Photo by Chad Runge / Creation Swap

Sunday, October 9, 2011

My Righteousness versus God’s Righteousness

There is a great truth that I believe the world overlooks.  Great philosophers and scholars alike have discussed it throughout the ages but somehow the truth of it has slipped their grasp…and their understanding.  Christians even have some difficulty with it.  What is this thing that has eluded so many?  The answer:  the source of Righteousness.

Sure, most people can define or give at least a general definition of righteousness.  Many will give an answer similar to the definition found at The Free Dictionary:

1. Morally upright; without guilt or sin: a righteous parishioner.
2. In accordance with virtue or morality: a righteous judgment.
3. Morally justifiable: righteous anger. See Synonyms at moral.
Righteous people considered as a group.

It’s amazing if one considers the time and space given throughout history to thinkers and writers that recorded their thoughts on this subject.  But the one thing that all these great thinkers of ancient past had trouble understanding is where the standard of righteousness came from.  Aristotle, considered by some to be the greatest of philosophers in history, said this about righteousness:

To righteousness it belongs to be ready to distribute according to desert, and to preserve ancestral customs and institutions and the established laws, and to tell the truth when interest is at stake, and to keep agreements. First among the claims of righteousness are our duties to the gods, then our duties to the spirits, then those to country and parents, then those to the departed; and among these claims is piety, which is either a part of righteousness or a concomitant of it. Righteousness is also accompanied by holiness and truth and loyalty and hatred of wickedness.

Even with these discussions and definitions we’re still left with the question that lingers in the soul of man.  It’s good that we understand that righteousness comes from the basis of morality.  And even Aristotle, to some extent, acknowledged that the “claims of righteousness” on some level “are our duties to the gods…”  (It would have been better to acknowledge the One True God.)  He also attributes righteousness to spirits, country and parents, and so on.  In ascribing righteousness to various sources, Aristotle’s definition still leaves unanswered one very important question.  Where is the source of righteousness and who defines it?

Or maybe Aristotle, and these other philosophers, did answer the question.  In his own way of course.  In the Bible, this is described as man living according to a way(s) that he thinks is right.  So, who defines morality?   Who defines right and wrong and ethics and the other host of virtues that define a culture?

As the human race has advanced throughout the centuries, it has become apparent that different cultures established their own laws and customs by which they lived.  Generally speaking, many, if not all, cultures identified certain laws by which they all were in agreeance.  There was a basic understanding of right and wrong.  There seemed to be a sense that it was possible for one person to infringe on another person’s rights.  What that person’s rights were different in the specifics were similar in context.  They ranged from the right to live, to possess wealth or goods, to engage in commerce, to worship or participate in religion, etc.

As you see, much of this discussion revolves around what man thinks about righteousness.  My righteousness, of course, has different standards to what another person may think.  One disturbing trend is how young adults today in our culture have grown up without a firm understanding of right and wrong.  In one of those findings is this statement, The default position most cited was that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste.  ‘It’s personal,’ the respondents typically said.  ‘It’s up to the individual.  Who am I to say?’”

This is a discussion that wasn’t much different in Biblical times.  The Apostle Paul confronted this very issue in Rome among the Jews.   Many of them were relying on their own merits as the means to be found righteous before God.  The following is a passage in Romans 10 that Paul explicitly uses to show that Jesus Christ and His righteousness is the only means to be justified before God. 

1 Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. 2 For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

5 For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. 6 But the righteousness based on faith says, "Do not say in your heart, 'Who will ascend into heaven?'" (that is, to bring Christ down) 7 or "'Who will descend into the abyss?'" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). 8 But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11For the Scripture says, "Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame." 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

Essentially, Paul is showing that despite the fact that the Jews (the ones in verse 1 that he desires to be saved) have a zeal for God, they’re lacking in knowledge.  He points out that they misunderstand that their righteousness means nothing to God.  Yes, their knowledge and understanding of God’s laws is commendable.  Even their pursuit in following God’s laws is commendable.  But Paul explains that their zeal falls short because it’s based on establishing their own righteousness rather than submitting to the righteousness of God, which was and is found in Christ.

Let me say this another way.  My righteousness and your righteousness does not matter.  What you and I think about right and wrong is far from God’s standards.  Read and carefully consider what these passages tell us:

9b For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written:

    "None is righteous, no, not one;
 11 no one understands;
   no one seeks for God.
 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
   no one does good,
   not even one."
 13 "Their throat is an open grave;
   they use their tongues to deceive."
 "The venom of asps is under their lips."
 14 "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness."
 15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood;
 16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
 17 and the way of peace they have not known."
 18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes."
 19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Is this beginning to sink in?  It should.  If Paul was making such statements against the Jews, many of them devout Pharisees and Sadducees, it should give you and me pause.  The Pharisees and Sadducees were authorities on the Scriptures and God’s laws.  If it were possible to attain to righteousness and stand faultless before God, these would be the people.  Paul was even a Pharisee before his encounter with Jesus Christ and subsequent conversion to Christianity.  Here is how Paul described himself before Christ:

3 For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Paul basically lists his qualifications, as if any of it mattered.  But what Paul states in the next few verses is what is really telling.  He says:

7 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8 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 9 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— 10 that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Going back to my first point, I believe the world is missing this important truth.  Man has attempted over and over to establish some form of morality of his own.  When in fact, from the beginning of time the concept of right and wrong or good and evil and the distinctions thereof have come from God.  God has given man a conscience that bears witness to this truth.  The problem is is that man’s conscience convicts him of his thoughts, intents, and actions.  Man stands guilty before God, Who is perfect and holy.  Man forgets who is the source of righteousness:  Jesus Christ!

So what can we do?  The bad news is that we can’t do anything on our own to earn God’s favor or stand before Him blameless.  The good news is that Jesus already has.  We can draw near to the One Who is the Source of righteousness.  In fact, Paul makes this point in the verses above in Romans 10:4 and Philippians 3:9.  Jesus makes it possible for us to be reconciled to God and stand before Him not with our righteousness, but His.  How does this happen?  By putting our faith in Jesus.  Acknowledging that He died on the cross for our sins.  By believing that He took on the penalty that we deserved for our sins and died in our place, and in a great exchange that we cannot even begin to understand, exchanged our sin for His righteousness.  That is what He did.  2 Corinthians 5:21For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Of course we all know that Jesus’ death on the cross was not the end.  He rose again!  He’s alive!  And we, too, can be made alive in Christ.  The question then is what are you going to do?  Have you trusted in Jesus or are you relying on your own righteousness or good works?  My prayer is that you will trust in Him, Jesus Christ, and believe on His Name for your hope and salvation.

8 But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. (emphasis mine)