Why Your Righteousness Is Not Up For Grabs
As a warning, this post may stretch your perspective about the Gospel and what Jesus has done for you.
I grew up in a traditional Presbyterian church where the "real Gospel" was taught as it was in scripture. The only problem is that it never bore fruit in my life. There was never a time that I felt truly at peace with God. I didn't know it at the time, but the Gospel was the very thing that is supposed to bring peace between God and people.
Romans 5:1 says, "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ."
Through whatever Jesus did, I was supposed to have peace with God and that is something that I didn't have. If the peace was not present then maybe I wasn't seeing the Gospel correctly. Maybe there was something more to the good news that I hadn't heard.
The missing piece of righteousness
In order to experience peace with God, there is something that must fundamentally change in a person. People are naturally opposed to God, but after the gospel begins its work, things start to change. The person actually becomes righteous! I'm not going to add any qualifiers. They aren't righteous if they do x, y or z. They are righteous.
Let's take a look at what the Apostle Paul presents as the Gospel by looking at Romans 4:1-8:
"What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
This scripture may be familiar, but if you look at it again, it is saying some startling things. Abraham, through his belief in God, was counted as a righteous person. The scripture is very clear that it wasn't what he did that made him righteous. We know that Abraham's track record was less than spotless. He slept with his wife's servant and had Ishmael and he allowed his wife to be taken by two different kings on separate occasions to save his own life. All the while, God backed him up, didn't punish him, and even calls him righteous.
Justification is the churchy word for what happens when people become a Christian. I was told that this means I was forgiven, which is not wrong–it's just part of the story. The word "justify" most accurately means "to declare righteous", which is the same word that was used in Romans 5:1.
So what does this mean?
Romans 5 says that we have peace with God because we have been declared righteous. God is no longer opposed to you. This may require a paradigm shift, but if you believe in Jesus then you are righteous. How you are doing in your Christian walk is not determined by what you are doing, but by the cross. You were not made acceptable to God at the beginning just to be left to maintain your righteousness. You have been declared righteous and a declaration by God cannot be overturned by simple actions.
I've heard many people object to what I have just said. One of the most popular is that this kind of thinking leads to pride.
A note on pride and humility:
Pride is not thinking well of yourself. It is not pride to have a positive self-image and it is not humility to think negatively of yourself. Pride and humility come down to your willingness to submit to God. God is the potter and we are the clay. If the potter says something about the clay, it is humility to say "yes and amen". Pride is the clay turning to the potter to decide what it is.
The potter says you are righteous, so humility is to take that truth to heart and to live from it. It is a gift. It is yours. You are righteous. Now your job is to submit to the reality of what God has made you, so it becomes manifest in your relationships, work, family, and every other area of your life.