The “grace” vs. “holiness” debate

The “grace” vs. “holiness” debate January 31, 2013

Christianity Today has set up a symposium discussing the following question:  Do American Christians Need the Message of Grace or a Call to Holiness?  As usual, no Lutherans were asked to participate, and the whole debate is maddening for a Lutheran to read, not just because of its false dichotomies but because of what is missing in the understanding of both terms.

For example, is it true that the Biblical definition of “holiness” means “being good”?  For convenience, here is a link to every use of the term “holy” in the Bible, and here is a link to the uses of the word “holiness”.  We learn that the Sabbath is holy, certain mountains and lands are holy; the Tabernacle (and later the Temple), its furnishings, the priests’ vestments and tools are holy.  None of these inanimate objects are capable of moral action, but God’s Word declares them holy.  There is a contrast with what is ritually unclean or profane, but this isn’t a matter of moral righteousness as such.  God, above all, is supremely holy.  So are His people.  Christians constitute a “holy priesthood.”  The holiness of Christians seems to be connected to the Holy Spirit.  To be sure, God’s holy people must avoid contact with what is “impure,” just as holy objects must not be touched by something “unclean.”

There are indeed passages in the Epistles that call for holy conduct, but there is more to the concept than that.  The word, of course, means “set apart” for God’s special use or for His spiritual presence.  The word “sacrament” comes from the word “sacred,” which, says the Online Etymological Dictionary, derives from the “obsolete verb sacren ‘to make holy’ (early 13c.).”  In Baptism, God sets us apart.  He makes us holy.  In Holy Communion, Christ makes us holy.  In the Holy Bible, God’s Word brings us His holiness through the Holy Spirit.

I’m not saying this exhausts the issue, but it is strange, in Lutheran eyes, to talk about “holiness” simply in behavioral terms.   It is also strange to talk about “grace” as an abstract quality without mentioning Christ, the Cross, or the tangible “means of grace,” which gets us back to “holiness.”

Good works? Of course!  But these grow out of both grace and holiness.  Both have to do with God’s gifts and what God bestows through Christ.  How can they be set against each other?



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  • Pete

    Maddening, indeed.

  • sg

    Good works? Of course! But these grow out of both grace and holiness. Both have to do with God’s gifts and what God bestows through Christ. How can they be set against each other?

    Who would even want them to be set against each other?

    The devil.

  • James Sarver

    Of course Lutherans are not invited to address this question. We would answer it simply “Yes!”

    That would in turn be maddening to those who wish to set up this false dichotomy and debate it endlessly. Lutherans are no fun at all …

  • Kathy M.

    One of the participants said this about grace, “…grace defined by us Methodists as the gratuitous power of God to enable us to live transformed lives for God.” Definitely something missing.

  • Booklover

    What is missing? The Lord’s Supper. And real Baptism.

  • Kristin


  • Don

    Excellent elucidation.

  • This is sad indeed. John Kleinig in his Concordia Leviticus Commentary (and elsewhere) wonderfully addresses the holiness of God and how it is He and His Word (and Sacraments) who makes us holy. In short, he notes that we have lost our sense of what is holy because we live in a desacralized secular culture where we have reduced holiness to morality and morality to legality. We are, as Hal Senkbeil notes, more concerned more about “moral infractions” than we are about “spiritual contamination.” Thus, the loss of the holy impoverishes our theology, diminishes our piety, and thins our faith.

  • Suffice it to say that it’s not just Lutherans who get irritated by such false dichotomies….due to false teaching equating not participating in certain activities (neither prescribed nor proscribed in Scripture) with personal holiness (the old “I don’t drink and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls that do” canard), I spend quite a bit of time defusing the bombs the “Holy Rollers” and others set to attack Biblical faith.

    With regards to that canard, I’m starting to wonder if the troubles of 1st Baptist of Hammond arise because that phrase implies that the speaker DOES go with girls (plural) who don’t drink or chew. Install un-Biblical laws of conduct, and you push out the Biblical. And grace/Gospel doesn’t have a chance. Yikes.

  • Pete

    Kathy M, above, pointed out the problem: ” ‘…grace defined by us Methodists as the gratuitous power of God to enable us to live transformed lives for God.’ Definitely something missing.”

    Lutherans eschew of the language of “enabling” in favor of the language of “creating” – the idea being that God does not enable me to lead a transformed life; He declares my life transformed. An important distinction – a law/gospel thing.

  • Jon

    What’s that saying–“God’s grace is sufficient to save you even from or despite your ‘good’ works”? Or, something like that….

  • Jon

    Methodism’s “grace” sounds a lot like Rome’s–basically a “fuel” that enables you to do good works, and the more good works you do the more grace-fueled you get, and so on, cooperation sort of thing. As opposed to grace being a declaration.

  • Dr Luther in the 21st Century

    Where would we be if we didn’t have the strawman of false dichotomies. Oh right, talking about something of true value.

    To be fair having sat around some of the discussions in these groups it is understandable why they see it as a true dichotomy. I look at it through the eyes of Tchividian who came out of a fairly legalistic background. Having been in the one extreme it is easy to be the drunk and fall off the other side of the Donkey. Meanwhile, we have been so isolated from the “mainstream” discussion they do not know that a third path exists.

  • fjsteve

    Nothing like turning a deep theological debate into a fluff piece. What American Christians really need is to stop reading periodicals that assume they can’t grasp multiple deep concepts at the same time.

  • These days, Lutherans shouldn’t refer to themselves as protestants, for reasons such as this.

  • Have any Lutherans voiced their displeasure at this to CT?

  • Grace

    Consider 1 Peter 1 – it addresses many of the comments you’ve made:

    13 Why gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and hope to the end for the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ;

    14 As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance:

    15 But as he which has called you is holy, so be you holy in all manner of conversation;

    16 Because it is written, Be you holy; for I am holy.
    17 And if you call on the Father, who without respect of persons judges according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear:

    18 For as much as you know that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers;

    19 But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot:

    20 Who truly was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you,

    21Who by him do believe in God, that raised him up from the dead, and gave him glory; that your faith and hope might be in God.

    22 Seeing you have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit to unfeigned love of the brothers, see that you love one another with a pure heart fervently:

    23 Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which lives and stays for ever.

  • Bob

    Have any Lutherans voiced their displeasure at this to CT?


    Do any Lutherans on here even subscribe to CT? If not, why should they care?

  • Dr Luther in the 21st Century

    @#17 So it is as we have been saying, the answer is “yes”

    @#18 I liked CT on Facebook, does that count?

  • We are DECLARED Holy…for Jesus’ sake (not even for our sakes).

    That’s grace.

    ‘Holiness churches’. Phooey. You can have them. I’m sure the devil loves them.

  • jb

    As the latest iassue of CTQ makes abundantly clear – all doctrine flows from a proper understanding of justification, or it has no source and is self-defeating.

  • Grace

    theoldadam @ 20

    Maybe you don’t realize it, but there are people who are true Believers which are part of the Holiness churches, who are dedicated to their LORD and Savior Jesus Christ. I would be careful about saying “I’m sure the devil loves them.”

  • Grace,

    I’m SURE that there are.

    That doesn’t make those kind of churches any less self-centered. Focusing internally, instead of relying on the finished work of Christ.

    Even Jesus recognized the demonic in Peter when Peter tried to sway Jesus from the Cross.

  • jb

    “My”/”anyone’s” dedication to the Lord is not ever the issue. The very demons believe in Jesus. The entire matter rest upon getting “justification” right – if we so, the other teachings of the Church fall precisely into place.

    That was the genius of Luther. I do not discount “believers” of whatever” persuasion – however – even they must get it right, and anything to the contrary is wrong.

  • Grace

    jb @ 25

    “That was the genius of Luther. I do not discount “believers” of whatever” persuasion – however – even they must get it right, and anything to the contrary is wrong.”

    I don’t believe Luther was any sort of “genius” –

    To most all Lutherans, Luther is always right, I disagree strongly – I am not a Lutheran.

  • Bob

    ‘Holiness churches’. Phooey. You can have them. I’m sure the devil loves them.’




    I’m a Lutheran. I was once a Free Methodist. But I think you’ve lost your marbles — not to mention your manners.. To say the devil loves holiness folks? C’mon. You’re making Lutherans look like nincompoops and idiots.

    No wonder CT didn’t feature any Lutherans if this is how they act. Better learn how to play with others in the sandbox if you want your voice to be heard.

  • Of course the devil loves the ‘holiness’ folks!

    They are trying to get there by what they do! (or don’t do)

    I’m going to say this one more time; we are DECLARED HOLY for Jesus’ sake.

    Did you hear that? If you are any kind of a Lutheran you should be able to understand that.

    This is serious stuff, Bob. Way too serious for coddling those who would keep people from the Cross of Christ and instead engage in some holiness project of their own strength and effort.

  • Bob


    Keep telling yourself that.

    There’s no need to make false accusations of people. I stand by what I said in my #27. Grow up.

  • What false accusations?

    I stand by what I said. Holiness churches do NOT understand the gospel. Otherwise they wouldn’t be destroying people’s assurance by putting them on a religious rat-wheel.

    Must everyone agree with you, Bob, for you to not denigrate them?

  • Abby

    Steve @21 That sermon was amazing! Makes one relax. Though we still put up a lot of resistance, don’t we?

  • Bob said:

    “Do any Lutherans on here even subscribe to CT? If not, why should they care?”

    I’m not Lutheran, and have emphatic differences with Lutheran theology, but quite frankly I do want them to speak up from time to time and take part in the discussion. It comes back to our knowledge of Christ; does the Great Commission mean that we ought to be about the business of making disciples, or does it not?

    If indeed Lutherans do believe their theology, then Matthew 28 calls them–with all the rest of us–to help make disciples.

    Grace, and peace, and chocolate, and a nice IPA to all of you.

  • Abby @31,

    Thank you, friend. I do believe it’s my all time favorite sermon (maybe that is a sin to even have one).

    Yes, it’s quite liberating…and also to know that our old sinner never gives up…but that Christ doesn’t either.

    That’s we need to hear this stuff over and over and over…and over again.

  • Abby,

    Here’s another one that is really good. It’s my runner-up (all-time favorite sermon):


  • Abby

    Steve @34 I wish I could find a pastor like that. Thank you.

  • Abby @35,

    They are out there. Few and far between…but they still exist.

    I put up most of his sermons on my blog. You are always welcome to pop in and listen now and then. I did pick out the best of the best, but there are many good ones, along with a lot of his pastor’s classes/Bible studies.

  • Abby

    @36 Thanks, Steve. I will definately look in. One of my favorite pastimes is listening to online sermons.

  • The internet is such a wonderful tool.

    That first sermon that I posted here in this thread was originally delivered to about 10 of us on a Wed. night in Lent.

    Over the last three days almost 300 people have listened in on it.

    Thanks be to God.