Question: "What is the Holiness movement / church?"

Answer: The Holiness movement/church is an influence within Christianity that teaches that a person can achieve perfect holiness, or sinless perfection, while on earth. This doctrine teaches “entire sanctification,” which usually comes via a spiritual experience that those in the Holiness movement refer to as the “second work of grace” or the “second blessing.” The Holiness movement is opposed by Reformed thinkers, who assert that original sin still exists in even the most faithful person.

The Holiness movement began in 1840 when a Methodist leader named Phoebe Palmer began to hold revivals and teach the necessity of holiness—and how to attain it. Groups and denominations historically associated with the Holiness movement include Wesleyans, Methodists, Nazarenes, and the Salvation Army. However, it should be noted that churches differ widely on doctrine, even within denominations. The Holiness movement did have a profound effect on the history of the church, particularly in North America during the Third Great Awakening. Holiness adherents are typically interested in obedience to the Law and see their obedience as a way to gain closeness to God and greater spirituality.

While holiness is a biblical mandate and something every believer should strive for (Hebrews 12:14), those in the Holiness movement typically leave out an important detail: the fact that absolute holiness is impossible to attain. Perfection, sinlessness, and a holy life are not within man’s power to achieve. This idea is backed up by the Bible in numerous passages, most notably in the book of Romans. Paul’s argument in the first part of Romans is that man is fallen and unable to make himself follow the Law. In addition, it could be said that the whole history of Israel, with its repeated failures, is an object lesson about man’s inability to achieve holiness through the Law.

The Holiness movement is related to Pentecostalism in that it says that God helps the believer by giving him the “second blessing” of His Spirit. The “second blessing,” according to Holiness teaching, seals the believer in a sinless state. Unfortunately, a “sinless state” is not supported by either the Bible or human experience. While an emotional experience can make one feel that holiness is possible and that we never want to sin again, we still live in the flesh, and the flesh is still beset with weakness (Romans 7:14–19). Even the apostle Paul was unable to be completely sinless, and he admitted as much, saying that the old law of sin was still alive in his body, even though he served God in his mind and spirit (Romans 7:21–23). Elsewhere, Paul mentions a “thorn” in his flesh, making him rely on God’s strength instead of his own weakness (2 Corinthians 12:7). Near the end of his life, when by all accounts he should have been the most holy, Paul called himself the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). Had Paul not received the second blessing? Or perhaps there is no second blessing resulting in sinlessness. The fact is that none of the apostles ever hinted at the possibility that man can achieve “entire sanctification,” and there is no mention in the Bible of a “second blessing” of the Spirit.

Christians do sin (1 John 1:5–10), but, hopefully, less and less as we mature in Christ (Philippians 3:12). The Holiness movement is wrong in its assumption that a believer can keep enough rules to attain sinless perfection in this world.