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Righteousness from God

Righteousness. What comes into your mind when you hear that word? If you’re like most people, something religious probably surfaces, which is understandable. But righteousness is not simply a religious term. Everyone is on a quest for righteousness, whether they’re religious or not—whether they know it or not. 

Another word for righteous is justified. Those are positional words that mean “in the right” or “in good standing.” It means you’re approved, legit, credible. Maybe an easier way to explain it is to be accepted. No rejection. No unresolved conflict or unpaid debts. No liabilities. You’re a human being in good standing.   

Who isn’t interested in that? We humans go to great lengths to get a good standing—at least in the eyes of other people.  

After the economy tanked in 2008, a Christian leader in Manhattan remarked about the wealthy individuals who lost a ton of money: "There’s a disorientation at the center of their being. They’re not sure who they are anymore. There’s a complete loss of identity. There’s a complete loss of confidence. Do you know why? Because that money was their righteousness.” 

He’s on to something. Those investors lost much of their wealth, not all of it. But they still felt like they forfeited their worth and credibility. They were no longer on top of the food chain. They lost something important, esteem in the eyes of others. Why? Because wealth was their righteousness. It provided security and assurance. It put swagger in their walk. But when they lost it, they lost themselves. Some of them never recovered.

Wall-street is not the only place where human righteousness is contended for. Earlier this month in Pensacola, Florida, a mother and daughter faced felony charges related to fraudulent computer usage. It turns out that a mother, who was also a principal, helped her daughter log into the school’s software and secure illegitimate votes to win Homecoming Queen. The software flagged the votes as suspicious because they all came from the same IP address. Busted! 

Why would someone risk their reputation to be crowned homecoming queen—or their career to see their daughter crowned homecoming queen? Because that tiara represented something weighty: righteousness.  

Examples are not hard to find. My wife watched a documentary about the world-record holder at joggling. That’s jogging while juggling. It turns out that someone else wanted that title and they engaged in multiple battles until, finally, one of them wrecked his marriage and family because of over-training and obsession. Why? To get his name  beside “current Joggling world-record holder.” 

Sound ridiculous and sophomoric? Well, here’s a question: What’s your righteousness? What keeps your head held high and puts swagger into your step? 

Is it wealth, beauty, some strange physical skill, or intelligence? Maybe educational credentials? Are you making your spouse, family, or kids your righteousness? Or your career? What is your standing based on? How do you get it? How do you keep it?  

Would a recession wreck your righteousness? Or old age? Will your righteousness withstand aging, memory loss, weight-gain, or sickness? What will blow away your good standing with others? 

We cannot assure ourselves of our value and worth. We have to get somebody outside approving us, acclaiming us, declaring us worthy, declaring us a person of value. 

Like me. Follow me. Share me. Retweet me. Tell me I’m strong. Tell me I’m handsome. Tell me I’m smart. Tell me my sermons are good, my jokes are funny, and my stories are interesting. We all seek righteousness.

We all want to matter, to measure up, to be right. But often, we only look horizontally at the playing field and neglect to consider the vertical. How can a man be right with God? That’s the question of the ages that even Job considered (9:2). 

The good news is this: the Gospel is not some kind of invitation to go find some righteousness for yourself. Jonathan Edwards compared that to a spider web cradling a   boulder from falling. No, the gospel is an announcement that your hunt was in vain to begin with. We were looking in the wrong place. In the gospel, the righteousness of God is revealed. That is, a way to be made right with God is manifested: through Jesus. 

Good standing with your Creator doesn’t come from your flawed efforts at religious rule-keeping. It comes through the perfect record of Jesus Christ. His obedience. His faithfulness. His loyalty. His achievements. His righteousness. In the gospel, His righteousness is ours—as a free gift. We’re made right with God through faith in Him. That’s the message of the book of Romans.   

If the Gospel were only another revelation of the holiness, justice, and righteousness of God, it wouldn’t be good news. It would be the most terrifying and alarming revelation in the world. And we already have that. It’s called the Law. In Exodus, at Mt. Sinai, we see fire, feel thunder and quaking; and hear lightning. Fear and trembling abound: from the Israelites—even from Moses! God is holy. Back up or you’ll die! 

But the Gospel tells us God has drawn near. We couldn’t come to Him. He came to us. He brought something precious. He brought the righteousness we need but can’t offer.  

In the gospel, we discover that Jesus has taken us off death row and then has hung around our neck the Congressional Medal of Honor. We are received and welcomed as heroes, as if we had accomplished extraordinary deeds. In a sense, Jesus traded places with us. We get His righteousness. He takes our sin and guilt. What a trade! 

Try and make yourself acceptable to God apart from what Jesus did and what do you get? Wrath. Rejection. The cold shoulder. But when we trust in His achievement, the Father looks at us, loves us, delights in us and accepts us. Our relationship has been changed. We can now stand. We’re righteous. We’re justified. We’re right with God.  

When that happens, you can truly serve King Jesus with freedom and joy. Why? Because you are standing. Not climbing. Not earning. As Richard Lovelace says, you begin every day at the top of the ladder, not the bottom. All because of Jesus. 

That’s a message to get excited about. That’s a message to rejoice in. That’s a message to share with others. That’s what Paul did, and Martin Luther, and many others. And the world hasn’t been the same since. May we carry on the torch.

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