We are in a series that we are looking at throughout the year called Help My Unbelief. In this series we are answering questions that people have about faith and the scriptures. One difficult area in the scriptures is understanding righteousness. Listen to some of the scriptures about righteousness:
You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48 ESV)
Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. (1 John 3:7 ESV)
So we can read scriptures that tell us that we need to be righteous and live righteously. So then we approach God as trying to do righteous works to belong to him. But then we read the opposite in the scriptures.
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.” (Romans 3:9–11 ESV)
Now we are told that no one is righteous and no one can make themselves righteous before God. So how can these things be reconciled? What are the scriptures trying to teach us about righteousness and our standing before God?
You might have noticed that there is a problem in the Christian world today. What happens is that churches and religious groups have the tendency to pick one and weigh on it more than the other. For example, there are churches that will tell you that you need to be righteous and do good works to be right with God and enjoy eternity with him. There is no discussion about our failures. If you sin, you are cut off from God and you need to quickly start doing good things to make up for the bad things you have done.
But then there is the other side that picks the other teaching and weigh on it more than the other. There are churches that will say that there is nothing you can do for God. You are saved no matter what you do because none of us are righteous. So you can live how you want to live and do what you want to do because you are unrighteous but Christ is righteous. Do not worry about living right because Christ’s righteousness covers us.
You might recognize that this is not a new problem but a historical problem in the winds of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church dominated world history which strongly pushes that you need to be do good works and be righteous. Then people like Martin Luther and John Calvin tried to push back against this, kicking off what we call the Reformation period where the emphasis was placed on Christ’s righteousness and not our own. So the pendulum has swung back and forth in history. I bring up this pendulum because I think we can have this pendulum swing back and forth in our own hearts also well. One moment we can feel safe with God in spite of our sins and in the next moment feel condemned because are sins are weighing us down. So what is the right picture? What are the scriptures trying to teach us? We need to whole story of God to have a complete answer to these questions. So let’s start from beginning.
God Is Holy
The word of God begins by showing us the holiness of God. Adam and Eve are given one law which is to not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. But they fail at this command and both eat from that tree. The consequence is separation from God. They are cast out of the garden and experience the curses of sin. God still wants to live with his creation but sin is the new problem that affects all humanity. There is a constant separation that is pictured in different ways in the scriptures. The Law of Moses was given to define sin and tell the people to be holy. The tabernacle and later the temple showed this separation. People could not come into God’s presence. Only priests could work in service to the Lord and they needed to be properly cleansed to do so. Only the high priest one time a year was allowed to come into the very presence of God in the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement to make atonement for himself and for the people. He had to go through purity rituals and have no defilement to have this opportunity to enter. The message that was communicated through the Law as well as through these physical structures is that you must be righteous and holy to live with the Lord because he is righteous and holy. The apostle Paul sums it up this way:
He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. (1 Timothy 6:15–16 CSB)
Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14 ESV)
No one can approach God. He is too holy for us. He alone is immortal and lives in light that is unapproachable. So the message is simply. You need to be holy. You must be righteous.
So the Law gave the directions on how to be holy and righteous before the Lord. If you want to live with the Lord in unapproachable light, the solution was very simple: do what the Lord tells you to do and you will be holy. Keep the laws of God and you can be with him for eternity. Be righteous. Typically, people like to stop the story here. What happens is that people decide what laws need to be kept to be righteous. So we say that we just need to be morally good. We will say that we just need to not break some of the “big sins” like murder. The definition of righteous becomes whatever we are already doing and how we are already living. So this was the problem that the prophets were dealing with in the scriptures. They are telling the people that they are not holy and not righteous. The people thought they were righteous because they still gave God some worship time, but their hearts were corrupt and their lives were full of sins. Jesus came and clarified the problem in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus tells the people that avoiding murder is not righteousness but not being angry or you will be judged. Avoiding adultery is not righteousness but not having lust in your heart. Keeping your oaths is not enough for righteousness but always doing what you say you will do. Not retaliating is not righteousness, but loving your enemies and going the extra mile is righteousness. The point is that if you think you can be righteous according to God’s law, you are quite wrong. All of sinned and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). There is no one who is righteous, not one (Romans 3:10). James says it like this: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10 ESV)
This brings us to our text that was read for us earlier. Romans 4 tells us what God was doing throughout his salvation history. Romans 4:3 says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” In Romans 4:4-5 the point is continued and how Paul words this is very important.
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness (Romans 4:4–5 ESV)
What kind of work is Paul referring to? We know that he cannot mean to do nothing before God because that is not what Abraham did. Abraham did all kinds of works toward God and the scriptures confirm this understanding.
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. (James 2:21–23 ESV)
Notice that Abraham fulfilled the scriptures that he believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness through his faith being completed by his works. Paul says that Abraham believed that God justifies the ungodly. He had a faith so strong in the Lord that he trusted God to do the impossible. Notice that Abraham was not counted righteous because he looked to his own good works. Please think about this. Believing God is the opposite of looking to justify ourselves. Trusting God is the opposite of trying to make ourselves right before God by our actions. This is trusting in ourselves. This is to believe in our own righteousness.
One of the purposes of God’s law is to stop us from thinking about trusting in ourselves for righteousness so that we will understand that all we have left to do is trust in the Lord who justifies the ungodly. Now this is important to think about. I do not trust in myself and then hope that God will take me the rest of the way. God never says to us that we need to try to get as close to him as we can and, if we can get ourselves far enough along, he will come in and bring us the rest of the way. I think I grew up with this kind of thinking about righteousness. But listen to how Paul describes righteousness to the Philippians.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith. (Philippians 3:7–9 ESV)
Trusting God in faith means throwing everything that you trust in away for the surpassing worth of knowing and gaining Christ. Orienting your life around Christ is how we will have a righteousness that is not our own but from God.
There are two things that are supposed to happen when we understand our complete and utter ungodliness before the Lord. First, as you learn what God has done for you, you will want to live for him. Paul speaks this way on a number of occasions in the scriptures. We read in Romans 12:1 that we are urged to present our bodies as living sacrifices because of the mercies of God that you have experienced. We read in Ephesians 4:1 and Philippians 1:27 to live life in a manner in keeping with the calling that you have experienced in Christ. You have been called so live like you have been called. In Colossians 3:1-3 we read that since we have been raised with Christ, we must seek the things that are above and not the things that are on earth. We seek to live for righteousness because we understand what we have been saved from and what we have been called to.
Second, as you know Christ, you are going to changed. As you know this Savior who came for the ungodly, you will be transformed into the image of the Savior (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:18). We become what we honor and revere. We become what we worship. Romans 1 tells us that if we worship the creation, then we will become debased and dishonorable like the creation. But if we worship the Creator, we will become like the Creator. So we sing a prayer, “O To Be Like Thee” and similar songs. An amazing transformation happens the more we know Jesus so that the words of Ephesians 2 become true each day.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8–10 ESV)
So what is the story of God’s righteousness? God is holy and lives in unapproachable light. We must be righteous and holy if we are going to live with him. However, no one is righteous. No one is holy. No one does what is right. All of us are condemned because no one has done God’s will. No one has obeyed their created purpose. All have turned away from their Creator. We need a righteousness that is not our own. Rather than giving us exactly what we deserve for rebellion, we are able to be counted righteous by God because of the death and resurrection of his Son and our Savior, Jesus. Like Abraham, if we believe God, then God will count us righteous even though we are unrighteous. Trusting in God means that we do not rely upon ourselves to be good enough but believe that God is good enough to save us. But God does not leave us there. Trusting God means that we will respond to his calling. We will want to be transformed and live righteously because he has saved us. We will be transformed because we want Christ and everything else in this world is counted as garbage to us. We let go of sins because our sins keep us from laying hold of him and running the race given to us. The more we seek him, the more we will be changed into his image.