Jesus shows the connection between relational and behavioral holiness in a dramatic and unprecedented encounter with a group of lawyers eager to rightfully exercise capital punishment upon a criminal condemned to die in John 8.go and sin no more

This criminal is a woman who has been caught in the very act of adultery. Where is the man who was involved in this act of adultery? Why is he not also condemned to die and brought before Jesus? This smells like a set-up, and yet Jesus still must answer the lawyers’ demands related to this woman’s crime and the prescribed punishment under the Law of Moses.

After a pregnant pause full of quiet tension, Jesus invites the sinless member of their company to cast the first stone at this adulterous woman. Jesus actually invites the fulfillment of the Law – but with a barb: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.

Convicted and disappointed, the lawyers start to walk away until all are gone, and the woman is left alone at Jesus’ feet. The irony is palpable. Jesus is the only sinless one in this scene, worthy to cast the first stone, and yet He utters the famous words, “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (John 8:10-11, KJV). In 10 short words, Jesus graciously restores relational holiness with the woman, and calls her to live in behavioral holiness as a testament to that restored relationship.

Jeffrey J. Meyers describes this interplay between our relational holiness with Christ (what Meyers calls “positional holiness”) and the behavioral holiness that follows, as seen in the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery: “Behavioral holiness – what we call holy living – is a consequence of our positional holiness in Christ. Behavioral holiness is our duty; positional holiness is our privilege. Behavioral holiness is progressive and incremental; positional holiness admits no degrees, since one is either united with Christ by faith or not.”[1]

If Meyers’ positional holiness (or relational holiness, as I have been calling it) is something one either has or does not have, then no amount of behavioral holiness can make the person holy.[2]

Rather, practicing holy actions and avoiding unholy actions are demonstrations of our positional/relational holiness in Christ. Behavioral holiness results from relational holiness. As in the earlier example with my own children, my hope is that by maintaining intimacy with me, they would endeavor to live a healthy and whole life in my love and with my help.

God’s call upon mankind is “to be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16, NIV). I wrongly jump to the conclusion that this is a call to sinless perfection. Actually, it is a call to sinless perfection, but not by means of perfectionism, legalism, and human striving. Holiness is gift of grace. It is a call to a life of integrity, in reliance upon the gracious and gradual work of sanctification brought about through the Holy Spirit’s inner-working in our lives.[3]

One of the most amazing realities about integrity is that even when a person has made a mistake, he/she has not yet lost his/her integrity. At the very moment the mistake is made, the person is immediately presented with the opportunity to maintain his/her integrity, by owning the mistake and doing everything in his/her power to make it right.

Here, we have yet another incomparable gift of grace through the process of sanctification: ready advocacy from Jesus, forgiveness, absolution, and help to recover, even in the very midst of that awful moment of sin and failure!  (See 1 John 2:1-2)

Michael Lodahl and Thomas Jay Oord write that “love is the core notion of holiness”.[4] We see in the stories of the Prodigal Son and the Woman Caught in Adultery that, along with holiness, love is the core of God’s nature and character. And as a highly-relational being, the expression of God’s holiness comes through loving inter-relationality.

It is into that holiness – His own divine, loving, inter-relationality – that God calls us. The Scriptures are clear: God’s will for mankind is both relational holiness with Him and behavioral holiness with ourselves and others. Relational holiness is primary, though. Behavioral holiness is the natural outflowing of relational holiness with God. If we aim for behavioral holiness first, we will miss both. But if we cooperate with the gracious work of the Spirit within us to engage in an ever-increasing, ever-expanding, ever-deepening relational holiness with God the Father through Jesus Christ, then we will exhibit both relational and [eventually] behavioral holiness all together!


[1] Jeffrey J. Meyers, The Lord’s Service: The Grace of Covenant Renewal Worship (Canon Press, 2003), 255.

[2] Naomi Koltun-Fromm, Hermeneutics of Holiness: Ancient Jewish and Christian Notions of Sexuality and Religious Community (Oxford University Press, 2010), 47.

[3] Martin Luther, Large Catechism II, 40-41, Theodore G. Tappert, trans. and ed., The Book of Concord: Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Fortress Press, 1959), 416.

[4] Michael Lodahl and Thomas Jay Oord, Relational Holiness: Responding to the Call of Love (Beacon Hill Press, 2005), 44.