Sinners Yet Holy And Righteous

I have asked myself the question over many years how we as Christians are called to be holy and righteous and yet are sinners. How are we as Christians righteous yet sinners? Do we change or can we expect to change from one sort of person to another as regenerate believers? Or to put it another way, can we grow in holiness and righteousness as Christians? To begin with, the Bible often uses the words, ‘holy’ and ‘righteous’ together, indicating two different meanings. What is the difference between holiness and righteousness? I sought help for this one. The differences are well summed up here :

The word holy appears 492 times in the Old Testament.  In Leviticus 11:44-45 God calls us to be holy for He is holy. The Hebrew word for holy in the Old Testament is qodes. The word means to be “separate” or “set apart.” It also refers to a moral quality of the person. When it is applied to God it means that God is set apart from sin. In Deuteronomy 32:4 Moses speaks of God and describes Him as being faithful, just, righteous and upright.The Hebrew word for righteous in this verse (is saddiq. It appears 206 times in the Old Testament. It has the meaning of “being lawful” or “conforming to the law.” That is, it refers to behavior. Notice that Deuteronomy 32:4 repeatedly refers to God’s behavior. God is perfect in His work. He is just in His ways. He is faithful. To be righteous refers to perfect obedience to some standard. In summary, the word “holy” refers to a person’s character and “righteous” refers to a person’s behavior…

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…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.

So what can we expect a Christian’s behaviour to look like? In verse 24 of Ephesians 4 Paul tells us that the new self “has been created” (by God) “in righteousness and holiness of the truth”. This means that our behaviour will look quite distinctive, quite different from that of our pagan neighbours. Paul here is not dealing with how we gain salvation but how we as Christians are called to behave because of our new life in Christ. We are to “lay aside the old self” (vs 22).

Ephesians 4:22-24 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Paul’s and other biblical writers’ works are full of the call to holiness and righteousness in God’s people. Here are a few samples :

Ephesians 5:7-10 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 7 Therefore do not be partakers with them; 8 for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light 9 (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), 10 trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.

2 Timothy 2:19  (ESV) But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” 

Ephesians 4:22-24 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

2 Timothy 2:21-22 (ESV) 21 Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work. 22 So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.

Given the clarity yet complexity of the Bible on this, where did my cause for concern over these issues come from? I found incongruity between messages I was receiving from various quarters and what I read in Scripture. The confessional prayers that were made to God preceding Holy Communion in a church I formerly attended included the words :

“we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed”

and at the end of the service were the words :

“go in peace to love and serve the Lord”.

All of these are good and worthy words. After all, didn’t Jesus teach us that we need to constantly pray for the forgiveness of our sins, as we forgive others?

Luke 11:4 “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

And this from the Apostle Paul :

1 Corinthians 4:4 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) “For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.”

Also see in 1 John 1:8 (NKJV) If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

The prayers of confession, recited week in, week out, made me wonder in what sense we as Christians can be growing in holiness and righteousness. How, in one breath, can we say with Paul:

Ephesians 4:23-24 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 23 … be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

yet in another, confess that “we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed”, week in, week out, with no sign of change. 

Ephesians 2:8-10 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.

Verses 8-10 together show that we cannot be saved by works but that good works are an outflow of our new life in Christ. Verse 10 shows that we have “a new heart of flesh, not of stone any longer” as indicated by the prophet, Ezekiel :

Ezekiel 36:26-28 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 26 Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. 28 You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.

We ARE called to a new calling of goodness and purity. The following verses show this, with the Philippians passage also showing our continued sin in the midst of growth in holiness :

Ephesians 4:17-24 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 17 So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart; 19 and they, having become callous, have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, 22 that, in reference to your former manner of life, you lay aside the old self, which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, 23 and that you be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth.

Philippians 3:12 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 12 Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:12 Paul stresses that he is not already perfect—he is still involved in the struggles of life in a fallen world and hence he still sins; the full glory of the resurrection remains in the future. I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. There is a balance of faith and works in the life of the Christian (I am not here saying that both faith and works are required for salvation), of God’s call and the believer’s response. 

ESV SB, Philippians.

The passages below are a clear indication of how God expects us as believers to be not only imputed with righteousness (have a legal standing of righteousness or right standing before God) through the sacrificial death of Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, but to live as righteous and holy people as a demonstration of the reality of our faith; to indeed become more holy and righteous with every passing day of our lives. Not that every day has to be better than the one before, but just that there will be a trend towards, rather than away from, God. We will one day be made perfectly holy and righteous, at our death and upon our entry into Heaven but in this life we are to be “moving towards”.

Colossians 3:5-17 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. 6 For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them. 8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, 10 and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him— 11 a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. 12 So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; 13 bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. 14 Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

With all this talk of holiness and righteousness of believers, what are we to think about sin? Follow with me the 1 John 3 passage below and note the Quest Study Bible commentary that follows :

1 John 3:2-4 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 2 Beloved, now we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we will be. We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is. 3 And everyone who has this hope fixed on Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. 4 Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.

An excerpt from commentary on verse 2 from the Quest Study Bible :

In what sense will we be like Jesus? (3:2) John is saying that once we are free from our natural bodies and transformed to our heavenly bodies, we will be completely free of sin.

Quest SB.

I believe that this process of growing holiness and righteousness begins now, in this life:

1 John 3:9  (NKJV) Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.

But note the KJV SB commentary :

1 John 3:9.  John is not teaching sinless perfection (see 1:8, 10; 2:2). He speaks here of habitual practice of known sinful acts. The true believer’s actions will conform to the character of his true father, either God or Satan. The person born of God will reflect this in his behavior. (KJV Study Bible Notes, Color)

We have the following, apparently contradictory, verses stated by the same person who told us that “Whoever has been born of God does not sin”, the Apostle John:

1 John 1:8 (NKJV) If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

1 John 1:10 (NKJV) If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.

1 John 2:2 (NKJV) And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.

Only God is perfectly holy and righteous. God is the standard for holiness. But we are called into God’s holiness and righteousness as God’s people, just as God, in His magnanimity, is calling us into His glory :

2 Corinthians 3:17-18 (NASB Strong’s (Lockman)) 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. 18 But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.

Romans 8:28-30 (ESV) 28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Earlier, I raised the issue of the disheartening effect of certain confessional prayers. These prayers appeared to me to display a slight departure in emphasis to that in Scripture, with no acknowledgement of variation or growth in holiness in believers. So I went looking for alternative confessional prayers, of which I found two that I particularly liked, not just as a subjective preference but because I see them as being more reflective of the Word of God. There are other good prayers; I don’t mean to say that these are the only alternatives. The first is currently used in various churches and the second is a segment of confessional prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, 1662  :

O Lord our God, you know us better than we know ourselves. As we come before you now, believers and doubters alike, we all share a deep need, for we are all lost without your grace. Search us, O God, and know our hearts, test us and know our troubled thoughts. Give us true repentance. Forgive us all our wrongs. Transform us by your Spirit to live for you each day, to learn to serve each other and, through the grace of Jesus Christ our Lord, to come at last to heaven. Amen.


First to examine your lives and conversations by the rule of Gods Commandments, and whereinsoever ye shall perceive your selves to have offended, either by will, word or deed, there to bewail your own sinfulnes, and to confess your selves to Allmighty God, with full purpose of Amendment of life. And if ye shall perceive your offences to be such as are not only against God, but also against your Neighbours, then ye shall reconcile your selves unto them, being ready to make restitution and satisfaction according to the uttermost of your powers, for all Injuries and wrongs done by you to any other, and being likewise ready to forgive others that have offended you, as you would have forgiveness for your Offences at Gods hand: for otherwise the receiving of the holy Communion doth nothing else but increase your damnation.

God’s people are in a process of being changed as we yield to God and do not quench the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Our growing in holiness and righteousness is a reality. We are called to a high calling. Even though we are not perfect until we meet death and God transforms us into perfect beings fit for Heaven, there is also this sense of a growing holiness and righteousness in our lives from now, in this life, and over the time of our remaining days on this earth.