At the heart of the gospel, is a very important word, but also a very misunderstood word. Romans 1:17 says, “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.’”
On the surface, this definitely seems like good news. But the challenge is, for much of the world, this word “Righteousness” doesn’t really compute. It’s not a part of our culture’s everyday vocabulary, and it has more of a negative connotation in today’s world than anything else. You’ll normally find it in a sentence like, “You’re self-righteousness makes me sick.” So even though many Jesus Followers use this word, and potentially talk to their non-believing friends about it, in mostly ends up sounding like “righteous-nonsense.”
But does that mean we should just punt and stop talking about it? I don’t think its possible! This word is literally all over the bible. It’s found all throughout the Old and New Testaments and I would argue that it’s something that every human alive thinks about, and strives after, every single day.
So what is it? What is righteousness?
Well, in its most basic form it simply means “the state of being right, or straight, or conformed to a standard.” In modern English, it means, “adhering to moral principles.” But in the bible, the words justice, right, upright, righteous, just, justified… all revolve around this word for righteousness. And the best way that I know how to describe it is that righteousness is simply the way things are supposed to be.
Think about this with me for a minute. So God, first and foremost, is described as righteous and just, all throughout the bible, but both of those words for humans revolve around our conforming to either a moral or a legal code, something that is higher than us. For example, the word for righteousness in the New Testament was specifically a legal term, and it meant that someone was declared in conformity to the written code of the law. And so a judge could “grant” you, or give you righteousness. But ultimately, the law is higher than the judge, and the judge is just making a judgment.
But when God acts justly, or righteously, He isn’t conforming to a code. There is no one who could sit in judgment of God and say, “That’s not right, you aren’t being fair, you aren’t being just.” You see, because justice isn’t something that exists outside of God, it’s just a word that describes the way that God is.
My son Judah is learning letters right now, and every night at bedtime he says, “Let’s talk some letters daddy.” So we lie down and I’ll say, “Tell me a word that starts with… P” Sometimes he’ll think for a minute and say, “I don’t know daddy.” And then I’ll say, “What abouuuuuuuut Popcorn?” And then he’ll say, “Popcorn, dat’s right!” Or I’ll say, “What aboooooouuuuuut PENGUIN?” And he’ll say, “PENGUIN! Dat’s right!!”
And what I’m coming to understand, is that Righteousness is just God looking at something and saying, “Dat’s right!”
But do you get what I meant when I said that every human does this every day? We spend every waking moment looking around and saying either, “That’s right, or that’s wrong.”
Think of how many times recently you’ve said, or thought what someone else should or shouldn’t do.
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that.”
“He shouldn’t be there….”
“What is she thinking saying that!?!”
“She definitely shouldn’t be wearing that….”
“You’re going to regret that.”
With every one of our judgments we’re saying, that’s not the way things are supposed to be.
If you read the book of Proverbs, which has a LOT to say about righteousness, the author goes on and on to describe both the benefits of living a righteous life, and the consequences of living a wicked life.
But I don’t think the question we all struggle with is, “Should I choose righteousness or wickedness?”; the question that we each look in the mirror every morning and ask our self is “Am I righteous?”
Well, no one actually says that… but we do look in the mirror and ask, “Am I the way I’m supposed to be?” “Am I doing this life right?” “Does God look at my life and say dat’s right!!?”
And these are pretty huge questions, right? These are the questions that drive everything we do, and so I want to try and go about answering them for you in a slightly different manner. But before we go further I have to give you a few points to chew on.
1st thing is this. The bible is pretty clear that the answer to the question of, “Am I righteous?” is, “No, you are not righteous.” Paul in Romans 3:10 says, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” And Isaiah 64:6 says, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
That’s the bad news.
Here’s the good news. The gospel tells us that we can be righteous, and that righteousness comes from Jesus, and it is something you receive by faith, not something you could ever earn. This IS the gospel. Romans 3:21 says, “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”
So if there’s ever a point along this journey where you feel proud, or righteous, or better than someone else because of what YOU’VE done… realize that you’re missing the gospel, and you’re missing Jesus.
This idea of righteousness is the foundation of what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ, and so it’s a theme that we have spent a lot of time thinking about at WDA. Without a solid understanding of how God sees us, and an assurance of our forgiveness and “rightness” before God, it’s almost impossible to have an active, growing relationship with Him. This is one of the reasons that we have produced the Cornerstone Project, which helps believers build a robust understanding of their salvation and place in God’s Kingdom.
We believe that this strong foundation of biblical truth will set believers up for a life long pursuit of Christ-like maturity and character. For more information on Cornerstone please go here.
(editor note: The Cornerstone features materials from Phase I and II.)
But in order to get a better understand about what our righteousness looks like practically, tune back in a few weeks for Part II, which uses a modern day interpretation of the Parable of the Wedding Banquet to get a picture of how this fleshes out into real life.