Nobody’s perfect (Ecclesiastes 7:20)
How should ‘righteousness’ be defined? Most of us would like to think of ourselves as being decent, upright, law-abiding citizens. And when we make the “occasional” slip, we just remind ourselves that “nobody’s perfect”. Looking around at other human beings, we can easily convince ourselves that we are better than average, and can therefore describe ourselves as ‘righteous’. But this is a relative righteousness. If we were to compare ourselves with the perfect standard of righteousness set by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:20,48), we would see ourselves very differently. In fact, everyone – whether they are sinners who disregard the Law or legalists who attempt to obey it – is gripped by sin. And there is no way of escape – except through the promise of righteousness through faith.
Righteousness through faith (Genesis 15:1-6)
God had just made Abram an incredible promise: far from dying childless (as he was anticipating), his descendants would be too many to count – and they would inherit the land of Canaan. For Abram, this promise was sufficient: however unlikely the fulfilment might seem, he believed it. And his faith “was credited to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
Paul saw this statement as being of supreme significance; the same principle still holds true for us today (Galatians 3:7). The faith that justifies is the readiness to accept God’s promises, i.e. to trust in His Word. We cannot be absolutely righteous (Abram wasn’t!); but we can trust God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, just as he did. And that, as far as God is concerned, is enough (Romans 4:20-24).
“The righteous person will live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4)
The prophet Habakkuk was tormented by the apparent absence of God’s justice in a world dominated by greed, ambition and power politics. God’s answer took the form of a promise: judgement was coming, but the righteous would be spared – not because of their own intrinsic righteousness, but because they have placed their trust in God. This is a different definition of righteousness altogether – and, as Paul saw, it is the very basis of the gospel (Galatians 3:10,11; Romans 1:17). “The righteous person is not the one who observes a particular code of ethics but rather the person (or community) granted a special relationship of acceptance in the presence of God.” (K Bailey) Such a person does not rely upon his righteousness but throws himself upon God’s love and mercy. And because he trusts not in himself but in God, he is assured of acceptance (Psalm 26:11,12).
An example (Luke 18:9-14)
Every morning, as the daily sacrifice was offered, people would gather in the temple for prayer and worship. Just as Cain and Abel brought their offerings to the same altar, so both the righteous and the unrighteous may worship in the same building. But which is which?
This typical Pharisee had a very high opinion of his own righteousness, and assumed that God owed him favours as a result! (Isaiah 58:3) Whether or not such people actually are righteous (in human terms) is beside the point: such arrogant self-confidence is always out of place in the presence of God. As he prayed, rather than comparing himself to God’s expectations, he compared himself favourably to other people, gloating over their sins but totally failing to acknowledge his own (Romans 14:10). There is no suggestion that he was being dishonest: he was not guilty of certain major vices, and he was punctilious in his voluntary religious observances (he fasted 100 times more often than the Law required!). But he had so much confidence in his own merits that he saw no need to ask for mercy or assistance from God.
The tax-collector’s prayer began with the same word as the Pharisee’s; but, unlike the Pharisee, he had some idea who it was that he was addressing – the God who is awesome and holy, and who has declared war on sin. His mind was full of his own sin and his utter unworthiness; he saw himself not just as a sinner but as the worst of sinners. But because he asked for atonement for his sins, he received it (I John 1:8,9) – whereas the Pharisee, despite all his ‘righteous’ deeds, remained unrighteous in God’s sight. He had participated in the sacrificial worship, but had not benefited from the sacrifice.
None of us can enjoy a relationship with God on our own merits; our ‘works’ cannot save us. We are sinners in desperate need of God’s mercy – and should approach Him accordingly (James 4:8-10).
The LORD our Righteousness (Jeremiah 23:5,6)
The kings of Judah were a mixed bunch; some were better than others, but none were perfect rulers who never made mistakes. The last king of Judah was given the name Zedekiah (which means “the righteousness of Yahweh”). Unfortunately, in his case, his character was the very opposite of his name! He was a weak and ineffective leader who tolerated corruption and sin, and broke his own treaty with Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon – thus condemning his people to invasion, conquest and exile.
How different is the Messianic King promised by Jeremiah! Not only is He wise and just Himself; but He is the Saviour of His people, not the cause of their downfall. He has achieved our salvation by dying as a sin offering and transferring His perfect righteousness to us (II Corinthians 5:21). And so He is indeed “our righteousness.” (Jeremiah 23: 6)
Faith, not law (Galatians 2:15-21)
Paul knew from personal experience that the Law was ineffective as a means of making people right with God (Acts 13:39). We cannot be righteous in ourselves, because we have all sinned. It makes no difference how ‘good’ we are; we can never be good enough (Psalm 143:2).The only way to become righteous is to put our trust in what Jesus Christ has done. For He lived a perfectly obedient life (to provide our righteousness) and then died an undeserved death (to bear our punishment). When we put our faith in Christ – not as mere intellectual conviction but as personal commitment – His righteousness is transferred to us and his death is counted as ours.
Faith in Christ cannot be combined with observance of the law; they are mutually exclusive. Law is neither a means of earning God’s favour nor a means of maintaining ourselves in God’s favour; it is equally useless for both purposes. If we were capable of making ourselves righteous, there would have been no need for Christ to die, and all His sufferings would have been pointless. A so-called ‘gospel’ that includes any element of self-justification is an insult to God (because we are rejecting and despising His free gift) and undermines the very foundations of Christianity (Romans 11:6).We have to abandon all attempts to acquire or maintain righteousness by our own efforts, and claim God’s mercy on the basis of Christ’s self-sacrifice alone.
A precious gift (Philippians 3:7-11)
As a Pharisee, Paul had prided himself on his legalistic righteousness. His life had been built around the Law, and dedicated to observing even its smallest details. To such a man as he was, the Gospel was anathema. But when he became a Christian, he had to abandon all his previous reliance on law-keeping and ritual. “Every one who would obtain the righteousness of Christ must renounce his own.”(Calvin) Such a move was possible only because he came to realise that all his privileges and achievements were actually worthless, and that in God’s sight he was spiritually bankrupt.
Over twenty years later, and despite all his troubles and sufferings, Paul could say quite honestly that he had absolutely no regrets. For he had gained far more than he had lost (Matthew 13:45,46): acceptance before God, a relationship with Jesus, and assurance of eternal life. No longer did he have to drive himself in order to attain and maintain a state of ‘do-it-yourself’ righteousness; the righteousness that God offers us in Christ is a free gift, and has only to be accepted. As a Christian, Paul was no less ‘driven’ than before, but he now had a completely different ambition: simply to get ever closer to His Lord and Saviour, to identify with Him more completely, and to experience even more of His resurrection power.