How Righteous Do You Have To Be?

10 And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. 11 And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13 Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:10-13 ESV

When it comes to our salvation, most of us have no trouble acknowledging our sin. After all, as Jesus infers above in his statement to the Pharisees, He came to save sinners, not saints. In fact, Paul reminds us that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and His death was proof of God’s love for us (Romans 5:8 ESV).  God didn’t require us to get our spiritual act together or our moral house in order. No, He sent His Son to die for us because we were sinners. And Jesus made the point behind His earthly mission quite clear: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10 ESV).

Obviously, by definition, sinners do not measure up to God’s righteous standard. And Paul stated that fact quite plainly when he wrote: “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Romans 3:23 NLT). It was our lack of righteousness that made Christ’s righteousness necessary. All attempts by the Jews, God’s chosen people, to keep the righteous standard of God, as revealed in the Mosaic law, had fallen far short. Which is why God could look down on mankind and pronounce, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10 ESV). And it was into this abysmal state of affairs that God sent His Son so that He would become the source of righteousness that sinful men so desperately need. The apostle Paul explains the details behind God’s plan for man’s sin problem.

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. – Romans 3:21-26 ESV

God’s righteousness was made manifest or known by the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. The kind of righteousness God required became physically and visibly apparent in the life of Jesus, the Son of God. But the righteousness of God was also revealed in that He did not overlook or ignore man’s sin problem, He dealt with it by delivering a death sentence against it. But He did so by sacrificing His own Son on behalf of and in place of sinful men. In keeping with the Old Testament sacrificial system, God provided a substitute or stand-in; an unblemished, flawless Lamb who gave His life in the place of unrighteous sinners. The author of Hebrews the full import behind Jesus’  death on the cross.

With his own blood—not the blood of goats and calves—he entered the Most Holy Place once for all time and secured our redemption forever.

Under the old system, the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer could cleanse people’s bodies from ceremonial impurity. Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. – Hebrews 9:12-14 NLT

It was His righteousness that satisfied the just demands of a holy God. In His human state, Jesus lived a completely sin-free life, keeping each and every command God had given. He was perfectly obedient and fully submitted to the will of God, in spite of being “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are” and “yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV). And because of His perfect obedience and sinless life, Jesus became “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

The apostle Paul would have us remember that it is our faith in Christ that makes us right with God. It is only as sinful men stop relying upon their own self-righteousness and turn to the righteousness made possible through Christ that they are restored to a right relationship with God the Father. It is when they recognize that their sin debt has been paid for by Jesus and accept His gracious gift of salvation, that sinners become righteous. But look closely at what Paul says:

God has united you with Christ Jesus. For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. – 1 Corinthians 1:30 NASB

He has made us right with God. In other words, we are righteous in God’s eyes. Not only that, we are seen by God as pure and holy or sanctified. And we have been set from sin. Yet, we know from experience that sin remains alive and active in our lives. We commit sins regularly and have to constantly fight the temptation to live unrighteous lives in spite of our righteous standing.

And this is where the confusion regarding sanctification comes in. We begin to believe that we have an obligation to improve our righteous standing before God. When we sin, we conclude that we have taken a step backward and regressed in our relationship with God, leaving us with no other choice but to regain the righteousness we lost. We have fallen out of favor with Him, and it is up to us to gain our way back into His good graces. But is this biblical? Is it true?

The danger behind this kind of thinking is that it diminishes the finished work of Jesus. It belittles and minimizes what He accomplished on the cross, by teaching a need for additional righteousness. By focusing on our need to replace our unrighteousness actions with righteous ones, we negate the righteousness of Christ. It is His righteousness alone that can satisfy a holy God. It is His blood alone that can make the impure clean and the defile holy. And that transaction happened the moment we placed our faith in Him as our sin substitute. There is no additional righteousness needed.

It’s interesting to note that Paul said, “For the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel from faith to faith, just as it is written, “The righteous by faith will live” (Romans 1:1 NET).  He didn’t say from righteousness to righteousness or from sanctification to sanctification. All the righteousness we need is revealed through faith in Jesus Christ. And faith never stops being the means by which we avail ourselves of that righteousness. We don’t need to produce more. We need to believe that we have more than enough in Christ. The danger we face as believers living in a fallen world and wrestling with our old sinful natures is that we can become convinced that we don’t measure up. And the enemy constantly accuses us of falling short of God’s standard by using our sins as proof of our inadequacy. So, we start trying to earn our way back into God’s good graces. We fall back into the faulty mindset that we can somehow produce a righteousness of our own.

But notice what Paul told the believers in Philippi.

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 3:8-9 ESV

Paul depended upon a righteousness that came from outside of himself. It was an alien righteousness, produced by Christ and imputed to Paul. And Paul kept placing His faith in that righteousness, not in any kind of self-produced righteousness he might attempt to manufacture.

So then, why should we attempt to do righteous deeds? Why should we bother to live worthy of our calling? If we are already as righteous as we will ever need to be, what’s the point of attempting to live holy lives? These are important questions, and we will address them in our next post.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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