While all Salvation Army core convictions are important, the 10th doctrine could be considered our defining doctrine. Indeed, biblical scholar Dr. Roger Green argues that this is “the doctrine by which we interpret and live out our common life.” It is called the doctrine of holiness: We believe that it is the privilege of all believers to be wholly sanctified, and that their whole spirit and soul and body may be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Since little is mentioned in the ancient creeds of the church about sanctification, it’s instructive to ask why it was included in the Army’s core convictions. It has much to do with the insistence of our Methodist roots upon real change in Christian believers. The Reformation emphasized the new relationship established with God by virtue of the life, death and Resurrection of Christ. Justification became its signature concept. Without denying this important aspect of salvation, John Wesley insisted that justification must bring about a change in the way believers lived. The biblical term is sanctification. This doctrine expresses the conviction that our character should reflect God’s character, both personally and communally. Wholly sanctified! “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:45 NRSV).
Since the word holy is easily misunderstood, it’s helpful to consider its biblical background. For instance, when Moses encountered God in the burning bush, he was instructed to remove his sandals because the place on which he was standing was “holy ground” (Exodus 3:5 NRSV). The ground was different—holy—because of its association in this moment with God. And here is a clue to the meaning of holiness. It means to be different, distinct, unique. When God is called holy, we ask, “In what sense is the God of the Bible unique?” Each biblical book offers its own response. The cumulative effect, however, portrays this holy God, incarnate in Christ Jesus, as One whose character is wholly distinct: The Holy One. And this holds great significance for how we interpret and live out our common life.
Holiness asks how our practice of justice is grounded in God’s character
For instance, one psalmist praises God for being “mindful” of human beings (Psalm 8:4). God is not distracted by his iPad when we pray. In her book, Distracted, Maggie Jackson explores the nature of distraction in our own age: “The way we live is eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention—the building block of intimacy, wisdom and cultural progress…. Put most simply, attention defines us and is the bedrock of society…. Yet, increasingly we are shaped by distraction.”
God’s character is marked by attentiveness. And the character of a holy people will be marked by attentiveness to God and others. We will bring our focused attention to worship and not check our digital devices between songs. We will engage in conversation with friends and set aside our cellphones. The degree to which we listen deeply will reflect our understanding of the holy God who is mindful of us. A holy people will be attentive, not distracted.
Holiness is a matter of the heart. It’s also a matter of justice. The former director of the International Social Justice Commission, Colonel Geanette Seymour, argues that “social justice is actually the practice of Salvationist holiness, living a life that is socially just and encouraging others to do likewise” (Salvationist, January 2015). Holiness asks how our practice of justice is grounded in God’s charater.
A few months ago, the lead article in Maclean’s magazine portrayed Winnipeg as “Canada’s Most Racist City.” I live in this city. I feel its accusation. The practice of holiness means that Salvationists in this city will live in ways that are “socially just,” both personally and corporately. For my congregation, it means mounting a backpack program so children in our neighbourhood can begin school on a level playing field. For our correctional and justice services, it means running a SNOW night—Safe Night Off Winnipeg streets—for the women of this city. For me, it means that I respect my Jewish, Sikh and Muslim colleagues on the board of the Manitoba Multifaith Council. Holiness means we will live in socially just ways.
“You shall be holy, for I am holy.” Here is the charter doctrine of The Salvation Army. Here is the core conviction by which we become “a transformative influence in the communities of our world.”
Major Ray Harris is a retired Salvation Army officer. He lives in Winnipeg where he is preparing to welcome the geese back to Assiniboine Park.