“The LORD will repay each man for his righteousness and his faithfulness.” 1 Samuel 26:23
“You love righteousness and hate wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows.” Psalm 47: 7
“Righteousness delivers from death.” Proverbs 11: 4
Jesus underscored the point ever further:
“Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.” Matthew 5:6
“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:20
So what is “righteousness”?
Most discussions of the term include it with holiness and goodness: traits of God which He expects of us. The terms are interconnected and overlap in their meanings, making a precise understanding of righteousness difficult.
The Hebrew word is tsadiyq and the Greek word is dikaiosunê. It has to do with the way one is in relation to God.
We were created to be in perfect relationship with God. His holiness and goodness echoed in our everyday existence. We experienced perfect joy and peace and contentment in this relationship with our Creator. Our nature was perfectly aligned with God’s nature. This was righteousness: God was good, we were good; God was holy, we were holy. Theologian Michael Horton notes:
Created in God’s image, in perfect holiness and righteousness, Adam was to lead all of creation into the everlasting Sabbath rest.[i]
Then came the fall. We fell out of alignment with God and have been struggling to get back in ever since.
After the fall, no one can be saved by their own righteousness. Rather, the law arraigns all of humanity, Gentile and Jew alike….[ii]
But we can’t align ourselves. Our nature is no longer like God’s. We have a sinful nature while God has a holy nature. The two cannot line up in any way. We are naturally “unrighteous” – spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically, dispositionally, and deliberatively.
And we just can’t do it. Even though we know we face God’s judgment as a result. Even though we see how it ruins lives. Even though it makes us miserable.
We are just not hard wired to follow God’s rules. We can’t help sinning. It is our very nature.
God sees our dilemma. But if He dropped His demand for alignment, He would cease to be holy and God. And if we ignored his demand for righteousness, we would lose the chance for His love and joy.
So how did God solve the problem?
God so loved us, that He punished His perfect son for all of our imperfections. He allowed his righteous and aligned son to be tortured and murdered so that we might escape that sentence.
Does that mean that we don’t have to concern ourselves with alignment and righteousness anymore? No. The law is still in effect.
But God has given us a choice: Try to align ourselves with His law and face the consequences if (when) we fail. And die.
Believe the following: that He actually sent His son to suffer and die in our stead so that we might live with Him forever.
The key is belief. The key is faith. They lead to God’s grace. And eternal life.
St. Paul tells us that this faith counts the same as righteousness in God’s eyes:
“Faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness.” Romans 4:9
“The promise that he would be the heir of the world was not to Abraham or to his seed through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.” Romans 4:13
“For he hath made [Christ] to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
God allows those who believe to use Jesus as our substitute for righteousness. When God looks at us, He will see Jesus perfectly aligned, rather than our pathetic misalignment. As Michael Horton writes, “The good news is that for all who are in Christ, God looks on the heart, life, death, and resurrection of his Son.”[iii]
This gift should cause relief among those who fail to live by the law, who fail to align themselves with God. Namely everyone. As Michael Horton writes,
The only reason I can sleep well at night is that even though my heart is still filled with corruption and even though I am not doing my best to please him, I have in heaven at the Father’s right hand the beloved Son, who has not only done his best for himself but has fulfilled all righteousness for me in my place.[iv]
With faith, we have nothing to fear. With faith, we may experience a renewed relationship with our Father. The fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith – are now ours for the taking.
The law becomes not our condemnation, but our joy. We love the law because it becomes our way of showing our loving gratitude and faith in our holy, good, and righteous God. “Since it can no longer condemn the believer, and in fact must recognize the believer as righteous because of his or her justification in Christ, the law is now a friend.”[v]