“Holiness is not a demand,” Dr. John Oswalt told AFA Journal. “Holiness is an invitation.” Dr. Oswalt has distinguished himself as a leading contemporary teacher, prolific author, and vocal advocate of biblical holiness for this generation. In this exclusive interview, he commented on the subject.
To grasp the enormity of Dr. Oswalt’s influence on the Christian community, it is noteworthy that at age 79, he recently accepted the non-paying role as interim president of Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. His transition to that role followed the sudden death of WBS president Dr. John Neihof (age 58) in March.
AFA Journal: Holiness is a virtue you have preached, taught, and written about for many years. How do we infuse holiness into the church and the culture?
JO: In the ancient world [when cultures had many gods], the word holiness was not used very much. It wasn’t that common. There were holy vessels and that sort of thing, and it meant “that which is eerie, that which is somehow apart from the ordinary.”
However, it had no moral content whatsoever because, if their gods were holy, they still had good gods and bad gods, clean gods and unclean gods. So, holiness had nothing to do with moral character.
But then the Hebrews made a discovery. The Hebrews met a God Who is not of this world. He is “other” in capital letters. He is the one being that can truly be called holy.
His character defines what the content of the word holiness is, and His character is right. It is true. It is just. It is pure. It is love.
That’s what holiness is.
AFAJ: Why do you say holiness is an invitation?
JO: So, God says to His people, “You want to be My people?”
They say, “Sure. We saw what happened to the Egyptians. Yeah, we want to be your people.”
“Okay, then you must be holy as I am.”
It’s so clear in Leviticus 19, which starts out with “You must be holy as I am holy.” The rest of the chapter is just a collection of ethical behaviors. The very first thing is to honor your father and your mother – that is to be holy. In every part of your ethical life, you must be holy. We’re supposed to share the character of God. But the Hebrews discovered they can’t do it [on their own].
AFAJ: Then, how does a believer appropriate God’s holy character?
JO: Something in us prevents us from sharing His character. We realize I don’t want to love other people unselfishly. It doesn’t pay off to be honest. I don’t want to keep my promises.
God says, “I’m so glad you discovered that. I’ve been trying to tell you. I’d like to give you My Spirit. But I can’t do that [yet]. Not until I cleanse your temple, and that’s going to take My blood. But when the blood has cleansed the temple, you can share the character of God.”
As I was thinking these ideas through, it dawned on me. That’s really what Paul is saying in all his letters. He’s writing to Christians, people who believe, and he’s saying now you must quit stealing. You must quit fornicating because you belong to Christ. Christ has saved you in order to share His character with you, His holy character.
Through the years, we’ve made holiness a series of do’s and don’ts. We’ve thought Holy people don’t wear these kinds of clothes. Holy people don’t say those kinds of things.
AFAJ: What is the bottom line on holiness for the Christ follower?
JO: The point is not what I do first. It’s what I am first, and I am Christ-like, and that is going to shape what I do. We can be what we were meant to be. We can live in Christ’s life. Sure, it’s going to be difficult. There are going to be times when it’s painful, but still in all, it’s going to be fulfilling because it’s what we were meant to be.
That’s why [I wrote] my book Called to be Holy: A Biblical Perspective. I really think the storyline running through Scripture is that He made us for fellowship with Him. We cannot have fellowship with Him unless we share His character, and He has done everything necessary that we can share His character.
It’s been sort of my mission to say holiness is not a demand. Holiness is an invitation.
Church, Culture, and Community
AFAJ: How do you perceive the state of the U.S. church today? The culture?
JO: Well, I’m not different from many observers. I think we’re in serious trouble, both the church and the culture. I don’t think anybody imagined 10 years ago that the culture would move at the speed it has. That’s been the shocking thing.
I read several books by George Barna at the turn of the millennium, and now I see he really was predicting that it was going to be this way. We had come to the edge of a cliff, and we were about to fall over the cliff. That certainly has happened in the years since then.
AFAJ: How have changes in the culture impacted the family?
JO: I don’t think anybody really understands what the impact of the loss of the nuclear family is going to be in the next 10 years. We have a whole [new adult] generation, many of whom have never known their fathers; or if they have, it’s been a totally dysfunctional relationship. They have had no stability.
"Daddy, how do I teach somebody about trust
when every trust they've ever had has failed?"
My son was a missionary in Russia for seven years working with orphan graduates, kids who were put out of the orphanage and enrolled in a technical college somewhere.
I’ll never forget a conversation we had on the telephone one Sunday afternoon.
He said, “Daddy, how do I teach somebody about trust when every trust they’ve ever had has failed?”
Well, we’re headed that way in our society. We have a generation who believe you can’t trust anybody. You can’t trust the authorities. You can’t trust the media. You can’t trust your friends. You certainly can’t trust your parents. The disintegration we’re facing is terrible.
AFAJ: How do these changes impact the church?
JO: I’m guardedly more hopeful for the church. I think nominal Christianity is going to disappear. That means we’re going to have real Christianity left, and I think that is going to be painful.
I tell my students, “You will face persecution. It will not be the subtle kind of persecution it is now. It will be open flagrant persecution.”
However, remember what Jesus said about persecution: “Rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:11-12). In that sense, I think there’s going to be a shaking out. We’re going to find much more powerfully how much we need one another, and I think [that will lead to] genuine caring and fellowship. I think Jesus is going to become more significant and more important.
We’ve got to recover that tightly integrated community in which people do trust each other to the end and are committed to the good of the community around them, even a community that may hate them or misunderstand them.
"The goal of salvation is Christlikeness."
AFAJ: You used the phrase “guarded hope” on American Family Radio. Elaborate a bit more on that.
JO: I think the analyses I’ve seen of Generation Z [born mid-1990s to early 2000s] is that oddly enough, they’re pretty desperate for some kind of belonging, some kind of community. They might never call it that, but they want what’s true, right, some foundations. That’s encouraging.
AFAJ: How did the church and the culture get to this point of moral desperation?
JO: I want to be careful how I say it, but I believe, to be very honest, the church just flat-out failed. And I think the place at which we failed was at the boiling point that George Barna wrote about in 1999.
He said there is no statistically significant difference between the values of the lost and the values of the saved. The top 10 values are identical, the top 6 are in the same order, and the number 1 value is material satisfaction.
Well, if there’s no difference between the church and the world, that means the salt has lost its savor (Matthew 5:13).
AFAJ: Can you pinpoint any specific factors that led to this level?
JO: I want to be very careful, but part of it is our emphasis upon salvation as the end – get saved and that’s it.
No! Salvation is the front porch. The goal of salvation is Christlikeness. And I think the church, almost from World War II, has short-circuited truth and accepted the get-saved-and-that’s-it fallacy.
We’ve accepted the erroneous notions: You don’t have to expect to be transformed. You don’t have to be radically different in your values from your neighbors. You’re saved – enjoy yourself and wait for Jesus to come.
That’s the tragedy; we think, I’m just a Christian – you can’t expect me to be honest. I’m just a Christian – you can’t expect me to be faithful to my wife. I’m just a Christian. You can’t expect me to ... whatever.
I really think the finger points straight at us. The tragedy is that in the last 50 years, evangelicalism has become the representative face of Christianity.
Before that, if the media wanted to talk about Christianity, they went to the mainline denominations. Now we evangelicals have replaced them. But in that same 50 years, the moral life of the nation has gone into the septic tank. That’s a harsh judgment, but I think that’s what has happened.
AFAJ: How does the nation climb out of this moral septic tank?
JO: The church has to proclaim a kind of Christianity which transforms people’s lives. We’ve got to say to them in a whole variety of ways, Jesus didn’t say, “Go into all the world and make converts.” He said, “Go into all the world and make disciples.” We’ve got to have a new emphasis on discipleship.
What does it mean now that you’re saved? God has given you new desires. God has given you new abilities to live for Him. How do you capitalize on those? How do you energize those? And how do you allow the Holy Spirit Who is in you to take control of you?
We’ve got to recover that message and call people into that kind of a life-changing relationship. That’s not a popular message.
Citing Barna again – he says Christians want following Jesus to be simple and convenient, and to make no demands.
Well, where are you going to find people who declare, “No, it’s going to be complicated, and it’s not going to be convenient. We’re here to proclaim a Christianity that transforms people’s lives.”
Visit Dr. John Oswalt’s online devotions at calledtobeholy.net, and shop for his books at francisasburysociety.com or other booksellers.
This piece has been modified and adapted from a two-part series which originally ran in the October (“Part 1: God, do You know how old I am?”) and November 2019 (“Part 2: You mean salvation is supposed to change me?”) print edition of the AFA Journal.