Being Separated, Being Holy, Being Incarnational

I agree with Wesleyan pastor Steve Deneff, from his book The Way of Holiness, that sanctification, or holiness, has been sorely misunderstood and, tragically, very badly misrepresented by well-intentioned but misguided believers. Because the Greek word for sanctification, or holiness, ἁγιασμός, refers to a state of separation, this preferred concept has carried negative consequences as a result. Instead of being set apart unto the Lord first and primarily, but also set apart from sin and "worldliness," properly defined, many believers prefer the notion of being set apart from "the world," which leads to self-righteousness. What happens as a result of the latter?

When all one thinks, regarding holiness, is that he or she should be set apart from the world, the person concentrates on all that pertains to worldliness, and walks into some very grey areas. From this standpoint, the believer refuses to listen to "worldly" music, and begins burning "secular" music and listens only to "Christian" music. The only movies or television shows such a person allows him- or herself to partake are "Christian" in nature. Such a person devolves into being subjective as to what pertains to "worldliness," until even his or her shoes must be Christian-esque in some subjective sense, until he or she begins to feel superior to others and to think of him- or herself higher than one ought (Rom. 12:3). This is to be avoided at all cost.

Sadly, what such an individual fails to understand is that she is not becoming more holy, but more and more self-righteous. When we fail to understand the heavenly context of Jesus' words, "No one is good except God alone" (Mark 10:18), we begin to think of ourselves as good by avoiding what we think of as being "worldly." True, we as believers are not to be worldly (1 John 2:15), but to be godly and holy in Christ Jesus our King (1 Tim. 2:2; 2 Pet. 1:3). Wesleyan pastor Steve Deneff comments:
To say that God is holy is to say at least four things that pull against each other. Holiness, as God embodies it (in Jesus), is not any one of these things but all four of them. Where the holiness message [the holiness movement] of the past has failed has been in places where we have emphasized only one of these things to the neglect of the others. . . . The failure of much holiness teaching in the past has been to play too much to one extreme, making it weak and unattractive. One generation grows up under the influence of one of these components and, soon after, their children abandon it and flee to the other side [the other extreme]. One generation errs in this direction, and the next generation errs in that direction.1
The four elements mentioned by pastor Deneff include Purity and Passion, that tend to create tension, and Separation and Participation, which seem contradictory, but are actually complementary. Many in the holiness movement fastened on the idea of Separation -- not as much separated to God as separated from "the world" -- and became "more preoccupied with avoiding something than with becoming something."2 This notion resonates with an Episcopal understanding of holiness.

Pastor Steve Deneff concludes that, because the younger generation rejects the self-righteousness of their parents' holiness movement (i.e., I am holy because of what I avoid, or separate myself from, rather than deriving holiness through union with and in the Holy One), they "fear their parents' faith more than they pursue their own."3 This need not be. Holiness is derived not from our good works but by the indwelling Holy Spirit conforming us to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29). Holiness is, according to Samuel Wells, "less about being the 'light of the world,' a people distinct and [set] apart [from the world], and more about being 'the salt of the earth,' an incarnational presence in and among"4 the world that God loves and longs to save.

Is there not an inner reality to holiness within the believer? After all, we are the light of the world (Matt. 5:14), but only because the Light of the world (John 8:12) dwells within us (John 14:20). But we "let our light shine," which is the Lord Jesus Christ, when we do good deeds in our communities (Matt. 5:16). This glorifies God and benefits humanity. But this cannot happen if we remove ourselves from the world and pretend that, by doing so, we are becoming more and more holy. No, in that scenario, we are becoming more and more self-righteous. This is to be avoided.

Think of separation, as outlined for us by the holiness movement of the nineteenth century, as not only self-righteousness but also as passively negative. Holiness of heart -- a desire to love the Lord and to obey God's moral and ethical standards -- is not necessarily attained by mere passivity (separation) but by progressively and proactively participating in the life of the indwelling Holy Spirit.

One's separation from sinful and worldly thinking and living, and unto the Lord in thinking and living devotionally, ought to be exhibited in the daily participation of the Spirit at work in the world. We are "in" the world but not "of" the world (John 17:14-16; cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-11; 7:31) -- i.e., we have much spiritual and kingdom work to accomplish, by the power of the Spirit, in this world even though we, by grace through faith in Christ, no longer belong to our former worldly-mindedness. We have new desires, a new kingdom agenda, and a new manner of thinking and living.

Our personal sanctification -- our so-called separatedness -- is less about our being disconnected from the world and much more about being little christs in the world. This holiness is proactive and seeks incarnational living rather than barricading ourselves from those we are called to love and reach in and for Christ. We are human beings, not monuments, and we need to be in this world to point this world not to our alleged goodness but to the Savior of this world to the glory of God and God alone.


1 Steve Deneff, The Way of Holiness (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2010), 33-34.

2 Ibid., 34.

3 Ibid.

4 Samuel Wells, What Episcopalians Believe: An Introduction (New York: Morehouse Publishing, 2011), 15.


My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.