One of my most prized pos­ses­sions can be found in my din­ing room, pulled up to the table my mom passed on to me years ago.

Instead of chairs on one side of the table sits a deacon’s bench res­cued from my grandmother’s lit­tle church in Belle Plaine, Kansas — the church where my moth­er was bap­tized, where my par­ents were mar­ried, and where I spent count­less days through­out my child­hood. That lit­tle church build­ing was torn down many years ago, but long-time mem­bers were allowed to take some things as keep­sakes. My grand­moth­er chose a deacon’s bench, and it’s been hand­ed down in the fam­i­ly — first to my my moth­er, and now to me.

As keen­ly as I remem­ber the sanc­tu­ary of that lit­tle church with its dark wood pews and deacon’s bench­es, the mem­o­ry of the class­room build­ing is more vivid. Sun­day school class­es and Vaca­tion Bible School were reg­u­lar parts of my grow­ing up, includ­ing the weeks when I was vis­it­ing my grand­moth­er. Even now I can imag­ine my teach­ers singing with us kids. One song stands out in my memory:

Please don’t smoke
Please don’t smoke
Give your tobac­co to a bil­ly goat

We kids loved that song — when else do you get to sing about bil­ly goats at church? — but we caught its mean­ing loud and clear. Verse 2 went like this:

Don’t drink booze
Don’t drink booze
Save your mon­ey and buy some shoes

I didn’t real­ly know what booze” was, but since it rhymed with shoes,” I sang with gus­to. A cou­ple of times a teacher tried to get us to sing the song a lit­tle differently:

Please don’t drink
Please don’t drink
Pour your liquor down the kitchen sink

We liked the boozy option better.

I learned that song when I was a preschool­er, but as the years went on, we con­tin­ued to sing it. Some­times new vers­es got added, such as:

Please don’t curse
Please don’t curse
I can’t think of any­thing that’s worse

To their cred­it, the dear ladies who taught our class­es didn’t smoke or drink booze or curse. They took seri­ous­ly the call of James 1 to keep them­selves unspot­ted from the world.” They were part of the tra­di­tion of Chris­t­ian faith referred to as the Holi­ness” stream, a won­der­ful tra­di­tion in which Chris­tians empha­size the devel­op­ment of holy habits” and the avoid­ance of sin. One 20th cen­tu­ry teacher from the Holi­ness tra­di­tion wrote, Holi­ness is to the soul what health is to the body.”1

Why the Term Holi­ness”?

In Isaiah’s account of see­ing the Lord (Isa­iah 6), the seraphim called out Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” a procla­ma­tion echoed in Rev­e­la­tion 4:8: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.” Both the Hebrew word qadosh and the Greek word hágios are trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish as holy,” and it’s easy to imag­ine this word per­tain­ing to God. Sure­ly God is holy — sacred, set apart from the world.

The apos­tle Peter, how­ev­er, also aims this word regard­ing fol­low­ers of Christ: As he who called you is holy, be holy your­selves in all your con­duct” (I Pet 1:15 – 16). But how can we be like God?

Per­haps it is eas­i­er for us to under­stand the Greek word arête, usu­al­ly trans­lat­ed as virtue or moral excel­lence. My Sun­day school teach­ers almost cer­tain­ly had this in mind. Their songs were per­haps inspired by Gala­tians 5, which describes a life of virtue, includ­ing a long list of actions to avoid: for­ni­ca­tion, impu­ri­ty, licen­tious­ness, idol­a­try, sor­cery, enmi­ties, strife, jeal­ousy, anger, quar­rels, dis­sen­sions, fac­tions, envy, drunk­en­ness, carous­ing, and things like these” (v. 19 – 20).

But a life of holi­ness involves more than eschew­ing cer­tain vices. In fact, under­stand­ing what holi­ness is, as Richard Fos­ter help­ful­ly explains, requires under­stand­ing what it is not. Holi­ness is not rules and reg­u­la­tions. It is not oth­er­world­li­ness that seeks to avoid con­tact with our bro­ken world. It is not works right­eous­ness,” for it is always depen­dent upon God’s grace. It is not perfectionism.

Indeed, defin­ing holi­ness by any of these exter­nal mea­sures can lead us to the pit­fall of legal­ism; we may become holi­er-than-thou,” which is cer­tain­ly not the same as being holy.

Yet the desire to live a life free from sin is a good one. The Holi­ness tra­di­tion reminds us that we can make progress toward that end, a process some­times referred to by the word sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion. One of the key fig­ures in the Holi­ness tra­di­tion, John Wes­ley, wrote In the order of sal­va­tion, sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion has its place between jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and final sal­va­tion. It turns the Chris­t­ian life into a process of change.”2

And in pur­suit of that change, a life of holi­ness is one that attends to the inner work­ings of the heart. Take one of the vers­es of my child­hood song as an exam­ple: Please don’t curse,” we sang. Sure­ly it is a good thing to avoid curs­ing. But Jesus made clear that out of the abun­dance of the heart the mouth speaks,” (Matthew 12:34). If the desire to curse is liv­ing unchecked in our hearts, it will like­ly erupt from our mouths at some point. So while we may sim­ply avoid par­tic­u­lar prac­tices at times, the life of holi­ness is more con­cerned with atten­tion to the heart. Proverbs 4:23 advis­es, Keep your heart with all vig­i­lance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Thus a vir­tu­ous life is a life of close­ness to God — a life inspired by God’s good­ness and empow­ered by God’s grace.

Beyond Avoid­ing Vice: Build­ing a Life of Virtue

The same Gala­tians 5 pas­sage that lists the works of the flesh goes on to list the fruit of the Spir­it as love, joy, peace, patience, kind­ness, gen­eros­i­ty, faith­ful­ness, gen­tle­ness, and self-control.”

A.W. Toz­er wrote, The Spir­it-filled life is not a spe­cial, deluxe edi­tion of Chris­tian­i­ty. It is part and par­cel of the total plan of God for His peo­ple.”3 A heart in which the Holy Spir­it is free to pro­duce this fruit will have less and less desire for vice.

Cul­ti­va­tion of this kind of life is essen­tial to build­ing a life of virtue.

To that end we struc­ture a life of prayer and med­i­ta­tion to ground us in the love of God. Then we employ dis­ci­plines that will help to train us in the vir­tu­ous life, remem­ber­ing the prin­ci­ple of indi­rec­tion through which the dis­ci­plines work. If we strug­gle with pride, for instance, we don’t try to sum­mon up humil­i­ty; instead, we may prac­tice the dis­ci­pline of ser­vice. If we are impa­tient or short-tem­pered, we may prac­tice a dis­ci­pline of inten­tion­al­ly slow­ing down, dri­ving in the slow lane or choos­ing the longest line at the gro­cery store.

In addi­tion to prac­tic­ing these dis­ci­plines, we join with oth­ers who are also intent upon cul­ti­vat­ing a life of virtue, under­stand­ing that we need com­pan­ions on the jour­ney. We need men­tors to show us the way of Jesus, con­fi­dantes to hear our con­fes­sion when we veer from the way, friends to encour­age and sup­port us along the way.

Richard Fos­ter describes the vir­tu­ous life as the abil­i­ty to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. It means being response-able,’ able to respond appro­pri­ate­ly to the demands of life.”4

As we learn from the Holi­ness stream, this life is one of progress, a life of grow­ing in grace, a life of becom­ing more and more like Christ. And as our hearts are changed, we become more and more free — not just free from the penal­ty of sin, but free from slav­ery to sin, a fact summed up by Peter Mar­shall: Free­dom is not the right to do as one pleas­es, but the oppor­tu­ni­ty to please [i.e. to be pleased] to do what is right.”5

My Sun­day school teach­ers taught me to sing about giv­ing my tobac­co to a bil­ly goat. Lat­er on I learned anoth­er song, one I still sing on the jour­ney of holiness.

Pur­er in heart, O God, help me to be:
May I devote my life whol­ly to Thee.
Watch Thou my way­ward feet;
Guide me with coun­sel sweet;
Pur­er in heart, help me to be.6

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[1] J.B. Chap­man, Holi­ness: The Heart of Chris­t­ian Expe­ri­ence (Kansas City, MO: Nazarene, 1943), 19 – 20.

[2] Har­ald Lind­ström, Wes­ley and Sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion: A Study in the Doc­trine of Sal­va­tion (Grand Rapids, MI: Zon­der­van, 1980), 123.

[3] A.W. Toz­er, How to Be Filled with the Holy Spir­it (Har­ris­burg, PA: Chris­t­ian Pub­li­ca­tions, n.d.), 18 – 19

[4] Fos­ter, Streams of Liv­ing Water, 82.

[5] Cather­ine Marhsall, A Man Called Peter (New York: McGraw Hill, 1951), 270.

[6] Fan­nie E. Davi­son, Pur­er in Heart,” 1877.

Originally published February 2020