How do we become holy without becoming ‘holier than thou’?

By actually becoming actually holy.

Holiness and holier-than-thou-ness aren’t parallel phenomena. They run on different tracks. If someone is growing in arrogance, pride, and self-righteousness, by definition they are not growing in holiness.

The problem arises in equating holiness with religious behavior. Holy people do obey God, of course. But the character of holiness, in which the Spirit does his progressive sanctifying work in our hearts (and therefore in our thoughts, speech, and actions), produces qualities of humility, gentleness, kindness, and self-control. Any arrogant fool can abstain from certain sins or give to charity and what-not. The Pharisees certainly did that, and all our legalistic contemporaries do too. But that is not real holiness. That is moralistic separatism or some such thing.

Therefore, it is impossible to become both holy and holier-than-thou. To grow in one, is to atrophy in the other.

But I am grateful that while I still struggle with a variety of sins, most especially the root sin of pride, I have God’s promise that he will complete the work he began in me, and that Jesus is both the author and the perfecter of my faith.

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13 thoughts on “Holy vs. Holier Than Thou”

  1. Rachael Starke says:

    “Therefore, it is impossible to become both holy and holier-than-thou. To grow in one, is to atrophy in the other.”

    That’ll preach. Thanks.

  2. John says:

    I thought we were declared holy not became holy?

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      John, both are realities. It is the distinction between justification and (progressive) sanctification.

      1. John Remillard says:

        Jared,
        Appreciate your answer and would appreciate your continued patience with further questions. While I understand the difference between justification and sanctification (as occuring instantaneously yet progressively), is being holy something any amount of human effort can achieve to other than by faith? Even in partnership with the Spirit? I think of no works that I do regardless even if the motive is absolutely out of love as being holy as I know my ever present short comings.

        1. Jared C. Wilson says:

          is being holy something any amount of human effort can achieve to other than by faith?

          No. We *do* work, however, empowered by the Spirit and cooperating with his purposes in obedience. Phil. 2:12-13 is one example of what I mean, but there are plenty of others. The development of holiness is something God does in us, but an important means toward this effect is his Spirit working through our intent to “make every effort.”

          DeYoung has written a good piece before on the unique way progressive sanctification can be said to be synergistic (although that word is somewhat problematic).

          I do affirm both the 1st and 3rd uses of the law. I believe “Be ye holy as I am holy” is a promise but also a command.

          Please notice that the 8th sentence and the last sentence of my blog post make explicit the direct correlation between our holiness being the work of God, and also that I do not emphasize at any point in this post the idea that we are declared holy by the virtue of our efforts.

  3. Mark B. says:

    Good word Brother! I used to have wrong thoughts towards sanctification, now I see the joy in being progressively sanctified. Through becoming more holy I experience a closeness with God.

  4. Charlie says:

    Thank you for addressing this issue. It has become a cliche in modern American Christianity to automatically call someone with higher, or simply biblical standards, or who exhorts to greater Christian living or love for God a “holier than thou” person. The reality is that most of those who are quick to use the “you have a holier than though attitude,” etc. are the usually the ones being rude, arrogant and so forth. Some people with apathy toward Biblical living have holier than thou attitudes in regards to social and life skills or their own personal even low standards. Then there are the people are judging when they call other people judgmental.

  5. “But the character of holiness, in which the Spirit does his progressive sanctifying work in our hearts (and therefore in our thoughts, speech, and actions), produces qualities of humility, gentleness, kindness, and self-control.”

    Jared, I was wondering how you reconcile this position with the idea of our being given a new heart as per the New Covenant promise? At what point does our inner man which has been made new actually become “holy”? In other words, at what point is God able to look at the inner new man and see the righteousness of His Son in His people? And if it’s a later date in the life of the believer, is the Holy Spirit currently indwelling an unclean temple? Thanks for your time in offering some thoughts.

    1. Jared C. Wilson says:

      I agree with Luther that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. I am objectively a saint by virtue of Christ’s righteousness imputed to me through faith and my union with him. I have been washed, sanctified, past tense. But I lie if I say there is no sin in me, so I ackniwledge I am being sanctified present and future tense.

      If you’re asking at what point does God consider me holy, I say upon my regenerate reception of Christ’s atoning work in faith. My faith was credited to me as righteousness. But in his grace, God by his Spirit is bringing that righteousness to bear in my life over time. I will always need to put my flesh to death this side of heaven, but he will make sure I do not enter his paradise without perfecting in me what he has already declared was mine before the beginning of time.

      1. So is your new “heart” holy in God’s eyes already, or becoming that way over time? I’m not referring to the flesh, for we will always struggle with that, I believe. But your quote that I pulled seems to support a “not yet” aspect of inward sanctification that doesn’t reconcile with “If you’re asking at what point does God consider me holy, I say upon my regenerate reception of Christ’s atoning work in faith.”

        By the way, I agree wholeheartedly with your response, and I thoroughly enjoy your writings. I appreciate your time and clarification!

        1. Jared C. Wilson says:

          So is your new “heart” holy in God’s eyes already, or becoming that way over time?

          Yes. :-)

          But your quote that I pulled seems to support a “not yet” aspect of inward sanctification that doesn’t reconcile with “If you’re asking at what point does God consider me holy, I say upon my regenerate reception of Christ’s atoning work in faith.”

          Eschatological is exactly the sense I’d use to explain this. The distinction is between definitive sanctification and progressive sanctification. There is an already and a not yet to sanctification. The “which you received” (past) “in which you stand” (present) AND “by which you are being saved” (present/future) of 1 Cor. 15:1-2 is a good example. Or 1 Corinthians 6 where Paul says “you *were* washed, you *were* sanctified” (past tense) but then goes on to tell them to flee sexual immorality.

          I don’t know what you mean about not reconciling these things. There is the objective work of declaring me holy b/c of my faith (justification), and there is the ongoing, subjective work of the Spirit in actually making me holy in disposition and deed (sanctification). There is the eternal “setting apart” of my being covered by Christ’s blood (definitive sanctification), and there is the ongoing work by the Spirit of putting to death what is sinful in me (progressive sanctification). See the transition in Colossians 3 between vv.1-4 and vv.5-11.

          Here’s a piece from John Murray on progressive and definitive sanctification. He works at that “reconciliation” of the already and not yet near the end: http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/articles/article_detail.php?1925

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Jared C. Wilson


Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Springs Community Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter.

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