Reckon you’re good enough? Think again!
Inside each of us dwells the mark of Cain.
God reckons righteousness to us, cancels our sin,
Helps us to conquer our struggles within.
Trying to earn salvation, being worldly wise
Ends with us being righteous in our own eyes.
Offer our bodies, then, as a living sacrifice,
Unclean vessels washed pure at great price.
Speak ill of no-one, let your faith shine,
No longer wild olives but grafts in God’s vine:
Every worldly gain we now count as loss,
Status and pride, we consider them dross,
Surrendering all at the foot of the cross.
Righteousness isn’t an easy word. Few people, whether Christian or not, would choose to call themselves “righteous”. It would sound incredibly conceited and priggish, as well as inviting a pantomime response of “oh no, you’re not!” However, the whole idea of righteousness is terribly important in the Bible.
I have mentioned elsewhere how, when I first started looking at the story of Job, I felt he had been unfairly treated. It took me a while to understand how his fault was to have been “righteous in his own eyes” (Job 32:1).
God needs us to be righteous – perfect, in fact – which is clearly impossible. Even St Paul who, on balance, was probably as righteous as any mortal, described himself as the “chief of sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). So, Jesus must have an alternative plan in mind when he said: “For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20).
We have a choice. We can either be righteous in our own eyes or righteous in God’s eyes. The latter is impossible in our own strength but at the same time is essential for us to have fulness of life and eternal life. It can only happen when God reckons righteousness to us (Romans 4:3), and this can only happen by God’s grace and our faith in Jesus. Thus, “God made him who had no sin to be sin (or a sin offering) for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Romans 10:2-4 shows how trying to ‘establish our own righteousness’ is futile, and that the only effective option is to submit to God’s righteousness; this principle is echoed in Philippians 3:9.
However, being perfected through faith doesn’t mean we need to stop doing right things. God takes delight when we are obedient to His laws of justice and neighbourliness, when we walk righteously and speak what is right (Isaiah 33:15). We must “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). The Old Testament law is by no means irrelevant to Christians. At the time of Jesus, many of its facets had become ritualised and unproductive, and it was not sufficient to guarantee our salvation or for us to gain God’s righteousness. However, it still fundamentally encapsulated right conduct.
As Hosea proclaimed (Hosea 10:12): Sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unploughed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and showers his righteousness on you.
(Righteousness appears on my New Testament: The Early Church page).