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 arete, 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

[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.

Text First Published February 2020