WHAT DO YOU believe in? Do you have some principles that you hold to with a passion? Principles that define you? That you live by? I reckon you do, whether you’re religious or not. You have a life philosophy. A value system. A political leaning. An idea about what really matters and why. Do you ‘share’ your point of view with others? Again, I reckon you do. Most of us like to trumpet the virtues of our worldview at least once in a while. And why not? We ‘know’ our way of thinking is right. If only those on the other side would open their eyes and see sense. Then they too would be blameless and upright…
I admit it: I’m being facetious… but only to a point. Think about it: Don’t we tend to see our own way as the best way, the way everyone should be? We easily favour a definition of ‘righteousness’ that matches the values we are already living out. If I can convince you of the purity of my natural preferences, I will come off looking like a fine practitioner of righteousness. And I probably won’t have to try very hard or make myself uncomfortable in the process. Because, you see, my definition of righteousness fits me perfectly.
Buried deep in our consciences, however, are some other principles of righteousness that we may not be aware of. They don’t make the headlines, but they are very real: they live within us, instructing us—if we are listening—on how to behave. Among them are these: ‘Be kind to others.’ ‘Don’t be greedy.’ ‘Protect the vulnerable.’ ‘Be careful to keep your word.’ These and other principles we really do know, at a base level, to be right. We may not know why they are right, but we know they are. None of us can claim to have made them up. They weren’t formed out of anyone’s personality or partiality, nor do they belong to anyone’s ideology. They are right in themselves. Right in every era of history, even the dark ages. Right in every society on earth, even those given to supreme wickedness. Right in every galaxy in the cosmos, even those whose light is yet to reach us.
A clue that these principles are objectively right is that they teach people all over the world—regardless of time, place, language or culture—how to live together for the benefit of all, not just a few. Yet they are right, too, in a more profound way. As they are not matters of human opinion, they orientate us to reality beyond human opinion. They are pointers, I submit, not merely to a right standard of behaviour but to ultimate righteousness—to purity beyond natural human attainment. When we see someone living out these principles at personal cost and without expectation of personal glory, we know we are seeing something uncommonly good—something, we might say, that is not of this world.
Sadly, though, these universally right principles—these pointers to perfect righteousness—are all too rarely lived out in true self-sacrifice. We treat everyone in our lives with consideration and care, so we like to think—but what is our attitude toward the slowcoach in the checkout queue when we are in a hurry? We deal with all people in a trustworthy manner, so we claim—but do we ever slacken off at work when the boss isn’t watching? Maybe we give money to a charity that helps people in need—but do we look the other way when such a person crosses our path?
Even if we mostly obey our inner principles of righteousness, in certain conditions we behave as if those principles don’t exist. And what do we say to ourselves about this? Quite possibly, nothing; we might not be watching, or perhaps we don’t care (enough). When we do experience a twinge of conscience, we have various ways of dispelling our unrest. We give a casual shrug of the shoulders and recite that old truism, ‘Nobody’s perfect’; or we increase our work rate to distract ourselves from our guilt; or we try to offset our bad behaviour with our good behaviour; or we compare ourselves with someone more blameworthy than us; or—somewhat shockingly—we cobble together a new principle or three to make our shortfall seem righteous. But no matter how hard we struggle to get ourselves off the hook, we only prove that we know we are on the hook. We are never more in need of a principle on which to hang our behaviour than when our behaviour is unprincipled.
The fact is, a set of enduring ethical principles is embedded in the human psyche—principles that we regularly violate. As such, we continually fall short of the righteousness that our better human nature tells us we’re supposed to live up to (Romans 3:23).
The Source of all righteousness
Our violations against our own principles of righteousness wouldn’t be a huge problem if God didn’t exist, for we would only have our conscience to answer to. But, as most of us suspect deep down, God does exist; moreover, He is keenly interested in how we live. He didn’t put us together in some haphazard fashion; He made us in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27; see also Genesis 5:1; 9:6), that we might pattern ourselves after His righteous character (Psalm 119:137; 145:17; Daniel 9:14; Revelation 15:4). His likeness within us is the basis of our moral fibre.
Yet our failure to behave according to our own moral convictions suggests that something is deeply wrong with us. The Bible pinpoints our shared human disorder: we have rejected God—the Source of our righteousness—and gone after a ‘righteousness’ of our own (Genesis 2:17; 3:6). And have we found it? Not even close. We have succeeded only in making ourselves unrighteous, and in the process disfigured our humanity. Yet still we trumpet the ‘virtues’ of our own ideas about life! Our lopsided philosophies and our pet platforms are very often the upgrowth of our collective dysfunction; they are poor expressions of God’s absolute standard, which endures forever and is the yardstick by which all humankind is measured. Are you good or bad? True or false? Self-giving or self-centred? Wholehearted, lukewarm or indifferent? Whatever the substance of your character, it is laid bare before the righteous Judge (2 Timothy 4:8; see also Psalm 7:11; 9:4) who sees all (Psalm 139:12).
A Day of Reckoning looms, when our true condition will be known and everything that hides in the darkness will be brought to light. But perhaps we can avoid judgement by embarking on a program of self-help? Or by praising and worshipping, fasting and praying, attending church and performing acts of service? Can any of these activities make us righteous on the inside? Can we, by our own effort, make ourselves good enough for God’s flawlessly righteous presence? The Bible is clear: certainly not (Ephesians 2:8-9; see also Galatians 2:21). When our lives are held up to the pure light of God’s morality, our professed ‘righteousness’ is exposed as a sham. We can make ourselves outwardly impressive, but our hearts are still blemished and blotchy. We have plunged into an unrighteous abyss out of which we are powerless to climb. As the days of our lives relentlessly tick down, the shadow of Judgement Day draws ever closer. It will surely claim each of us.
Unless the Bible’s whole message is true. Not just the ‘bad’ news that, in our natural selves, we are sinners unworthy of God’s pure presence; also the Good News (Gospel) that God, acting through His eternal Son, Jesus Christ, has poured out His mercy upon us. Though Jesus was righteous in Himself—the only human being ever to be so—He became our unrighteousness and crucified it in His own body, killing it off forever.
But Jesus wasn’t just a wise teacher who died and bequeathed His wisdom to the world for posterity. Astonishingly, He was raised by God’s Spirit to eternal life. And a little later, He was received into heaven. Though Jesus had died a death of shame, He had been proven righteous after all—so righteous that even God had welcomed Him into heavenly dwellings. The disciples understood and celebrated this, but they didn’t yet grasp the full extent of Jesus’ victory. Their eyes were opened, however, on an unforgettable morning in Jerusalem when God gifted them with His very own Spirit. Now they understood: it wasn’t merely Jesus who had been proven righteous through His resurrection and ascension; it was every person who believes in Him. Though we in ourselves continually fall short of God’s glory, we share fully in Christ’s righteousness—in His death to sin and in His eternal life. The apostle Paul put it this way: ‘God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). The key to our inclusion in Christ’s righteousness, very simply, is faith—a childlike trust in Jesus and in the God who sent and received Him. ‘Righteousness’ declared Paul, ‘is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe’ (Romans 3:22).
Faith, by which we are at one with Jesus, is created in us by means of His very own presence, the Holy Spirit. With God’s consecrated inner Self flourishing within our inner self, we are righteous through and through. We don’t always feel righteous, of course, because in this life we struggle with sin and can find ourselves drifting away from God. Soon enough, though, God gently awakens us to our malaise and we are moved to renew our relationship with Him. As we spend regular time in His care and seek His freely-available forgiveness, His presence within us becomes stronger and we can feel our righteousness returning. Even when we let go of God, He continues to hold on to us. Sin is temporal, but our eternally righteous identity in Christ is assured.
What a privilege it is, then, to let our righteousness—the light of Christ in us—shine before others in the doing of good deeds. When we put our righteousness to work in practical ways, we show the world around us what God is like—which is all He needs to glorify Himself in our lives (Matthew 5:16). Our righteous acts cannot save us, but the wonderful truth is that they don’t need to; they are the outward evidence that we are already saved.
So, let’s throw away our self-serving definitions of righteousness. Let’s open our eyes to our ideological blind spots, exercise care when expressing our opinion, and shun any earthly crowns that we may have presumed we were wearing. Instead, let’s seek God’s righteousness by humbly keeping company with His eternal Son. If we remain in close relationship with Jesus, the ultimate righteousness that we can never earn is ours as a free gift. Gone is any requirement to be righteous enough for God. Now we have the joy of showing the world who God is by performing righteous acts in His name.