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Luke L. Keefer Jr. and the Doctrine of Holiness

Luke L. Keefer Jr.
Luke L. Keefer Jr.

I’m working on multiple projects right now — projects that, unfortunately, have taken me away from blogging (as faithful readers of The Search for Piety and Obedience may have observed!) I’ve decided to post some (draft) excerpts from some of these projects. I’m hoping that these brief excerpts will give readers a sense of what I’m currently researching and writing — and maybe even provide me with opportunities to receive feedback on my work!

The first snippet comes from my biography of Luke L. Keefer Jr., a long-time theologian, historian, and church leader among the Brethren in Christ. The biography will be published by the Brethren in Christ Historical Society.

This section of my biography deals with Luke’s scholarship related to holiness, an important theological theme in Brethren in Christ history and life.

The Brethren in Christ began to encounter [the second-work sanctification] version of holiness doctrine in the late 1800s. For these “plain people,” the idea of “sinless perfection” had considerable appeal. Given church members’ right desire to live obediently before God and to remain separate from “the world,” they welcomed the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and the eradication of the “old man” (as some members referred to the sin nature).

But this synthesis of holiness and separatism also resulted in a strict, even legalistic, understanding of the holy life. Within the church, the sanctification experience required confirmation, and those who had experienced the second blessing were expected to live exemplary lives that conformed in every way to the denomination’s very high standards for nonconformity and nonresistance. For many sanctified Brethren in Christ, then, deviations from the proscribed pattern often resulted in feelings of guilt and questions about the authenticity of their salvation. This intensely individualistic and sometimes legalistic understanding of holiness prevailed in the church for many years, leading some to dismiss entirely the idea of “holy living.”

In his writings on sanctification, Luke challenged both camps. To those who dismissed the idea of holy living, Luke reminded them of the biblical call to “be holy” as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16) and of God’s provisions for victory over sin, consecration unto Christ, and empowerment through the Holy Spirit. And to those who held sinless perfection as instantaneously achievable through a second experience of grace, Luke cautioned tolerance. “An experience of the Spirit does not itself make one a mature Christian,” Luke wrote in 1983. “But as one matures in the faith, his understanding of and experience with the Spirit will enlarge . . . . I do not see the Scriptures absolutely defining the timing of these events nor the precise number of them.” Thus, Luke urged the church not to advocate “one size fits all” sanctification experiences, but rather to encourage emphasis on achieving victory over sin, committing fully to God and the work of God’s kingdom, and knowing and feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I’ll be sharing more of my research and writing on Luke Keefer Jr. in the future. Stay tuned!

8 responses to “Luke L. Keefer Jr. and the Doctrine of Holiness

  1. Luke Keefer’s father, Luke Sr., was in my Messiah college class (1966). Luke Sr. was also one of the early leaders in the holiness doctrinal development.
    I never grasped–or accepted for that matter–this doctrine. For one of my theology classes, with Martin Schrag as professor, I wrote a class paper arguing against the doctrine of sanctification as at the very least extra-Biblical, if not un-Biblical. As I recall, I got a B on the paper. Martin was not convinced by my argument.

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