What is righteousness?

The popular definition of righteousness is that it is the ability to stand before God without any sense of guilt, condemnation, fear, shame, or inferiority. While this statement is true, it is more about the effect of righteousness rather than its definition. For example, when we say God is righteous, do we mean that He has the ability to stand before God without guilt, …? No. Then what is righteousness? Righteousness simply means the state of being right, correct, upright, innocent, just, equitable, blameless, and not guilty. In our modern parlance, it would mean to be okay.

Furthermore, to be justified means to be declared righteous, vindicated, absolved of all blame, to be legitimized, and to be made righteous. This justification is the work of God on the basis of faith alone in the finished work of Christ; that is, putting faith in Jesus Christ as Savior.

The revelation of the righteousness of God is what gives the gospel power (Romans 1:16-17). The gospel is the revelation of the righteousness of God. If you don’t understand righteousness, you will have power issues when it comes to being able to lead the victorious Christian life. It is those that receive the gift of righteousness and abundance of grace that reign in life (Romans 1:16-17; Romans 5:17).

One major weapon that the devil uses against children of God is to confuse them about the subject of righteousness, perpetually keeping them in a place of ignorance, guilt, and condemnation. Another of his tricks is to attempt to keep believers in a place of continuous self-work, grinding out their righteousness in order to qualify and earn God’s favor and blessings. If the devil succeeds in keeping a Christian mired in guilt, condemnation, and sin-consciousness, he has defeated that Christian. However, righteousness is the remedy to sin and sin-consciousness, and this power that cures sin-consciousness is only found in the gospel. In His righteousness, God qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light (Colossians 1:12).

God always wanted to relate to man but due to man’s fallen state (Job 15:14; Job 25:4; Psalm 14:2-3; Psalm 51:5; Ecclesiastics 7:20; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10-12,20,23; Romans 5:12,19) and God’s standard of righteousness (Genesis 18:5; Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 11:7; Psalm 89:14; Psalm 119:137; Psalm 119:142; Psalm 129:4; Psalm 145:17; Isaiah 45:21; Jeremiah 12:1; John 17:25), man could not have this kind of fellowship with God.

Just redeeming man from the slavery of sin and the devil and granting him pardon would only take care of the problem to a certain degree by  bringing man to a neutral position. Imagine a convict that had been released from prison either because he was granted a state pardon or he had completed his prison term. No matter what happened thereafter, it could not be said that he never committed the offense.

However, God planned to do more than rescue and pardon. He justified man and declared him innocent and not guilty. How could this be, since the Bible says in Proverbs 17:15 that it is an abomination to God for the guilty to be justified and the innocent condemned? Even though man was ransomed from the prison of Satan and forgiven by God, it would still have been legitimate to say that he was an ex-convict, a redeemed transgressor, and a forgiven sinner. But God made a move that confounded His enemies and forever stifled every possible accusation. It wasn’t just that His Son took the place of the unrighteous man, but He crucified the man in Christ and recreated a new man in true righteousness and holiness at the raising of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 4:25; Ephesians 2:10; Ephesians 4:24) – a new man was born. This way, God could legally declare this new man righteous because he had never existed. He had never committed any sin. He is not an ex-convict. He is not a sinner saved by grace, but a new creation. This goes beyond redemption and forgiveness.

God gave the people of the Old a shadow of this type of righteousness. Although He had given them a law and told them to attain righteousness by the law, He knew that righteousness by law was an illusion; a mirage which could never be attained because none could perfectly keep the law to be able to attain it (Deuteronomy 6:25; Leviticus 18:5; Ezekiel 20:11; Romans 10:5; Philippians 3:9). Thus, God gave them a provision to obtain temporary righteousness by the blood of animals, which they had to renew yearly, and which was only a shadow and a promissory note on the account of that which was to come. However, the prophets prophesied of a time when man would have the righteousness of God not just as a temporary basis to approach God but as his permanent state (Isaiah 45:24-25; Isaiah 46:13; Isaiah 51:5; Isaiah 54:14-17; Isaiah 61:10). This kind of righteousness would not be by works, but instead by faith in the work of Christ and another, and would impart into man a nature that would inherently make him be able to stand before God without any sense of guilt, shame, inferiority, fear, or sin.

Paul, in his gospel, declared that this prophecy was fulfilled in Christ, and so the new creation was recreated in righteousness (Ephesians 4:24). Further, the Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:21 NASB “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” In his writings, Paul wanted believers to know that this type of righteousness was different and could not be attained through the human effort of keeping the law (Philippians 3:3-9 NIV). Instead, this righteousness is by faith alone, the faith of the Son of God (Galatians 2:20; Hebrews 12:2). It is by grace that we have been made righteous for free (Romans 3:24).

The righteousness of God is about who you have become (your new nature, your core, your essence), and not about what you did or did not do. It is a gift. If you did not work for it to receive it, you don’t work for it to keep it. It is independent of you and the events of your life. Righteousness has nothing to do with our behavior or performance, and it is not a wage that is earned. It is a gift, free and complete. It can’t be added or improved upon either by God or man (Romans 3:22 NIV; Romans 4:3-4; Romans 5:15,17,21; Romans 8:3-4; Romans 9:30; Romans 10:3-6; 1 Corinthians 1:30; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Galatians 2:21, 16; Galatians 3:6,11; Ephesians 4:24).

Awake to the reality that you are righteous. Become righteousness-minded (1 Corinthians 15:34), submit yourself to that righteousness (Romans 10:3), and believe and speak your righteousness (Romans 10:6-8). There is no more condemnation to you, believer (Romans 8:1).

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