The Pursuit of Righteousness
1 Lord, who may dwell in your sanctuary?
Who may live on your holy hill?
2 He whose walk is blameless
and who does what is righteous,
who speaks the truth from his heart
3 and has no slander on his tongue,
who does his neighbor no wrong
and casts no slur on his fellowman,
4 who despises a vile man
but honors those who fear the Lord,
who keeps his oath
even when it hurts,
5 who lends his money without usury
and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.
He who does these things will never be shaken.
I invite the reader to focus on that last line. Have you ever been shaken? This is not a reference to being physically shaken as if caught in an earthquake. This is more like a crisis experience that shakes the soul of a human being to the core of his being. This is being shaken to the point of radical despair – the kind that causes loss of hope, purpose and meaning in life.
There are people whose lives would lose purpose and meaning:
-if the financial markets were to fail.
-if they were to experience a health crisis
-if they were to lose a loved member of the family
-if they were to lose their job or their house
-if they were to lose their strength or their beauty
You might ask, “Isn’t it normal to be shaken during times of great difficulty?” And my answer would be “Of course.”
However, difficult adversities should not mean the loss of ultimate purpose. For the Christian believer a crisis of this great magnitude should not mean a loss of hope or a sense of ultimate despair. Christians have found their meaning and ultimate purpose in the death and resurrection of Christ, so for them life comes from a source that is eternal. And that is why we should never experience this kind of despair or be shaken, as the Bible puts it. In other words, if our purpose comes to us from beyond the grave, then nothing that can happen to us on this side of the grave should shake us to the extent that we despair.
The Psalmist says “He who does these (righteous) things will never be shaken.”
Behaving in a righteous manner can only happen in a person if there is an underlying righteous character. And righteous character, or rather a righteous heart cannot exist without a miraculous intervention from an eternal and righteous Being; namely the God of the universe.
In one of the other Psalms we read the following words.
1 O Lord, hear my prayer,
listen to my cry for mercy;
in your faithfulness and righteousness
come to my relief.
2 Do not bring your servant into judgment,
for no one living is righteous before you. (Psalm 143:1-2)
Another way of expressing the above request that the Psalmist makes of God would be, "Don't put me on trial because no man alive has ever been found innocent."
Jesus Christ made a very disturbing statement in the Sermon on the mount. He said, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven”. He was talking to average people. But in order to get the full weight of these words of Jesus, we must look at the righteousness of the Pharisees.
Pharisees were absolutely meticulous about observing the law. In addition to the 10 Commandments, there were about 613 statutes and laws governing almost every aspect of their lives. The Pharisees knew every one of them. Added to the burden of keeping all of those commands, they added layers of interpretation that came from generations of rabbis who would add their opinions and interpretations to the laws. You might say that these people were perfectionists. No one was more righteous than they were. For instance, Jewish regulations prescribed how much they were to give to the work of God and this giving was called a tithe. They were so meticulous about the tithe that Jesus said to them, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24?You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matt 23:23-24)
They were particularly concerned about keeping the Sabbath. They would go into great detail about the definition of working on a Sabbath. Thus, to remove something (let's say a comb) from your pocket by simply grasping it with your hand is categorized as work, and you would be breaking the Sabbath law. But if you were to turn your pocket inside out without actually lifting the object itself, and letting the object fall out of your pocket, the Sabbath law would not be broken. This is how detailed their discussions became over what constitutes righteousness.
They had become experts of nuancing outward behaviour, but their underlying character was not righteous. Yet Jesus said that we would have to become more righteous than they were if we wanted any hope of entering the kingdom of heaven.
The Bible also tells is that "there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God" (Rom 3:10-11).
How does righteous character come about? And how is this even possible if we have learned that no one is righteous enough for God? Is there any hope?
Jesus also said "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field." (Matt 13:44)
Are you willing to make this pursuit of righteousness a top priority in your life? Are you seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and treating all other pursuits as secondary? One cannot approach this matter casually. This is a matter of life and death.
Righteousness comes to us only by grace.
Primarily it is given to us as a gift when we become born again. Like a seed that is planted in good soil, the life of Christ that is planted in us develops and matures and causes righteous attitudes or virtues which then produce righteous actions and righteous living.
Here is an explanation of how this happens.
There is a wonderful verse in 2 Corinthians 5:21
God made him (Jesus Christ) who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
When Jesus, the beloved Son of God came to earth, he had one overriding mission. "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" Matt 20:28
Jesus Christ, the Righteous One came to sacrifice Himself as an offering for our sin, and in turn, he offers us His righteousness. The reason Jesus Christ did this is because mankind was and is morally lost and depraved. In ourselves we are totally unrighteous; we have lost our way, and are on a one way road to condemnation and hell. It is because of our sins that we stand guilty before God and are worthy of condemnation. We fully deserve the wrath of God to fall upon us.
As long as we are in this lost and sinful state, we will always seek to justify ourselves. We will always try to defend ourselves; we will never admit that we have failed. We will cling to our self-deceived notions of self-righteousness, just as the Pharisees did.
Yet when the Holy Spirit shines His light into our hearts, when we hear the gospel message, and when we turn from our sin and fully trust in the provision that Jesus Christ has made available for us, the Word of God informs us of a wonderful transaction that takes place.
First of all, God placed the guilt of our sin upon Jesus Christ as He hung there upon the cross. Do you remember the cry of the Saviour as He hung there? He cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
There was a reason why God turned His back on his own beloved Son that day. He was treating his beloved Son as if He was a sinner of the worst kind. All the guilt of mankind was placed on Jesus Christ, even though He was innocent and altogether righteous. On the day of his crucifixion, Jesus suffered the wrath that a holy God had against all sin and evil. The punishment that should rightfully have been ours was absorbed by Jesus Christ. Jesus did this for you and for me. He was our substitute – our scape-goat.
Let me share a personal story at this point. We lived for many years in Northern Ontario. One wintery day in December my wife and I went visiting with our baby daughter in mother's arms. Our daughter was only about three months old. The sidewalk had fresh snow on it, and we did not notice that underneath that freshly fallen snow was a layer of ice. Suddenly Carole (my wife) slipped and fell on her hip on the sidewalk. Although she was not seriously injured, it gave her great pain. She could have saved herself by dropping the baby. But in order to save the baby from any injury, she decided (in the split second that it took to fall) that she would hold on to our beloved daughter tightly in order to save the baby from injury. Thus, Carole was injured instead. She took the fall for the sake of her baby. The baby woke up from her slumber and cried out in fright, not because she was hurt; rather she was shocked. There was no way that we could communicate how her mother loved her so much that she had absorbed the injury that would have been the baby's.
In the same way, but much more significantly, Jesus Christ took the fall for us, in order to satisfy divine justice. And because Jesus Christ was righteous, He had what it required to pay for our sins. And the Lord Jesus experienced levels of pain and anguish at the experience of being separated from his holy Father that we can never fully understand either. Many humans have experienced the suffering and pain of crucifixion. But no one has ever experienced the pain and anguish of the complete wrath of God against the accumulated wickedness of the world except for the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
Using another analogy, this time from the world of accounting, we were morally so deeply in debt to God that we had no hope of paying the debt. We had no hope of paying the debt even if we could have 10,000 lives to live because each life would put us further into debt. Yet Jesus came along, and paid the debt on our behalf, so that we, in turn could receive to our account the righteousness of Christ. This is what happens when we place our faith in Jesus Christ as our Saviour.
This is the path to acquiring righteousness. It is a magnificent and unspeakable gift that is given to us freely. It is not something that we have earned. It is not something that we deserve. It is not something that we can ever repay. It is something that comes to us by way of faith - by being born again. This is the hardest part of the process because it requires repentance. Repentance requires that we face the truth about ourselves - that we are rebellious sinners and have lost our way. Repentance requires that we then turn to God in utter dependence on his mercy and grace. Repentance causes us to look to Jesus Christ as our Saviour and Lord and He will forgive our sins and will grant us eternal life according to His Word.
Once we have experienced what forgiveness is like in the depths of our heart, we will have the desire to forgive others when they offend us. Having experienced the power of grace, our response to others will be gracious. Having received His righteousness, we now want to act righteously. This is the beginning of living righteously. Hear another parable that Jesus told his disciples.
A servant once owed his King a great amount of money. In total, the servant owed him ten thousand talents. To give you an idea of how ridiculously large this debt was, and how impossible this would be to pay back - the equivalent of only ONE talent was 20 years’ worth of the servants wages! In other words, it would take the servant 200,000 years to pay this debt if he were to pay ALL of his wages back to the King.
The King called the servant in to give an accounting of himself. Of course, the servant could not pay. The King ordered that the servant be sold along with his wife and family members, so that the debt could be paid.
The servant fell on his knees and implored the King for mercy, promising that he would pay the debt (which was an impossible promise to keep). The King did have mercy, and forgave the man his massive debt.
The same servant went out of the King’s presence, and immediately found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. (One denarii was a day's wages, so although this was a significant debt, it was at least manageable, and a tiny debt compared to what he had just been freed from!)
What action would you expect from this servant at this point in the story? Shouldn't he forgive his fellow servant of his debt? That would be the righteous thing to do. Unfortunately, in the parable that Christ told, the servant behaved unrighteously, and mercilessly, he had his fellow-servant thrown into debtor's prison. Upon hearing this turn of events, the King recalled that wicked servant and had him delivered to the debtor's prison as well.
Then Jesus said, "So also my heavenly Father will do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart" (Matt 18:25).
Righteous behaviour and righteous actions come from the heart of a person who deeply appreciates God's mercy and grace.
Have you learned yet that Christians are dependent upon the grace of God for everything? The Bible tells us that "in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). If our very breath and pulse are dependent upon the grace of God, isn’t it reasonable then to believe that everything about our spiritual life comes from Him as well? It is by God's grace that we are forgiven and are born again. It is also due to God's grace that we live righteously. The Apostle Paul says, "Therefore my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil 2:12-13).
This is not something that happens passively without our engagement. Although He brings about all of his purposes with or without us, He has ordained that we pray according to his will. He ordains the end-goal, but He employs our prayers as well. So too, he makes us righteous, but He tells us to feed on the Word. He asks that we make Him our primary love. He asks us to seek His face.
How important is this? It is extremely important. If righteous living is the result of being born again, it is also the evidence of the new life that we have.
One of the serious errors of western evangelicalism of the last century has been the gospel of "easy believism". It is the world I grew up in. In preaching the gospel, many preachers would want to make things as easy as possible in order to get visible results from the preaching. So speakers would encourage audiences to repeat a prayer for salvation, or to walk the aisle in response to an emotional invitation, or to sign a card stating that you had prayed the prayer that was printed on it. Thousands and thousands of people over the decades would respond to these appeals at evangelistic Crusades, and not very much thought was given to the matter of discipleship and follow-up. The result was a generation of professing Christians whose lives were not very different from non-Christians. And churches filled up with non-spiritual people who had no concept of living disciplined and righteous lives.
What does one have to do in order to become a Christian? The answer is to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.
What does one have to do in order to live like a Christian should? The answer is to love the Lord with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength. As He remains our primary love, and as we worship Him with our entire life, His will becomes our agenda and our motivation. His righteousness becomes the characteristic of our lives. And His sacrifice for my sins becomes the anchor for my soul, so that I will always be merciful and gracious to others.
In the biblical story of human origins, we learn that we have been made in the image and likeness of God. When Adam and Eve sinned, that likeness became marred and distorted. In the process of being born again, that image and likeness of the Lord Himself is being restored in us, and on resurrection day, that process will be complete! The Scriptures tell us that when we see Him, we will be like Him for we shall see Him as he is! What a tremendous hope we have as children of God!
So, we started out this article by asserting that the righteous will never be shaken. There will never be a crisis of such proportions that the righteous need to despair. The reason for this is that we have eternal life promised to us. We have hope that extends past the grave, into eternity.
We talked about how righteousness is given to us as a free gift, along with salvation and forgiveness. It is all due to what Jesus Christ has done for us.
And we also concluded that through a life of fellowship with the Lord Jesus, our hearts are influenced by the Holy Spirit to live righteously out of a forgiven heart.
Finally, it is very important to see that the Christian life is a lifestyle of pursuing this righteousness by knowing Jesus Christ better. This is how to let our lights shine. Jesus becomes "visible" to others when we allow the righteous life of Jesus take shape in us. Do people see the image and likeness of Jesus Christ in you?