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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,[f] 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

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Welcome to Christianity.SE. This is a great question, however I have some reservations about it fitting our format or being asked in the right place. I know the tempo around here takes a while to get used to because it's not your normal forum or even everything-goes QnA site. This is border-line on a question seeking ultimate truth on an issue. Please be aware the only thing we can really do is provide Christianities take(s) on an issue. –  Caleb Dec 6 '12 at 7:24
In this case I'm not sure how much variation there is between traditions on interpreting these words, so I'm not sure if it is reasonable to ask this without specifying what theological framework you are working with and want to hear from. (See our faq, but "Christian" is a pretty meaningless term on this site because we have scoped it to be any established group claiming to be such.) –  Caleb Dec 6 '12 at 7:24
Perhaps you would be interested in editing this question to learn what doctrinal perspectives there are on this issue and what distinctions different traditions see between these words; and at the same time ask a variant question over on Biblical Hermeneutics about the definition of the specific words in the context of one or two of the verses. –  Caleb Dec 6 '12 at 7:26

5 Answers 5

"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.

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+1 The words go together like peanut butter and jelly, but they are different things. –  Affable Geek Dec 6 '12 at 12:45

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.

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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.

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Welcome to the site! This is a good answer, but would be a better answer if you could edit in the actual Scriptures and maybe link to them at an online Bible like BibleGateway.com Also, as a new visitor, I'd recommend checking out the following two posts, which are meant to help newcomers "learn the ropes": help page and How we are different than other sites? –  David Stratton Sep 28 '13 at 22:15

Great topic. Important for understanding who we are in Christ and the importance of the Spirit's enabling presence to live and grow into Christ-likeness. In my study, I've seen both are positional and both are progressive. Righteousness - Gen 15:6, Gen 25:1-6 (positional); 1 John 2:29, 3:7, 10 (progressive) Holiness - Col 1:21-22 (positional); Heb 12:10 (progressive).

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Would you mind expanding on why you believe each of these are either positional or progressive, and what the relevance these terms bear to the question asked? –  wax eagle Dec 12 '12 at 17:01

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.

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Romans 3 says no one is righteous. Cornelius's messengers may have called him righteous but that doesn't mean he was. –  curiousdannii Aug 19 at 6:08

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