Righteousness is being “right” with God
Every person likes to feel accepted and loved. Knowing that others love and accept us is important for our health and well-being. Yet many Christians are so aware of their faults and shortcomings that they do not feel that God accepts them. Also, the fact that many do not feel accepted by their family or others contributes to their doubting that God could accept them. The purpose of this short study is to show from Scripture that every Christian is righteous before God. Biblically, righteousness is being “right” with God. When a person is “righteous,” he or she is “innocent,” “faultless,” or “not guilty” before God. The righteous person is “right” with God.
One word, two distinct uses
There is a lot of confusion among Christians about righteousness. Some say that we are righteous because of our good works, and others say our righteousness comes by faith apart from our works. Why the confusion? One reason is that the word “righteous” is used in two different ways in the New Testament. Christians must see and understand the difference between the two usages.
1. There are times in the New Testament when the word “righteous” refers to right or “righteous” acts, which is how it is used in the Old Testament. For example:
2 Timothy 2:22
Flee the evil desires of youth, and pursue righteousness [i.e., pursue doing righteous works].
2 Timothy 3:16
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness [i.e., in doing righteous works].
He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.
These three scriptures, and some others, use “righteousness” to mean, “doing what is right before God.” We should do our best to live in a righteous manner before God because this honors God and Christ. However, even when we do our best, we still fall short of God’s perfection, and this can cause us to feel unworthy before Him.
2. The second way “righteousness” is used in the New Testament is to describe the position that Christians have before God because of our faith in Jesus Christ. This righteousness is a spiritual reality and is completely separate from the works we do. It is this second usage of “righteous” that is the focus of this study.
“Righteousness” is the position of being totally acceptable to, and accepted by, God. Each Christian became acceptable to God when the sin that stood between him and God was washed away by the blood of Christ. Thus, “righteousness” is our standing in the sight of God as people who are “right” and “accepted” in spite of our sins, failures, and shortcomings. This “righteousness by faith” was not available before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and therefore it is not mentioned in the Old Testament or the Four Gospels. It is first revealed in the Church Epistles, which are specifically written to Christians.
The gift of righteousness
No human being is “good enough” to earn righteousness in God’s sight. The Bible confirms what honest people already know: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Because we all sin, it is impossible to be “right” with God based on our own merits. Our lives are so full of sins, shortcomings, and failures that the Bible says: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). We sin far too often to be righteous before God on our own, but we can be righteous in His sight through our faith in Jesus Christ.
God knew that no one would ever be able to earn a righteous standing in His sight, so in His grace and mercy God gave us righteousness as a gift. The book of Romans tells us that death came by Adam, but we have God’s gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ.
For if, by the trespass of the one man [Adam], death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Praise God for His wonderful gift of righteousness! Praise the Lord Jesus Christ who died to pay for our sins so that they would not be counted against us. It is our sins that make us “unrighteous” before God, but Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins, allowing us to stand righteous in God’s presence.
Scripture declares our righteousness
God wants us to be certain that we are righteous in His sight, so it is stated very clearly in Scripture.
(20) Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
(21) But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
(22) This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,
(23) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
(24) and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
(25a) God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice…
This section of Scripture is so important that we need to study it verse by verse.
Verse 20: “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.”
This verse states that we cannot be righteous before God by works, i.e., by trying to keep the Mosaic Law with all its commandments. On the contrary, the verse says that knowing what God requires of us only makes us more aware of where we fall short. The Bible very clearly states that if we could become righteous by our own works, then Christ did not need to die: “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal. 2:21b).
I believe that verse twenty contains the essence of the problem that most Christians deal with when it comes to righteousness before God. We were all raised in a world where, to be accepted, we had to do things right and keep the rules, i.e., “observe the law.” To be accepted by our parents we had to keep the rules, to be accepted in school we had to keep the rules, to be accepted where we work we have to keep the rules, to be accepted by our friends we have to keep the rules (although they are usually unspoken rules, they are there).
It is imbedded in the core of our being that in order to be accepted we must live up to a certain standard. But God’s rules are so pure, so holy, and so righteous, and we are so weakened by our sin nature, fleshly desires, and human weaknesses, that we cannot keep them. We fall short constantly. Consequently, our instinct takes over and says we are not acceptable, and then that is how we feel—unloved and unaccepted. However, God is telling us as loudly as He can that we will neither become righteous nor feel righteous by keeping the rules: “No one will be declared righteous in His sight by observing the law.” We need to make up our minds right here and now that the fact that we sin and fall short of God’s perfection does not make us unrighteous.
Verse 21: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”
Thank God! We are not able to keep all of God’s rules and regulations, and, thankfully, we do not have to in order to be righteous before Him. Righteousness apart from works has been made known. The Law of Moses taught that a person could be righteous if he obeyed all the Law (Deut. 6:25). The problem was, no one could do it. Jews could not keep all the Law during Old Testament times, and Christians cannot keep all of God’s rules now. Why not? Because, as Romans 8:3 says, our efforts are “weakened” by our “sinful nature.” Although we cannot be right with God by our own works, righteousness from God has been made available to us. How do we acquire it? Verse 22 tells us.
Verse 22: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference.”
This verse tells us exactly how to receive God’s gift of righteousness—it comes through faith in Jesus Christ. As sinners, we all deserve the penalty of death from a just God, because the Bible says, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23a). If we deserve death, how can we obtain eternal life and righteousness? Romans 6:23 concludes by saying, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” When we have faith in Jesus Christ, we receive a gift from God—our sin is paid for and we receive everlasting life and a righteous standing before God. Until our sin was paid for, we had an “outstanding debt” with God, but once Jesus Christ paid for our sin, we have a clean slate with God, and we are “right” with Him.
We become righteous before God by faith, so it is important that we understand exactly what “faith” is. Biblically, “faith” means “trust.” When we trust that Jesus Christ died for our sins and that God raised him from the dead, we are saved and receive God’s gift of righteousness. God wants all men to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4), and so He has made salvation easy to obtain and given clear instructions as to how to be saved. One clear verse that tells how is Romans 10:9.
That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Jesus paid for the sins of everyone, but only those people who accept the payment are made righteous. Anyone can refuse a gift, and people can refuse the free gift of salvation and righteousness that God has for them by refusing to have faith in Christ. When a person believes that Jesus is his living Lord, he gets both God’s gift of salvation and His gift of righteousness.
Verse 23: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
This verse is short and honest. We have all sinned, and we all fall short of God’s standards. We will never become so good that we will earn righteousness by our works. No, it must be a gift from God.
Verse 24: “And are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
This verse is loaded with important truths. Every Christian is “justified” in the sight of God. In the New Testament, the words “righteous” and “justified” come from the same Greek root word. Justification and righteousness are related concepts. “Justification” (dikaioo) is the legal process that leads to the state of being “righteous” (dikaios). A person is justified (found to be not guilty) inside the courtroom and then, after the trial, stands outside on the courthouse steps righteous (free of blame) in the sight of the law.
In God’s court of law we should receive what we deserve, the death penalty. However, at the trial we find out that the penalty was already paid by someone else—Jesus Christ. Thus we are justified in God’s court, and stand righteous before Him. The Amplified Bible expounds on the meaning of the word “justified” in this verse, and says that we are “justified and made upright and in right standing with God.” The righteousness that we could not earn, God gave us.
Verse 24 also says we were “freely” given this gift of righteousness. How can this wonderful gift be free? Simple. It is free to us because it was paid for by someone else—Jesus Christ. Salvation and righteousness are free to us because they were “bought” with the blood of Jesus Christ (Acts 20:28).
God gives us the gift of salvation and the gift of righteousness because of His grace. “Grace” is a concept that every Christian needs to understand. “Grace” means granting undeserved favor or giving an undeserved gift. As Christians, we are to show grace to others, that is, we are to give good words and deeds to people who do not deserve them. The Bible says that Christians should have grace in their hearts and in what they say (Col. 3:16; 4:6). Just as we give gracious words and gifts to people who do not deserve them, God gives His grace to us.
We do not deserve God’s grace—which is exactly why it is “grace.” If you feel like you do not deserve God’s grace, you are correct. We were sinners and “enemies” of God (Rom. 5:10), but that did not keep Him from loving us, and so, without our deserving anything but wrath, God gave us His undeserved favor—His grace. God’s gracious gift includes both righteousness in His sight and eternal life with Him.
Verse 24 also mentions “redemption,” which is “a release that is obtained when a ransom is paid.” The Christian has been released from the penalty of sin. Prior to becoming a Christian, we were in bondage to sin and its consequences and could not get free on our own. In order for us to be released from that bondage, a payment had to be made, and Jesus Christ made it.
If we were to get rid of the “biblical vocabulary” and summarize verse 24 in common English, it would read something like this: “[We Christians] are made right with God by a free gift. Even though we do not deserve it, Jesus Christ paid the ransom that released us from the consequences of our sin.”
Verse 25a: “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice….”
God is just, and even though He loves people, He cannot simply “wish away” the consequences of sin. A payment must be made. Parents understand this. If your child steals a cookie and then lies about it, even though the child is the joy of your heart, justice requires some payment. It may be as simple as a “lecture” or a “time out,” but justice demands judgment and a penalty. It is not justice to let sin go unpunished, and God, by His nature, must be just. Since “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), death must be meted out as the punishment. And it was! Jesus Christ died, and in His grace, God allowed Jesus’ death to be the substitute for the death we all deserve. Jesus was the sacrifice of atonement for us.
The Jews in the Old Testament understood sacrifices of atonement, which were an important part of Jewish life. An Israelite who was guilty of sin brought an animal as a sacrifice, and that sacrifice made atonement for the sinner. “Atonement” is a word every Christian needs to understand. It is built from the two words “at” and “one.” In the Old Testament, the death of the animal brought the sinner and God back together “at-one.” Jesus Christ was the “at-one-ment” for our sin. He was the sacrifice that brought God and us together “at-one.” Every Christian is now “at-one” with God. It is a spiritual reality that is true even when we do not feel “at-one” with God. The greatness of the work of Christ is that even if we feel apart from God, He is not apart from us. He is at-one with us and will never leave us or forsake us.
Our righteousness before God is a very important concept, and so there are many verses in the New Testament that speak of it. A few of them are:
Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.
1 Corinthians 1:30
It is because of him [God] that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
2 Corinthians 5:21
God made him who had no sin to be sin [a sin offering] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
We do not deserve the righteousness that God has given us, but we must believe that we have it and accept our righteous position before God.
Righteousness is not a feeling
The Bible clearly declares that Christians are righteousness before God, so why do so many people have trouble accepting that they are righteous? The primary reason is that most Christians believe their feelings instead of what the Word of God says. We all sin, so it is natural to “feel” unrighteous in God’s sight. Our sin and shortcomings produce feelings of guilt and shame, and it is good that they do, because our guilt often prompts us to quit sinning. Unfortunately, those same feelings of guilt make us feel unaccepted by God. Nevertheless, even when we sin, we are righteous in God’s sight because of the work of Jesus Christ. Our sin and feelings of guilt are real, but so is the righteousness God has given us.
Some Christians teach that our righteousness is the ability to stand before God without any sense of guilt, sin, or shortcoming. In other words, those Christians teach that a truly righteous person should not have feelings of sin and shame in his life. That is not correct, and misses the point that our righteousness is a gift from God. Certainly it is true that if we do righteous acts we will not feel guilty about them. The problem is that we all sin, and do unrighteous things. Thankfully, the book of Romans is very clear: we are not righteous because we do what God says (no one will be righteous in God’s sight by keeping all the rules; Rom. 3:20), but rather we are righteous “apart from” keeping all the rules (Rom. 3:21). Our righteousness comes, not by what we do, but because we have faith in Christ.  We all fall short of God’s standards, and it is natural that our sin and shortcomings produce feelings of being unrighteousness and unaccepted by God.
We must realize that “feelings” and our God given righteousness are not necessarily connected. Christians are righteous even when we do not “feel” righteous. On the other hand, we may “feel good” about something when it is not good or godly. The Bible (and experience) teaches us that we all sin, and the only way a person can sin against God and not have feelings of guilt, shame, or wrongdoing is if he sins in ignorance, or if he has what the Bible calls a conscience that has “been seared as with a hot iron” (1 Tim. 4:2). Unfortunately, that is the case with many people. Hardened criminals are well known for their seared consciences, and they can do very evil and hurtful things without feeling any shame or remorse.
Sadly, there are Christians who have seared consciences in certain areas, and no longer feel any sense of guilt or shame when they sin in those areas. However, they certainly are not righteous simply because they do not “feel unrighteous.” Thankfully, it is almost always the case that one’s conscience is seared only toward certain behaviors. For example, a Christian who has become so wrapped up in pornography that he no longer feels any guilt or shame about it, may feel very guilty if he steals something. God is a God of grace and mercy, and many people with seared consciences have been restored to wholeness and tenderness by obedience and prayer. The lesson each Christian needs to learn is that our God-given righteousness is not necessarily connected to our feelings. We sometimes feel unrighteous even though we are righteous before God, and we may feel good about ourselves while doing things that are not godly.
It seems paradoxical that even when we sin in the flesh, we are still righteous in God’s sight. That is because righteousness is such a wonderful gift of God’s grace, and a spiritual reality. You may not feel at-one with God, but if you are a Christian, you are. The Bible says Christians are to live by faith and not by “sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). That means we are to live by trusting what God says and not by what we see or feel. We have to trust that what God says is true, and that any feelings to the contrary are lying to us. Remember the record of Adam and Eve? Eve “felt” that it would be okay to eat the fruit God had said not to eat, and so she ignored what God had said about it. Disaster resulted. We all need to learn from Adam’s and Eve’s mistake, and realize that no matter how we feel, what God says is the Truth. We may feel that Christ will never return, but he will. We may feel like the evil on this earth will never be removed, but it will. We Christians must learn to think about ourselves the way God thinks about us.
If you are feeling unrighteous, go back to the Word of God, study what it says, and pray to clearly understand the gift of righteousness that has been freely given to you. Then take captive your thoughts of unrighteousness (2 Cor. 10:5), and tell yourself you are not going to be tricked by what you feel, but that you are going to believe the Word of God. Say, “I am righteous before God” over and over, hundreds of times if you have to. Say it out loud if you have to. Your feelings of unrighteousness come from deep within you and from your earliest experiences. It may take a lot to change those feelings, but God will help you. Remember: all things are possible with God.
Although we fall short of God’s goal of perfection for us, God has given us grace (undeserved favor) and sent Jesus Christ to die in order to pay for the penalty of our sin. Now, “bought and paid for,” each of us stands before God as a righteous person, at-one with Him.