as an evidence of their baptism. This would mark the birth of the Pentecostal Movement which would combine Holiness theology with supernatural signs of the Spirit. Only a few years later a student of Parham, William J. Seymour, led what would be called the Azusa Street Revival (1906-1909) which elevated supposed manifestations of the Holy Spirit to such a level that even Parham believed they were demonic. Nevertheless, Pentecostal practice and Holiness theology would spread throughout the world in the decades that followed. During the 1940s and 50s a new emphasis on healing and miracles infiltrated the Pentecostal Movement. Just as this Deliverance Revival was dying out the Charismatic Movement came to life (1960). By definition charismatics transcend all denominations, and as such is not a movement based on theology but on experience. However, there are two doctrinal distinctives that trace their roots back to the early Holiness and Pentecostal teachings: The first is that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is a second work of grace that brings power in the life of the believer (Holiness). The second is that the evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit is speaking in tongues (Pentecostal). It should be mentioned that many in the Americanized form of the Holiness Movement equated the power associated with the baptism of the Holy Spirit with power for ministry rather than holy living.

In the last few decades new movements have arisen—each claiming improvement over the movements of the past. The Vineyard Movement was founded in 1982 with an emphasis on the miraculous and a downplaying, to some degree, of tongues. The Toronto Blessing (1994) and Brownsville Revival (1995) pushed the supposed activities of the Holy Spirit to new limits. Miracles, bizarre manifestations, healings, uncontrollable laughter, and demonic confrontation became the norm. Running parallel has been the Word of Faith Movement, with its belief that even God is subject to words spoken in faith by “anointed” ministers of God.

All of these 20th century movements can trace their ancestors to the Holiness Movement of the 1800s and to John Wesley before that. They all have in common the desire for some form of instantaneous perfection, or power, that comes through a subsequent work of the Spirit in the lives of believers. Each movement also has in common a faulty view of sanctification—that personal holiness, maturity and power is the result of a momentary experience rather than a lifetime process.


John Wesley propounded a doctrine of “entire sanctification” or “perfection in love” which was “a personal, definitive work of God’s sanctifying grace by which the war within oneself might cease and the heart be fully released from rebellion into wholehearted love for God and others.” [4] As we have seen this doctrine was developed by later Holiness leaders to mean that the sinful nature would be eradicated.

By contrast, the Scriptures never allude to a time in this life when the saints cease to do battle with the flesh. While Christians are no longer characterized as being “in the flesh” (Romans 8:9), they are promised a constant battle with the flesh until the day of their glorification (Galatians 5:16-25). There are simply no scriptures that teach a second crisis experience, second baptism of the Spirit or entire sanctification. In John Wesley’s Plain Account of Christian Perfection he makes no biblical defense for his view, simply citing, “We are all agreed, we may be saved from all sin before death; that is, from all sinful tempers and desires. The substance, then, is settled” (p. 1). But, of course, it is not settled, for instantaneous and complete freedom from sin, its desires and draws, is never taught in Scripture.

So, from whence comes the confusion? Most likely it comes from the New Testament presentation of sanctification and holiness as both a settled position (1 Corinthians 6:11) and a process for which one is to strive by God’s power (Philippians 2:12, 13). “In sum, sanctification in the New Testament is seen as a one-time event and as a process, the believers being and becoming holy and acting correspondingly.” [5] The word “sanctify” itself means “to set apart.” When applied to Christians it takes on the connotation of being set apart to God for holy living. The word “sanctification” is probably used most often in the New Testament to describe our position before Christ as saints set apart for His glory (John 17:15-17; 2 Thessalonians 2:12-15; Romans 15:16; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 6:11; Ephesians 5:26). But the doctrine often labeled progressive sanctification is a term used to describe Christian growth in holy living. This doctrine does not hinge on the use of the word “sanctification.” The apostle Paul, deep into his spiritual life, made it clear that he had not become perfect yet, but was “pressing on” (Philippians 3:12-14). He calls for us to work out our salvation through the power of God (Philippians 2:12, 13). He calls for Christians to walk in “a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called” (Ephesians 4:1), and to take up the full armor of God that we might be able to stand firm (Ephesians 6:13). The author of Hebrews describes a process in maturation (Hebrews 5:11-6:2); Paul does the same in 1 Timothy 4:7-10, 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9-10). Never are we told to ask for a second baptism of the Holy Spirit that would usher us into a state of complete holiness. As a matter of fact Paul is clear that there is only one baptism (Ephesians 4:5), and that Spirit baptism is for the purpose of making us one with Christ (Romans 6:3-4) and one with the body of Christ, the church (1 Corinthians 12:13).

While millions of Christians throughout the ages, especially since the birth of the Holiness Movement, have longed for some experience that frees them from the grip of the flesh, the New Testament gives no such hope. As David Peterson writes, “The Christian does not any longer

live a life fundamentally determined and controlled by the flesh. Nevertheless, ‘flesh’ continues to be a powerful force in our experience. The conflict with sin does not diminish with conversion but actually intensifies, because we begin to experience the possibilities of a Spirit-directed life” (cf. Galatians 5:16-26). [6]

Maturity in Christ is expected of every believer; freedom from spiritual battle with the world, the flesh and the devil is attained only in the next life.

At the same time, we must be careful that we do not over react to Holiness philosophy and believe that godliness is attained through our own self-determined efforts of obedience. We are certainly called to obedience, but it is not a self-energized, self-motivated or self-obtaining obedience. It is an obedience made possible only because of the power of God in our lives. This is the consistent teaching of the New Testament, but we will direct our attention to Romans 8:12-13. So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. Peterson, once again, summarizes things well, “Holiness of life is not simply attained by moral effort nor even by striving to keep the law of God. It is not even a matter of ‘letting go and letting God.’ Practical holiness involves ‘putting to death’ in our lives what God has already sentenced to death on the cross (‘mortification’) and living out the new life given to us by the indwelling Christ…. Human effort is required, but not apart from, nor distinct from the activity of God’s Spirit, who subdues the flesh as we mortify it in His power, and as we set our minds upon the things of the Spirit.” [7]

Holiness of life should be the heart-felt desire of every Christian. But that holiness is not found in either short-cuts or self effort. It is found as we pursue righteousness (2 Timothy 2:22) laying aside the deeds of the flesh (Colossians 3:5-10) through the power of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16) and as we behold the glory of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The Holiness Movement was in many ways a reaction to the dead orthodoxy and lifeless spirituality that infiltrated so much of Christianity during the nineteenth-century. However, its remedy, a second blessing resulting in the eradication of sinful tendencies and a higher life not available to the unbaptized, went beyond the teaching of Scripture. As is often the case in reactionary movements, the cure may be as bad as the disease.

[1] Christian History and Biography, Issue 82, “The Cleansing Wave,” P. 22.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p. 23.

[4] Possessed by God, David Peterson, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995, p. 51.

[5] Ibid., p. 14.

[6] Ibid., p. 108.

[7] Ibid., p. 113.


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