by Natalie LaValley

While the contemplative stream emphasizes our intimacy with God, the holiness stream focuses on reforming our hearts and practicing virtue. A good biblical summary of the holiness stream comes from James:

In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith, I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”   James 2:17-18

This stream takes into account that we, as physical beings, define ourselves (at least in part) with our actions. Though we are certainly saved by grace and made blameless in God’s sight (Eph. 2:8, 1:4), we don’t automatically act like it. Some people, upon conversion, experience an instant transformation and freedom from sinful habits. That’s not the case for most of us, however. But because we hear those kinds of stories, we often sit on our hands waiting for an emotional rush of God’s love to inspire us to transform and live virtuously. Even if we do get that kind of experience, the transformation may not last unless we make virtue into a habit. We will naturally continue our fleshly habits until we discipline ourselves to replace them with “holy habits.” These disciplines are not about mystically transcending your physical nature but rather bringing it in harmony with your spiritual nature.

Jesus and the Holiness Stream

Jesus obviously modeled the holiness stream by living a sinless life. Though He did not need to practice disciplines to reform Himself, He modeled them and taught others what they must do. He prepared Himself for resisting temptation by fasting forty days and nights in the desert. He also laid out the two essential commandments – to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbor as ourselves – and elaborated and what this looked like in the Sermon on the Mount. Finally, Jesus displayed the most ultimate fulfillment of His teaching by sacrificing Himself on the cross. While on the cross, He continued to model virtue by choosing to forgive His executioners and obediently remaining on the cross instead of saving Himself as He could have done.

Example from History

One historical example of the holiness stream is Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874). She married a Methodist physician, and of the six children she had, three died in childbirth. Then a fourth child died in a tragic accident. In her grief over this loss, she turned to God and vowed that she would spend the time she would have spent raising that child working for Him. She hoped that through her child’s death, many would find life. So Phoebe began a weekly meeting in her home called “The Tuesday Meeting for the Promotion of Holiness.” Thought it was originally intended for women, it grew to include people of both genders and many diverse denominations. The meetings continued for forty years, becoming the spiritual nourishment of some of the most significant Christian leaders of the day as well as the founders, presidents, and other key leaders of universities such as Boston, American, Drew, Northwestern, and the Universities of Michigan and Georgia. The Second Evangelical Awakening can be traced to Phoebe’s ministry.  She taught the “altar theology” that Christ is our altar upon which we place our sacrifice. Because everything that touches the altar is holy, we can live in a state of holiness and sanctification when we place everything we are upon that altar.

Holy Habits

Musicians may have natural talent, but they still have to practice. (My brother who performs virtuosic pieces and is getting a PhD in piano still plays his scales every day.) In the same way, though we have the righteousness of Christ, we cannot think that we’re “beyond” the basics of Christianity. These basics include confession, repentance, and forgiveness.  

With these daily habits comes an emphasis on mind renewal. This is challenging, because our brains are constantly assaulted with the distraction of phones, Internet, apps, TV, social media, radio, billboards, magazines, and endless email notifications. Seeking simplicity by practicing abstinence (such as a social media fast) or limiting distraction (e.g. “no Internet use after 6pm”) helps us, even on a physical level, to empty ourselves and be filled with Christ.

For some concrete ways to practice the Virtuous Life, you can download this free devotional with exercises.

 This blog series draws from the Christ Habits curriculum. If you or your small group could benefit from studying these disciplines more in-depth, you can find the Christ Habits Collection here at our store.

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