Monday, March 28, 2022

Anonymous Asks (190)

“What’s the difference between righteousness and holiness?”

New Christians may hear these two biblical words as pretty much synonymous. After all, both qualities are on regular display when a believer is living a godly life, and we may be forgiven if we sometimes find them difficult to distinguish.

Nevertheless, the writers of the Bible do use these words differently, and we should probably make the same careful distinctions they do.

Personal Righteousness

There is more than one kind of righteousness to be found in scripture. The first use of the word “righteous” [Hebrew: ṣadîq] occurs six chapters in where Noah is described as a “righteous man, blameless in his generation”. The writer of Genesis adds that Noah walked with God, from which we may rightly conclude that at least in one sense, righteousness has to do with behavior. Noah lived in a way that distinguished him from the corrupt world around him. He was God-conscious, and he governed his actions with an eye toward heaven. God looked on the way Noah live and was pleased with him. We need not argue that Noah never sinned (he certainly did after the flood subsided), but the exceptions prove the rule. He was characteristically an upright individual.

The words “blameless”, “just” and “upright” are often used of righteous men. These words have to do with conduct, and are closer to being synonyms for “righteous” than is “holy”. Men like Job, Lot and Daniel are described in these terms.

Relative and Contextual Righteousness

“Righteous” is also used relatively and contextually in scripture. Saul said to David, “You are more righteous than I.” This was certainly true, but the statement is also both relative and contextual. There were times David too did not behave righteously. Here, Saul is talking about righteousness with respect to the way each man treated the other. He is not comparing other aspects of their characters.

Again, when Abimelech asks, “Lord, will you kill a righteous people?”, it is clear he is not speaking about absolute righteousness across an entire nation, but simply addressing whether he had slept with Abraham’s wife. With respect to that issue, Abimelech and his people were guilt-free. Nobody had touched Sarah.

Imputed Righteousness

When we come to the New Testament, we find righteousness used in a different way. Old Testament righteousness is personal, relative and contextual. Now, we do find this type of righteousness in the NT as well; for example, Joseph is called a righteous man. But in the New Testament, we also find imputed righteousness explicitly taught.

This is not an entirely new concept; the sacrifices required by the Law of Moses spoke of imputed righteousness and hinted at what was to come. In the Psalms, David spoke of imputed righteousness. And Jesus warned that even great personal righteousness was inadequate for the kingdom of heaven. Something more than mere outward compliance with the law was needed, and God provided it for us in Christ.

So we find Paul teaching that a righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe”, and that “by the one man’s obedience many will be made righteous”. Here he is not teaching that men learn to behave righteously by following Christ’s example, but that men are saved by grace through faith, and are declared righteous in the eyes of God apart from acts of our own. Righteous deeds in the OT sense will surely follow, of course, but these are not to be conflated with the once-for-all declaration of righteousness made by God about us because of the work of Christ on our behalf, and they contribute nothing to our salvation.

Holiness in Purpose

Righteousness and justice are closely linked, as are holiness and separation. We might say that righteousness is a legal observation about a person, whereas holiness is an observation about one’s conformity to the purpose for which one is intended. The two are related but not identical.

If the Old Testament opposite of “righteous” is “wicked”, then the Old Testament opposite of “holy” is “common”. To be holy is to be sacred, devoted, consecrated, dedicated to God and set apart for his service. The first usage of “holy” in the Old Testament comes in the “holy ground” of Exodus and the burning bush. Holy ground was distinct from common ground, and one had to behave differently when in that territory: off came the shoes.

This theme of holy things requiring different behavior carries through scripture. The Sabbath day was holy to the Lord, and therefore it was necessary to behave differently on that day. No work was to be done. Members of a holy nation could eat no flesh torn by beasts. The recipe for the holy anointing oil was not to be duplicated for everyday use. The bread offered to the Lord was to have no leaven.

It should be noted that holiness in this sense is not a moral issue so much as a mark of distinction. Righteous men from other nations did not become less righteous for failing to observe the Sabbath, for eating a lamb killed by a bear, or for enjoying yeast in their bread. But an Israelite who failed to observe the holiness laws put himself in danger of judgment for failing to distinguish what was set apart to God from what was not. In the Church Age, men and women may be holy without observing such rules. Christians have different marks of distinction than those observed by adherents of Judaism.

Holiness in Practice

It is useful to distinguish holiness-in-purpose from holiness-in-practice, and holiness-in-calling from holiness-in-conduct. Nadab and Abihu were priests, set apart to the service of YHWH. That was their purpose. That was their holy calling. But their practice was not holy. Their conduct was inappropriate to their calling, and they were quickly relieved of duty. Moses observed, “This is what the Lord has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified’ [or shown to be set apart].” Later in Israel’s history, Eli’s sons also behaved in a way that was inappropriate for priests. They too were judged, but not immediately.

So it is quite possible to be holy in purpose without being holy in practice. Many so-called servants of God have effectively demonstrated the distinction over the years.

The New Testament emphasis is very much on practical holiness. Unlike the priests of the Old Testament who were a distinct tribe of intermediaries, every Christian is set apart to God and therefore every Christian’s conduct ought to reflect his calling. For this reason we find Paul writing things like “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” and “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.”

Holiness in this sense is very much a moral issue. Here, the opposite of holiness is not “common”, but “impure”.

Two Important Qualities

So then, there is a visible overlap between practical holiness and personal righteousness, and it is quite understandable that the lines between the two may occasionally blur. Nevertheless, the mature Christian will understand both concepts and exhibit both qualities.

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