What does it look like to be a righteous person? The word “righteousness” appears nearly a hundred times in the New Testament. Its emphasis is typically focused on the ideas of justice, rightness, and fairness. The ancient philosopher Aristotle described righteousness as “uprightness [consisting] of that which is lawful and fair” (EN 5, 1, 8, 1129a) But righteousness, according to Scripture entails a legal dynamic as well.
Westminster divine, William Gouge, defined righteousness in this way, “Righteousness is our conformity unto God’s Law.” Righteousness therefore is most vividly seen in the Law of God, for the Law of God is a reflection of the character and nature of God. But righteousness is even more than that for the Christian. Gouge wrote that Christians are all called to “frame all our thoughts, words, and actions, unto the righteous rule of the Law of God.”
Believers do not scoff at the Law. We cannot disregard it. We see clearly from Psalm 119 that we sing of the usefulness, of the purity, of the benefits, of the practical wisdom and help of the Law. Is this how you understand righteousness today? Do you love the Law of God?
Today we don’t hear much about righteousness but we do hear its synonym regularly: justice. Although its call is bellowed from every direction, what is justice? How do we attain it? Where can we find it? How do we know what is right? If we leave it up to people, we know that people change. This is quite easy to observe. We can peer out at a myriad of issues and see how public perception has shifted concerning what is believed to be right and wrong. As Christians, our ethical commitment, or what we understand to be right or wrong, is not a slave to our cultural moment. God’s Law is meant to guide us, and it does so because it is reflective of His unchanging nature.
So as Christians, when we understand justice or righteousness we are not asking: What does this person think is right? or What does that group think is just? Instead we return to those basic questions: What has God said? What has He revealed in Scripture? What does He demand of me? In short, Christians recognize that justice is defined by God. What does all this mean practically? There can be no act of righteousness or of justice which is at odds with God’s Word. It is His character which defines that which is good, just, and righteous. God is not held accountable to the fleeting standards or our world. He instead judges the world.
Here is the inherent offense of the Gospel. God will judge the world. God demands perfection, and you and I are not perfect. All of this means that we are subject to the wrath of God, and there is not a thing any of us can do about, at least on our own. We want to believe that we are better than others, but our sinful nature always finds a way of manifesting itself in our mind, heart, and will. Our sins are truly worthy of hell for God does not grade on a curve. He is not a partial judge who looks over our blasphemy, or superficial religious acts, or anything for that matter. Our best acts are bloody menstrual rags in his sight according to Isaiah 64:6. We have a hard time believing that because all of us greatly over value our natural abilities while simultaneously greatly undervaluing the holiness of God. But if we take Scripture seriously, there is no amount of good that you or I will ever do to become righteous in God’s sight. “None is righteous, no, not one.” (Romans 3:10 ESV)
What do we do with this knowledge? We can ignore it. We can try earning heaven as many attempt today, but that’s useless. But we can acknowledge our need for help. That third option is the only one that’ll change our hearts for the better. Only God save us. But that is precisely what He does for us in the Lord Jesus for “we know that a person is not justified [that is declared righteous] by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ…” (Galatians 2:16 ESV)
You are declared righteous only by faith in Jesus. We do not enter by grace, and stay by works. All of the Christian life is one of grace. All of the Christian life is one of faith. That means that God sees every spot and stain that covers your heart. He would be right to punish it and He has in Christ. But He has accepted Christ’s offering of His body and blood in place of every believer.
You were once adorned with a filthy, rusted, broken breastplate of unrighteousness but Christ rips that cuirass from our chests and covers us with his own glimmering, powerful armor of His own righteousness (Ephesians 6:14). God did not merely remove the shell of our sin, He places Christ’s righteousness upon us (2 Corinthians 5:21). This is a Christian’s great joy. This is our answer to every doubt and fear. Christ’s righteousness, and His alone, is all we have, and is our joy. But we shall never don it as long as we are content to rot in our own. God shows us a better way when He teaches us, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9 KJV)