Only those believers in Jesus who are maturing in their Christian faith are capable of understanding righteousness. What it means to be righteous, let alone to understand the concept itself, remains hidden from all others, even from many church members.
“You need milk, not solid food. Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:12-14)
It seems so simple. Righteousness, by dictionary definition, is “the quality of being morally right or justifiable” or “free from guilt or sin”. Can such a quality-of-being exist in what is created? Was Adam righteous, prior to his fall into sin? Or, is righteousness just one of those theoretical concepts that doesn’t actually exist in reality?
As the above Bible passage clearly states, not even long-time believers in Christ are capable of understanding this. And yet it is stated as being critical to those who claim salvation. It might seem simple, but that view is immature and blinds a person from seeing their need to reach out for the truth about righteousness.
Those few, who recognize the importance of knowing biblical righteousness, will avoid the common religious error of claiming “but we have Abraham as our father” or “but we are guaranteed to be saved”. We naturally want to control our destiny with absolute guarantees, no matter what we do, probably because we all know that no matter how much we believe in Jesus, we still recognize our own sinful tendencies, just as Paul wrote about in his letter to the Roman Christians. However, claiming what God does not state is foolish.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, God himself states that even if he clearly tells a “righteous man” that he is certain to be saved, but later on in his life this person returns to sinful ways, “then he will surely not live!” God will reject his own promise of salvation to that person, because they refused to stay living in that righteousness that had been identified in them. Paul, Peter, John, Luke, and Jude all write the same warnings to believers in the New Testament.
Thinking you are saved, doesn’t make you saved, even if God himself has declared you to be a “righteous” person. Understanding the teaching about righteousness is only available to the spiritually mature. This is not about some kind of higher knowledge, but about three things: knowing what it means to be righteous, about how this righteousness it attained, and about living in the “way of righteousness”.
There are also two primary obstacles that prevent a person from recognizing the truth about righteousness: sinfulness and distorted doctrines. Living contrary to Christ will drive him away, and believing what your church teaches, if it is not careful to Scripture, will blind you to the truth. What we do and what we believe either confirm our faith or they are the very tools that undermine a claim of faith in Christ. So it is with this subject.
If you want to know the amazing righteousness offered in the gospel of Jesus, be willing to put to death “the sin that so easily entangles” and “do not be deceived by fine sounding arguments”. Equally, seek the truth of righteousness—about the who, the how, and the way—that can only be grasped by mature believers.
From here we will consider a number of biblical passages to try and cut through the fat layers of traditions, in order to reveal the actual meat at the core of what it means to be righteous. It is not human skill, education, or years of tradition that establish the truth, but the living word of God:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”. (2 Tim 3:16)
Discovering righteousness will require submission to what the Bible actually teaches, and may require rebuking and correcting, especially for those still living on milk.
To start with, it should be stated unequivocally, that no human is, has ever been, or ever could become righteous! Jesus challenged a kingdom-seeker about why he was calling a human being righteous.
“Why do you call me good?…No one is good—but God alone.” (Mk 10:18)
Righteousness is not simply some virtue of moral goodness; it is a state of being. Think about that. To be righteous, is to be absolutely good. That doesn’t exist anywhere in creation because inherent goodness of that kind, can only ever exist in God himself. To be righteous is to be God.
Such moral perfection cannot be transferred or created, because that would mean creating another god. If you want to grasp true righteousness, you will need to bow to the reality that such a being is “God alone”.
Many false teachers have promoted the idea that Adam was created righteous prior to his fall into sin. Human dictionaries, as noted earlier, suggest the idea that righteousness is the absence of sin; however, the absence of something never causes the existence of anything. Un-ness is not something; it is nothing.
When we humanly lack the ability to define something new, we often give it a label of non-existence—like wireless phones and horseless carriages—but that inability to identify something for what it is, describes what is missing, not what is new. The lack of wires on cell phones is the result of sound wave technology which resulted in the lack of needed wires. The missing horse on an automobile was the result of the combustible engine invention, not what caused cars to exist.
Righteousness is not morally good because it lacks sin. Sinlessness is a result of being righteous, not a cause. In this way, Adam was “innocent” prior to his sin, but not righteous. The Bible never says he was righteous; that is an editorial addition to the text that has become popular tradition in many Churches. If Adam were righteous, he would have acted in line with his inherent being, which means that he would NEVER have done anything contrary to being righteous. History proves that Adam was not righteous, because he freely chose to sin when given the freedom to do what he wanted to do.
From that point on throughout history, we all have confirmed our origins by acting in line with our nature. No one, not even Adam, has ever been righteous. As such, there is no reason for us to attempt to “get back” to our original goodness. That never existed, even though there was a time of sinless innocence. Humans have never had such goodness. We do not have inherent good inside that just needs to be found and released. Righteousness doesn’t exist in us, it never did, and never can by anything we ever do!
“There is no one righteous, not even one.” (Rom 3:10)
As a point of clarification, when Genesis records God’s observation after his 6 days of creation, that what he made was good, even very good, he is not speaking about moral human goodness. In fact, he is not saying anything about Adam or his character. Rather, God is declaring that what God did in creating was exactly in line with what he wanted. It was good. It is a statement about God, not about man.
What it means to be righteous, is a statement about internal nature of being, that can only ever exist in God alone. For those who accept the exclusive belief in one God, and his inherent nature of righteous goodness, can still stumble at Jesus.
Jesus said only God is good, but then later identifies himself as the “Good Shepherd”. He never said that he wasn’t good. Rather, he confronted the belief that such moral goodness could exist in any natural human. It can’t. However, it can and does exist inherently in Jesus. Wow. Jesus is declared to be Immanuel, God-with-us. He is the complete embodiment of God. This is critical to grasp. Jesus is the Righteous One.
“we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” (1 Jn 2:1)
He does not just reflect righteousness. He is Righteous. This is a declaration of being; a statement about his inherent nature; a revelation about his eternally divine identity. He has not been created. He never was some kind of angel or first-creation. He is what God is—Righteous.
This is why Jesus can never sin, never fail, never do anything other than what is righteous, because he is the One being that inherently is righteous. That is his nature, his character, his being, and his will—to always do what is right in God’s view.
When the Bible declares that “in him was no sin”, it is not primarily a statement of result—that he didn’t commit anything wrong when he lived on earth, though that is also true—but rather a statement of pre-human identity: neither sin nor its tendency ever could exist in him, because that would be incompatible with what it means to be God. In other words, Jesus didn’t become recognized as sinless, by how he lived among us, but he has always been righteous and thus without sin. Remember, sinlessness is a result of being, not a cause.
Regarding our savior, the prophet records:
“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord…My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way…my righteousness will never fail. Hear me, you who know what is right”. (Isa 51:1-7)
It was not possible for Christ to sin—not because he wasn’t tempted exactly like we are, but because he was the one and only, morally-perfect Righteous One, who could not fail.
Righteousness can’t be created, it can only be extended and developed. This is essential for Christians to understand. Humans are not, never have been, and never can be righteous. However, we can reflect God’s righteousness. It can become who we are, but only through the internalized life of Christ in a person.
This is the gospel truth about the righteousness from heaven.
“For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Rom 1:17)
All three main points are in this verse. This righteousness comes directly from God. Without any regard for human effort at generating goodness, it can only be extended to a believer who accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior in faith. And, it is required that such faith demonstrate itself through maturing in righteous living. This is the gospel regarding righteousness.
Sadly, some professing believers have been choked by doctrines that teach that righteousness can be found beyond just Jesus. Some have been misled by beliefs that righteousness can be earned or achieved by human effort at doing good or at following the 10 Commandments. And unfortunately, many have been deceived away from the requirement that faith must be fruitfully matured or this righteousness from heaven will remain an unfulfilled promise.
As the saying goes, “out of sight, out of mind”, so it applies to the Christian ability to recognize righteousness. While Jesus remains out-of-sight, so our minds are easily distracted away from focusing on the Lord alone for maturing in righteousness. It is easy to drift into the belief that “faith alone” is a guarantee of this righteousness from heaven, or that good deeds and general good living can earn the label of righteousness. Jesus said he would send his Spirit to his followers and in them he would confront this common distortion regarding beliefs about righteousness—in those who, like the world, think they already understand sin, righteousness and judgment:
“When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment…about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer”. (Jn 16:8-10)
The second main point about understanding this righteousness is that it can only ever come to us by grace. There is nothing innately righteous in any of us. We are not even capable of ever being righteous. There is nothing of redeeming value. Human decency, which may be seen in some, is not the same thing as eternal righteousness. We can never go back. We can never return to Adam’s state of innocence. We need the righteousness of Christ to be granted to us upon his mercy and not due to anything we are, have, or could ever do.
When the Bible speaks of a person, like Abraham or a Christian, being righteous, it is always about their demonstrated choices at obediently striving to follow God. It is always a matter of reflecting the activity of God within them. It never implies than any person is capable of generating righteousness on their own, nor through their own deeds. It is also a temporary label that can change as their life-choices shift over time, because it is never a reference to their inherent, unchanging nature. The only point at which the identity of being called righteous becomes permanent is when Christ returns with the gift of eternal life for those who come to faith and remain faithful through this life as he requires. Righteousness cannot be generated from within a created being; it can only be received and displayed, so that God will always receive the glory for what is right.
Our value as humans to God is entirely about his purpose and not about anything we offer. Once we fulfill his purpose, then our value to God is complete and there is nothing left worth sustaining. The exception, thank God, is that if Jesus remains in a person who comes out the other end of the fiery trials, then such righteousness is eternal and cannot be extinguished and that person shifts from promised-salvation to glorified-salvation at the return of Christ.
“This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe”. (Rom 3:22)
Faith at this point does not involve human effort. We have nothing to offer. Jesus has it all, has done it all, and is all we need. This gracious gift of faith is not forced on anyone, however, so it does involve personal acceptance, but that is not adding anything to the mix. Christian faith is a willing act of surrender in accepting his gift of himself. In this way, “he has become…our righteousness” (1 Cor 1:30).
This faith is not a dead-end punctuation to claimed guarantees; it is a beginning, the start of a glorious transformation. It order to understand this teaching about righteousness, that can only be recognized by those who are mature in Christ, this third aspect needs to be put into motion in a believer.
Many Christians have been slaughtered by other professing Christians over this point, so this is no small issue. But the Bible says what it says, and the truth will remain hidden from those who refuse to submit to what it says, regardless as to who appears to swing the bigger sword or remain standing after the dispute. The Cross reminds us that the bigger sword, larger church, more entrenched religious beliefs, louder voices, and established traditions which twist the word of God have a fine way of looking like they have won, but they don’t understand the power of resurrection. Righteousness came up out of the grave; it did not emanate from places of established worship.
The wise will follow the pattern of the Bereans and look to the word of God. Those who promote the teaching of “faith alone”, do so at their own peril. In spite of the 500 years of tradition, Paul did not write that nor teach it. It was actually added into the text of the Bible in Romans chapter 3. Rather, Paul stated:
“For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.” (Rom 2:13)
Although the source has certainly changed, the principle of how righteousness is finally declared hasn’t changed. It is those who obey, who in the end will be declared righteous. This does not mean that such righteousness is earned, but that the conclusion must be proved by demonstration. Paul quotes this passage to make a point. The point is that righteousness must be absolute, “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”. It is impossible for any human to absolutely keep that Law, for when we break one, it is the same to God as if we have broken them all.
So how can one be identified as righteous if that law is impossible to perfectly obey? Enter Jesus. Because of who he is, he alone would be capable of keeping it, which the Bible says he did by perfectly fulfilling everything it demanded. Both the origin and conclusion about Jesus is that he is declared righteous—his identity and his actions worked together to prove the consistency of being perfectly righteous. The same degree of absolute perfection is required on all who desire to be declared righteous in God’s sight. Enter the gospel.
Because of all the errors taught over the centuries about this, many will find this difficult to grasp. Paul is writing to the Roman church to confront the twisted idea that Jewish Christians have a better way to honor God through mixing the Mosaic law into Christian beliefs. As a result, he writes that letter to help identify the question of what specifically causes salvation. His point: faith in Jesus and what he has done causes salvation, not any amount of effort at keeping the Old Covenant Law.
Jews who had come to accept Jesus as their Savior, still thought (like all devout Jews) that keeping the Sabbath, and similar commands under that former covenant, got them right with God, and thereby were necessary even for Gentile believers. Paul tries to help them understand in this letter that a new righteousness, one that can last for eternity and that can only be found existing in God, has been revealed through a new covenant. Followers of God are granted this righteousness, not by earning it, but rather by accepting it in faithful surrender to Jesus as their Lord. This righteousness can only be found in Jesus, not in obedience to the old law, either by Jew or Gentile. However, he is not suggesting that believers have a pass around obedience now. Rather we remain slaves, either to sin, or to righteousness: Slaves who obey their master.
This is why righteousness that is caused by faith and gifted to a believer, must be thereafter matured or that person is stuck on milk and “not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.”
Many Christians have stumbled at this truth. They think that Paul was also implying that no human effort should impact salvation. This is why so few are able to understand righteousness. They think it comes by faith and that’s the end of it, but that is not what the Bible teaches. Paul makes it very evident that he is not under the Mosaic Law, but as a Christian he does live under Christ’s law. This is why he defines his gospel at the very start of that letter as a call to a new basis for obedience, rather than a rejection of obedience:
“Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith.” (Rom 1:5)
His entire letter to the Roman Christians is about the reason for our obedient allegiance. Living by the Law not only doesn’t work, such continued efforts undermine faith in Christ. Being identified as the people of God no longer comes through that old Law given to ancient Israel. It is now to come through faith.
This occurs, he teaches, by accepting Jesus as Lord and by demonstrating it by how we follow his life, words, and Spirit. Remember, such demonstration can only be a result of what has already been caused and initiated in us; our efforts and expressions of righteousness never can earn salvation, nor God’s favor. We are capable to earning heavenly rewards, but those are only available to those who are first given the gift of salvation which can’t be earned.
Again, expressions of obedience can be a result, but that does not mean they automatically will occur. We still have to willingly and obediently participate. How we do so, has changed to trusting Jesus, which is shown by how and whether we mature in living by the word and Spirit of God.
During the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic church was not promoting Mosaic obedience, but they were teaching and doing things contrary to God’s word. In order to combat this, dissident leaders apparently felt that they needed more powerful biblical support, so they shifted the teachings from Paul away from confronting Mosaic obedience as the cause of getting right with God, to a rejection of works of any kind. In this way, they had a large sword to swing against indulgences and other human-imposed activities that were being taught as efforts that could get a person right, but were probably more about ministerial greed.
Now they could say that the Bible teaches against any human effort, any proscribed penance activities, any free will choices, any continuing sin, any good deeds, any behavior, anything-at-all having any ability to undermine a person’s claimed salvation.
In contrast to this view, the works were not the problem being confronted by Paul; rather, it was the belief in what causes right standing with God. We are not made right by what we do, even though God has always required obedience, because righteousness never exists by effort—only by being. We can only be made right by who Jesus is, when he is allowed to live unrestrained through a person.
Such things don’t get a person right with God, but God does not say that obedience is not required on Christians. In fact, there is only one place in Scripture where the Holy Spirit wrote the phrase “faith alone”, and it says the exact opposite:
“You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” (Jms 2:24)
In John chapter 14, we are repeatedly told that obedience is the proof regarding those who actually love Jesus, and the lack of obedience that reveals those who think they believe, but are not accepted by God. So, a Christian is not to walk on their knees for a mile after confessing to sin (for that is a human-invented penalty that suggests a person can get right with God through their act of suffering and does not promote repentance simply upon the blood of Christ’s own payment of all penalties for sin). However, the same Christian is required to forgive their brother or never be ultimately forgiven by God; and, to share the name of Christ with others or Jesus won’t share their name with God; and, to give without expecting to receive back in return; and, to mourn with those who are mourning; and, to turn the other cheek when struck offensively; and, to put their fleshly desires to death; and, to stay faithful to their marriage partner for life, even if divorced; and, to honor all authorities without rebellion, for that will be counted as rebellion against God.
Paul wrote to the Roman believers—who “belong to Jesus Christ”:
“But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgement will be revealed, and he will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger…For God does not show favoritism”. (Rom 2:5-11)
Those believers who seek righteous goodness through faithfully following Jesus are the ones who will be given eternal life. Their seeking never earns it, but it certainly proves that it was extended to them. That is not the kind of guarantee of salvation many Christians have claimed. They have been taught that they can’t lose, but Paul warned those who belonged to Jesus that they could still lose out on eternal life, if they refused to live in a way that reflected the righteousness of Christ.
Paul make this point repeatedly, but somehow many can’t hear it. Many false teachings have swirled through the church for the last 2000 years. This is one of the early ones, for “They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him.” (Tit 1:16) Faith with disobedient actions demonstrates that “they are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good.” They think they are saved, but they are unfit to be called righteous.
Peter taught the same thing about those who “know our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome”:
“Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position.” (2 Pet 3:17)
Jesus himself taught regarding those to whom he has given himself, that if they bury their talent, or are not diligent in keeping their lamps full of oil, or who put their hand to the plow and look back, that “even what they think they have will be taken away and given to another”. He repeats the same warning to Christians in Revelation, who when judged according to their works can have their candlestick placement removed from around his throne, or their names erased from the Book of Life, or their crown taken away, if they don’t repent of the things he confronts them with and do the things they did at first.
The call for Christians is to grow, to mature and produce the fruit of righteousness that God requires. It is by “constant use” that believers are led by the Holy Spirit to learn how to distinguish between good and evil—to identify the righteousness of Christ. Human words can’t do it justice; it must be put to use. Living and consistent application is not an option. It is the only way God will grant a person the insight to know the teaching about righteousness.
Of course, we have the freedom to try and distinguish between the knowledge of good and evil by eating from the forbidden tree, like Adam and Eve, but that ends in rejection away from God. This issue is the primary desire of humanity—to try and figure out a way to make life work on our own terms and by our own effort and without any expectations. This is at the heart of our god-complex. 6000 years and trillions of failures to boot. Constant use in submissively living out our faith by Jesus words, in step with the Spirit, is the only way to the tree of life, to know his good, his righteousness.
We don’t cause it, and we can never earn it, but we are commanded to apply it. The expectation is laid upon every believer to live Christlike, seeking outlets for him to live through our choices and circumstances, to let his righteousness mature in us. The prayer is that as God provides the seed, we can devote our lives toward enlarging the harvest of his righteousness.
“filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” (Phi 1:11)
“offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness”. (Rom 6:13)
It is through the increasing evidence of this divine righteousness in a believer, that we can know both where it comes from and in whom it rightly exists:
“If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him” (1 Jn 2:29)
“Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.” (1 Jn 3:7)
The difficulty is that no document or statement can ever fully reveal the teaching about righteousness. It only purely exists in Jesus, and it can only become recognized by Christians who obediently allow Jesus to live through them by maturing in how they apply his words and Spirit in every corner of their lives.
The Righteous One has given his invitation and command, not just to those who claim him as Lord, but to those with ears to hear:
“Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you”. (Mt 6:33)
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Mt 5:6)
Seek the righteousness of Jesus in place of your own, by striving to make it your own through lifelong surrender to his every word. In this way, Jesus will live through a believer and righteousness will mature, until he brings salvation to those who are waiting for him.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”. (2 Cor 5:21)