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“How righteous are you?”
That’s a question I ask from time to time. The answers I receive are predictable. “Well, I try. Hopefully I have some righteousness. I know I’ve done a lot of wrong things, but I’ve done some good things, too.” It’s a question that makes believers squirm. We have been trained to think of ourselves as unrighteous. In many churches, believers are told how their sins separate them from God and they have to repent in order to be forgiven. Then they are led in a prayer, asking God for forgiveness. But they know it will never hold. Next week they will have to do it again.
So, how righteous are you?
Do you get a little squirt of righteousness each Sunday and try to live on that for a week? Are you trying to do good things so that the righteousness in you will outweigh the unrighteousness? Are you hoping that no one will see the wickedness in your life and you can just somehow slip into Heaven unnoticed? Or are you expecting a good scolding and some temporary punishment when you get to those pearly gates? Christians have all kinds of strange ideas, and almost all of those ideas come from bad teaching.
Ready for an answer?
“How righteous are you?”
“I am as righteous as Jesus!”
WHOA! How can you say that? Jesus was perfectly righteous. He never did anything wrong. He never sinned. He always did right. Everything Jesus did pleased the Father. How could anyone say that he or she is as righteous as Jesus?
Then out come the verses:
“For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God…”
“There is none righteous, no not one…”
“All we like sheep have gone astray…”
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves…”
And all of these verses are true, and I believe all of them. But that’s what we were, not what we are. Yes, we have all sinned and fallen short. No debate. It is true that no one, save Jesus, is without sin and righteous on his or her own. No argument on that. If we say that we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves. That’s true also. Those statements are about what used to be and what would still be true if we were apart from Christ.
But we are not apart from Christ. We have been washed and sanctified and justified (1 Cor 6:11). We have been cleansed of all sin (1 John 1:7). We have been forgiven (1 John 2:12). In Jesus, all these things are true of us.
In the Bible, the concept of righteousness is portrayed as an account sheet. Sins are listed as negative, I presume; while good works are listed as positives. We have a couple of problems. There are so many sins that our good works will never catch up. Then, even our good works are so often compromised by our sins. We do things we want to do and in the way we want and for the people we want. So few good works are truly pure, without the stain of sin in themselves. And more, even those few good things we do that are actually close to selfless are not truly our work, but the work of Jesus in us and through us. All of that means that our moral account is in pretty bad shape. Not even close to righteous.
The theological word connected to all of this is “imputed.” To impute something is to give it to another. In the Bible, this particularly refers to moral or spiritual accountability. And righteousness is imputed, given to us from outside of us. The only righteousness we have is imputed righteousness.
So the gospel teaches us that Jesus, who was perfectly righteous in Himself, washed away our unrighteousness by His sacrifice for us on the cross and granted to us His own righteousness. So Paul says:
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. 2 Corinthians 5:21
We become the “righteousness of God.” Even about himself, Paul says that his only goal in life is to be found in Christ:
…not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith Philippians 3:9
In other words, if you were to ask Paul how righteous he was, he would tell you about the righteousness of Christ in him. Why? Because there was no other righteousness in him.
So here you go. Apart from Christ, no one is righteous. But those who have come to Him for salvation by faith are not apart from Him. In Him, you have His righteousness. Because He is in you and you are in Him, His righteousness is your righteousness.
How righteous are you? If you belong to Jesus, you are as righteous as He is. That’s the message of grace!