The Bible Is Clear: Some Holy People Are Holier Than Others

Contrary to the opinion of some, the Church and the Bible make it clear that there are varying degrees of grace and merit among humans.

Fra Angelico, ‘Annalena Altarpiece,’ 1430
Fra Angelico, ‘Annalena Altarpiece,’ 1430 (photo: Public Domain)

The Bible refers to holy people — ones who are holier than others. There are differences in holiness among human beings:

  • James 5:16-18 (RSV) ... The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects. Elijah was a man of like nature with ourselves and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth its fruit.

It’s all right there. The prophet Elijah was just a person like all the rest of us, with a “like nature” (just as was true of the Blessed Virgin Mary also), but he was exceptionally righteous, and here we learn that the prayer of such a person has more powerful effects than that of a less holy person. See a similar verse:

  • 1 Peter 3:12 For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.

The Bible teaches that grace is given in different degrees:

  • Acts 4:33 ... great grace was upon them all.
  • Romans 5:20 ... grace abounded all the more (cf. 6:1)
  • Ephesians 4:7 But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (cf. Romans 12:3: “measure of faith”)
  • James 4:6 But he gives more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:5 also cites this saying)
  • 1 Peter 4:10 ... good stewards of God’s varied grace.
  • 2 Peter 3:18 But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. ...

The description “more righteous” appears four times in the Old Testament. “Righteous man” appears 22 times in the Old Testament, and “good man” seven times. Job is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1; cf. 1:8; 2:3). The phrase “blameless man” also appears in 2 Samuel 22:26; Psalms 18:25 and 37:37. “Holy man” occurs in 2 Kings 4:9, in reference to the prophet Elisha.

The notion of merit is entirely biblical:

  • Matthew 5:11-12 Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. (cf. Mark 9:41; James 1:12; Revelation 2:10, 3:11-12)
  • Matthew 19:29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. (cf. 19:21)
  • Luke 6:38 Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (cf. 6:35; Colossians 3:23-24)
  • 2 Corinthians 9:10 He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. (cf. Romans 6:13, 19)
  • Ephesians 6:8 knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. (cf. Matthew 16:27)
  • Hebrews 10:35 Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. (cf. 6:10; Matthew 20:4; 2 John 8)

Protestants agree with us that there are differential rewards in heaven. Why would that be? Well, it’s (I think rather obviously) because of different attainments of merit and righteousness in this life — all by God’s grace, I hasten to add (like all good things). But we have to cooperate with our free will and in doing so, we gain merit and more rewards in heaven.

Hebrews 11 is a chapter devoted to “the heroes of faith.” Are we to believe that none of the people mentioned were worthy of such scriptural honor; that they were not more righteous than others? The New Testament refers often to “righteous/holy persons” — usually meaning in context that they are relatively more righteous or holy than other persons. (In other words, we’re not all exactly the same.)

  • Matthew 10:41 ... he who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. (cf. 13:17; 21:32; Mark 6:20)
  • Matthew 23:35 that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechari’ah the son of Barachi’ah ... (cf. Luke 1:70, 74-75; Ephesians 3:5; 2 Peter 3:2)
  • Luke 1:5-6 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
  • Luke 2:25 ... Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout … (cf. 2 Peter 2:5, 7-8)
  • Luke 23:50 ... Joseph from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man …
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:10 You are witnesses, and God also, how holy and righteous and blameless was our behavior to you believers …

Believers are even described as co-workers with God:

  • Mark 16:20 ... the Lord worked with them ...
  • 1 Corinthians 3:9 ... we are God’s fellow workers ... 
  • 1 Corinthians 15:10 ... I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me. (cf. 15:58; Romans 15:17-18)
  • 2 Corinthians 6:1 Working together with him ... (cf. 13:3)
  • Philippians 2:13 for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
José Benlliure Ortiz, “Leaving Mass in Rocafort,” 1915

On Suffering and Hope and Forever

‘In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.’ (CCC 1368)

José Benlliure Ortiz, “Leaving Mass in Rocafort,” 1915

On Suffering and Hope and Forever

‘In the Eucharist the sacrifice of Christ becomes also the sacrifice of the members of his Body. The lives of the faithful, their praise, sufferings, prayer, and work, are united with those of Christ and with his total offering, and so acquire a new value. Christ’s sacrifice present on the altar makes it possible for all generations of Christians to be united with his offering.’ (CCC 1368)