What, according to the Bible, makes us righteous?
Righteousness—and how to achieve it—is at the heart of Christian faith. But what, according to the Bible, makes us righteous? Another word, justification – “to be made righteous”, refers to the same issue: how do we come into a proper standing with God?
In Christianity at least three ways of determining righteousness have been promoted: an applied measure, a legal measure, and a relational measure. Applied righteousness is easy: any conduct that satisfies God’s demands makes a person righteous. Legal righteousness is broader: if a person has been judged guilty for his sins God is free to offer a reprieve by dismissing the legal charges against him.
Martin Luther, for instance, used this understanding when he spoke of Christians having an “alien righteousness” through faith in Christ. In his view a given believer is granted the full moral standing of the Son—absolute righteousness—through faith, even though the believer’s conduct still falls well short of Christ’s applied righteousness. In other words a person’s applied righteousness isn’t critical; the Father’s forgiveness in Christ through faith is what counts.
This debate was central to the 16th century Protestant Reformation as the Roman Church dismissed Luther’s claim and insisted that Christians must work to achieve actual righteousness through a “faith formed by love”. And the Roman version of love was will-based—a function of self-determined obedience—rather than an affective love. Spirituality, then, grows as a responsibility of the seeker rather than as a response to God’s love. God, in their view, is a righteous judge who demands that his followers rise to his ethical standards. Conduct that falls short remains under God’s righteous wrath.
Luther, on the other hand, believed that God is a lover who draws us into the affective bond of the Father and the Son. Love, in turn, is a shared delight and response to a loving God by his beloved ones. And the devotion of love—our faith—is what changes us to be more and more like the Son in our daily conduct. Our hearts follow after the heart of the one we love.
With that historical sketch in mind I was struck with Paul’s discussion of sin in Romans 3.
There the relational righteousness of God comes into focus. The chapter famously declares that all humanity is morally broken: “None is righteous, no, not even one; no one understands; not one seeks for God” (verses 10-11). So human righteousness, by this measure, is nonsense and pretense. No one, apart from Christ, ever achieves actual righteousness.
What catches our attention in the following verses is Paul’s resolution of the problem: of “how the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”
What’s striking is how Paul set out the problem of sin in the earlier verses of the chapter: he began by framing sin as a problem of faithlessness in verse 3—“What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” Next, in a restatement in verse 5, Paul set out the same concern but with a new term in place of faith-concerns. “But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? . . . . By no means!” The two expressions are parallel so that unrighteousness is aligned with faithlessness.
Faithfulness and faithlessness are terms that press us towards a relational rather than a legal focus, but the two are coordinate concerns. Think, for instance, of the refrain that comes with so many broken marriages—“The spouse was unfaithful.” In such cases God’s law is certainly broken but the deeper issue is the violation of love.
And that refrain, as it relates to God and his people, jumps off the pages of the Old Testament in any rapid reading of the Bible. Jeremiah, for instance, treats it as a central theme in his warnings to Judah: “You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the LORD. . . . She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore” (Jer. 3:1 & 8).
The contrast between the faithful husband-who-is-God and his faithless bride, Israel, is played out again and again in the Old Testament. Hosea’s marriage to faithless Gomer is the vivid picture of God’s anguish over his faithless creation.
In this book the prophet goes beyond Israel to address the faithlessness of humanity as a whole: “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me” (Hosea 6:7). But God persistently refuses to give his bridal people away to their predilection for evil and promises to draw back at least some to himself: “And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (Jer. 32:40-41).
Here’s the point: we will do well to reflect on God’s real “heart” and “soul” desire for us to have a love relationship with him that is sound. We aren’t meant to give our hearts away to the love of success, wealth, security, and the like—to self-love—but to be wholly devoted to Christ. This is what we were made for. And this is what ultimately defines righteousness rather than mere law-keeping. Laws only confront broken relationships; they don’t build faithful hearts. Luther was right in his emphasis on God’s role in restoring us. We won’t ever do it on our own.
So faithfulness and righteousness is the fruit of love. The gospel is God’s call for us to turn back to him, to hear his expressions of faithful love. That alone will stir us to love him in return—both wholly and faithfully.
Thoughts? You are invited to comment on Ron’s articles at Cor Deo.
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron served on faculty for more than 20 years at Multnomah Bible College and Biblical Seminary. At the seminary, from 1995-2007, he was professor of historical theology and ethics. He earned his PhD at King’s College of the University of London. His research featured Richard Sibbes (1577-1635). He now teaches internationally while serving as a pastoral care consultant to missionaries with Barnabas International. Ron authored Discover the Power of the Bible and writes on spreadinggoodness.org [See “Resources”].