Category Archives: Righteousness
This blog post is my response to some thoughts my dad shared:
“Okay so here is a jump into the law/no law debate….there seems to me to be two threads running in the Old Covenant scriptures…one thread is the redemption thread….ie animal sacrifice etc…and the civil thread….ie common law for Israel which includes the ten commandments. It would seem to me that the first thread is tied off on Calvary while the second thread is ongoing, especially if you are Jewish. The Jerusalem Council statement in Acts that frees Gentiles from the second thread, allows a volitional obedience to the civil law by Gentiles…thus Jesus’ words about not one jot or tittle of the law passing away until all is fulfilled come into play…lots to discuss here…have fun”
There are a thousand different angles I could take in my response to these ideas, but I’ll do my best to keep it simple. Of course, I think that when Paul says we are free from the law of sin and death, he means what he says. Paul does not draw a distinction between ceremonial law or civil law, so why should we?
Over and over again throughout Paul’s letters—especially in Romans—Paul makes it abundantly clear that by his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ freed us from the law, and we are no longer bound by its statutes, whether they be civil or ceremonial. I compiled a list of some of these key passages here, so I won’t delve any further into Paul’s treatment of this debate.
Another point raised is that in the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15, the early Christians established that Gentiles were obligated to follow only certain parts of the law that they deemed essential: abstaining from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, eating the meat of strangled animals, and drinking blood.
This does not correspond with Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 whatsoever—four laws out of hundreds hardly qualifies as “every jot and tittle”! So why these laws? I am no expert on the Torah or first century Judaism, but I would wager a guess that these laws were especially important to James and the other members of the Jerusalem Council, and that violating them would have been deemed particularly offensive to the Jews.
So I don’t think this was about obedience to the Law at all, but rather a matter of James mirroring what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 about becoming “all things to all people” for the sake of the Gospel. I think James is asking the Gentiles to become as Jews, and honor the Law not for the sake of the Law, but because honoring it is a sign of respect for the Jews and their way of life.
This would explain why Paul seems to completely reject the decision that the Jerusalem Council established about the law of circumcision being binding on Gentiles—a decision that he even supplemented with eye witness testimony of Gentile converts! Just one chapter later, Paul circumcises Timothy:
“Paul went first to Derbe and then to Lystra, where there was a young disciple named Timothy. His mother was a Jewish believer, but his father was a Greek. Timothy was well thought of by the believers[a] in Lystra and Iconium, so Paul wanted him to join them on their journey. In deference to the Jews of the area, he arranged for Timothy to be circumcised before they left, for everyone knew that his father was a Greek.” (Acts 16:1-3)
Therefore, the Jerusalem Council was not about rejecting the law of circumcision. If that were so, Paul would not have circumcised Timothy. The text says that he did so “in deference to the Jews of the area” in order to preserve the peace and unity of the body of Christ. Sometimes, people aren’t ready for the radical, life-giving freedom that Jesus gifted us with, and honoring the Law even when it has no intrinsic value is the best way we can emulate the life Jesus has called us to live.
Speaking of Jesus, the last point my dad brought up was to pull a quote from Matthew 5 as justification for the “civil law” being binding on believers today. Jesus says:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-19, NRSV)
I have a couple thoughts on this passage. The first is that there must be more to this passage than the surface level reading. After all, our righteousness is not measured by our diligence to the letter of the Law. If that were the case, Jesus would have praised the Pharisees instead of chastising them. Over and over again, in his parables and teachings, Jesus rejects strict adherence to the letter of the Law in favor of a more compassionate approach to obeying God that requires a faithful heart and not just faithful actions.
So I did a little poking around online, and I came across an informative article that breaks down the passage in question and addresses the meaning of each verse. With regard to verses 19-20, this article states that most Christians interpret these verses one way:
“Many understand Jesus was contrasting the “old” and “new”, i.e., comparing the “Law of Moses” with the “Law of Christ”, which would govern His kingdom. This in essence has Jesus teaching that the “Old Law” only condemned the outward actions but that the “New Law” introduced by Jesus condemned the inner conditions which lead to the outer actions.”
That makes sense to me. But then, this writer continued to offer another alternative that I found to be even more compelling:
“However, I understand the contrast to be different. It was a contrast between the “traditional interpretation and application” of the Law [and] the “righteousness of the kingdom” Jesus would require of His disciples. In fact, Jesus demonstrated that the righteousness of the kingdom was not only contrary to the manner many had interpreted and applied the Law but was in harmony with the original spirit of the Law as given to Moses and the Israelites.”
This makes so much more sense, and dovetails perfectly with Paul’s radical statements about how New Covenant believers are free from the Law. Particularly, in Philippians 3:8-9, Paul’s words reflect the above interpretation of Matthew 5:19-20 perfectly. Jesus came to complete and fulfill the old covenant, in which the veil is intact and obedience to the letter of the Law is equated with righteousness, with the new covenant, in which the spirit of the Law dictates how we apply it to our lives—i.e., the Golden Rule is our standard.
This is why Jesus would say he desires mercy, not sacrifice (Matthew 9:13), and why men were stoned for carrying sticks on the Sabbath under the Old Covenant (Numbers 15:32-36), yet Jesus defended his disciples for picking grain under the New Covenant (Mark 2:23-28). Jesus brought a new way of living in relation to God. It is not a relationship which allows believers to ignore the Law entirely, but rather to view it with a spirit that is covered in a blanket of grace, in which the Father’s love for us drives us to righteousness. We are not concerned with legalism, or even the jots and the tittles, but as we more deeply understand the nature of the Creator of the Law, and as we walk daily in the love of the Father, something tells me the jots and the tittles fall into place anyway.
I’ve been told that the Law is binding upon those of us who have come after the death and resurrection of Jesus, after the Pentecost and the arrival of the Holy Spirit within the heart of every believer. I’ve been told the letter of the Law still matters, and that love for God can only be understood and pursued within the context of adherence to the commandments of God as laid out in the Bible from beginning to end.
Whoever told me that is wrong.
We are not slaves to the Law. We are not bound by it, we are not required to obey its every letter to walk in obedience to God.
Don’t believe me? Have a look.
“So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” ~ Galatians 5:16-18
“So, my brothers and sisters, you also died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you could be joined to another, to the one who was raised from the dead, to bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires, aroused by the law, were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death. But now we have been released from the law, because we have died to what controlled us, so that we may serve in the new life of the Spirit and not under the old written code.” ~ Romans 7:4-6
“For ignoring the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking instead to establish their own righteousness, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, with the result that there is righteousness for everyone who believes.” ~ Romans 10:3-4
“According to the righteousness stipulated in the law I was blameless. But these assets I have come to regard as liabilities because of Christ. More than that, I now regard all things as liabilities compared to the far greater value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things—indeed, I regard them as dung!—that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not because I have my own righteousness derived from the law, but because I have the righteousness that comes by way of Christ’s faithfulness—a righteousness from God that is in fact based on Christ’s faithfulness.” ~ Philippians 3:6b-9
“Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions, until the arrival of the descendant to whom the promise had been made. It was administered through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary is not for one party alone, but God is one. Is the law therefore opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the scripture imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise could be given—because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ—to those who believe. Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” ~ Galatians 3:19-25
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet,” (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. ” ~ Romans 13:8-10
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery. Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight—the only thing that matters is faith working through love.” ~ Galatians 5:1-6
“For he is our peace, the one who made both groups into one and who destroyed the middle wall of partition, the hostility, when he nullified in his flesh the law of commandments in decrees. He did this to create in himself one new man out of two, thus making peace, and to reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by which the hostility has been killed.” ~ Ephesians 2:14-16
I just had a fantastic revelation! Like, a mind-blowing revelation and I gotta share it! And it is this: context matters when you’re reading scripture!!!
Haha. Okay. Done being snarky. But seriously…read this:
“For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God (although it is attested by the law and the prophets) has been disclosed—namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
Do you see? Do you get it? We Christians have always been fond of quoting Romans 3:23 in isolation. But when you read it in context, this verse is not meant to be a condemnation of humanity bur rather a way of leveling the playing field between the Jews and the Gentiles. Paul is saying to his fellow Jews, “Hey, guess what you guys? The Law doesn’t make you righteous. You are no more righteous than the Gentiles even though you have adhered to the Law so dutifully.
This may seem blatantly obvious to you. But after a lifetime of being told that that verse is a reminder that all of humanity hopelessly depraved…after a lifetime of hearing that verse in an accusatory light, it is more liberating than I can express to understand that this verse was written as a message of solidarity, a message to say that the law-abiders and the law-breakers are all on level a level playing field under the New Covenant.
Isn’t that just so freaking cool?!?!
P.S. I hope you appreciate the informal tone of this blog post. I only wrote it this way because I’m just ecstatic to be reading this verse in a totally new light. And when I’m ecstatic, my serious and profound way of writing out my thoughts kinda goes out the window!
This afternoon I reread an article on the Redemption Pictures blog, and it got me thinking about the relationship this writer draws between sin and doubt. It’s so easy to accuse those of us who struggle with doubt for doing so because we’ve embraced sin in our lives (in this example, sexual sin). But it’s just a lot more complex than that. I relate so well to Micah’s story. because I’ve pursued purity and righteousness all my life. Yet I’ve always felt the need to earn God’s favor.
“As a teenager, I literally thought I could chart my “spiritual health” on a line graph, with my only data point being how many times per day I snuck an eager glance at the lingerie section of a J.C. Penney catalog. I believed that the sum total of my relationship with God could be measured by my ability to control my sexual urges. Of course, this was a ludicrously flawed approach to spirituality.
If young people today are hesitant to turn to God, it’s not because “His opinions on sex are restrictive”. It’s because they think that following God is primarily about morality, about “not having sex”. It’s because they see Christianity as a list of beliefs to accept and sins to avoid. It’s because, despite all the right teaching and doctrine, it’s so often just about “trying harder”.”
Read the rest of the article here. It’s a wonderful read.
So how should we approach this? How do we live lives that are more Christlike without falling into this soul-sucking trap of always feeling like we have to try harder to avoid sin and win God’s favor?
I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to that, but I think it starts with understanding that your identity is not based on your own merits and your own ability to avoid sin. Because, let’s face it, who among us is really capable of living a stellar moral life on our own? Instead, if we start with the foundation of God’s boundless grace, we are not shamed into trying harder to avoid sin. Instead we are driven by love to imitate Christ—not because we are trying to earn His favor, but because our hearts desire to demonstrate our love for Him.
I am reminded of that beautiful passage about the power of love in I Corinthians. The first few verses, especially, relate so powerfully to the futility of trying to earn the favor of God by good works. I mean, my goodness, if martyrdom itself is meaningless without a foundation of love, what does that say about yours or my strivings for righteousness?
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” I Corinthians 13:1-3
This past week, I got into a bit of an argument online about good deeds and faith and Christian love and all that jazz. The person I was debating essentially quoted Matthew 5:48 (“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”) to make the point that we must strive for holiness in our lives. While I think this is absolutely true, I also expressed my thoughts that this idea really needs to be supplemented by Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9, which says, “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”
Basically, living a life of righteousness–pursuing “perfection”, so to speak—is kind of a pointless endeavor in light of the truth of what it means to be a Christian. I mean, I’ve done that my whole life. I’ve gone to church, I’ve tried my hardest to speak graciously and develop positive friendships, I’ve done my best to pursue the will of God in my romantic relationships, I’ve taken the Bible seriously and sought to live out its precepts. But all this pursuit of holiness, all this striving to live rightly has never, for a moment, made me feel closer to God. And I don’t think it’s because I haven’t tried hard enough. I think it’s precisely because I have tried.
Being in a relationship with the Father isn’t about trying to do more or be more. It isn’t about pushing full steam ahead in the works department and crowding out the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit. Being in relationship with the Father is about surrender. It’s about having the humility to acknowledge, as Paul does, how weak I am, and how full of sinful desires I am. I know that’s the truth, whether people on the web agree with me or not.
One thing I thought of, though, as I shared and discussed the 2 Corinthians passage is how much I really believe I’m weak and depraved and all of that. Because, as I said, I’ve striven for holiness my whole life. I generally wish well for others and try to be the best person I can be. How depraved am I, really?
What I’ve come to realize is that my sin nature isn’t as blatant and easy to detect as I’ve always imagined it ought to be. I think my sinfulness rears its head most often in the subtle but very pervasive mindset that the world revolves around me. When I stop and think about how many times a day I think a selfish thought, or fret over why someone else doesn’t see things the way I see them, the realization is just staggering. That tendency to think inwardly, to think about how the words and actions of those around me can best benefit me, is the core of the human nature of fallenness. It’s easy to justify, easy to explain away and write off, but oh dear goodness is it pervasive in my life!
Anyway, the point of all this self-reflection is to say that I am done trying to battle my sin nature on my own. I’m done trying to pretend it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t play a large role in preventing me from embracing the love of the Father. If all this soul-searching has convinced me of anything, it’s that I can’t try to be holy, I can’t try to be righteous, I can’t try to drive away my sinful predisposition, all on my own. Instead, I’m going to focus on surrender, on humbly giving up my will to the grace of God, that his power may be made perfect in my weakness, just as Paul says.
So, I’m trying to figure out this whole idea of sinfulness and sanctification, because there seems to be a bit of a paradox here. As a human being, I was born inherently sinful. I am predisposed to sinfulness, and “every inclination of [my] heart is only evil from childhood” (Genesis 8:21). I get that—I get that the sinfulness of human nature is the whole point of the Gospel, that Jesus as the perfect Son of God came down to pay a price we could never pay because we’re just too screwed up to be righteous on our own.
What I don’t understand is whether or not this continues to be true of me after I accept Jesus. Because I have done that, which means I am in the process, every day, of being transformed into a human being who is not depraved, but rather more and more like Christ. And this is done, of course, through the Holy Spirit. You know, that whole idea of dying to the flesh and being renewed and sanctified.
But here is what I don’t understand. Paul, who encountered God personally, who was so filled with the Holy Spirit that he became one of the principal leaders of the early church and penned much of the New Testament (in other words, he was super sanctified!) still calls himself an absolute wretch, and states in a tone that seems to be quite exasperated:
“For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.” (Romans 7:18-20)
“Nothing good lives in me”?! What?! Isn’t that the whole point of the Holy Spirit—that it lives in you and transforms you from the inside out? That you become a person who sins less and loves more, who daily lets go of the things of this world and turns your gaze heavenward? Isn’t that what sanctification does? So how on earth does sanctification mesh with the above verses? I really don’t see how it does. As you draw nearer to God, you become more holy. And as you do that, the good is what you truly do in your life, and not just what you want to do. And the evil is what you shun, because the more deeply you love the Father, the greater your desire to please Him. Your desires line up more closely every day with the will of God. And that isn’t to say that temptations to sin never go away, or that you don’t ever sin, but doesn’t sanctification mean that sin plays a continually smaller role in your life, and righteousness abounds?
So I’m not sure which narrative I’m supposed to apply to my life here. The narrative that says I am broken and depraved and utterly helpless, unable to please God by what I do on my own, or the narrative that bows in deference and obedience to God when confronted with opportunities for righteousness. I know the answer is “both”, and I’m probably missing something about how the two ideas intertwine in my life, but I don’t really understand what I am missing. Am I a perpetually dirty, sinful person who ought to strive for a holiness I can never attain? Or does every right thing that I say and do purify me, make me just a little bit more clean in the eyes of the Father? Am I called, as Jesus commands in Matthew 5:48, to be perfect? (Whatever that word means!). These are two polar-opposite ideas, and I’m no longer sure which one describes according to the Gospel.
If there is anything I need to hear right now, it’s this message. This absolutely rocked. my. world. Turned it upside down and ripped to pieces everything I thought I knew about morality and judging others. I can’t figure out whether this message is just too good to be true, too freaking liberating, or if it’s the truest thing I’ve heard in a long time. All I know is that I walked away from it absolutely humbled, and filled with the knowledge of how very little I know about how to live righteously.
As I listened, I felt so deeply convicted about the line of thinking I’ve been fostering lately. Criticizing my church for wringing the Old Testament for all it’s worth, but teaching so very little about Jesus. Criticizing my father for his iron-tight grip on fundamentalism (I love you, Dad!). Pretty much criticizing anyone who isn’t going through what I’m going through—criticizing them for feeling secure in their faith when I feel anything but secure, and assuming as a result that their security is false.
In short, hearing this pastor, Jonathan Martin, talk through the truth of original sin, the pervasive need we as human beings have to put “good” and “evil” into neat little categories and shout out loud about others’ evil and our own good, made me realize how much I’ve been doing the same thing a lot lately.
So, to anyone who is reading this: I’m sorry if in my struggles to figure out my faith, I have ridiculed yours. I’m sorry I’ve been so graceless in my criticism of the church. I’m sorry I’ve used a megaphone when it comes to pointing out all the things evangelical Christianity has screwed up, but can barely get out a whisper when speaking of my own flaws and my own sinful ways of thinking.
It’ll be hard, but I’m going to try to work on repenting of all those harmful thoughts and words, and speak to those around me with a little more grace, even though that can be so hard when my mind is bursting with confusion, and that confusion often manifests itself in careless words about Christianity.
Anyway, please have a listen to the sermon that inspired this apology for me. I know it’s long, but it is really really worth listening to! The sermon I’m talking about is “Playing God” on the date 8/11/13 (can’t link to it specifically, just to the directory of sermons).
I’ve been told I’m depraved. Broken. Less than whole. Filled with a sinful nature. I’ve been told I’ll never be good enough, my good acts will never wash away the stain of sin that separated me from God. On my own, I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell at attaining holiness. I’ve got original sin seeping through every pore of my spirituality, and I’m never going to be cured of it.
That is all true.
That’s not who I am, that’s not the identity that I claim, and it’s not the identity that is true of me. My identity is a beloved child of God. My identity is someone who has worth and value in the eyes of the Lord, and my identity is someone who is accepted, already accepted, for exactly who I am.
These two ideas describe a strange and confusing paradox to live out. On the one hand, I must remind myself that as a human being, I’m very much so predisposed to sin. Even as a believer in Christ, righteousness done on my own strength is still “filthy rags”. That truth is still the reality.
But it is also true that God sanctifies me. The Holy Spirit has a place in me, and righteous acts done in obedience to God are good, no matter how small or large they are or how deeply they impact the world around me. And these acts are a result of surrender. And I think, more deeply than that, they are a result of me claiming my identity as God’s child.
So I don’t think either view of myself ought to be discarded. I must remember that my nature is broken and predisposed to sinfulness, because that keeps me humble, keeps me from trying to live right on my own. And remembering my identity is not brokenness—my identity is wrapped up in God’s love for me—gives me the will to surrender to him, and be his vessel, and let him work through me to accomplish his will.
So I’m going to live in the tension of these two opposite extremes, and embrace them both, as counter-intuitive as that may seem. Because both are true, and I think both are necessary to growth in Christ.