My Conversion and My Journey Out of “the Holiness Movement” by Harry Ironside is our newest Lighthouse Trails Booklet. The booklet is 18 pages long and sells for $1.95 for single copies. Quantity discounts are available. Our booklets are designed to give away to others or for your own personal use.
Special Editor’s Note: For quite some time now, Lighthouse Trails has wanted to release this booklet by Harry Ironside, in which he describes his conversion and his first six years as a born-again believer. Last week, we posted a letter to the editor about the Salvation Army, and because Ironside’s story includes Salvation Army, we decided this was the right time to publish the booklet.
Let us explain: Since the inception of this ministry, we have witnessed that the first group of denominations that succumbed to New Age-laden contemplative spirituality has been those groups of the “holiness” movement (e.g., Nazarene, Wesleyan, Quaker, Salvation Army). We believe the reason for this is that the disillusionment, despair, and turmoil that develops in participants of this legalist and unbiblical belief system (as Ironside describes) makes those followers vulnerable to search for relief and seemingly find it in mystical practices (which produce a euphoria that is mistaken for God). These enticing euphoric experiences give a sensual feeling of righteousness and holiness and thus assumed to be from God.
For the last nearly five years, Lighthouse Trails has addressed the detrimental and unbiblical nature of Calvinism. However, the other end of the spectrum is just as dangerous and wrong; and this is what Ironside discusses in this booklet.
With such things considered, it is the hope and steadfast desire of Lighthouse Trails that believers everywhere will leave pet doctrines with extreme views and return to the simplicity of biblical faith with a focus on Jesus Christ and the work He accomplished at the Cross.
Below is the content of this new booklet. To order copies of My Conversion and My Journey Out of “the Holiness Movement,” click here.
My Conversion and My Journey Out of “the Holiness Movement”
My Conversion to God
It is my desire, in dependence on the Lord, to write a faithful record, so far as memory now serves me, of some of God’s dealings with my soul and my strivings after the experience of holiness during the first six years of my Christian life before I knew the blessedness of finding all in Christ. This will make it necessary at times, I have little doubt, to “speak as a fool”—even as the apostle Paul did. But as I reflect on the need for such a record, I think I can say with him, “Ye have compelled me.”
If I may be privileged to thereby save others from the unhappy experiences I passed through in those early years, I shall feel abundantly repaid for the effort it will take to thus put these heart-experiences before my readers.
From a very early age, God began to speak to me through His Word. I doubt if I could go back to the first time when, to my recollection, I felt something of the reality of eternal things.
My father was taken from me before his features were impressed upon my infant mind. But I never have heard him spoken of other than as a man of God. He was known in Toronto (my birthplace) to many as “The Eternity Man.” His Bible, marked in many places, was a precious legacy to me, and from it, I learned to recite my first verse of Scripture at the age of four. I distinctly recall learning the blessed words of Luke 19:10, “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.” That I was lost, and that Christ Jesus came from Heaven to save me, were the first divine truths impressed on my young heart.
My widowed mother was, it seems to me, one of a thousand. I remember yet how I would be thrilled as she knelt with me as a child and prayed, “O Father, keep my boy from ever desiring anything greater than to live for Thee. Save him early, and make him a devoted street-preacher, as his father was. Make him willing to suffer for Jesus’ sake, to gladly endure persecution and rejection by the world that cast out Thy Son, and keep him from what would dishonor Thee.” The words were not always the same, but I have heard the sentiment times without number.
To our home, there often came servants of Christ—plain, godly men, who seemed to me to carry with them the atmosphere of eternity. Yet in a very real sense they were the bane of my boyhood. Their searching, “Henry, lad, are you born again yet?” or the equally impressive, “Are you certain that your soul is saved?” often brought me to a standstill, but I knew not how to reply.
California had become my home before I was clear as to being a child of God. In Los Angeles, I first began to learn the love of the world and was impatient of restraint. Yet I had almost continual concern as to the great matter of my salvation.
I was but twelve years old when I began a Sunday school and set up to try to help the boys and girls of the neighborhood to a knowledge of the Book I had read ten times through, but which had still left me without assurance of salvation. To Timothy, Paul wrote: “From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15; emphasis added).
It was this latter that I lacked. I had, it seemed to me, always believed, yet I dared not say I was saved. I know now that I had always believed about Jesus. I had not really believed in Him as my personal Savior. Between the two, there is all the difference that there is between being saved and lost.
As I have said, I was not without considerable anxiety as to my soul; and though I longed to break into the world and was indeed guilty of much that was vile and wicked, I ever felt a restraining hand upon me, keeping me from many things that I would otherwise have gone into; and a certain religiousness became, I suppose, characteristic. But religion is not salvation.
I was nearly fourteen years old when I learned that a servant of Christ from Canada, well known to me, had arrived for meetings. I knew, before I saw him, how he would greet me for I remembered him and his searching questions when I was younger. Therefore, I was not surprised, but embarrassed nevertheless, when he exclaimed, “Well, Harry, lad, I’m glad to see you. And are you born again yet?”
The blood mantled my face. I hung my head and could find no words to reply. An uncle present said, “You know, Mr. M–, he preaches himself now a bit and conducts a Sunday School!”
“Indeed!” was the answer. “Will you get your Bible, Harry?” I was glad to get out of the room and so went at once for my Bible and returned after remaining out of the room as long as seemed decent, hoping thereby to recover myself. Upon my re-entering the room, he said, kindly, but seriously, “Will you turn to Romans 3:19 and read it aloud?”
Slowly I read, “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” I felt the application and was at a loss for words. The evangelist went on to tell me that he too had been once a religious sinner, till God stopped his mouth and then gave him a sight of Christ. He pressed on me the importance of getting to the same place before I tried to teach others.
The words had their effect. From that time till I was sure I was saved, I refrained from talking of these things, and I gave up my Sunday school work. But now Satan, who was seeking my soul’s destruction, suggested to me, “If lost and unfit to speak of religious things to others, why not enjoy all the world has to offer so far as you are able to avail yourself of it?” I listened only too eagerly to his words, and for the next six months or thereabouts no one was more anxious for folly than I, though always with a smarting conscience.
At last, on a Thursday evening in February 1890, God spoke to me in tremendous power while out at a party with a lot of other young people, mostly older than myself, intent only on an evening’s amusement. I remember now that I had withdrawn from the parlor for a few moments to obtain a cooling drink in the next room. Standing alone at the refreshment table, there came home to my inmost soul, in startling clearness, some verses of Scripture in Proverbs 1:24-32 I had learned months before. Here wisdom is represented as laughing at the calamity of the one who refused to heed instruction and mocking when his fear cometh. Every word seemed to burn its way into my heart. I saw as never before my dreadful guilt in having so long refused to trust Christ for myself and in having preferred my own willful way to that of Him who had died for me.
I went back to the parlor and tried to join with the rest in their empty follies. But all seemed utterly hollow, and the tinsel was gone. The light of eternity was shining into the room, and I wondered how any could laugh with God’s judgment hanging over us like a Damocles’ sword suspended by a hair. We seemed like people sporting with closed eyes on the edge of a precipice, and I the most careless of all, till grace had made me see.
That night, when all was over, I hurried home and crept upstairs to my room. There, after lighting a lamp, I took my Bible and with it before me, fell upon my knees. I had an undefined feeling that I had better pray. But the thought came, “What shall I pray for?” Clearly and distinctly came back the answer, “For what God has been offering me for years. Why not then receive it and thank Him?”
My dear mother had often said, “The place to begin with God is Romans 3 or John 3.” To both Scriptures I turned and read them carefully. Clearly, I saw that I was a helpless sinner, but that Christ for me had died, and that salvation was offered freely to all who trusted in Him. Reading John 3:16 the second time, I said, “That will do. O God, I thank Thee that Thou has loved me and given Thy Son for me. I trust Him now as my Savior, and I rest on Thy Word which tells me I have everlasting life.”
Then I expected to feel a thrill of joy. It did not come. I wondered if I could be mistaken. I expected a sudden rush of love for Christ. It did not come either. I feared I could not be really saved with so little emotion. I read the words again. There could be no mistake. God loved the world, of which I formed a part. God gave His Son to save all who believed in Him. I believed in Him as my Savior. Therefore, I must have everlasting life. Again, I thanked Him and rose from my knees to begin the walk of faith. God could not lie. I knew I must be saved.
Holiness: The Great Desideratum
Being saved myself, the first great desire that sprang up in my heart was an intense longing to lead others to the One who had made my peace with God.
At the time of which I write, the Salvation Army was in the zenith of its energy as an organization devoted to going out after the lost. It had not yet become popular, a society to be patronized by the world and used as a medium for philanthropic work. Its officers and soldiers seemed to have but one aim and objective—to lead the weary and despairing to the Savior’s feet. I had often attended its services and in fact had frequently, though but a child, given a “testimony” by quoting Scripture and urging sinners to trust Christ, even while I was in the dark myself. Naturally, therefore, when the knowledge of salvation was mine, I went at the first opportunity, the night after my conversion, to an “Army” street-meeting and there spoke for the first time, in the open air, of the grace of God so newly revealed to my soul.
I suppose, because I was but a lad of fourteen and fairly familiar with the Bible and also somewhat forward—unduly so, I have little doubt—I was at once cordially welcomed among them, and soon became known as “the boy preacher,” a title which, I fear, ministered more to the pride of my heart than I had any idea of at the time. For, in fact, in my new-found joy, I had no conception that I still carried about with me a nature as sinful and vile as existed in the breast of the greatest evildoer in the world. I knew something of Christ and His love, but I knew little or nothing of myself and the deceitfulness of my own heart.
I was in the enjoyment of the knowledge of God’s salvation about a month when, in some dispute with my brother, who was younger than I, my temper suddenly escaped control, and in an angry passion I struck and felled him to the ground. Horror immediately filled my soul. I needed not his sarcastic taunt, “Well, you are a nice Christian! You’d better go down to the Army and tell what a saint you’ve become!” to send me to my room in anguish of heart. I confessed my sin to God in shame and bitter sorrow, and afterward frankly to my brother, who generously forgave me.
From this time on, mine was an “up-and-down experience,” to use a term often heard in “testimony meetings.” I longed for perfect victory over the lusts and desires of the flesh. Yet I seemed to have more trouble with evil thoughts and unholy propensities than I had ever known before. For a long time, I kept these conflicts hidden and known only to God and to myself. But after some eight or ten months, I became interested in what were called “holiness meetings,” held weekly in the “Army” hall and also in a mission I sometimes attended. At these gatherings, an experience was spoken of which I felt was just what I needed. It was designated by various terms: “The Second Blessing,” “Sanctification,” “Perfect Love,” “Higher Life,” “Cleansing from Inbred Sin,” and by other expressions.
Substantially, the teaching was this: When converted, God graciously forgives all sins committed up to the time when one repents. But the believer is then placed in a lifelong probation during which he may at any time forfeit his justification and peace with God if he falls into sin from which he does not repent. In order, therefore, to maintain himself in a saved condition, he needs a further work of grace called sanctification. This work has to do with sin the root [i.e., eradication of the sin nature], as justification had to do with sins the fruit [i.e., having our sins forgiven].
The steps leading up to this second blessing are: first, conviction as to the need of holiness (just as in the beginning, there was conviction of the need of salvation); second, a full surrender to God, or the laying of every hope, prospect, and possession on the altar of consecration; third, to claim in faith the incoming of the Holy Spirit as a refining fire to burn out all inbred sin, thus destroying in toto every lust and passion, leaving the soul perfect in love and as pure as unfallen Adam. This wonderful blessing received, great watchfulness is required lest, as the serpent beguiled Eve, he deceive the sanctified soul and thus introduce again the same kind of an evil principle which called for such drastic action before.
Such was the teaching. And coupled with it were heartfelt testimonies of experiences so remarkable I could hardly doubt their genuineness nor that what others seemed to enjoy was likewise available for me if I would fulfill the conditions.
One elderly lady told how for forty years she had been kept from sin in thought, word, and deed. Her heart, she declared, was no longer “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” but was as holy as the courts of Heaven since the blood of Christ had washed away the last remains of inbred sin. Others spoke in a similar way. Bad tempers had been rooted out when a full surrender was made. Evil propensities and unholy appetites had been instantly destroyed when holiness was claimed by faith.
Eagerly I began to seek this precious boon of holiness in the flesh. Earnestly I prayed for this Adamic sinlessness. I asked God to reveal to me every unholy thing, that I might truly surrender all to Him. I gave up friends, pursuits, pleasures—everything I could think of that might hinder the incoming of the Holy Ghost and the consequent blessing. I was a veritable “bookworm,” an intense love for literature possessing me from childhood. But in my ignorant desire, I put away all books of pleasurable or instructive character and promised God to read only the Bible and holiness writings if He would only give me “the blessing.” I did not, however, obtain what I sought, though I prayed zealously for weeks.
At last, one Saturday night (I was away from home, living with a friend, a member of the “Army”), I determined to go out into the country and wait on God, not returning until I had received the blessing of perfect love. I took a train at eleven o’clock and went to a lonely station twelve miles from Los Angeles. There I alighted, and, leaving the highway, descended into an empty arroyo, or water-course. Falling on my knees beneath a sycamore tree, I prayed in agony for hours, beseeching God to show me anything that hindered my reception of the blessing. I struggled against conviction but finally ended by crying, “Lord, I give up all—everything, every person, every enjoyment that would hinder my living alone for Thee. Now give me, I pray, the blessing!”
As I look back, I believe I was fully surrendered to the will of God at that moment, so far as I understood it. But my brain and nerves were unstrung by the long midnight vigil and the intense anxiety of previous months, and I fell almost fainting to the ground. Then a holy ecstasy seemed to thrill all my being. This I thought was the coming into my heart of the Comforter. I cried out in confidence, “Lord, I believe Thou dost come in. Thou dost cleanse and purify me from all sin. I claim it now. The work is done. I am sanctified by Thy blood. Thou dost make me holy. I believe. I believe!” I was unspeakably happy. I felt that all my struggles were ended.
With a heart filled with praise, I rose from the ground and began to sing aloud. Consulting my watch, I saw it was about half-past three in the morning. I felt I must hasten to town to be in time for the seven o’clock prayer meeting, there to testify to my experience. Fatigued as I was by being up all night, yet so light was my heart, I scarcely noticed the long miles back but hastened to the city, arriving just as the meeting was beginning, buoyed up by my new-found experience. All were rejoicing as I told what great things I believed God had done for me. Every meeting that day added to my gladness. I was literally intoxicated with joyous emotions.
My troubles were all ended now. The wilderness was past, and I was in Canaan, feeding on the old corn of the land. Nevermore should I be troubled by inward drawings toward sin. My heart was pure. I had reached the desirable state of full sanctification. With no foe within, I could direct all my energies toward vanquishing the enemies without.
This was what I thought. Alas, how little did I know myself—much less the mind of God!
Sunshine and Clouds
For some weeks after the eventful experience before described, I lived in a dreamily happy state, rejoicing in my fancied sinlessness. One great idea had possession of my mind, and whether at work or in my leisure hours, I thought of little else than the wonderful event which had taken place. But gradually I began to “come back to earth,” as it were. I was now employed in a photographic studio, where I associated with people of various tastes and habits, some of whom ridiculed, some tolerated, and others sympathized with my radical views on things religious.
Night after night, I attended the meetings, speaking on the street and indoors, and I soon noticed (and doubtless others did too) that a change came over my “testimonies.” Before, I had always held up Christ and pointed the lost to Him. Now, almost imperceptibly, my own experience became my theme, and I held up myself as a striking example of consecration and holiness! This was the prevailing characteristic of the brief addresses made by most of the “advanced” Christians in our company. The youngest in grace magnified Christ. The “sanctified” magnified themselves. A favorite song will make this more manifest than any words of mine. It is still widely used in Army meetings and finds a place in their song or hymnbooks:
Some people I know don’t live holy;
They battle with unconquered sin,
Not daring to consecrate fully,
Or they full salvation would win.
With malice they have constant trouble,
From doubting they long to be free;
With most things about them they grumble; Praise God, this is not so with ME!
I sang this wretched doggerel without a thought of the sinful pride to which it was giving expression. I considered it my duty to continually direct attention to “my experience of full salvation,” as it was called. “If you don’t testify to it, you will lose the blessing,” was accepted as an axiom among us.
As time went on, I began to be again conscious of inward desires toward evil—of thoughts that were unholy. I was nonplussed. Going to a leading teacher for help, he said, “These are but temptations. Temptation is not sin. You only sin if you yield to the evil suggestion.” This gave me peace for a time. I found it was the general way of excusing such evident movings of a fallen nature, which was supposed to have been eliminated. But gradually I sank to a lower and lower place, permitting things I would once have shunned, and I even observed that all about me did the same. The first ecstatic experiences seldom lasted long. The ecstasy departed, and the “sanctified” were very little different from their brethren who were supposed to be “only justified.” We did not commit overt acts of evil; therefore, we were sinless. Lust was not sin unless yielded to; so, it was easy to go on testifying that all was right.
I purposely pass briefly over the next four years. In the main, they were seasons of ignorantly happy service. I was young in years and in grace. My thoughts of sin, as well as of holiness, were very unformed and imperfect. Therefore, it was easy, generally speaking, to think I was living without the one and manifesting the other. When doubts assailed, I treated them as temptations of the devil. If I became unmistakably conscious that I had actually sinned, I persuaded myself that at least it was not willful but rather a mistake of the mind than an intentional error of the heart. Then I went to God in confession and prayed to be cleansed from secret faults.
When but sixteen years of age, I became a cadet—that is, a student for officership in the Salvation Army. During my probation in the Oakland Training Garrison, I had more trouble than at any other time. The rigorous discipline and enforced intimate association with young men of so various tastes and tendencies, as also degrees of spiritual experience, was very hard on one of my supersensitive temperament. I saw very little holiness there, and I fear I exhibited much less. In fact, for the last two out of my five months term, I was all at sea and dared not profess sanctification at all, owing to my low state. I was tormented with the thought that I had backslidden and might be lost eternally after all my former happy experiences of the Lord’s goodness. Twice, I slipped out of the building when all were in bed and made my way to a lonely spot where I spent the night in prayer, beseeching God not to take His Holy Spirit from me but to again cleanse me fully from all inbred sin. Each time I “claimed it by faith” and was brighter for a few weeks, but I inevitably again fell into doubt and gloom and was conscious of sinning both in thought and in word and sometimes in unholy actions which brought terrible remorse.
Finally, I was commissioned as lieutenant. Again, I spent the night in prayer feeling that I must not go out to teach and lead others unless being myself pure and holy. Buoyed up with the thought of being free from the restraint I had been subjected to so long, it was comparatively easy this time to believe that the work of full inward cleansing was indeed consummated and that I was now, if never before, actually rid of all carnality.
How readily one yields himself to self-deception in a matter of this kind! From this time on, I became a more earnest advocate of the second blessing than ever, and I remember that often I prayed God to give my dear mother the blessing He had given me and to make her as holy as her son had become. And that pious mother had known Christ before I was born and knew her own heart too well to talk of sinlessness though living a devoted, Christlike life!
As lieutenant for a year and then as captain, I thoroughly enjoyed my work, gladly enduring hardship and privation and was generally confident that I was living out the doctrine of perfect love to God and man, and thereby making my own final salvation more secure. And yet, as I now look back, what grave failures I can detect—what an unsubdued will—what lightness and frivolity—what lack of subjection to the Word of God—what self-satisfaction and complacency! Alas, “man at his best estate is altogether vanity.”
I was between eighteen and nineteen years of age when I began to entertain serious doubts as to my actually having attained so high a standard of Christian living as I had professed and as the Army and other Holiness movements advocated as the only real Christianity. This resulted in struggle and efforts toward self-crucifixion that brought disappointment and sorrow of a most poignant character; yet, it showed me beyond a doubt that the doctrine of death to nature was a miserable sophism and that the carnal mind was still a part of my being.
Nearly eighteen months of an almost constant struggle followed. In vain, I searched my heart to see if I had made a full surrender and tried to give up every known thing that seemed in any sense evil or doubtful. Sometimes, for a month at a time, or even longer, I could persuade myself that at last I had indeed again received the blessing. But invariably a few weeks would bring before me once more that which proved that it was in my particular case all a delusion.
I did not dare open my heart to my assistants in the work or to the “soldiers” who were under my guidance. To do so, I felt, would be to lose all influence with them and to be looked upon as a backslider. So, alone and in secret, I fought my battles and never went into a holiness meeting without persuading myself that now at least, I was fully surrendered and therefore must have the blessing of sanctification. I had no conception at the time of the hypocrisy of all this.
What made my distress more poignant was the knowledge that I was not the only sufferer. Another, one very dear to me, shared my doubts and anxieties from the same cause. For that other, it eventually meant utter shipwreck of faith, and one of the loveliest souls I ever knew was lost in the mazes of spiritualism.
And now I began to see what a string of derelicts this holiness teaching left in its train. I could count scores of persons who had gone into utter infidelity because of it. They always gave the same reason: “I tried it all. I found it a failure. So, I concluded the Bible teaching was all a delusion, and religion was a mere matter of the emotions.” Many more (and I knew several such intimately) lapsed into insanity after floundering in the morass of this emotional religion for years—and people said that studying the Bible had driven them crazy. How little they knew that it was lack of Bible knowledge that was accountable for their wretched mental state—an absolutely unscriptural use of isolated passages of Scripture!
At last, I became so troubled I could not go on with my work. I concluded to resign from the Salvation Army and did so but was persuaded by the colonel to wait six months before the resignation took effect. At his suggestion, I gave up corps work and went out on a special tour—where I did not need to touch the holiness question. But I preached to others many times when I was tormented by the thought that I might myself be finally lost because “without holiness no man shall see the Lord,” and, try as I would, I could not be sure I possessed it. I talked with any who seemed to me to really have the blessing I craved, but there were very few who, upon an intimate acquaintanceship, seemed genuine.
Finally, I could bear it no longer, so I asked to be relieved from all active service and at my own request was sent to the Beulah Home of Rest, near Oakland.
It was certainly time, for five years active work, with only two brief furloughs, had left me almost a nervous wreck, worn out in body and most acutely distressed in mind.
The language of my troubled soul, after all those years of preaching to others, was, “Oh that I knew where I might find Him!” Finding Him not, I saw only the blackness of despair before me; yet, I knew too well His love and care to be completely cast down.
The Struggle Ended
I had now been for over five years laboring in the organization with which I had linked myself and ever seeking to be certain that I had attained a sinless state. In some twelve different towns and cities I had served, as I thought, faithfully, endeavoring to reach the lost and to make out of them staunch Salvationists when converted. Many happy experiences had been mine, coupled, however, with some most gloomy disappointments both as to myself and others. Very few of our “converts” stood. “Backsliders” often outnumbered by far our “soldiers.”
The ex-Salvation Army [of those who had fallen by the wayside] was many times larger than the original organization. One great reason for this I was blind to for a long time. But at last it began to be clear to me that the holiness doctrine had a most baneful influence upon the movement. People who professed conversion (whether real or not the day will declare) struggled for months, even years, to reach a state of sinlessness which never was reached, and at last, they gave up in despair and sank back in many instances to the dead level of the world around them.
I saw that it was the same with all the holiness denominations and the various “Bands,” “Missions,” and other movements that were continually breaking off from them. The standard set was the unattainable. The result was, sooner or later, utter discouragement, cunningly concealed hypocrisy, or an unconscious lowering of the standard to suit the experience reached. For myself, I had been ensnared by that last expedient for a long time. How much of the second there was, I do not dare to say. But eventually, I fell a victim to the first. And I can now see that it was a mercy I did so.
When I went to the Home of Rest, I had not yet fully given up seeking for perfection in the flesh. I really expected great things from the six months’ furlough granted me to “find myself,” as it were. Closely allied to the Home were other institutions where holiness and faith-healing were largely dwelt upon. I felt sure that in so hallowed an atmosphere, great things would be accomplished.
In the rest home, I found about fourteen officers, broken in health, seeking recuperation. I watched the ways and conversation of all most carefully, intending to confide in those who gave the best evidence of entire sanctification. There were some choice souls among them, and some arrogant hypocrites. But holiness in the absolute sense, I saw in none. Some were very godly and devoted. Their conscientiousness I could not doubt. But those who talked the loudest were plainly the least spiritual. They seldom read their Bibles; they rarely conversed together of Christ. An air of carelessness pervaded the whole place. Three sisters, most devoted women, were apparently more godly than any other, but two of them admitted to me they were not sure about being perfectly holy. The other one was non-committal, though seeking to help me. I attended the meetings held by the other workers I have mentioned. There, the best of them did not teach sinless perfection, while the manifestly carnal gloried in their experience of perfect love! Sick people testified to being healed by faith, and sinning people declared they had the blessing of holiness! I was not helped but hindered by the inconsistency of it all.
At last, I found myself becoming cold and cynical. Doubts as to everything assailed me like a legion of demons, and I became almost afraid to let my mind dwell on these things. For refuge, I turned to secular literature and sent for my books, which some years before I had foresworn on condition that God would give me the “second blessing.” How little I realized the Jacob-spirit in all this! God seemed to have failed, so I took up my books once more and tried to find solace in the beauties of essays and poetry or the problems of history and science. I did not dare to confess to myself that I was literally an agnostic; yet, for a month at least, I could only answer, “I do not know” to every question based on divine revelation.
This was the legitimate result of the teaching I had been under. I reasoned that the Bible promised entire relief from indwelling sin to all who were wholly surrendered to the will of God. That I had thus surrendered seemed to me certain. Why then had I not been fully delivered from the carnal mind? It seemed to me that I had met every condition and that God, on His part, had failed to perform what He had promised. I know it is wretched to write all this, but I see no other way to help others who are in the same state that I was in for that awful month.
Deliverance came at last in a most unexpected way. A lassie-lieutenant, a woman some ten years my senior in age, was brought to the Home from Rock Springs, Wyoming, supposedly dying of consumption. From the first, my heart went out to her in deep sympathy. To me she was a martyr, laying down her life for a needy world. I was much in her company, observed her closely, and finally came to the conclusion that she was the only wholly sanctified person in that place.
Imagine my surprise when, a few weeks after her arrival, she, with a companion, came to me one evening and begged me to read to her, remarking, “I hear you are always occupied with the things of the Lord, and I need your help.” I, the one to help her! I was dumbfounded knowing so well the plague of my own heart and being fully assured as to her perfection in holiness. At the very moment they entered my room I was reading Byron’s Childe Harold. And I was supposed to be entirely devoted to the things of God! It struck me as weird and fantastic rather than as a solemn farce—all this comparing ourselves with ourselves, only to be deluded every time.
I hastily thrust the book to one side and wondered what to choose to read aloud. In God’s providence, a pamphlet caught my attention which my mother had given me some years before, but which I had dreaded to read lest it might upset me—so afraid had I been of anything that did not bear the Army or Holiness stamp. Moved by a sudden impulse, I drew it forth and said, “I’ll read this. It is not in accordance with our teaching, but it may be interesting anyway.” I read page after page, paying little attention, only hoping to soothe and quiet this dying woman. In it, the lost condition of all men by nature was emphasized. Redemption in Christ through His death was explained. Then there was much as to the believer’s two natures and his eternal security, which to me seemed both ridiculous and absurd. I was startled after going over the first half of the book when Lieutenant J– exclaimed, “O Captain, do you think that can possibly be true? If I could only believe that, I could die in peace!”
Astonished beyond measure, I asked, “What! Do you mean to say you could not die in peace as you are? You are justified and sanctified; you have an experience I have sought in vain for years, and are you troubled about dying?”
“I am miserable,” she replied, “and you mustn’t say I am sanctified. I cannot get it. I have struggled for years, but I have not reached it yet. This is why I wanted to speak to you, for I felt so sure you had it and could help me!”
We looked at each other in amazement, and as the pathos and yet ludicrousness of it all burst upon us, I laughed deliriously while she wept hysterically. Then I remember exclaiming, “Whatever is the matter with us all? No one on Earth denies himself more for Christ’s sake than we. We suffer, and starve, and wear ourselves out in the endeavor to do the will of God; yet, after all, we have no lasting peace. We are happy at times; we enjoy our meetings, but we are never certain as to what the end will be.”
“Do you think,” she asked, “that it is because we depend upon our own efforts too much? Can it be that we trust Christ to save us, but we think we have to keep saved by our own faithfulness?”
“But,” I broke in, “to think anything else would open the door to all kinds of sin!”
And so we talked till, wearied out, she arose to go but asked if she and others might return the next evening to read and talk of these things we had gone over—a permission which was readily granted.
For both Lieutenant J– and myself, that evening’s reading and exchange of confidences proved the beginning of our deliverance. We had frankly owned to one another and to the third party present that we were not sanctified. We now began to search the Scriptures earnestly for light and help. I threw all secular books to one side, determined to let nothing hinder the careful, prayerful study of the Word of God. Little by little, the light began to dawn. We saw that we had been looking within for holiness instead of without. We realized that the same grace that had saved us at first alone could carry us on. Dimly we apprehended that all for us must be in Christ, or we were without a ray of hope.
Many questions perplexed and troubled us. Much that we had believed, we soon saw to be utterly opposed to the Word of God. Much more, we could not understand—so completely warped had our minds become through the training of years. In my perplexity, I sought out a teacher of the Word who was in fellowship with the writer of the pamphlet I have referred to. I heard him with profit on two occasions but still was in measure bewildered, though I began to feel solid ground beneath my feet once more. The great truth was getting a grip of me that holiness, perfect love, sanctification, and every other blessing were mine in Christ from the moment I had believed, and mine forevermore, all because of pure grace. I had been looking at the wrong man—all was in another Man, and in that Man for me! But it took weeks to see this.
A booklet titled Safety, Certainty, and Enjoyment proved a blessing and helpful to both of us and was a source of cheer. Other tracts were given me and read with earnest purpose, while daily we cried to God for the knowledge of His truth. Miss J– saw it before I did. The light came when she realized she was eternally linked with Christ as Head and had eternal life in Him as the Vine, in her as the branch. Her joy knew no bounds, and she actually improved in health from that hour and lived for six years after, finally going to be with the Lord, worn out in seeking to lead others to Christ.
Four days after the truth burst upon her soul in that Home of Rest, I, too, had every doubt and fear removed and found my all in Christ. To go on where I was, I could not. Within a week, I was outside of the only human system I had ever been in as a Christian, and for many years since, I have known no head but Christ, no body but the church which He purchased with His own blood. They have been happy years, and as I look back over all the way the Lord has led me, I can but praise Him for the matchless grace that gave me to see that perfect holiness and perfect love were to be found, not in me, but in Christ Jesus alone.
And I have been learning all along my pilgrim journey that the more my heart is taken up with Christ, the more do I enjoy practical deliverance from sin’s power, and the more do I realize what it is to have the love of God shed abroad in that heart by the Holy Spirit given to me as the Earnest of the glory to come. I have found liberty and joy since being freed from bondage that I never thought possible for a soul to know on Earth, while I have a confidence in presenting this precious truth for the acceptance of others that contrasts with the uncertainty of the past.
Observations on the Holiness Movement
Since turning aside from the perfectionist societies, I have often been asked if I find as high a standard maintained among Christians generally who do not profess to have the “second blessing” as I have seen among those who do. My answer is that after carefully, and I trust without prejudice, considering both, I have found a far higher standard maintained by believers who intelligently reject the eradication theory than among those who accept it. Quiet, unassuming Christians, who know their Bibles and their own hearts too well to permit their lips to talk of sinlessness and perfection in the flesh, nevertheless are characterized by intense devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, love for the Word of God, and holiness of life and walk. But these blessed fruits spring not from self-occupation but from occupation with Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The great professing body, who are scarcely clear or pronounced as to anything, I do not here take into account. I refer rather to those among the various denominations, and those outside of all such companies, who confess Christ boldly and seek to be a testimony for Him in the world. Compared with these, a far lower standard of Christian living is found among the so-called holiness people.
The reasons are not far to seek; for in the first place, the profession of holiness induces a subtle spiritual pride that is often the veriest pharisaism and frequently leads to the most manifest self-confidence. And second, the next thing to saying I live without sin is to say that nothing I do is sin. Consequently, the teaching of holiness in the flesh tends to harden the conscience and to cause the one who professes it to lower the standard to his own poor experience. Any who move much among those in this profession will soon begin to realize how greatly prevalent are the conditions I have described. Holiness professors are frequently cutting, censorious, uncharitable, and harsh in their judgment of others. Exaggerations, amounting to downright dishonesty, are unconsciously encouraged by and often indulged in their “testimony” meetings. The rank and file are no freer from vulgarisms, slangy expressions, and levity in conversation than ordinary persons who make no such profession, while many of the preachers are largely given to sensational and amusing sermons that are anything but serious and edifying.
And as to downright wickedness and uncleanness, I regret to have to record that sins of a positively immoral character are, I fear, far more frequently met within holiness churches and missions than the outsider would think possible. I know whereof I speak, and only a desire to save others from the bitter disappointments I had to meet leads me to write as I do. Among Christians generally there are failures that shock and wound the sensibilities of many, occurring from time to time through a lack of watching unto prayer. “But surely, among the holiness people, such failures, if they ever occur, do so at very rare intervals!” Would that I could say so. Alas, it is far otherwise! The path of the holiness movement is strewn with thousands of such moral and spiritual breakdowns.
On the other hand, I gladly concede that both in the ranks of the religious-military society of which I was once a member and in other holiness organizations, there are many, very many, pious, devoted men and women whose zeal for God and self-abnegation are lovely to witness and will surely be rewarded in “that day.” But let no one be blinded by this to suppose it is the holiness doctrine that has made them such. The refutation of this is the simple fact that the great majority of martyrs, missionaries, and servants of Christ who in all the Christian centuries have “loved not their lives unto the death,” never dreamed of making such a claim for themselves but daily owned their sinfulness by nature and constant need of the advocacy of Christ.
Superstition and fanaticism of the grossest character find a hotbed among “holiness” advocates. An unhealthy craving for new and thrilling religious sensations and emotional meetings of a most exciting character readily account for these things. Because settled peace is unknown and final salvation is supposed to depend on progress in the soul, people get to depend so much upon “blessings” that they readily fall prey to the most absurd delusions.
Now, I understand that many holiness teachers repudiate all connection with these fanatics, but they do not seem to see that it is their doctrines that are the direct cause of the “fruits” I have been enumerating. Let a full Christ be preached, a finished work be proclaimed, the truth of the indwelling Spirit be scripturally taught, and all these excrescences disappear.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the movement to which I have referred is the long list of shipwrecks concerning the faith to be attributed to its unsound instruction. Large numbers of persons seek “holiness” for years only to find they have had the unattainable before them. Others profess to have received it but are forced at last to own it was all a mistake. The result is sometimes that the mind gives way beneath the strain, but more frequently unbelief in the inspiration of the Scriptures is the logical result. It is for persons dangerously near these shoals of infidelity and darkness that I have penned these papers. God’s Word remains true. He has not promised what He will not perform. May God in His rich grace and mercy give every self-occupied reader the resolve to look away to Christ alone.
But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:30-31)
Editor’s note: This booklet is Part I of Ironside’s book Holiness: The False and the True. Part II of that book is about one hundred pages of doctrinal and scriptural explanation of the topic in this booklet. It is available through Lighthouse Trails.
To order copies of My Conversion and My Journey Out of “the Holiness Movement,” click here.