“No one is more holy than anyone else.” That was the statement I heard in a recent sermon. At first, I thought I must have misheard it. But, I had not. The point being made to the congregation was clear: abandon your ‘self-righteousness’ and recognize that you are no holier than the person in the pew next to you.
Now, statements like that sound compelling at first. Humble, even. After all, we are trained to go after those Pharisees among us (usually defined as anyone who appears to be holier than we are!). Moreover, we have the reformed doctrine of total depravity entrenched in our minds, reminding us that our hearts are wicked beyond what we can imagine. And, above all this, surely Christ is most glorified when we acknowledge that no one is more holy than anyone else. Right?
Well, not really. Although the Bible certainly condemns self-righteousness, and while we are certainly much more sinful than we ever could realize, there is something missing here. What is missing—ironically in many reformed circles—is the clear biblical category of the “righteous man.” Noah is described this way in Gen 6:9: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” Joseph of Arimathea was described this way in Luke 23:50: “Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man.” Zechariah and Elizabeth were described this way: “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). And there are countless passages throughout Scripture that contrast the “righteous” with the “wicked” (e.g., Ps 1:5-6; 32:1-2; 37:16-17; 75:10).
So, what exactly is a “righteous” person? Surely we cannot suggest that all these passages are simply referring to the imputed righteousness of Christ (as important as that is). No, it appears the Bible uses this category of the “righteous man” for believers who display a marked consistency and faithfulness in walking with God. Of course, this doesn’t mean these people are perfect, sinless, or able to merit their own salvation. It simply means that the Spirit is at work in such a way that they bear steady fruit in their lives.
If so, then it is simply untrue to say “no one is more holy than anyone else.” Not everyone is equally sanctified. Some are farther along than others by God’s wonderful grace. Now, I am sure the pastor that I heard would agree with that. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I am sure he was only trying to say that when it comes to our justification no one is able to stand on their own righteousness: all are desperately in need of grace. No doubt, in his zeal to make this very good biblical point, he stepped too far and declared that “no one is more holy than anyone else.”
But, this still leaves the question of why so many today seem quite willing to step a little too far and make such statements. Why is the category of the “righteous man” forgotten? Why are Christians today—and mainly reformed Christians—so eager to flatten out distinctions among believers and declare there are no differences between them? Several possibilities:
1. Misunderstanding of Total Depravity. Reformed believers love the doctrine of total depravity. And rightly so. It is core biblical teaching that the natural man is fallen in every part of his being: morally, intellectually, emotionally, volitionally. The natural man does not love God, desire God, or seek God. Thus, it is only by God’s wonderful grace that we come to a saving knowledge of him. But, the problem is that we don’t talk as much about how a person’s dark heart is changed after regeneration. We don’t talk as much about the new man. Thus, we can begin to believe that no one really changes. No one can really be holy. Totally depravity becomes the unfortunate justification for declaring everyone is equally as sinful as everyone else.
2. Seeing Pharisaism as the only serious sin. In recent years, there seems to have been a renewed focus in reformed circles on the problem of legalism. And the motivations for this are often good: legalism is a real threat to the integrity of the gospel message. However, the problem is that if Pharisaism is the only enemy we see, then we can become imbalanced in our message and ministry. If our number one goal is to defeat legalism, then our number one point is always to remind people of how sinful they really are. If someone seems to be living a holy life they tend to be looked at suspiciously—after all, we know that no one can really be holy so therefore this person must be putting up a front; they are not being “real” about their sin. Put simply, in order to weed out Pharisaism our sinfulness is over-emphasized and our progress in holiness is under-emphasized.
3. Trying to make ourselves feel better about our sin. In recent years I have noticed that there are some very popular catchwords in some reformed circles. We are reminded regularly to be “real” and “vulnerable” and “open” about our sinfulness. And, in many ways, this is a good thing. We certainly want to confess our sins so that we can let the light of the gospel shine on them and allow our brothers and sisters to share our burden (James 5:16). However, this trend also has a danger. Elizabeth Elliot put it well:
The “openness” that is often praised among Christians as a sign of true humility may sometimes be an oblique effort to prove that there is no such thing as a saint after all, and that those who believe that it is possible in the twentieth century to live a holy life are only deceiving themselves. When we enjoy listening to some Christian confess his weaknesses and failures, we may be eager only to convince ourselves that we are not so bad after all.
4. Forgetting that Christ is not only glorified in our justification, but he is also glorified in our sanctification. Perhaps the most fundamental reason that we tend to forget the category of a “righteous man” is because we think Christ is only glorified in our justification. He is only glorified by redeeming us from the penalty of sin. However, often forgotten is that Christ is also glorified in our sanctification. He is glorified when we are freed from the power of sin. Thus, the only enemy cannot be legalism. We must also be aware of another enemy: antinomianism. Both are threats to the gospel. And both are threats to the glory of Christ.