“For Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:1-13, v.4)
What does it mean to be righteous? For a basic definition, to be righteous is to stand in a right relationship with God or to be in covenant with God. The term also points to certain virtues and values that are believed to be “right.” Beyond this, the answer requires deep and careful reflection. To misunderstand this grand theological term can create a huge stumbling block to our growth in faith and to the joy that God wants for us. Within scripture, there are two big understandings of righteousness and the relationship between them is complex. On the one hand, we have righteousness based on obedience to the Law of God. On the other hand, we have righteousness through faith.
God’s first covenant, given to us through the Hebrew people, was a covenant based on Law. Obedience was the standard for acceptance and inclusion in this covenant. In the biblical narrative, when humanity lived fully in God’s grace, the fulfilment of this covenant was possible. But after the Fall, this became impossible. Even today, this kind of devotion to God remains impossible for all “conceived and born in sin.” And yet this understanding of the covenant remains. Righteousness or right relationship with God depends on our obedience.
It is so easy for this standard of obedience to get corrupted. In our natural state, and by the ways of the world, we are compelled to build ourselves up, prove ourselves before others, and claim our own goodness, often by putting others down. Scripture says that this way of relationship is rooted in sin. Even, or maybe especially, in religion, we pour on these expectations -- “Stand fast in faith.” “Give in thanksgiving.” “Be sincere in prayer.” “Do not live as others do.” Maybe throw in some judgment of others, and righteousness is revealed. In our desire to be religious, we put all this on ourselves. We want to show God what we can do. We turn religion into rules and policies, standards of behavior and etiquette, and it all makes religion manageable and enforceable from our perspective. We turn religion into a system rather than a relationship.
How many of us have fallen into the temptation to “establish our own righteousness in order to be accepted by God?” We work to prove ourselves, and in doing so, we bring God down to our level. In the process of justifying ourselves, we lose sight of the true glory and grace of God. This great stumbling block must be removed.
If the law is going to be our judge, then there is no room for failure or flaw. If this is the standard for our acceptance and inclusion in God’s covenant, then we are in trouble. If we only focused on a few “thou shall not’s,” some might make it, but even then, most would have to rely on many offerings and confessions. Once we factor in the “thou shall’s” we begin to see how short we fall. At the heart of these positive commandments is the call to love God with our whole being and to love every soul even as God loves them. We see this even in the Hebrew Scriptures. Even thinking about things contrary to this love is sin. With this standard, who could possibly stand and claim righteousness and worthiness before God?
This stumbling block is removed by a new perspective on righteousness, or actually a very old perspective on righteousness made new in our lives. In the first book of the Bible, we hear of Abraham becoming the father of Israel and how his offspring would be as the stars of heaven and would be blessed as lights to the world. We are then told that Abraham believed in this promise and it was credited to him a righteousness (Genesis 15:6). At this point a different standard for righteousness was given and took on new life in the coming of Christ our Lord. From this perspective, faith stands in the place of obedience. We come into right relationship with God, not by proving to God how good we are, but by trusting in God’s true goodness -- God’s unmerited love and pardoning mercy. This way of righteousness magnifies God rather than bringing God down to our level.
In this new covenant, strictly speaking, we do not have to do anything. There are no requirements of works or knowledge. We enter this covenant, from our perspective, simply by trusting in what God has done and will do, as revealed in Jesus Christ. This is what is meant by the phrase, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.” Faith is coming to trust in the love that God has planted in our hearts. Faith is giving ourselves to this love as we come to know the love that God has already given through Jesus Christ. In this way faith is first a gift to us and then a response from us. It brings us into a right relationship with God, or in other words, into salvation.
To compare side by side, the first covenant supposes that we are already holy and worthy. The second supposes that those included in this covenant are unholy, know that they have fallen short of the glorious image of God, are first bound to sin and death, yet trust in God’s righteousness – as revealed in God’s forgiveness, mercy, grace, and deep love for us, as well as God’s desire to transform us.
So, practically speaking, how do we submit to the “righteousness which is of God by faith”? The first step is to disclaim our own righteousness. We look in the mirror and face our self-will, our foolish desires, our vile affections. We admit that we are lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God. We deserve nothing from God but indignation and death. At this point, we face the truth and stop trying to live the self-justifying lie.
That’s when the light breaks forth and reveals the true righteousness of God, not as judge, but as pure love. Therefore, whoever you are, as one who desires to be reconciled to a good, forgiving, gracious and merciful God, do not say in your heart, “I must first do this.” I must first conquer my sin.” “I must first go to church, or hear more sermons, or be more sincere in my prayers.” With these thoughts, you are trying to establish your own righteousness as the ground of your reconciliation. First only believe. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not about being “contrite enough,” or “saying the right words,” or “confessing the right steps.” Simply trust in God’s love, in here (the heart) as the Spirit opens the way. Know the truth. Righteousness comes by faith. Oh sinner, believe in the One who says, “I will be merciful to you and your sins I will remember no more.” Amen.