What Is the Holiness Movement and Is it Biblical?

The Holiness Movement claims that Christians can achieve full sanctification during their lifetime because of the second sealing of the Holy Spirit. While the movement affirms many aspects of orthodoxy, they do hold to multiple unbiblical teachings.

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Emerging from a Methodist and Wesleyan background, the Holiness Movement and Church has many denominations and has experienced widespread influence in other areas of Christianity. 

As the name suggests, the Holiness Movement places a large emphasis on personal holiness, claiming that Christians can achieve perfect or full sanctification during their lifetime because of the second sealing of the Holy Spirit. 

While the movement affirms many aspects of orthodoxy, they do hold to multiple unbiblical teachings. 

To understand the Holiness Movement and the Church, one must look at the movement’s background and history, the many denominational structures within the Holiness Church, and the doctrinal teachings of the movement. 

What Is the Holiness Movement?

Beginning in the 19th century, the Holiness Movement grew out of a Methodist background in America during the Third Great Awakening. The main proponent for this movement, who is seen as the founder of the Holiness Movement and Church, was Phoebe Palmer, a female leader in the Methodist church. 

Influenced by John Wesley’s teachings in his work “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” she believed she had an experience of complete sanctification in 1837. Soon after this, she began holding meetings in her house to spread the teaching of Christian perfectionism. 

Palmer also wrote many books on the subject and went on speaking tours with her husband, which caused the Holiness Movement to spread.  

Notably, the movement found even greater movement through the Holiness Camp Meetings, which began “in 1867 at Vineland, New Jersey” (E. A. Livingstone, Oxford Concise Dictionary of the Christian Church). 

Although at that time, the movement was still closely related to Methodism, eventually the tensions between Methodists and those who followed the Holiness Movement grew more strained. 

Many traditional Methodists did not agree with the teachings and emphasis of the movement, which to them was focused too much on emotions. Because of this growing tension, those in the Holiness Movement broke away from the Methodist church and developed their own denominations. 

Denominations of the Holiness Church

Multiple denominations were formed within the Holiness Movement and Church once they broke away from Methodism. One of the largest denominations within the Holiness Church is the Church of the Nazarene. 

Having a Wesleyan influence, the Church of the Nazarene places a major emphasis on growing in holiness and maintaining a personal walk with God. Those who attend Nazarene churches can be found all around the world, showing how widespread the Holiness Movement has been in influence.     

Another major denomination within the Holiness Church is the Salvation Army, which was founded by William and Catherine Booth. Interestingly, Catherine Booth was influenced by the teachings of the Holiness Movement through her exposure to the writings of Phoebe Palmer. 

Following the movement’s insistence on personal holiness and sanctification, the Salvation Army set up high standards for living and working for social justice. 

Finally, individuals can find holiness adherents within modern Methodist, Wesleyan, Baptist, and Pentecostal churches. Many of these churches will commonly include “holiness” in their names, such as Pentecostal-Holiness or Wesleyan-Holiness. 

While the movement and church are not as noticeable today as it was during the 19th and 20th centuries, one can continue to see the influence of the holiness teachings in the denominations that broke away from the mainline Methodist Church. 

Doctrinal Teachings of the Holiness Movement

The doctrinal teachings of the Holiness Movement mainly correlate with normal Christian teaching except in the doctrinal area of sanctification and the work of the Holy Spirit. Those associated with the Holiness Movement do affirm salvation by grace through faith and believe that Jesus’ work on the cross provided atonement and forgiveness of sins. In these areas, the Holiness Movement correlates with orthodox Christian belief. 

One of the key teachings of the Holiness Movement which deviates from normal biblical teaching is that believers can achieve Christian perfection or entire sanctification within their lifetime. 

This teaching stems back to John Wesley who taught that believers could increasingly grow in holiness and reach a state of “entire sanctification” where they are “delivered from all sin and filled entirely with the pure love of God” (Neil Anderson, “Wesleyan-Holiness Theology”). 

It is to be noted, however, that Wesley’s definition of sin focused specifically on breaking one of God’s laws, which allowed for unintentional “sins,” acts of ignorance, and wandering thoughts. His focus of Christian perfectionism was on Christians showing love for God and others, which Wesley believed marked the highest level of maturity for believers.  

According to the Holiness Movement and Church, the way a believer experiences “entire sanctification” is through the “second blessing” of the Holy Spirit in which He seals the believer into a sinless state. 

Basing their teachings on Wesley’s view of Christian perfection, those in the Holiness Movement argue that believers can achieve complete holiness in this lifetime where they do not sin. 

Historically, there were many people in the Holiness Movement who claimed to have achieved this standard, such as Phoebe Palmer who described her experience of entire sanctification in her work The Way of Holiness

Because of the movement’s emphasis on Christian perfection and a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit after salvation, those who follow these teachings focus on personal and outward holiness. Using a verse like 1 Peter 1:16, they would claim that their view is supported in the Bible since God has commanded “Be holy, because I am holy” (NIV). 

Because of the focus of personal holiness, some denominations, such as the Church of the Nazarene and Salvation Army, have taught the belief that believers can “lose” or turn away from their salvation. Hence, according to some churches in the Holiness Movement, people must maintain their salvation by pursuing absolute holiness. 

Evaluation of the Holiness Movement

Although the Holiness Church and Movement mainly adheres to biblical Christian belief, their doctrines of Christian perfectionism, a “second blessing” from the Holy Spirit, and teaching that Christians can lose their salvation are not biblical. 

First, there is nothing in the Bible about believers being able to achieve a sinless state during their earthly life. In fact, Scripture describes a constant battle in the believer between the Holy Spirit and the fleshly tendency to sin (Galatians 5:17). 

None of the Apostles achieved “entire sanctification” as taught by the Holiness Movement. Peter still sinned by caving into fear when pressured by “the circumcision party” (Galatians 2:11-14). Paul continued to struggle with inner sin and was given a “thorn in the flesh” to prevent the sin of pride (Romans 7:15-20; 2 Corinthians 12:7). 

Mark abandoned the missionary activity when he first assisted Paul and Barnabas on their mission journey (Acts 13:5; 15:38). Barnabas and Paul argued about Mark’s abandonment (Acts 15:39-41). Finally, John attempted to worship an angel, who promptly rebuked the Apostle (Revelation 22:8-9). The apostles/disciples were not perfect but were still followers of the Lord, assured of their salvation. 

Also, the Bible does not describe a “second blessing” where the Holy Spirit seals a believer into a state of sinlessness. Instead, Scripture teaches that believers receive the Holy Spirit when they place faith in Jesus and are sealed into their salvation (Ephesians 4:30). 

The Holy Spirit provides regeneration and a new birth (John 3:3; Titus 3:5). There is no reason to look for a second blessing of the Holy Spirit since He permanently indwells individuals when they place faith in Jesus’ saving work (1 Corinthians 6:19). 

Finally, God’s Word does not teach that a person can “lose” or turn away from their salvation. Jesus specifically said that no one could snatch His sheep (believers) from His hand (John 10:28). Since salvation is by grace through faith, a person cannot do anything to lose their position of grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). 

If they could, then the gift of salvation would not be based on grace. As it is, however, salvation is not based on works but is freely given to those who place their trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection (Romans 10:9).  

Base Doctrine and Christian Practice on the Bible

Therefore, the Holiness Movement and Church developed in the 19th century from Methodism. Focusing on the teachings of John Wesley, those in the Holiness Movement emphasized Christian perfectionism and the experience of receiving a “second blessing” to achieve entire sanctification. 

From this movement, multiple denominations broke away from Methodism and became the Holiness Church. Some of these denominations include the Salvation Army and the Church of the Nazarene. 

Although the Holiness Church does hold to most of the foundational teachings of Christian doctrine, the teachings of achieving sinlessness, receiving the Holy Spirit a second time, and losing one’s salvation are not biblical. Believers must always base their doctrine and practice on the Bible instead of a movement or denomination.

For further reading:

What Is the Seal of the Holy Spirit?

Church of the Nazarene: 10 Things to Know about Their History and Beliefs

What Is Sanctification Through Salvation?

What Does it Mean That Our Security Is in the Lord?

Are Steps to Salvation Biblical?

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Sophia Bricker is a freelance writer who enjoys researching and writing articles on biblical and theological topics. In addition to contributing articles about biblical questions as a contract writer, she has also written for Unlocked devotional. Holding a Bachelor of Arts in Ministry and currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Ministry, she is passionate about the Bible and her faith in Jesus. When she isn’t busy studying or writing, Sophia enjoys spending time with family, reading, drawing, and gardening.