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7 November 2021

The Holiness is Righteousness Error.

When I say the word “holiness”, what is the idea that comes into your mind?  I think that for many Christians, we think of holiness primarily in terms of righteousness or moral purity.  When we say things like “I want to live a holy life”, what we’re referring to is a desire that we have to live in a way that is morally pure.  Perhaps that’s what you think about yourself when you think about holiness.  But is this really what holiness truly means?

Remember what we’ve learned about the Holiness of God so far: God’s holiness is the sum expression of his consummate perfection and total glory, wherein he is revealed as being separate from all else that exists, being transcendent and infinitely exalted over all.  Right away we can see, can’t we, that this idea of holiness is something different than the idea of moral purity.  God’s holiness and righteousness are inseparable and closely related, and especially when we consider them in light of the fallen and sinful state of the world, but nonetheless I think it is an error to equate holiness with righteousness.  And yet I think that this is actually quite a common error among Christians, and even many very good theologians seem to get this wrong!  Let me give you an example of what I mean.

In his wonderful book “The Attributes of God”, which to my mind is one of the best books available on the Attributes of God, A.W. Pink seems to make this mistake. Pink says: “In Scripture, He is frequently styled “the Holy One.” He is so because the sum of all moral excellency is found in Him… His holiness is the very antithesis of all moral blemish or defilement” (Pink, Attributes, p.47).  As far as I can see, there are a number of other theologians who seem to get this wrong too, not the least of which is the great puritan Stephen Charnock, whose book on “The Existence and Attributes of God” (which is a majestic work of theology, and an absolute must read!) has a whole chapter emphasising a view of God’s holiness as referring to his moral purity and perfection.

Now maybe you think it’s a bit rich for me to be offering criticism of men like Pink and Charnock – I agree!  So let me instead share the insights of far abler men, through which I have benefited, and which point out that this really is a significant theological error.  In his classic book “The Holiness of God”, R.C. Sproul says: “The idea of purity or of moral perfection is at best the secondary meaning of the term (holiness) in the Bible.  When the seraphim sang their song, they were saying far more than that God was “purity, purity, purity” … the idea of the holy is never exhausted by the idea of purity” (Sproul, Holiness of God, p.37-39).  Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley in their first volume “Reformed Systematic Theology” similarly say: “Although Christians tend to identify God’s holiness with his moral purity, the biblical sense of holiness is broader” (Beeke & Smalley, RST Vol 1, p.568).  Finally, one of the greatest and best of theologians, Herman Bavinck, succinctly and helpfully observed: “The adjectives “holy” and “pure” are therefore synonymous (Exod. 30:35; Lev. 16:19).  But the term “holiness” is not exhausted by that of “moral purity.”  Granted, the latter is not excluded, but neither is it the only meaning, not even the primary one” (Bavinck, RD Vol 2, p.193).

God’s holiness is his transcendence above all else in existence.  This is why even the sinless and morally pure Seraphim in Isaiah 6:3 still cry out: “Holy, holy, holy!”  Even the highest beings in creation remain infinitely beneath the Creator, and thus fearfully declare his transcendent glory and majesty.  From the perspective of us as humans, God is, will be, and always has been holy (transcendent) over us.  In this sense, holiness does not refer first and foremost to God’s moral purity, but to his transcendent glory.  Nevertheless, as God relates to fallen humanity, his transcendent separation intrinsically also becomes a separation that is fundamentally characterised by his moral purity.

Since the fall, there has been and remains a total opposition between God’s righteousness and our sinfulness.  In our original state of creation, God transcended us, but there was not a break in relationship.  We ourselves were holy in the sense that we were purely dedicated to God.  Since the fall, however, the separation between God and man has become primarily a matter of righteousness.  He is infinitely righteous and pure, and we entirely corrupt and to be condemned.  Thus the separation between God and man is – again – one characterized by the gaping chasm of sin.

Where does this all leave us?  And why are these distinctions important?  I can think of at least two significant reasons.  The first reason that this distinction between God’s holiness and his righteousness is important is because it enables us to see a fuller vision of God in all his glory.  If you read the scriptures thinking that “holiness” means “righteousness”, you will have a diminished reading of those passages that specifically deal with his holiness (e.g. Is 6).  It would be a tragedy if the full meaning and sense of God’s transcendent holiness was obscured to the people of God in any way!  And it will be for the sanctifying of us all if we can more clearly perceive it.   If we would most fully enjoy and glorify God, we ought to be aware of the difference between his holiness and his righteousness, and we ought to know that his holiness is referring to and talking about his total, consummate perfection and glory.

Secondly, these insights are also significant because they afford us a new perspective on our own call to “be holy as he is holy” (Lev 11:45).  When we think of our call to be holy purely in terms of moral transformation, we actually have a truncated understanding of what this call upon our lives really is.  The call to be holy as God is holy includes the call to righteousness and moral purity, but it is a far larger and grander calling as well.  It is nothing less than a call to be totally devoted to him in every way, and to be constantly and increasingly conformed to him in the entirety of our being.  To be holy as he is holy is to dive deeper and deeper into the being of God, to see more and more of his glory, to be expanded further and further in ourselves to be conformed to his own perfections.  It is a glorious vision and calling!  As we gaze upon the beauty and holiness of our Lord (Ps 27:4), we will be transformed into the same image – not just in righteousness – but in every aspect of our being.