If you were part of a conversation on the Tri-City Gardeners Facebook Group and you saw that I wrote, “Yeah those crazy Virginia Creepers and Morning Glories. Turn your back on them for 5 minutes and they just take over,” you would understand what I was talking about if you were from the Tri-Cities in Washington State. You would know how fast they grow and how much diligence it takes to keep them in check.
You would also know that I was exaggerating.
Since you would be familiar with our culture you would know these vines are a menace but you wouldn’t for a minute think I was being literal. If you happened to be into theology you might even recognize my statement as hyperbole, which is exaggeration for effect.
But for some reason we take Paul’s statement in Romans 3:20 literally when he said, “There is no one righteous, not even one,” even though we have limited to no knowledge at all of the culture of his audience 2000 years ago.
Why is that?
Is it because our itching ears so want to hear things in a way which confirms our bias that only people from our Christian “club” are saved and everyone else is damned?
There are going to be different answers for different people but seems to be a very prevalent answer to why we choose to take some scriptures literally such as Romans 3:20 and apply them to the whole human race while we take others and apply them to only Christians, such as the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Mt. 5:9)
There Were None Righteous in This Baptist Student Group
A group of young men from the local Baptist megachurch were at Starbucks having a Bible study. As they broke up and were preparing to leave I told them I was writing a book on salvation and asked if they would do a survey to which they gladly replied they would. My question to them was this: “If you were the same person you are today but didn’t know anything about Jesus Christ would you consider yourself to be a righteous person?” Predictably, the unanimous answer was “no”.
Well indoctrinated these lads.
Some tried to explain their answer to me by quoting the bible verses which said, “My righteousness is as filthy rags,” and of course “There are none righteous, no, not one.” The only reason they believe they are righteous at all is because they have faith in Jesus Christ and that is what makes them righteous, in the eyes of God. In their view if it were up to their conduct to determine their righteousness even the best of them would fail the test and their eternal destination would be in Hell rather than in Heaven.
And yet everyone knows a good person who is not a Christian who has died or will die and we have a hard time imagining not seeing that person in Heaven when we die, especially when that person is better than the ones we go to church with. We have been told that apart from faith in Christ, nobody is good enough for God and will end up in eternal Hell, as hard as it is to understand why God would do such a thing.
Wouldn’t it be marvelous to understand the scriptures to be saying to us that that person is good enough for God? That’s what this chapter is about, being able to see good fruit on the tree of one’s life and understand that the tree is good just as Jesus said (Lk. 6:43-45), and being able to have the same outlook Solomon had who said, “A good man obtains favor from the Lord, but the Lord condemns a crafty man,” (Proverbs 12:2) and, “The disloyal one will get what his conduct deserves, and a good one, what his deeds deserve.” (Proverbs 14:14) Or have the same hope of God’s favor for good people as David who asked God to, “Do good, O Lord, to those who are good, to those who are upright in heart.” (Psalm 125:4) They all saw good people around them and expected good things for them because of it.
This wasn’t wishful thinking.
We Are Doomed They Say
All salvation theology hinges on how we think God views mankind. If we think God has a negative opinion of mankind, we will try to solve this “problem”. If we think God has a positive opinion of mankind we will think it’s hard to do something to change God’s opinion of anyone.
Nobody more than Paul is seen as a supposed proponent of God’s dim view of mankind but his purpose in writing his polemics was not to condemn the human race. In fact, the only person in the bible to try to do that, other than when God was about to send Noah’s Flood, was one of Job’s Comforters. Job’s Comforters are infamous for teaching bad theology so it’s not a good idea to get our cues from them.
From my experience Romans 3:10 is the scripture that is the most often used as a “proof text” for the idea that nobody can by their own efforts be good enough to stand before a holy God and be accepted by him into everlasting life. It is usually the first scripture raised to counter the idea of Salvation by Being Good.
It is a fairly common belief, even among the 90% of Christians who are not Calvinists, that if man’s righteousness is the criteria by which God judges then we are all doomed.
In short, this is the problem to which the modern “Gospel” is the solution. Remove that problem, and then Jesus’ crucifixion must be to solve a different problem. “Jesus died for your sins,” must mean something else if all of our sins don’t condemn us to Hell. At another time I’ll be devoting a post to answer the question of why Jesus died on the cross.
Since Evangelical Soteriology is based on solving this problem then for them God must provide another way for humans to be considered right with God or he is obligated by his own nature to keep us out of his pure and holy presence. That way that God provided is Jesus shedding his blood on a cross and our faith in that. Solution offered, problem solved.
In God’s economy, so the common narrative goes, Christ’s righteousness is transferred to us so that instead of seeing our filthy rags God sees a righteous person, the righteousness of the only human who has ever lived a sinless life. This is a misunderstanding of the biblical concept of “imputation” that will be addressed in a separate post as well.
There are numerous problems with this view in light of all that scripture has to say about it but let’s just focus for now on what Romans 3:10 says and why Paul wrote it in the first place, and then look at the numerous scriptures that contradict Romans 3:10 if we are to take it at face value as is commonly done, scriptures that show that man’s righteousness is not only acceptable to God but expected of us. Let’s see if this problem of Universal Condemnation is real or just a sloppy interpretation of Romans 3:10.
One Way to End Up With Universal Condemnation
Paul is quoting the Old Testament to make a point in Romans 3:10, and without looking at the context it is easy to assume that Paul’s intention is to condemn the whole human race as not measuring up to God’s holy standard of righteousness. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Rom. 3:23) is often quoted in conjunction with this verse to hammer home a doctrine of Universal Condemnation, even though that verse says absolutely nothing about the consequences of sin. “The wages of sin is death,” (Rom. 6:23) is then used as a proof text to demonstrate what the consequences of sin are, though rarely is any attempt made to explain what kind of death is meant, when that death happens, who experiences it and to what degree, or if there is any difference between different sins as to the outcome of a final judgement. All sin is treated the same, the one who lusts is no different than the one who kills, stealing a cookie from your mother’s cookie jar is no different than raiding a company retirement account leaving thousands with nothing, and it is just assumed that that means Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT), at least by those who believe in ECT. It is assumed that this must be the truth because James weighs in saying, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (Jms. 2:10) James then becomes one of the proponents of a narrative that says the purpose of the Law which was added several hundred years after Abraham was to condemn every single person, even for the slightest of sins.
So there you have it. I just provided you with four verses from Romans and James that if strung together like I did must invariably lead anyone with an IQ higher than room temperature and spiritual discernment better than that of a toad’s – two standards some say I have yet to reach – to believe in Universal Condemnation. I just did Evangelical apologists, of which I was at one time, a big favor. Never mind the fact that someone in the church at Rome who was being read the letter to the Romans (most people were illiterate in those days so had to have someone read this stuff to them) would not be aware of the letter from James circulating at the other end of the Mediterranean, because James had not even written it yet!
You can’t construct a theology without the building materials, so until all of the scriptures were available to the church at Rome they couldn’t possibly come to the same conclusion as someone who had just been handed the book of James, or any other book dealing with salvation, written decades later. That would be like building a brick house without the bricks. Not only that, when the last book of the Bible was written it would be another 300 years before the church would come to any consensus on which books circulating around the Mediterranean would be in our Bibles. None of the churches Paul wrote to had the same script to work from to develop a constructed theology. And yet we insist that our conclusions after having access to all of these writings 2000 years later are the same conclusions a church leader in 58 AD would come to after having the book of Romans delivered to him. Nobody would possibly have strung those four verses together. Or even if they had they wouldn’t have been led to believe in Universal Condemnation. They would have understood the reason for those scriptures.
Before we dive into why Paul didn’t write Romans 3:10 and why he did, let’s take a look at some scriptures that will serve as an antidote to the idea that we are all bad. This will help alleviate trying to rationalize the justice of God when we errantly condone the injustice of God making us the way we are and then condemning us for something we have no control over. We already looked at some scriptures that show God’s heart in wanting to bless good people, let’s take a look at what the scriptures say about the human nature with which God created us.
God Has Made Us To Be Good, Righteous, and Upright
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. (Gen. 1:26,30)
That was before the Fall. What does God say about man after the Fall?
Writing about the ruthless King of Tyre, Ezekiel says:
“You were blameless in your ways, from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you.” (Ez. 28:18)
After a long life of observing mankind Solomon said:
“See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” (Ecc. 7:29)
Paul tells us that there are people who naturally do good, and their goodness will be rewarded with eternal life, while others who choose to do evil will be judged:
When Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts. (Romans 2:13-15)
For [God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Romans 2:6-9)
It’s safe to conclude that though we are sinners God has high regard for how he has made us, as long as we live according to the way he has made us rather than living unrighteously, self-seeking, and seeking out schemes to harm others.
There Are No Good and Noble People – Except For Those Who Accepted Jesus
There are a few scriptures that might suggest no humans are good, but we can’t read those in isolation from the scriptures which say the opposite. It would be better to read those as isolated assessments of humanity, or better a localized assessment of some society, not the whole human race. Some of those assessments are leveled at a prophet’s own countrymen of his own time, one of those prophets being Jesus, but even Jesus recognized the good and noble people of his day:
But the seeds on good soil are those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, cling to it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Lk. 8:15)
He’s talking about the many who accepted his teaching and the portion of those who stuck with him when others left. They ended up getting Spirit filled on the day of Pentecost and multiplied themselves by growing the church, thus producing a crop.
Back to the reason why it is not the case that “there are none righteous, no, not one”.
“There is No One Righteous, Not Even One” – Is Exaggeration
We know it wasn’t a blanket denunciation because it’s obviously hyperbole, which is exaggeration for effect. The Bible is full of it. Here are a few examples of hyperbole:
What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self? (Luke 9:25)
The king [Solomon] made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills. (2 Chr. 1:15)
So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (Jn. 12:19)
“There is no one righteous, not even one,” is hyperbole meant for Israel. It’s not meant to be literal and applied to the whole human race. How do we know? There are at least nine things that lead us to this conclusion, the first three can be found right in the context, the other six are because of other things said elsewhere, even by Paul himself. Here are the nine reasons it’s not meant to be literal and applied to the whole human race:
- It’s only part of a larger description which can’t be applied to all of humanity:
Let’s take a look at the whole description:
We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Yikes! Notice one of the descriptions of these people is, “their feet are swift to shed blood.” As you can see from just reading the passage it’s a patently ridiculous idea to think Paul meant this as a literal condemnation for the whole human race and everyone who has ever lived. Maybe your in-laws’ family gatherings perhaps but not everybody on the whole planet!
I think if I found myself in this society I’d shoot the travel editor who thought this place was somewhere anyone would want to visit. I mean literally shoot the guy because if this passage literally applies to me then my feet would literally be swift to shed blood and I literally wouldn’t give it a second thought!
What if the kids in your church’s youth group which actively invites non-Christians to the group had “Feet Swift to Shed Blood” printed on the back of their t-shirts and they told you, “Yeah, that’s most of us because most of us aren’t Christians.”? What would you think of that group? Would you let your kids go to their meetings with that bloody, murderous lot?
Or better yet, what if they printed the above passage on their t-shirts followed by, “DOES THIS DESCRIBE ANYONE YOU KNOW?” Most people couldn’t think of anyone they know which fits this description in which case they’d be hard pressed to apply it to all of humanity, as written. And yet that’s exactly what we’ve done.
2) A second reason to believe Romans 3:10 is hyperbole not meant to be taken as literal for all societies is because of what follows in verse 19:
Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.
Ahah! See Kirby, right there it says this was written so the whole world would be held accountable to God!”
Not so fast. The whole world wasn’t under the law, only the Jewish world was. The Greek word for “world” is “kosmos” which is any orderly arrangement of things. Elsewhere in scripture it is used for the Greek speaking world or the Roman Empire. Paul specifically says this is for the Jews of whom he took issue, as they are the only ones under the Law, and I would add, it was not meant for the good Jews, just the hypocrites. Paul would have no issue with righteous lawkeeping Jews like John the Baptist’s parents of whom it is said, “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” Obviously, when it says it was said “to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced” it does not apply to Elizabeth and Zechariah, or the multitude of others like them who were righteous.
Notice also it says “whatever the law says, it SAYS to those who are under the law.” Who else was reading what was written in the Old Testament? It doesn’t SAY anything to people who aren’t reading it. It was said for the Jews to read, not the Aborigines in Australia or the Bedouins in Bahrain.
As Barnes puts it in Barnes’ Notes, “The point, then, is to prove the depravity of the Jews, not that of universal depravity. The interpretation should be confined to the bearing of the passages on the Jews, and the quotations should not be adduced as directly proving the doctrine of universal depravity.”
3) A third reason Romans 3:10 is not a blanket condemnation of all humanity is laid out right from the beginning in the previous verse:
We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin.”
In other words, Paul is applying the passage to Jews only in an attempt to level the playing field with regard to how the Jews viewed themselves compared to how they viewed the Gentiles. The Jews had a wrong self-image that made them think of themselves as better than the Gentiles. Paul is coming against that holier-than-thou attitude, knocking them off their high-horses, so to speak.
Many conclude that since they were all “concluded under sin” that Paul was condemning them to eternal damnation but again, that’s not his argument. He is merely pointing out to a people who thought they were sinless that they were not. If Paul can just get the proud, hypocritical and wicked Jews to understand they are sinners just like the Gentiles they look down on then he would consider that Mission Accomplished for his epistle.
Compare that with today’s Christians who think that God views them as sinless and righteous, the righteousness of Christ having been “imputed” to them because of what they believe, yet all the while not caring about their conduct, some even living in wickedness. If you’re involved in jail ministry you may have encountered people who live to harm others for their own selfish needs but believe they are Christians. It’s the same deception. It’s almost as if Paul is anticipating one of the consequences of a wrong understanding of imputation that we see today.
The Jews thought that since they are descendants of the giants of the faith, especially Abraham and Israel, and that it was to them that the one God of the universe entrusted the Torah (Law) and blessed them with prophets, mighty kings, and miraculous and glorious leading into a Promised Land, that their conduct didn’t really matter. They could behave themselves any way they wanted, or misbehave, with impunity. They were Functional Atheists because in their day to be an atheist meant to believe they are not accountable to any God. Meanwhile, the Gentiles could be saints and to the wicked Jews that wouldn’t make any difference to God in the Judgement because they were not heirs of the promises and hadn’t been following the Law of God. At the end of their day God is good with bad Jews and not good with good Gentiles.
Does this sound familiar? Isn’t that the same as Evangelical theology that says bad people will be forgiven as long as they become Christians and even the best non-Christian in the world is toast on Judgement Day?
4) The fourth reason to take that passage as non-literal is that it doesn’t even apply to Israel at all times in her history. At least one prophet of God was told the opposite by God concerning God’s people. Jeremiah was told in the following that the Exile would soften them so they would seek God, contrary to an overly literalistic reading of Romans which indicates no one seeks God. Here’s what God promised through Jeremiah:
“This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years [of exile] are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (Jer. 29:10-14)
The verses that follow in Jeremiah tell us the evil being committed by God’s people, how they would not listen to their Lord but be more than willing to listen to the false prophets in their midst. But this was a description of a temporary condition that would change during Israel’s exile in Babylon. The 70 years of exile would make Israel not only open and listening to God but actively seeking him out, contrary to what Paul quoted in Romans which describes Israel at other times. Romans 3:10 describes Israel at one time in her history, but not all times. To apply Romans 3:10 to everyone at all times makes Jeremiah out to be a liar.
5) A fifth reason to take that passage as non-literal is because Paul said that God established where nations would dwell so that they would seek God, and even find him, because He is not far from anyone:
From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone– an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. (Acts 17:26-30)
If Paul meant to apply Romans 3:10 to the whole human race then he would be contradicting himself in Acts 17:26-30.
6) A sixth reason to not take that passage as a blanket condemnation of all of humanity is because that would ignore and negate the forgiving nature of God who overlooks sins. Notice how in Acts quoted just above that God overlooked the ignorance of the idolaters. If Paul meant, “there are none righteous” to condemn all of humanity then he would not be saying elsewhere that God overlooks any sin at all, especially for long periods of human history.
7) A seventh reason to believe Rom. 3:10 is hyperbole is that it follows a common pattern seen in other prophetic writings in the Old Testament from which Paul is making reference. For example, when a prophet like Isaiah is explaining why Israel will suffer judgement he will quite often word it in the extreme:
For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry. (Is. 5:7)
Doesn’t that sound like he looked and couldn’t find anyone righteous? Yet just a few verses later he says,
Woe unto them…which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him! (Is. 5:23)
Wait what? How is it possible for the wicked to take away the righteousness of the righteous if “none are righteous, no not one” which Paul quoted from elsewhere in the Old Testament, if that is to be taken at face value and applied universally?
Perhaps the prophets of old should have gotten together and shared notes before speaking?
Nah, we just need to do our job and harmonize the scriptures so they actually make sense. It’s really not that hard to do. If we are willing to abandon our theological biases when confronted with new scriptural evidence, that is.
Tradition dies hard, doesn’t it?
8) An eighth reason to believe Rom. 3:10 is hyperbole is because of how St. John defines a righteous person:
“He who does righteousness is righteous.” (1 Jn. 3:7)
John didn’t say a righteous person is one who believes the Gospel, he said it is someone who acts righteously, with no hint that he was trying to prove that it can’t be done, as many Christians today allege. If anything he is encouraging people to actually act righteously, not telling them it can’t be done.
9) A ninth reason to believe Rom. 3:10 is hyperbole are the numerous scriptures that detail who is righteous and why they are righteous, which is because of what they do, not what they believe. If there are actually none righteous then these biblical authors didn’t get the memo. Let’s take a look at some of them.
All the Saints Who Were Considered Righteous Because of Their Conduct
Here’s a partial list of those who were considered righteous before God. First, I’ll list those who may have or did have a connection with God, and therefor may have had some sort of faith, but notice it wasn’t their faith that was mentioned here as a reason why they were considered righteous. It was their conduct.
We will follow this by descriptions of righteousness that could be applied to anyone on the planet irrespective of his faith or lack thereof to show even more conclusively that righteousness is based on conduct, not faith:
Abel: Not as Cain, who was of that wicked one, and slew his brother. And wherefore slew he him? Because his own works were evil, and his brother’s righteous. (1 Jn. 3:12)
Noah: Before Noah was called to build the ark the Bible says this about him, “This is the account of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked with God.” (Gen. 6:9) He was blameless, no doubt, because he walked with God. He acted in a way where God and others could find fault in his actions. Unlike his peers, he believed he would be accountable to God for his conduct, and lived his life accordingly. If he had not been blameless, he would not have been considered a righteous man.
Abraham: “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?” (Jms. 2:21) I submit that Abraham was already a righteous person long before he was willing to offer his son, and that is why he was willing. James is simply pointing out one time that demonstrated his righteousness because it served the purpose of his argument. He could also have mentioned the fact he obeyed God to leave Ur of the Chaldees and go “to a land which I will show you.” His obedience to sacrifice didn’t make him righteous, he was obedient because he was righteous.
Lot: “He rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men, for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard.” (2 Pet. 2:7-8)
Noah, Daniel, and Job: “Even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord God.” (Ezek. 14:14, see also vs. 20 and 2 Pet. 2:5)
David considered himself one of the righteous ones that God judges favorably. “Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end; but establish the just: for the righteous God tries the hearts and reins. My defense is of God, which saves the upright in heart. God judges the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day. (Ps. 7:9) Paul should have shown up in history quite a bit earlier to inform David that “no one is righteous,” right?
David lays out many times an oft repeated theme, repeated elsewhere in scripture as light vs. dark, sheep vs. goats, wheat vs. weeds, good vs. bad, born from above vs. born from below, and walking in the Spirit vs. walking in the flesh. Every single time, without exception, the difference between the two is conduct. It’s never about belief, in and of itself.
In the Psalms, David, as do others in other places in scripture, makes the same contrast: the righteous vs. the wicked, with behavior as the defining factor:
“The LORD tries the righteous: but the wicked and him that loves violence his soul hates.” (Ps. 11:5)
“The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry. The face of the LORD is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.” (Ps. 34:15)
“A little that a righteous man has is better than the riches of many wicked.” (Ps. 37:16)
There is no indication that David thought he was the only righteous person in Israel. He fully expected a plethora of others to be counted in that number:
“Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, you righteous: and shout for joy, all you that are upright in heart.” (Ps. 32:11)
“Bring my soul out of prison, that I may praise thy name: the righteous shall compass me about; for thou shalt deal bountifully with me.” (Ps. 142:7)
“All the horns of the wicked also will I cut off; but the horns of the righteous shall be exalted.” (Ps. 75:10)
David sang to the Lord the words of this song when the Lord delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul:
“The LORD has dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he has rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the Lord; I have not done evil by turning from my God. All his laws are before me; I have not turned away from his decrees. I have been blameless before him and have kept myself from sin. The LORD has rewarded me according to my righteousness, according to my cleanness in his sight. ‘To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the crooked you show yourself shrewd.'” (2 Samuel 22:1, 21-27)
The city of Jerusalem before it went bad: “How is the faithful city become an harlot! It was full of judgment; righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers.” (Isaiah 1:21)
Those who freed their slaves: Though it doesn’t say they were righteous, God does say through his prophet in Jeremiah 34:13 that they did right by freeing their slaves: “Recently you repented and did what is right in my sight: Each of you proclaimed freedom to his countrymen.” Someone who does what is right is the very definition of a righteous person according to 1 John 3:7.
The righteous Israelites of Ezekiel 18:
“Suppose there is a righteous man who does what is just and right. He does not eat at the mountain shrines or look to the idols of the house of Israel. He does not defile his neighbor’s wife or lie with a woman during her period. He does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked. He does not lend at usury or take excessive interest. He withholds his hand from doing wrong and judges fairly between man and man. He follows my decrees and faithfully keeps my laws. That man is righteous; he will surely live, declares the Sovereign LORD.” (Ezekiel 18:5-9)
There is no way on God’s Green Earth that Ezekiel thinks nobody can be righteous. If he actually thought that, he would be destroying his own idea by what he wrote. How so? In this chapter Ezekiel is trying to make the point that people do not get judged for what their parents have done. “The soul who sins is the one who will die,” he says in vs. 4. To make this more clear he lays out a righteous grandfather, his unrighteous son, and his righteous grandson, each will be judged for his own actions, not his father’s. He concludes that because God is righteous God will also honor the repentance of the unrighteous, saying:
The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him (aka, imputed to him), and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him. “But if a wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed and keeps all my decrees and does what is just and right, he will surely live; he will not die. None of the offenses he has committed will be remembered against him. Because of the righteous things he has done, he will live. Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:20-23)
This is about as clear as it gets that God wants people to be righteous and yes, people can be righteous, like the grandfather and the grandson, and the unrighteous son can also be righteous if he were to just act like his father and his son who were righteous.
Winners in cases brought before God at the temple: In 1 Kings 8:32 Solomon expected a positive outcome for the righteous when God heard from heaven and judged between the wicked and the righteous. He prayed that God would condemn the wicked and justify the righteous, giving to him according to his righteousness. If he thought his righteousness was as filthy rags he wouldn’t want God to judge between him and others. Inviting that would be to invite destruction for his soul. See also 2 Chr. 6:23.
Closer to Christ, right on the eve of the New Covenant we see this:
Simeon: “Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. (Lk. 2:25)
John the Baptist’s parents: “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.” (Lk. 1:6)
Wait, what? Wasn’t the Law given precisely to show people that they could not possibly be righteous by following the Law so that they would see their need for a Savior? Isn’t that what Paul told us in Gal. 3:21 when he said, “Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law”?
Luke has no excuse for including this in his Gospel since Galatians was written first, right?
It will take a whole commentary on Galatians to sort this one out but for now let’s stay with the plain words of Luke and we’ll dissect Galatians at another time.
All of the Other People in the Bible Who Were Considered Righteous – and Why They Were
If you still need convincing that righteousness is defined by conduct and not by faith please observe all these descriptions of righteous people, and how many of them there must have been. These descriptions apply to anyone irrespective of his faith, so it can’t be that one must have faith to be righteous:
Those who don’t give bribes: In Exodus 23:8 a bribe is described as an injustice for the righteous. Why? Because those who would otherwise be the best people to secure a government contract, for example, who are called “righteous”, are cheated out of that contract by an unrighteous person who happens to have enough money to bribe the official who decides who gets the contract.
Officials who don’t take bribes: Deuteronomy 16:19 says that a bribe “perverts the words of the righteous.” Instead of doing the right thing (acting righteously), an official accepting a bribe says what he has been paid to say, going against what he knows to be right. A righteous official, one who does not accept bribes, will not have his better judgement perverted by a bribe.
Everyone who has hope in his death because he is righteous: “The wicked is driven away in his wickedness, but the righteous has hope in his death.” (Pr. 14:32)
Would Solomon agree that nobody has hope in his death unless he also has faith? Would Paul argue with Solomon?
Winners in a lawsuit before Judges: Deuteronomy 25:10 describes the job of a judge: to condemn the wicked, and justify the righteous. If there are “none righteous, not even one,” then all the judges of the world getting paid the big bucks sure have any easy job: condemn everyone who comes before them. It wouldn’t take a law degree to declare that none are righteous. High school kids working for minimum wage could do that if there are no righteous to justify.
If you’ve watched Judge Judy you may not have thought of it in these terms but for each case you see one righteous party and one unrighteous party, and both you and the Judge are trying to filter through the lies to figure out which one is which. You would no doubt think it to be silly if the unfair landlord or irresponsible tenant were to say, “Hey, I’m a Christian, that makes me the righteous one here.” You and everyone else, including the author of Deuteronomy, knows intuitively that the only one who is righteous is the one who acts righteously.
Everyone who is not wicked: The righteous are over and over again contrasted with the wicked. If we are to believe that righteousness can only come by way of faith, then these scriptures just don’t fit because they are describing the righteous in many societies throughout world history:
The wicked man flees though no one pursues, but the righteous are as bold as a lion. (Pr. 28:1)
I guess if there are none righteous then we are all a bunch of pussycats scared of our own shadows.
Please note, the righteous are rarely contrasted with those who are not believers, but when they are, it is always in the context of unbelievers who don’t think they are accountable to God for their actions, and so think they can live wickedly with impunity. Mere atheism, with no mention of the wickedness of the atheist, is never discussed in the scriptures.
Those who promote an effective justice system with lack of destruction, violence, and conflict, i.e.: the ones who don’t pervert justice: “Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.” (Habakkuk 1:3-4) That sounds like Mexico where the cartels intimidate the police and judges, wouldn’t you say? Yet there are those who are the righteous ones being hemmed in by the wicked and do seek a just system.
The victims of a despotic regime: “Can a corrupt throne be allied with you– one that brings on misery by its decrees? They band together against the righteous and condemn the innocent to death.” (Ps. 94:20-21)
A good man who shows favor to others: “A good man shows favor, and lends: he will guide his affairs with discretion. Surely he shall not be moved for ever: the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance.” (Ps. 112:5-6)
Righteousness is the normal state of humanity. You don’t have to be “blood covered” to be considered righteous before our holy God. You don’t have to have Jesus’ righteousness “inputed” to you. (See what I did there?) The scriptures tell us of man’s righteousness even more than it tells us about God’s righteousness.
All of these people prior to Christ that I quoted above finding favor with God because of their conduct! Can there be any doubt that righteousness is contrasted with wickedness, not with lack of belief, and is based on one’s behavior rather than on one’s “status” before God based on his faith?
Did this somehow change with the advent of Christ so that now righteous people are no longer righteous unless they also have knowledge of and faith in Christ? Did the righteousness of the people living at the time of Christ suddenly become “filthy rags” when Jesus rose from the dead, so then they are condemned before a holy God instead of being favored by God? Wasn’t Jesus’ ministry designed to bring more people into the Kingdom of Heaven, not less?
If that’s what we are supposed to believe for some unknown reason the apostle John didn’t get that memo, or didn’t understand Paul if he did. Even in the latter half of the 1st Century, by some the last letters written in the New Testament, he was still saying a righteous person is one who does the right thing:
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. (1 John 3:7)
Alright Brother John. I’m not going to let Calvinists, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, or even Protestants in general lead me astray who tell me nobody can be good enough on his own efforts to stand before a holy God and get a favorable hearing based on his own human righteousness. I’ll raise my hand and tell them to “talk to the hand.”
In addition, this same John in his Apocalypse describes the robe that the Bride of Christ dresses herself with, saying, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” Notice how she has to do something to be clothed with this robe. It wasn’t just thrown about a passive participant. She had to put it on. And just so we don’t miss the symbolism – it’s too bad John doesn’t do this with all of the symbols in the Apocalypse – he tells us just what the robe symbolizes: “Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.” (Rev. 19:7-8) Once again, John is telling us that righteousness is defined by what we do, not by our status granted because of our beliefs, and this time he’s passing along a message he was given while he was taken up to Heaven!
So what does a righteous person look like according to the scriptures? Is he described as a believer or as a doer?
Did Paul preach something different?
No, not at all. Paul also confirmed that the way to righteousness and salvation is by way of conduct:
To the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. (Acts 26:20)
For [God] will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. (Romans 2:6-9)
If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? (Romans 2:26)
The Evangelical narrative divides the human race into three categories:
- Those without faith, whether (experientially) righteous or not = unsaved
- Those who think they have faith but are wicked = unsaved
- Those who are righteous because they have faith = saved
The Scriptures divide the human race into two categories marked by conduct:
- Unrighteous (wicked) = unsaved
- Righteous = saved
The purpose of the Gospel is so that the unrighteous would become righteous, and the righteous would become like Christ. Because our status before God is based on conduct – whether we live righteously or wickedly – faith in Christ is meant to change our behavior, which will change our status, if our behavior disqualifies us from a good standing before God in the first place.
Where Christians get confused is seeing “righteousness by faith” as a change in status, evidenced by good conduct, rather than simply a change in conduct because of or enhanced by faith. This is the product of the Reformation understanding that based on conduct only, no man is righteous enough for God. Everyone, no matter how good they may be, is unrighteous, they say.
Those who accept this premise of Universal Condemnation to Hell – Because Human, as I like to call it, view all of the above scriptures detailing righteousness in a way where either it’s the evidence of faith or it’s not good enough to God apart from faith.
According to the Bible, righteousness is defined as good conduct, and human righteousness is good enough for God. Romans 3:20 does not say otherwise.
Is there even such a thing as righteousness granted on the basis of faith alone, commonly called “imputed righteousness”? In short, the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to a believer is nothing more than the believer living his life according to the words and example of Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Until the believer has done that, nothing has been imputed, and he doesn’t have any kind of righteousness at all. He is not a righteous person if his conduct is unrighteous. The unrighteous Christian has something to fear when standing before God, while the righteous non-Christian has nothing to fear.
This imputed righteousness will require another post to explain.
You might also be interested in other chapters of my book which I have posted such as: