The concept of righteousness in human terms is difficult to simplify to one definition. Each religion – system of belief – would define it according to the values they choose to adhere to. Within each belief system, righteousness is encouraged and sought after. Humanity rewards it.
Within the Christian faith, we are taught that righteousness is necessary if we are to please God. We are not acceptable to Him without it. As a result, it has been encouraged and 'idolized' as a behaviour issue – a thing to be worked for. We then attempt to earn a right standing before an all-knowing, all-seeing God Who requires a standard we cannot meet. It is a relentless pursuit that always ends with us falling short, frustrated, and discouraged.
The Jews were attempting to do the same thing according to Romans 10:1-3.
“Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness.” (Romans 10:1-3 ESV)
Paul has a yearning desire to see his own people come to the understanding of the Gospel. He sees them continue in the meaningless rituals that he once believed would grant him righteousness or approval from God. Paul distinguishes that there are two sources of righteousness: ours and God’s. Our righteousness depends on our ability to meet expectations, and God's righteousness depends on the sufficiency of Christ. While their efforts were futile, they were grounded in the Law, the writings of Moses.
In Deuteronomy 6, Moses continues his instructions to Israel in light of their new reality. They are about to enter the land of promise, the wilderness now a historic event. Moses charges them, pleading with them to ‘not forget their God who brought you out of the land of Egypt,’ and, ‘to keep the commands that the Lord your God has given.’ Moses writes:
“And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.'” (Deuteronomy 6:24-25 ESV)
Moses assures them that their righteousness will be measured by their ability to keep the laws and commands and statutes God gave them. The original law, absent of all the ‘rules’ added by man – Pharisees, Sadducees, etc. – was God’s requirement for righteousness. It was all they could do.
The events of the crucifixion changed all of this. The New Testament Scripture explains this in many of the epistles.
“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith." But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:11-13 ESV)
“So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” (Galatians 3:24-26 ESV)
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20 ESV)
Paul assures us that the law has never justified anyone. It can't. Humans born in sin cannot achieve a hint of righteousness in the flesh. It is as ‘filthy rags’ when held against God’s standard. But when Christ obediently died on the cross, He ended the law for righteousness (Rom. 10:4).
In 2 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul describes the reality for every believer who has professed faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. The believer is a new creation. Old things have passed away. All things have become new. And yet at the point of conversion, looking from the outside, nothing has changed. So what has changed? To answer that question, we need to look at verse 21.
“For our sake [God] made [Jesus] to be sin Who knew no sin, so that in [Jesus] we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)
We understand from early in our faith that our sins were paid for on the cross. We believe by faith that Jesus, the perfect lamb, chose to take our sin on Himself in obedience to His Father. In that transaction, our sin and our guilt were placed on Jesus. Death, the price of sin, had been satisfied.
The second part of the text tells us that another exchange took place. The righteousness of Christ was placed on us. God made Him to be sin, but then God also made us become righteous. Our righteousness is a work of God alone. We contribute nothing to it. Romans 10:10 teaches that “with the heart man believes unto righteousness.” Righteousness is now a matter faith, not being “careful to do all the commandments of the Lord” as it was in the days of the law. At the moment of salvation, by faith we believe our sins were atoned for, and our righteousness was granted.
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4 ESV)
That God would show mercy and have Jesus die on our behalf is beyond our understanding. That He would then place Jesus’ own righteousness on us is grace far beyond our worth.
We serve an awesome God!