Holiness and righteousness

The short answer is: we are righteous because God counts Jesus’ goodness instead of our sins when we have faith in Jesus. We are becoming holy as we obey God more and more in our lives.

Being righteous

Being righteous is being acceptable to God. Noah is the first person in the Bible to be called righteous: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Genesis 6:9). Here we see the two aspects of being righteous: doing the right thing (being blameless) and having a relationship with God (walked with God).

In the Old Testament this is often connected to the law of God. In Psalm 1 the description of the righteous says “his delight is in the law of the LORD”. The law is about what you should do. But doing that is a delight, because it is the law of the Lord. So again, doing the right thing and having the right relationship go hand in hand.

In the final analysis, being righteous is dependent on faith. Paul strongly emphasizes this in Romans 3-5, and quotes Genesis 15:6 about Abraham to prove his point: “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” So as Paul uses the term, being righteous is not based on what we do, but something we receive when we believe in God’s promises. Through faith in Jesus we receive forgiveness of sins and are acceptable to God.

Being holy

Being holy means being set apart for God. It can be used for objects (a holy altar), time (a holy day), or persons (a holy priest). All believers are set apart for God, and are therefore made holy (or sanctified, which has the same meaning). We see this for example in 1 Corinthians 6:11: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

At the same time, there is also a sense in which being made holy is not a one time event, but a continuing process. 1 Thessalonians 5:23 says “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely”. As we are living with God, we are growing in faith. More and more we are changed into the likeness of Jesus. More and more we display the fruit of the Holy Spirit. In that way, we are made holy. This process will only be complete when we are with God in heaven.

What we are and what we become

So one way to distinguish between being righteous and being holy is to say that we are righteous, and are becoming holy. We are righteous through faith in Christ, and we are becoming holy as we grow in faith in Christ. We have been declared righteous because of something that happened outside us: Christ died for our sins. This is God’s work for us. We are not contributing anything to that. We just receive God’s blessing of righteousness when we believe. We are becoming holy because something is happening in us: we are becoming more and more like Christ. This is the work of God in us. It is still God’s work, but we are fully involved, we are living it out.

Also read: How do we receive the Holy Spirit?

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Both holiness and righteousness are used to describe God. Additionally, we as Christians are called to be holy and righteous as well. These are two distinct words, so they must have distinct meanings.

So, my question is what distinguishes holiness from righteousness?

You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine. Leviticus 20:26 ESV

14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:14-16 ESV

You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our conduct toward you believers. 1 Thessalonians 2:10 ESV

But that is not the way you learned Christ!— 21 assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, 22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:20-24 ESV

asked Dec 6 ’12 at 2:49

“Holy” means “set apart”, as in set aside for a particular purpose, and implies being “special” and acting accordingly. In particular it means “set aside for God’s service”.

“Righteous” means “made right” (justified), or “being right”, not in the sense of “correct”, but as in “not wrong” – being pure, honest, sinless. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be “not guilty” or “blameless”.

The two should go hand in hand.

answered Dec 6 ’12 at 3:22

Holiness is what we strive for and is gradually improved in us by the sanctification of the Holy Spirit. This is not something imputed to us, but something which we are commanded to become:

since it is written, “you shall be holy, for I am holy.” 1 Peter 1:16

Righteousness is something imputed to us by the vicarious atonement of Jesus Christ. While we will often talk about striving for righteousness, I believe the best context to understand it is that our

“righteousness is as filthy rags” Isaiah 64:6

and that the only way we are considered righteous is by the imputed righteousness of Christ upon us.

answered Dec 7 ’12 at 12:12

Righteousness is a gift from God through Jesus Christ (2Cor.5:21) Holiness is a responsibility (2Cor.7:1) as kings in the kingdom of God.

answered Sep 28 ’13 at 21:10

First, to be holy, one must reconcile with God by being Baptized in Christ (cf. Gal 3:23, Romans 6:3-5), that way the person will put on Christ and his Adamic nature will be broken. After that, by receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands (cf. Acts 8:16-17, Acts 19:4-6), the person is qualified to live a holy life.

Righteousness is basically behaving rightly and may not necessarily mean that the person is a Christian, as in the case of Cornelius in Acts 10.

answered Aug 18 ’14 at 16:12

When the Bible says no one is righteous it means that no one could deserve salvation on their own. No one was right enough without Christ to be in right standing with God. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “He who knew no sin became sin so that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ.”

People confuse righteousness with right living. These are two different things. Righteousness is a position. When you become saved you are considered in right standing with God. The word says, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Romans 4:3; Genesis 15:6). No one is considered righteous based on their behavior. Their righteousness is based on their belief in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:20-22). You don’t do right things to become righteous. Because you are righteous you do right things.

answered Dec 29 ’14 at 18:37

Holiness is the quality of being holy,a life that is full of godly character.Righteousness is to be upright in God, to be blamless. A righteousness man is also a holy man,both of them works together.

answered May 12 ’15 at 4:28

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George from Sierra Leone asked me a great question in email; “What are the differences between holiness and righteousness?”

Holy is ontologically “separate”. Clean is ontologically “appropriate for cult”. Righteousness is “appropriate in covenant”. Uncleanness and sin remove the appropriateness for cult and covenant. Purification sacrifice recovers for holy and clean, and for humans also provides forgiveness.

As with all Scripture, we must be careful to both examine the context and understand the terms used. The word justify means “declare righteous,” not “make righteous.” Justification is not salvation. Salvation is by grace, through faith (Ephesians 2:8). That which justifies is that which proves one has already been made righteous.

James and Paul referenced two different types of works. Paul combatted a legalistic works-righteousness. Over and over, he specifically countered “the works of the law.” This type of work is done as an attempt to become righteous apart from faith in the Messiah. Such a self-righteous effort will never “declare” the righteousness that comes by grace alone. (James 2:14,17; Matthew 7:19)

James, however, fought against the other extreme—those who claim faith but never demonstrate that faith through their works. These are the people about whom John wrote, “He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:4). That’s not to say that true believers will never disobey, but those who consistently disregard God’s commands demonstrate their own lack of repentance.

To summarize, Paul spoke against the works of the law without salvation, while James affirmed the works of faith with salvation. They presented two sides of the same truth. There is no contradiction.

Throughout the Scriptures, we see a huge celebration of the holiness of God; yet, most of us really don’t have a full grasp of what it means to be holy. The original word for holiness in the Hebrew meant to be “set apart” or to be “separated from” something. As it applies to God, we see that He is exalted above and completely separate from any type of sin, flaw, or moral imperfection. Thus God is Holy and we (you and I) can only be seen through Christ Jesus’ work on the cross as Holy when we repent and accept Him as our Savior.

The Scriptures also indicate that, even as God is holy, we should be holy in all manner of lifestyle. We are to follow that divine example. Now on this planet, we certainly will never attain complete holiness, for we are ever warring with our old, sinful nature. But holiness is the target for which we are to direct our actions. Sin puts a barrier between us and God. Holiness brings communion and fellowship with Him–holiness is required in order for anyone to have eternal life with God in heaven (Romans 8:11–14; Hebrews 12:14). This was accomplished through Jesus Christ as He took on all of our sins on the cross so that God may see us as holy (Colossians 1:19–22).

God is completely holy and we are supposed to be like Him. However, our sin keeps us from being holy.

As we grow in our journey with God and become stronger in our own personal holiness, we will actually begin to hate sin and its effects. That’s right, the more you abhor sin, the more you’ll recognize its hold on you (Romans 7:23). You must understand this paradox, or else your Christian life will be riddled with doubt and fear.

We grow to despise those things that interfere with our intimacy with God and those things which bring so much pain to others here on this earth. And we will seek to avoid those things with a passion.

When we seek God’s righteousness, we will be blessed in unimaginable ways. Once again, this is the opposite of the worldly message that tells us it is right and good to seek our own blessedness (or happiness). But Jesus taught that denying self and thirsting for righteousness will bring great and everlasting joy. So basically, seek God’s will and ask Him to help you keep His commands. And we must understand sin to be a filthy contaminant to our spirit, and we must avoid those things through the power of the Holy Spirit. Pray that God will help you to see those contaminated areas in your life and that He will help you to turn away from those things and turn toward Him!

If you have yet to repent of your sins and have not accepted Christ Jesus as your Savior, why not do so today?

Parallel Verses

Holman Bible

in holiness and righteousness in His presence all our days.


In holiness (divine consecration) and righteousness within His presence all the days of our lives.

Goodspeed New Testament

And should serve him in holiness and uprightness, unafraid, In his own presence all our lives.

King James 2000

In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.

NET Bible

in holiness and righteousness before him for as long as we live.


In holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.


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