October 2019 – “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.
Part 2 of this interview in the November AFAJ will cover Dr. Oswalt’s analysis of issues in the church and in the culture plus why he has hope for the future.
AFA Journal: In your season of life, most men are long retired – playing golf or hunting or traveling. What happened to you?
Dr. John Oswalt: Well, it’s really an amazing story. I never had in my wildest dreams the interim presidency of Wesley Biblical Seminary. I taught there for 10 years, and then Asbury Seminary asked me to come there and help them in their
They gave me an office and let me teach when I wanted to, and I didn’t go to faculty meetings. That’s good. I told that to a friend, another seminary prof, and he said “So there is a God!”
AFAJ: What prompted the move back to WBS?
JO: It was a Friday afternoon in March. I was sitting in our family room. My wife came in and said, “John Neihof just died.”
I said, “No!” I was stunned. Almost instantly, I had the sense of You ought to make yourself available for that position.
God, do You know how old I am? I thought.
Almost 80, He answered. What’s the problem?
Well, I just thought that was crazy and didn’t think a lot more about it.
Sunday at 5 a.m., I woke up, and it was clear as any time in my life. I heard the voice of God, and He said, “You must do this.”
And within about five minutes, all the details became clear: We would not move. It would be for one year. I would fly back and forth [Lexington, Kentucky to Jackson]. I would not take a salary. They would provide me with an apartment in Jackson.
AFAJ: How did your wife react to your proposal?
JO: On the way to church, I said to my wife, “Is your seat belt fastened?”
She said, “Well, yes.” So, I told her my thoughts.
She said, “Well, I knew we had to do something! I just didn’t know what it was.”
AFAJ: How did you approach WBS with your offer?
JO: That Sunday afternoon, I called Matt Friedeman, who’s a Wesley faculty member, and I said, “Matt, is this crazy?”
He said. “Well, no, I don’t think so.” We talked a little bit more, and he asked, “May I tell the board chairman that you’re available?
I said, “Yes.” And the rest is history.
AFAJ: 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 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 story line 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.
Visit Dr. John Oswalt’s online devotions at calledtobeholy.net, and shop for his books at francisasburysociety.com or other booksellers.
Watch for Part 2 of this interview in the November issue of AFA Journal.