Question for Evangelicals/protestants

Why do evangelicals describe people as “godly” instead of saying that they are “holy” or “saintly”?

It seems to me that people are averse to saying “holy,” and I really don’t get it.

That’s an interesting question, thanks for asking it.

I think Holy is left out because we believe that God is holy and don’t want that as an attribute to a living human being, as we’re not holy by definition. Although, some of our works could be considered holy I suppose?

I think Saintly is left out because it’s just not a common phrase in English. I don’t know if there’s any Religious reason that Evangelicals don’t call people “saintly”. I think it’s just not a common term, so it’s not commonly used; that’s probably about it.

I think that godly is used because Christians want to emulate Christ as closely as possible. I think when someone says someone is godly they are speaking of the works of the person, and not the person themselves. Evangelicals are usually pretty afraid at offending God by making anything or anyone else out to be a ‘god’ in any way. It makes us all uncomfortable. So I think saying a person is ‘godly’ is saying that their works emulate that of Christ. Christ is God, therefore feeding the poor is a ‘godly’ thing to do.

This is sort of speculation on my part though based on my experience. Again I insist that Evangelicals are really careful not to make any person/thing out to be God or a god. We even worry that we may make a concept our god, like lust, power or pride.

Hope that helps a bit :slight_smile:

Thanks for answering it. :smiley:
Though it seems to me that calling someone “godly” and actually typing the name “God” with a lowercase “g” seems more in vain than describing someone as “holy” which Webster defines as morally or religious goodness, which is what we are describing.

I just know when I left the evangelical paradigm, I left some Christianese behind, and try to choose my words carefully.

eg: being “religious” isn’t a bad thing. Religious: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity (webster)

Yeah it’s kind of weird… I think whether it’s holy or godly (Godly?) we’re just describing the actions. Like if someone says “I want to be a more Godly person” they’re not saying to be God, but rather moreso to be like God in the way He would have us be.

I know though, words are dumb. They change meaning, they become outdated and they’re often misinterpreted.

I know. This one’s a pet peeve of mine; we’re clearly Religious.


I haven’t thought about this in a long time, but I’m thinking about something from when I spent a semester in Austria, back in the '90s. My roommate, an Eastern European priest, said that one of the things that struck him when he started studying English was that we had separate words “holy” and “saint”, whereas he was used to them being th same word.

That’s neat. I just google translated “Holy” to French and it’s “Saint” then I tried “Saint” to french and it’s “Saint”.

That’s why I say words are dumb, haha. Is a Saint Holy? If so, as Holy as God? If not then is Holy the best word?

I don’t know, whatever. As I said words change meaning, they become outdated and they’re often misinterpreted.

I don’t think there is an aversion really. Evangelicals have no problem saying that Christians should be holy for without holiness no one will see God; though, it’s probably not common to specifically identify a person as being holy.

Some of this may be for reasons dronald identified. Another reason is that evangelical Christians typically come from traditions that do not distinguish between big Saints and little saints. All Christians have been sanctified and set apart–therefore all share in the positional sanctification that comes from being members of the Church–literally those who have been “called out” and separated from the world. All Christians are holy because we have been set apart and dedicated to the Lord.

Now, while all born again believers are sanctified by virtue of being part of Christ’s body, we know that sanctification is progressive. Some Christians are in a real sense holier than others in life, thought, and conduct. These people would be referred to as godly people.

If anything it is more of an american evangelical thing. I mostly hear the term “godly” when I am in the US. “Holy” seems to be what most people use.
Don’t they convey the same meaning? I think it’s more a matter of grammatical preference.

In the “holiness” tradition I come from, people did speak of other people as holy or saintly all the time. We also said “godly.” But I think you’re right–other evangelical traditions often prefer “godly.”

I think there’s a lot of worry among many Protestants about putting people on a pedestal as holier than other people. Many evangelical Protestants point to Paul’s language about all believers being holy/saints, and thus refuse to use it to describe a subset of believers who are supposedly holier than others. But I agree that the term “godly” means the same thing that Catholics mean by “holy.”

Another reason for the preference might be that “godly” keeps the focus on one’s relationship to God, rather than implying some kind of intrinsic sanctity separate from that relationship. (Of course Catholics believe that holiness comes from a relationship with God, but many Protestants don’t get that.) In an evangelical understanding, godliness consists of looking to Christ in faith. Also, for some Protestants it’s important to avoid language that might imply sinlessness.


I think it’s part of the culture. Many seem to use non-verbs as verbs as well :smiley:
Examples: humbled, missional, accountability, ‘guarding your heart’, discipleship, sheparding, ‘loving on’
Some other key words: brokenness, ‘Father God’, “just”, “a heart for”, ‘spirit of’, ‘a peace with’, clap for Jesus/clap of praise/clap offering, ‘Moses mindset or leadership’

Charismatic Catholics seem to pick these up sorta quick, but then they become uncool for the evangelicals and so it goes… :shrug:

No biggie. Every religion has its own words that they use in the context of their belief. I agree that the usage can be quite silly sometimes.

I used to tell this as way of demonstrating this ‘unreasonableness’. We had an old priest in the traditional Catholic mold, a very good friend of ours but nevertheless being conservative there were some of our practices that he didn’t agree with. Thus he would take every opportunity to remind us of his disagreement.

One night after a prayer meeting which he would often attend with us, we would invite him to a light refreshment. “Father, come, let’s have some fellowship”, we said.

“Fellowship is a Protestant word, is it not?” he commented. We took it all in good spirit of course.

Your reasoning of course sounds silly seen from an outsider. I would think ‘godly’ would be more of an attribute of God rather than ‘holy’, at least it sounds so.

We are exhorted to be holy thus using the word would be just following what God wants us to be though of course we will not be him. Like we are asked to be Christ-like, an attribute that only Jesus has. Yet to be Christ-like is perfectly a normal exhortation. Or being Spirit-filled or having the Holy Spirit. I mean the list can go on if we nit-picking on the semantic.

Interesting subject anyway though I wouldn’t be too concerned about it.

God bless.


Words carry meaning, Dronald. Words have connotative and denotative meanings. You might be surprised to find out that in evangelical churches, a pastor might be saying one thing, but it is interpreted 1000 different ways by the people in his flock.

It was actually my understanding of connotative meaning, bible study, and looking up words, and a degree in linguistics that kicked off my conversion process. Given my personal bent toward languages and words, I would be the one to ask this type of question. When we are One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, we have to agree on the meanings that words are given.

That was just a freebie, back to the original topic. :smiley:

I would think you would have a more difficult time with the word “godly” than holy, using your own reasoning.

[quote=Questethe same meaning? I think it’s more a matter of grammatical preference.

IT might be a grammatical preference, but I like to know where these things come from. As a grammarian, I care about words and meanings, and how some words come to be used by certain people, and not by others.

WHY do American evangelicals refuse to call human beings holy when they will call a person “godly”?

Thanks for a scripture reference, Reuben J. From the first Pope too! :smiley:

"But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;
for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
1 Peter 1:15-16[BIBLEDRB][/BIBLEDRB]

I was just trying to explain why perhaps the OP has noticed this. I wasn’t making a theological statement.

And that’s a good passage and food for thought.

How do you know they refuse to call a human being holy?

The Bible never uses the term “godly”, at least if one sticks to the original languages. In fact Genesis 3 seems to equate the whole idea with Eve’s disobediences.

Human’s share none of the attributes of God. Therefore by definition, humans cannot be “godly.” “Holy” on the other hand, simply means set apart for a particular use, usually sacred.

When a person uses the term godly (lower case g purposeful), I have always taken it to mean they are attempting to emulate God/Jesus in there actions. But we know that each person is accountable to God and so their outward actions may not be representative of their hearts.

Holy generally represents God, God is Holy a person or object cannot be Holy because Holy is an implied perfect condition. The only people that would be considered Holy are God, Jesus, Holy Spirit, and others mentioned in the text of the Bible as being in Heaven.

Saintly, since most evangelicals consider the term “saint” as a very broad term to describe any Christian, to term someone Saintly would put them on a pedestal higher then the other Christians. Not to mention since Catholics call certain people Saints, that could also be confusing.

It’s very possible that American Evangelicals have been subject to a unique interaction with the saying “holier than thou.” My theory- there was a time in the US when devout Protestants were more likely to use the word “holy” in a positive sense. The pushback was in the form of a pejorative, “Oh you just have a holier-than-thou attitude don’t you?” What, like pursuing holiness is the same thing as being conceited…well, that may have been a connection that was persuasively made, even if we didn’t really like it. So we replace that word with something that means the exact same thing, but doesn’t invite that type of criticism.

This is my theory. I don’t exactly know if I can demonstrate and document any basis in reality, but it is a storyline that you may consider.

I had the same thought; there’s also “holy roller”, another pejorative term used for Evangelicals.

“Godly” goes back in writing to at least the late 1300’s. It’s a fine term.

“Holy” can carry several meanings. There’s the meaning of numinous; also, from Hebrew, there’s the sense that holiness (kadosh) is hard to define, but carries images of loftiness, mysteriousness, and separateness. So for me, I use “holy” sparingly in referring to people; I will use it, but save it for when I really mean to describe a person in either one of those distinct ways.

“Godly” to me is a “warmer”, more human term. It means someone reflects, and is infused with, God’s character or moral attributes to some extent, as His son or daughter: godly=God-like, Christlike, full of mercy, justice, compassion, integrity, truthfulness, self-sacrifice, etc.

Also, “holy” from its Germanic root word predates Christianity. People of any religion can be called holy in that religion–a “Hindu holy man” would be one example of this. Godly, on the other hand, for Christians only refers to the Almighty, the God revealed in the Bible, so when I’m talking about a Christian that’s another reason why I more commonly use “godly”.

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