Righteousness and holiness are two words that describe states of moral excellence. There is a slight difference between the two concepts. Oxford Dictionary’s definition of holiness is “the state of being holy,” and the definition of holy is “dedicated or consecrated to God or a religious purpose; sacred” or “morally and spiritually excellent.” The Oxford definition of righteousness is “the quality of being morally right or justifiable,” and the definition of righteous is “morally right or justifiable; virtuous.” So, righteousness is the condition of being proven or declared morally excellent, while holiness is the condition of being consecrated or dedicated to moral excellence.
Think of it this way: a ballerina who dances for the New York City Ballet has been declared good enough to be part of that company. From a young age, she has set herself apart to that purpose, to honing her skills, and she continues to practice and improve as she dances. In this analogy, righteousness is the ballerina’s position in the ballet company. She has been given a position, her talents have been approved, and she belongs to the company. Holiness is the ballerina’s dedication and devotion to her art. Everything in her life—what she eats, whom she knows, how she spends her time and money—bows to this purpose.
To some, terms like righteousness and holiness can be a bit daunting. We think, “But that’s not how I am,” or we wonder how we can be sinful and also holy or righteous. Many people experience fear and doubt that stem from the idea that we need to “clean ourselves up” or be “good enough” before we come to God. This confusion is natural, considering the strict definition of righteousness and holiness. We want to be approved and included, but we often feel like our spiritual “dancing skills” are just not up to par—and never will be.
The Bible provides hope. We are not left to achieve righteousness and holiness on our own. Quite the opposite. In fact, left to ourselves, we would never achieve those states. Let’s look at righteousness first, and then holiness.
The story of righteousness really starts with a man named Abram in the ancient city of Ur in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq). God called Abram to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household and go to the land God would show him. God promised to make Abram into a great nation and bless the nations of the world through him (Genesis 12:1–3). In faith, Abram gathered up his household and left. Several years later, God told Abram, “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward” (Genesis 15:1). Abram asked what God could give him since Abram still had no children. God again promised him an heir and offspring as numerous as the stars (Genesis 15:2–5). “Abram believed the LORD, and he credited to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).
What was “morally excellent” or righteous about Abram believing God? He had not sacrificed anything to God. He had not done some mighty work in God’s name. He had not even perfectly trusted God in the journey so far (see Genesis 12:11–20). He hadn’t done anything except listen to God’s words and accept them as true. And for that Abram was counted righteous in God’s eyes. If we look at the definition of righteousness again, “the quality of being morally right or justifiable,” it is clear that this incident set the foundation of justification by faith, a concept explored many more times throughout Scripture (Romans 4; Galatians 3; James 2:23).
Galatians 3:7–9 links all who have faith in Christ to their predecessor in faith, Abraham: “Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” All who have faith in Christ are righteous in God’s sight, regardless of their nationality (Galatians 3:26–29). “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9). Paul explains, “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). It is by Jesus’ work on the cross that we are made righteous, and by faith we are justified, or declared righteous, before God.
Now, what about holiness? The Bible says that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, praised God for sending the Messiah, saying, in part, that Jesus would “enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74). The apostle Peter wrote, “But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15–16). Ephesians 4 explains that we are to put off our old, sinful self, “which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22–24).
Like righteousness, holiness is a gift from God. The process of becoming holy is called sanctification, and God promises to complete His sanctification in us because of Christ’s work on the cross. The writer of Hebrews explains positional sanctification: “By [God’s] will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” and also alludes to progressive sanctification, speaking of “those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:10, 14). We are perfected and sanctified by one event: Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross for our sin. As we live our lives in Christ, our holiness increases as we yield to the work of the Holy Spirit within us and follow this command: “Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12–13; see also Romans 12:1–2; Hebrews 12:1–2).