Self-righteousness has gotten a bad rap in modern theology. This is because we have taken something that is not only good but expected of us, which is making ourselves righteous by our own efforts, and attached to that the name we have also attached to an attitude problem to which Jesus, Paul, and others in our Bibles took issue. So instead of self-righteousness being only a smug or arrogant feeling of superiority toward others who just don’t measure up, or a deception where people who think they measure up to God’s standards because of their religious practices while all the while failing to be even decent human beings, the term has come to be a pejorative for anyone who thinks he can without faith in Christ measure up to God’s holy standard.
At the expense of sounding like a Catholic apologist, I’m going to blame this one on my hero Martin Luther. He’s still one of my heroes for standing up to corrupt authority but I’ve come to disagree with his theology.
Martin Luther puts things rather emphatically:
The most damnable and pernicious heresy that has ever plagued the mind of man is the idea that somehow he could make himself good enough to deserve to live with an all-holy God.
This is so ingrained in Christian thinking that anyone who is not a believer in Jesus Christ who thinks he can generate within himself a righteousness that will be acceptable to God is considered to be “self-righteous.”
Recently I got to see Martin Luther’s Door in Wittenberg, the one where he posted his 95 Theses which marked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, on the 500 year anniversary of him posting it. Well alright, technically it wasn’t the actual door since that door had been replaced a couple hundred years ago, but it was the same doorway, and I might have even stepped on the same cobblestones that Luther stepped on 500 years ago.
Unfortunately, because of the event I couldn’t get closer than 200 feet to The Door. Hopefully when I die and go to heaven I’ll be able to get a lot closer to Luther himself and have a conversation about his theology and try to plague his mind with this damnable and pernicious heresy that God actually likes us humans.
Recently I was accused of being self-righteous for suggesting that before I was a Christian God considered me to be a righteous person who was acceptable in his sight. I was told that the only way to be considered righteous in God’s eyes is to have Jesus’ righteousness “imputed”, or transferred to me so that when God looks at me he doesn’t see my sin. The goal of this imputation is that when God looks upon a man he will only see Jesus, who was without sin, the only person to ever have lived who could say he was righteous based on his life. Only Christians who have faith in Christ for their salvation have his righteousness imputed to them, according to Evangelical theology. To Evangelicals, of which I had been for most of my adult life, I could say that I’m righteous because I’m a Christian but I am being self-righteous for thinking I was righteous before I was a Christian. This is how they understand the book of Romans.
For many years I would have agreed that that’s what Paul meant in his condemnation of the self-righteous in Romans. I no longer agree that’s what Paul was getting at. Rather, we are called to be self-righteous, in a good sort of way. Martin Luther had it wrong.
If you do a Google search for “who are the self-righteous” one of your top results might be this article from www.gotquestions.org which says:
Biblically speaking, self-righteousness, which is related to legalism, is the idea that we can somehow generate within ourselves a righteousness that will be acceptable to God (Romans 3:10). Although any serious Christian would recognize the error of this thought, because of our sin nature, it is a constant temptation to all of us to believe we are, or can be, righteous in and of ourselves. In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostle Paul came down particularly hard on those who attempted to live in self-righteousness.
Apparently the author is unaware that many serious Christians do in fact question this way of interpreting scriptures, and the author is being a self-righteous prick for suggesting those of us who think differently than him are not “serious Christians”. Our sin natures aren’t to “blame” for out theology; the Bible is to blame because it actually leads us to a different conclusion about righteousness.
Paul and Jesus did come down hard on the self-righteous, that’s for sure, but to them the self-righteous were not good people without faith who thought of themselves as having attained righteousness. They were the unrighteous people of faith who thought they were righteous because they followed the uniquely Jewish laws of God such as circumcision, not eating unclean meats, Sabbath observance, and the like. Far from being righteous by any measure, they were wicked people who were either self-deceived into thinking they were good people or if they suspected they were wicked they thought they could get a pass on judgement for their wickedness because they were God’s chosen people who followed God’s laws.
They just assumed that no matter what, God’s Elect were the apple of his eye and others just didn’t measure up, no matter how good the others were. “We are red hot, and everybody else is diddly squat,” to put it in modern terms, while God looked down from heaven and cringed at their behavior, their attitude, and their theology.
To interpret what Paul had to say about salvation apart from this context is to do him and the Christian faith a great disservice and promotes a version of the Gospel that is half-baked. Like a cake that is half-baked, you can get something of value out of it, but it won’t be the real deal.
Self-Righteousness From Then Until Now
We don’t have to dig into extra-biblical historical texts to find out what these self-righteous were all about. It’s all right there in the Bible and has been a common theme for millennia. Let’s see what is said about them by these saints:
Solomon tells us, “There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, yet is not washed from his filthiness.” ( 30:12)
Ezekiel wrote, “When I shall say to the righteous, that he shall surely live; if he trust to his own righteousness, and commit iniquity, all his righteousness shall not be remembered; but for his iniquity that he has committed, he shall die for it.” (Ezek. 33:13)
Jeremiah rebuked the self-righteous who were guilty of murder, saying, “Also on your skirts is found the lifeblood of the innocent poor; you did not find them breaking in. But in spite of all these things, yet you said, ‘I am innocent; surely His anger is turned away from me.’ Behold, I will enter into judgment with you because you say, ‘I have not sinned.’” (Jer. 2:34-35)
Jesus blasted the self-righteous:
- “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of Hell as you are.” (Mt. 23:13)
- “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices– mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice (fairness), mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Mt. 23:23)
- “You also outwardly appear righteous unto men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity.” (Mt. 23:28)
In Paul’s critique of the self-righteous in Romans, of which he was one at one time having been a Pharisee who was destroying the lives of Christians, he wrote the following. Keep in mind as you read he’s preaching to Jews who follow the Old Testament:
- “So when you, a mere man, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? (Rom. 2:3) Those same things included wickedness, evil, greed, depravity, murder, strife, deceit, malice, insolence, inventing ways of doing evil, and being senseless, faithless, heartless, and ruthless. (Rom. 1:26-31) And that’s just a partial list. Paul was just getting warmed up.
- “Because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” (Rom. 2:5)
- “For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” (Rom. 2:8-9)
- “Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth– you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: ‘God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’ Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised.” (Rom. 2:17-25)
Can there be any doubt that Paul is taking aim at religious people who think they are righteous when they are wicked, in agreement with the others I quoted before him? It’s within this context that Paul calls out the self-righteous, saying,
For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness (i.e, self-righteousness), have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. (Rom. 10:3)
At first blush it does seem that those who know God’s Law should not be the ones who are “ignorant of righteousness,” like the heathen, but that’s exactly the point he is trying to make. They are ignorant of righteousness, even though they follow the Law.
The Problems With Self-Righteousness Are Unique to Religious People
Besides being self-deceived, there are other problems that come with the territory of religious people thinking they are righteous when they aren’t. It’s a package deal that also includes:
- The boasting that goes along with it: “For it is by graciousness you have been saved, through faithfulness– and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works (of the Jewish Law), so that no one can boast. (Eph. 2:8-9)
- Being “confident of their own righteousness and despise (look down on) others.” (Lk. 18:9) Spiritual elitism, snobbery, Pharisaical attitude, and judgmentalism, in other words.
- Appearing to be righteous to others by putting on a facade when you are actually wicked inside. (Mt. 23:28)
- Spreading their ways to others and corrupting them as well. (Mt. 23:13)
These maladies are unique to religious people who follow ancient text, believe they are God’s chosen people, gather a following, and exercise authority over others. It is a self-righteousness that is unique to those who follow long lists of rules and laws designed to shepherd the faithful who follow law-giving prophets like Moses and Mohammad. You will not find this among non-religious good people who know they are good and believe their goodness is good enough for God. The non-religious are not deceived into thinking they are following the Law of God while actually acting against that Law. If anything, they are the ones who are able to stand back from the church and see the hypocrisy that’s inside while the hypocrites inside can’t see it. They think they are better than the hypocrites who go to church and rightly so. They are better. Meanwhile the hypocrites inside think they are right before God based on their religious observance (faith in Christ, in the case of Christians) while condemning the good people on the outside, just like the Pharisees used to do.
Some will say the fact we are even having this conversation and I’m devoting a fair amount of time to it is a malady unique to religious people.
Probably so. But I digress.
Jesus goes into great detail about self-righteous religious people:
The Pharisee, noticing that Jesus did not first wash before the meal, was surprised. Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you. Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone. Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it.” One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.” Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them. Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all. Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.” (Lk. 11:38-52)
Notice he didn’t tell them they shouldn’t follow the Jewish parts of the Law. As near as we can tell Jesus followed them as well. That is, after all, what Jews do. Doing that, as a Jew, was not in and of itself a problem. The problem is not following the universal moral aspects of the Law such “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and thus being arrogant, greedy, unjust, wicked, and murderous.
You would think the plain words of the Ten Commandments which say, “Thou shalt not murder” would give them a clue that they weren’t actually following the Law but when you’re in that self-superior frame of mind it’s easy to justify your own actions as not being against the Law.
Jesus encouraged his fellow Jews to follow the Jewish laws but much more than that he was concerned about the heart attitude of those who did:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and despised others, Jesus told this parable:
Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men– robbers, evildoers, adulterers– or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Lk 18:9-14)
The tax collector was unrighteous and knew it, firstly because in their day a tax collector was a Jew who betrayed his own people by working for the Roman Empire and secondly because it was easy to oppress his fellow Jews by extracting more taxes than what was required and keep the difference for himself. His guilty conscience finally got to him and all he could do was confess his sin. Meanwhile the Pharisee couldn’t see how he oppressed his fellow Jews or any of his other sins and thus thought he was better than the tax collector. His observance of fasting and tithing, which did not actually make him a better person, in his mind made him superior and without sin.
St. Paul the Former Self-Righteous Pharisee
Paul’s life serves as a model for what he is getting at in Romans and elsewhere. He was one of those self-righteous at one time in his life when he was the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, so he’s really preaching to his former self. He said that concerning the righteousness which is in the Law, he was blameless. (Php. 3:6) But we also know that he gave approval to Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 8:1) and he admitted the following about his former self:
- He was a “prideful, insolent man who abusively railed against others, speaking evil and slander against them, persecuting them with shameful acts of wrongdoing.” (1 Tim. 1:13)
- “You have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.” (Gal. 1:13)
Luke describes Paul’s former self saying he:
- “Persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished,” (Acts 22:4-5)
Paul essentially admitted to being a Jewish terrorist, so he was only blameless in his own eyes and in the eyes of his fellow Pharisees. To God who gave him the Law to follow he certainly was not blameless. People who are like that don’t have love for others so by definition are not righteous people. He thought he was serving God, but it was zeal without the knowledge of love, even though he had the best learning his Jewish faith could provide, knowing the scriptures like the back of his hand. Saul the Pharisee was deceived, and it’s this type of deception he takes pains to address in Romans, Philippians, and other epistles.
One wonders how he could have been so deceived to think he was blameless. What Old Testament was he reading? The Reviled Substandard Perversion? It just goes to show to what degree religious zealots can interpret scriptures to justify their own carnal ways. It’s no wonder Paul’s message centered around right living and how faith in Christ got him there. He had a lot of making up to do after leading God’s people in the way of iniquity as a Pharisee.
In modern times these epistles have been interpreted by the Reformers and Evangelicals who followed to be Paul writing to every Jew on the planet encouraging them to go against doing what God had over and over again told the Jews to do, and him trying to convince his fellow Jews that by doing those things, in and of themselves, they had become self-righteous.
Kind of misses the point, don’t you think?
Some of the same ones think Paul came along and altered the course of Christianity away from what Jesus and his apostles had practiced in the beginning which was obedience to the Jewish Old Covenant law of God, with Paul single-handedly convincing the church to abandon God’s Law. I don’t think he did at all. To Paul the moral aspects of the Law are universal while the uniquely Jewish laws became allowable, if done for the right reasons, but optional for Jews, unnecessary for Gentiles, and undesirable for anyone if used in the wrong way, the way he and his fellow religionists had previously used the Law .
I believe Paul adds clarity to what Jesus preached. To Paul, Jesus was the beginning of righteousness in his life, the Way toward an end, and the end of righteousness for all who believe. For the first time in his life, after he became a follower of the Way, he was fulfilling the righteousness that was in the Law. Not the letter of it, but what really mattered, which was the spirit of the Law.
Paul reiterates the issue in Philippians:
I myself might have confidence even in the flesh. If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. (Php. 3:4-6)
“Confidence in the flesh” is another way of saying, “self-righteous”, both in his attitude and in his theology about what God desired of men. His confidence came from following the uniquely Jewish laws and his pedigree as a descendant from Abraham and thus one of God’s Elect. Notice again how he considered himself “blameless” as to the righteousness which is in the Law, even while he was a Jewish terrorist. Knowing man’s tendency to get lost in the details of lawkeeping and miss the bigger picture, Jesus, as was Rabbinical practice, reworded the Law by boiling it down to two propositions, “Love God,” and “love man,” so people like Paul’s former self wouldn’t miss the Law’s essential, life giving message. This was the cure for the malady of self-righteousness. Becoming righteous, in deed.
The Romans Road to Salvation
In Romans chapter 1 Paul lays out God’s judgement against wicked heathen and then in the next chapter says the Jews who do the Jewish laws but do the same wicked behavior will be judged the same as the wicked heathen.
That’s quite a blow to people who thought their religious practice was what God was after and it is what justified them in God’s eyes. Can you imagine their consternation at learning that observing their uniquely Jewish laws didn’t give them a pass on judgement for wickedness? Paul’s audience in the church at Rome were probably already past that but we can sure see how the Pharisees in the Gospels hated Jesus for pointing out their hypocrisy.
Then Paul drops the other shoe and says the good heathen, the same good heathen that Evangelicals call “self-righteous”, unsaved, not born-again and in need of salvation through Jesus, will be considered righteous and acceptable before God. He not only upends the Jewish thinking of his time where they thought they were the only ones God accepts but he also upends the Evangelical thinking of our time where Evangelicals think Christians are the only ones God accepts:
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, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts. (Rom. 2:14-15)
You should hear the vile “rebukes” I get from my fellow Christians for going against 500 years of Protestant tradition. You will hear it too if you preach this same message.
Please note, the Gentiles do not do circumcision, tithe, observe the Sabbath, or the other uniquely Jewish parts of the Law, yet they have the law written on their hearts. This speaks of one’s God-given conscience which should keep everyone from stealing, committing adultery, or otherwise doing harm to others. Our conscience, if it has not been seared, helps us to keep that portion of the Law which is universal, but Paul hints that the religious Jews were still stealing and committing adultery. (see Rom. 2:21-22 above)
What Kind of Law Are We Talking About Here?
When Paul mentions obedience to the law we must ask which law or which part he is talking about. We can’t just assume he’s always talking about the same thing every time he makes mention of it. Paul’s use of the words “law” and “commandment” is fluid. He will mean one thing by them in one place and mean something else by them in another place – even in the same verse! This fluid use of a term within a single verse can be seen in 1 Cor. 7:19 where Paul writes, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.”
Huh? Keeping God’s commands is what counts but circumcision, which was commanded, doesn’t count?
This is confusing to us because when we think of “law” or “command” we think of a piece of paper (or parchment) with a written code we can look at, like the 10 Commandments or the other 600 or so laws in the Old Testament. The Greek words nomos and entolay have much broader meanings than that. They can also include the ideas of prescriptions, traditions, doctrines, social mores, precepts, general rules (which have exceptions), principles, customs, dispensations, and forces or influences impelling to action. When we see “law” or “commandment” we need to stop and figure out what he’s talking about.
To get a better handle on New Testament usage of “law” and “commandment” will require a separate blog post.
Paul again shows us that keeping the Law of God isn’t just a matter of obeying the rules given to the Jews, and brings up the heathen as Exhibit #1 in his indictment against the self-righteous:
If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God. (Rom. 2:26-29)
Evangelical theology tells us that such a person will not only get no praise from God but will receive damnation.
Who Are The Righteous?
“But wait Kirby, these uncircumcised are not heathen, they are Christians, because they have experienced a spiritual circumcision,” you say. That would make sense if Christians are the only ones who have received a spiritual circumcision but according to John in his epistles anyone who does what is good, does what is right, or anyone who loves, is born from above. If you are born from above (born again), you have been spiritually circumcised, and you are a righteous person. Here’s how the apostle John describes a righteous person:
You know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him. (1 Jn. 2:29)
He who does what is right is righteous. (1 Jn. 3:7)
This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. (1 Jn. 3:11-12)
Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 Jn. 4:7)
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. (1 Jn. 4:16)
Anyone who does what is good is from God. (3 Jn. 1:11)
Does that include a Muslim? Or an atheist?
Did John say “everyone except Muslims, atheists, or…”?
It looks to me John was being prophetic and doing a preemptive strike on Evangelical exclusivism.
Yes, I know, spiritual circumcision and being born again have always been understood as a blessing for Christians only but it’s clear from Romans 2:24 that Paul is not writing about Christians when he uses the term “Gentile”. How do we know? He also wrote just two verses earlier, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written.” It’s highly unlikely Christians were blaspheming the name of God because of the Jews so these Gentiles are just what the label implies: non-Jews. Notice also it says, “as it is written” which hearkens back to times in the Old Testament when the Jews were the cause of God’s name being blasphemed among the Gentiles, long before Christians existed. (see 2 Sam. 12:14, Is. 52:5)
Paul is making a point that Gentiles, even the non-Christian Gentiles, will rise up in judgement against some of his fellow Jews. They will rise in judgement not because they will later be sacrificed as pawns and end up with the same fate as the religious-yet-wicked Jews, but because they actually do meet God’s standard of righteousness while the self-righteous Jews don’t.
It’s insight like this that makes me want to promote Paul from Theologian to Prophet.
I think even Muslims would add Paul to their extensive list of prophets if they understood him in this way. They love Jesus but they see Paul through the lens of Christians like Luther who twist what Paul was getting at with regard to self-righteousness.
Imputed Righteousness – What’s That?
When you hear the term “imputed righteousness” it sounds like “inputed”, doesn’t it, as if righteousness is put in or transferred to someone who doesn’t have it? That’s how the term was used by Luther, Calvin, and other reformers who believed the following from Paul shows that at the moment of salvation, when someone recites the Sinner’s Prayer, Christ’s righteousness has been transferred to the sinner so that God no longer sees him as a sinner but sees only Christ, never mind the fact that God is omniscient and so will always see your sin. Another way of saying that is he becomes legally righteous, and experiential righteousness will follow because he has been born again:
He (Abraham) received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also. He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; and being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him. But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead. (Rom. 4:11, 20-24)
For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. (2 Cor. 5:21)
There are two problems with reading transferred righteousness into this text. First, that’s not what the word “imputed” means. Most translations have ”reckoned” or ”credited”, to show that God is considering someone to be righteous because of his faith. I submit the reason God considers someone to be righteous is because he actually IS righteous, and the first step of actual, experiential righteousness, for Christians at least, is to believe on him that raised up Jesus, just as the first step for Abraham was to believe God was able to do what he said he would do. That’s not a legal transferal of righteousness. It’s not God seeing someone as righteous who really isn’t. That’s a recognition of actual, experiential righteousness.
Having faith is what a righteous person does, and this is what the Jews did not understand. To those who opposed the Gospel, they did not see Abraham’s faith as proof of his righteousness, they only saw that he obeyed the command to get circumcised, and that was the only reason righteousness was imputed, or credited to him, in their minds. Paul is merely pointing out that Abraham was considered righteous BEFORE he was circumcised, so it wasn’t his circumcision that was the reason for God to account him as righteous, contrary to the common narrative of Paul’s day that obeying the Jewish Law is the ONLY thing that made a person righteous.
Please note, in both scenarios, whether justified for his work of circumcision or by his faith in God, it was what Abraham DID that made him right in God’s eyes, because if he had refused to take his knife to his son, he would not have been considered righteous by God. As James says, ”faith without works is dead”. Dead faith doesn’t get you the stamp of divine approval; active faith does. Active faith means acting on your faith. The example of Abraham that Paul gives us is not someone who merely puts trust in God, but someone who actually does something to prove that he has faith. That is what a righteous person does, and that is why Abraham was considered righteous, not because he followed God’s law and got circumcised.
Of course, if you were a Jew living after the Law was given to by Moses, and you were righteous, as many actually were, you would obey the Jewish Law. Or you might go against the grain and just follow the moral law of “love your neighbor as yourself” and leave it at that, like us Christians try to do. You might even break the law of the Sabbath if you had to in order to do good to others, even to your ox if it fell into a pit, as Jesus pointed out to those who accused him of working on the Sabbath, the same hypocritical lawyers who were also working on the Sabbath in order to their job which was to determine if anyone else was violating the law of the Sabbath.
The other problem with the idea of transferred righteousness is if someone has Christ’s righteousness transferred to himself, and he continues to act wickedly, he will be judged for his wickedness. Evangelicals understand that, but let’s reiterate: Christians will be judged by their conduct! So what’s the point in asserting that he has received transferred righteousness? That in and of itself means nothing. It isn’t worth so much as a Mexican Peso.
The only point I can see in asserting that is to judge the non-believer for his lack of faith, so that he will be condemned. At the end of the day, according to Evangelical theology, the believer will be judged for his conduct, some of them getting a negative judgement, while the non-believer will be judged for his lack of faith, and ALL of them will be given a negative judgement. That’s a double standard if there ever was one. That’s Good News for the average believer, but Bad News for every single unbeliever. It makes far better spiritual sense to believe every person will be judged by the same standard, which is his conduct.
This is the testimony of the scriptures from one end to the other.
Why The Cross is Good News
If righteousness is actual and experiential rather than legal or positional, why then the Cross?
- For the new believer seeking to get right with God he has an advantage because he has access to divine assistance to overcome his wicked behavior. That’s Good News (Gospel) for the repentant seeking salvation.
- For a good person who was not a wicked person to begin with, he has access to divine assistance to help him become more like Christ. That’s Good News for good people who want to get better.
- For the wicked person prior to faith the cross demonstrates the love of God, assuring him in a most graphic way that God is willing to forgive him if he turns from his wickedness. That’s Good News for the wicked who is overcome by guilt and needs assurance of God’s love for him so he won’t give up in despair. For him it eliminates a huge barrier to gaining access to divine assistance.
- For every person on earth the Cross daws him into a faith walk where old things pass away and all things become new. As Jesus said, ”If I be lifted up I will draw all men unto me.” That’s Good News for mankind.
- For the religious who think following the uniquely Jewish laws while ignoring the universal moral law is what gives them life the Cross draws him away from that and into the Way of God where there is true life. That’s Good News for those to whom the the Law has brought death rather than life.
We Are Called to be Self-Righteous – In a Good Sort of Way
Evangelicals today tell us that we should not ever think of ourselves as righteous people apart from some “imputed” righteousness. In other words, if we should think that our own conduct has made us righteous then we will be guilty of being self-righteous.
Let’s be clear; God loves righteousness and blesses those who do righteousness. We really ought to know whether our actions are righteous or not or if we have actually attained to a goal of being righteous, don’t you think? If not and the only way to be righteous is through transferred righteousness, then these scriptures don’t make much sense:
David was lead in the paths of righteousness and serves as an example for us. David called on God to judge him according to his righteousness and integrity and God awarded him because of the purity of his hands and his righteousness, having kept the Law and avoided iniquity. He could easily say, “Blessed are they that keep judgment, and he that does righteousness at all times,” because he experienced that blessing that came from being righteous. (Ps. 106:3) He also prayed that the priests would be clothed in righteousness. It seems reasonable to assume he would know when the priests were actually righteous. (Ps. 11:7, 106:3, Ps. 23:3, Ps. 7:8, 2 Sam. 22:20-24, Ps. 132:9)
Solomon also serves as an example for us. He said he led in the way of righteousness. He told us “When a man’s ways please the LORD, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him,” and said it’s better to be poor and righteous than to be rich without righteousness. That’s some good consolation if you are poor and also know you are righteous. (Pr. 8:29, 16:7, 8:20)
Ezekiel asks us “when the righteous turns away from his righteousness, and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live?” (18:24) He already answered that in 3:20 saying, “When a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity and God lays a stumblingblock in front of him he will die.” Ezekiel could tell when a man was righteous and hoped such a one would recognize when he ceased to be righteous on account of his iniquity.
Zepheniah tells us to, “Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the LORD’s anger. (Zeph. 2:3) How can you seek and find it if you can’t know you are righteous or humble?
Noah, Daniel, and Job, according to Ezekiel, delivered their own souls by their own righteousness. (Ez. 14:14) If that’s “self-righteous” I want to have what they have.
There’s seven Old Covenant giants of faith who encourage us by word and example to be righteous.
What about the New Testament? Did the message change? Would those same saints be considered self-righteous if they lived today?
Paul tells us that the Kingdom of God is righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17), and that we should awake to righteousness and sin not because some who don’t have the knowledge of God are unrighteous (1 Cor. 15:34). He encourages his disciple Timothy, “O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. ( Tim 6:11)
James says, “The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace. (Jms 3:18)
Peter encourages us, saying, “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers: but the face of the Lord is against them that do evil.” (1 Pet. 3:12) Notice Peter contrasts the righteous with those who do evil, not those who lack faith in Christ and so don’t have “imputed” righteousness.
John explains what should be obvious: “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that does righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous,” (1 Jn. 3:7) Does it get any simpler than that? A righteous person is not one who has faith but one who does righteousness.
The angel of Revelation said, “He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still.” (Rev 22:11) According to Evangelical imputed righteousness theories the only way to remain righteous is to remain a believer. If that were the case, the angel would have said, “Let him who had faith in Christ continue to have faith in Christ,” but instead he put the emphasis on actually being righteous.
Jesus told us, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” (Mt. 5:6) “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:20)
How is it even possible that we should seek to be righteous, as all of these scriptures indicate, even surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees (not hard to do it seems), without knowing when we have actually arrived at having a righteousness that can be measured by our conduct? In the words of Vizzini (Princess Bride): INCONCEIVABLE!
Is there even a hint in any of these scriptures that the way to be righteous in God’s eyes is to have faith and that will take care of a supposed problem that no man can be righteous in his own efforts? Don’t ALL of these scriptures indicate that righteousness is based on behavior, and not on what one believes?
Since faith without works is dead at some point we should be able to realize we have the works to be acceptable to God and be able to say confidently, “I am righteous, because my acts are righteous,” without being accused of being self-righteous.
Many will say the reason the scriptures encourage us to be righteous is to show to us that it can’t be done in our own strength so we will turn to faith to get us there. It makes more sense to me, and hopefully to you as well, that the reason we are encouraged to be righteous is because God actually wants everyone to do just that, because if you are not righteous, actually righteous as judged by your conduct, then things will not go well for you on Judgement Day.
One way to be righteous is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus never said it’s impossible to love your neighbor in your own strength. Paul even tells us what it looks like to have agape love for others in 1 Corinthians 13, with no hint that nobody can do this on their own.
This is a follow on post to Salvation by Being Good.
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