Today’s question comes to us from a listener named Andrew. “Pastor John, hello. I was wondering if you can explain the difference between God’s holiness and God’s righteousness? And how does that apply to us? What does it mean that we are supposed to be holy AND righteous? What is the difference for us?”
If we start at the bottom — that is, where we live — I would say that the kind of behavior that would be called holy and the kind of behavior that would be called righteous are, in fact, the same behavior but viewed from different angles. In other words, I don’t think it’s ever the case that we would do something that would be called righteous, but would be unholy. Or that we would ever do something called holy that would be unrighteous. When it comes to the actual deeds and attributes, all holy behavior will be righteous behavior and all righteous behavior will be holy behavior. That’s the first thing. But that doesn’t mean that the words are identical in meaning.
What’s the Difference?
So what’s the basic difference? The essential idea behind the concept of holiness is being separated from, distinct from, that which is ordinary or common. So in its initial usage, it could refer to something bad or good. There might be a temple prostitute who’s holy because she’s not an ordinary prostitute.
“The essential idea behind holiness is being separated from that which is ordinary or common.”
But in the Bible, that’s not the way the word holy is used. Holiness has taken on a moral meaning that derives from God’s holiness. In other words, God is separated from all that is not God and is in a class absolutely by himself. God, like the rarest diamond in the universe, is absolutely unique and infinitely valuable.
His holiness, therefore, most essentially consists in his absolute uniqueness and therefore the infinite value of his beauty and his excellence. He’s in a class by himself. He’s above all things. He’s sui generis. He’s distinct from everything that is not God, and therefore, he is of infinite and of absolute worth.
Holiness and Glory
When Isaiah 6:3 describes the angelic beings crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” it doesn’t say the whole earth is full of his holiness, which is what you’d expect. He doesn’t say, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his holiness.” It doesn’t say that. It says the whole earth is full of his glory.
The reason, I think, is that holiness is conceived of as the intrinsic worth, beauty, purity, value, and excellence of God. His glory is conceived of as what that looks like when it goes public — when it goes out, when it feels the earth and is made visible for humans to see. He is holy, holy, holy, and he fills the earth with his public manifest holiness called now glory.
Now, this implies that God’s holiness in action is all of his thinking, all of his feeling, all of his doing, which is in accord with his infinite value. That’s the way I’m defining God’s holy action, holy thinking, holy feeling. If God ever acted in a way that somehow contradicted his utterly unique existence and his infinite worth and beauty, his action would be unholy.
Now, right at this point, there’s an overlap with the concept of righteousness. Righteousness doesn’t have the basic idea of being separate and distinct from what is common. Righteousness has the basic idea of conforming to a standard. When that standard is conformed to, the behavior, the thinking, the feeling is right — it’s right.
“God’s holiness in action is all of his thinking, feeling, and doing, which is in accord with his infinite value.”
You can see how the two concepts produce the same behavior, because if you ask what is the ultimate standard by which all thinking and feeling and acting should be measured, the answer for God and for us is the absolute worth and beauty of God himself. Or you could say, in its manifest form, the glory of God. Everything you do should be in accord with the glory of God — the worth of God manifest in his glory. All behavior that is consistently done in accord with God’s glory is righteous behavior. It conforms to the highest standard.
Just in passing, I’ll say we have the word of God because as sinners we can’t know all that conforms to God’s worth without his guidance. If somebody says, “Well, what about the word of God?” I say, “Oh, the word of God is indispensable, but I want to define righteousness and holiness as what they are intrinsically.” I don’t want to just to say, “Obey the word of God and you’re righteous.” That would be true. But it wouldn’t tell you why it’s ultimately righteous. So, the word of God is indispensable in telling us what does conform to the infinite worth of God and to the glory of God.
God Works for His Glory
When the psalmist says in Psalm 143:11, “For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!” That parallel between “for your name’s sake” and “in your righteousness” gives a clue that, for God, to act in his righteousness is to act for his name’s sake — that is, for his glory. Or, said another way, in accord with the ultimate standard of his glory or his manifest worth and beauty.
“For God to act in his righteousness is to act for his name’s sake — that is, for his glory.”
So my conclusion is that God’s holiness is his complete and utter uniqueness distinct from all other beings in his infinite and absolute worth and beauty. His holy behavior is behavior that accords with that infinite worth and beauty. This overlaps with his righteousness — his unwavering commitment to the highest standard imaginable — namely, his glory. This means that when God acts in a holy way, he is always acting in a righteous way and vice versa.
That’s true of us as well when we are distinct from all that is sinful and bring our lives into conformity with God’s infinite worth and beauty. That is, when we’re holy, we are, at the same time, acting in righteousness because we’re conforming to the highest standard in the universe.