Editor’s note: This article has impacted my own walk with God as much as any other. As editor, I first published it in the Boston Church of Christ Bulletin and in Discipleship Magazine in 1991. DPI also published it in The Revised Disciple's Handbook. The challenge remains: Am I more into being right or righteous?
"For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven" -- Matthew 5:20
What do you think of when you hear the word "righteousness"? About a year ago I was challenged about my understanding of the nature of righteousness in the Bible and in my daily living. J.P. Tynes introduced the idea in a class that the word used for "righteousness" in the Old Testament carries a deeply embedded cultural concept. The challenge was that this concept was more tied to the fulfillment of the relationship between two persons than to the fulfillment of a legalistic code. Thinking like an Old Testament Jew, even two thieves could be considered "righteous" in their relationship to one another if it were characterized by sharing, fairness, camaraderie and loyalty.
This was an intriguing thought that shook the foundation of the absolute righteousness that I had always cast upon God's nature and law. Furthermore, it occurred to me that understanding this concept fully could transform the way we see ourselves as Christians and the importance of relationships in our daily lives.
I set about to investigate this curiosity for myself and what I found has done more to revolutionize my own concept of God and the church than any other single understanding about the Bible.
Righteousness in the Old Testament
As I researched this idea to see if it had validity, the results were startling. Of the theological dictionaries of the Old Testament all six contained a discussion of "righteousness" in the terms described above. I have included here an excerpt from one of these references because it states the case more succinctly than I could in my own words:
"Righteousness," as it is understood in the OT is a thoroughly Hebraic concept, foreign to the Western mind and at variance with the common understanding of the term. The failure to comprehend its meaning is perhaps most responsible for the view of the OT religion as 'legalistic' and as far removed from the graciousness of the NT.
Rather "righteousness" is, in the Old Testament, the fulfillment of the demands of a relationship, whether that relationship be with men or with God. Each man is set within a multitude of relationships: king with people, judge with complainants, priests with worshipers, common man with family, tribesman with community, community with resident alien and poor all with God. And each of these relationships brings with it specific demands, the fulfillment of which constitutes righteousness. -- From "Righteousness" by E. R. Achtemeier in Interpreter I Dictionary #the Bible, Abingdon Press 1962, volume 4, pp.80-85
This idea can be seen in passages like Psalm 40:10 where David says, "I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and salvation." God's righteousness is equated with his faithfulness in relationships and his saving or rescuing of those he loves. In Psalm 65 we see that God answers "with awesome deeds of righteousness" by forgiving those overwhelmed with sins and filling them with the good things from his house. In Psalm 103:6 God's righteousness means his commitment to the oppressed. Righteousness is clearly not being used to mean that God obeys some abstract moral code but that he is faithful in relationships.
Isaiah 32:1-2 envisions the coming Kingdom of God as one in which "a king will reign in righteousness and men will rule with justice," and where each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow a great rock in a thirsty land.
The Kingdom of Righteousness is one where the king will be committed to his relationships with his people. Where leaders under him will have this same heart and where all the people will be faithful to the care and protection of one another.
Jesus and Righteousness
Jesus lived out this kind of righteousness with a passion that confounded many of the people around him. While the Pharisees were muttering about the character of the woman who was washing Jesus' feet with perfume, Jesus was caring about her, thus meeting the simple demands of the relationship. When Zaccheus climbed the tree just to get a glimpse of Jesus, Jesus met that anticipation by having lunch with the man and his family while the Jews stood outside and pondered Jesus’ poor choice of friends. He initiated with the woman at the well, while the disciples could not figure out why he would be talking to a woman. Jesus stopped amid the throng to meet the need of the bleeding woman when she cried out for attention by simply touching his garment. Jesus saw that right relationships were the key to righteousness, rather than legalistically and dutifully acting out some prescribed behavior.
Relationship with God
Throughout eternity, it has been God's plan to establish and keep a relationship with man. God has expectations of us to fulfill the other side of that relationship. Isaiah 59:1-2 simply states that God has always done his part and that it is our sin, our failing, that severs the relationship. Our righteousness before God is simply based on fulfilling the demands of the relationship that he desires to have with us. This righteousness demonstrates so clearly the failure of a “works" mentality in Christianity. Prayer is not a time to accomplish your list of things to get done with God's help, but it is time with God, fulfilling the relationship he desires to have with you. The righteousness of prayer is not a daily duty or task before God or because God will not work if we do not pray; it is part of our relationship. If we do not communicate, we cannot work together. All the good works we could list that are void of relationship can no longer be considered righteous. It is the relationship that will ultimately be the test on Judgment Day.
Many people who appeared to work hard in serving God, people who may have even done miracles and exorcisms in Jesus’ name, will stand before Jesus describing their lives of service and Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers" -- Matthew 7:21-23. Jesus does not deny that these persons actually did this things, but he does say that they were not doing his will. His will was for them to know him and for him to know them. All the right activity without knowing God does not accomplish his will. In John 5:39 Jesus accosts the Jews who doubted who he was. He said, “You diligently study the scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” They were doing the right thing by studying the scriptures, but they were not pursuing the relationship that the scriptures were offering them.
This is reflected further in Matthew 25 when the sheep and the goats are separated for eternity. The concluding judgment is that "they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (Matthew 25:46).
The apostle Paul, in struggling to advance his relationship with God, compares his legalistic tradition in Judaism with the surpassing value of knowing Christ. He continues, “I consider them rubbish that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" -- Philippians 3:9.
This statement about righteousness is not just sandwiched between two very pointed statements of Paul's desire to know Christ; it is in fact all one thought: that Paul's greatest pursuit was to have a right relationship to God, the essence of righteousness before God. That righteousness is something that God has initiated in spite of us (1 John 4:9-11). Our response and only hope is faith in God's promise and his way of making us righteous through the cross (2 Corinthians 5:18-19, Ephesians 2:17-18).
Righteousness of Christian Relationships
The sin that stands between brothers who are striving to be righteous is an affront to God that is heartily condemned throughout the Bible. Think of all the passages about sin in the New Testament, and see how many of them are set in the context of the failure to meet the needs of a relationship. These relationships are always cast in the presence of God and are associated with our fulfillment of that relationship as well. The "one another" passages do not constitute a "list of scriptures" that tell us how we ought to be. They represent the struggle of God through his Word to accurately represent the nature of righteousness. Whatever action or thought that breaks down a relationship or destroys unity is simply unrighteous. That which builds up and promotes unity is righteous.
Whether we are righteous as we eat meat previously sacrificed to idols, drink wine with dinner, talk with a third person about conflict with another, etc., has little to do with the action itself, but with whether relationships are built or destroyed as a result of our action. Even the absolutes of sexual immorality, lying, stealing, murder and the like, are not isolated activities that God has capriciously defined as sins. They are actions that destroy or degrade relationships with others and with God himself. They are simply unrighteous in the purest sense. “Those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God" -- Galatians 5:21. God is opposed to adultery, homosexuality, pornography and premarital sex, not because he dislikes us or is trying to deprive us, but because these behaviors destroy right relationships. Contrasted with this behavior are the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Each of these fruits builds right relationships with others.
It is possible to be “right” and be unrighteous. For years I was an avid fan of having the truth exposed at any cost. I spoke my mind in this pursuit and even when I was “right,” I often left damaged relationships in my wake. “The truth hurts, don’t it,” was a common attitude. Righteousness, or a right relationship demands that truth be sought, upheld and spoken, but it must be spoken in love. Paul addresses this clearly in Ephesians 4 as he confronts the “cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming.” He points out that “instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ.” When we walk away from a tough conversation, is the other person, no matter how convicted, convinced that we love them? Has the relationship been built or torn down? It is often possible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are right, and leave a relationship devastated because of unrighteous behavior.
Priorities in Relationships
There will be times when the demands of one relationship come in conflict with the demands of another. Certainly, there is one relationship that always must have the priority: our relationship with God. The righteous choice is always the one which puts our relationship with God first. We cannot interact righteously with another person if we put that person before God, even though they may want to make that demand on us (Matthew 10:37-38, Luke 14:25ff).
We cannot be righteous if we seek our own welfare above that of our relationship with God. God knows we need many things, the barest of necessities, food, clothing and shelter being just a few. There are two ways to get these things. We can chase after them or we can "Seek first the kingdom of heaven and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33). Our unity with God is always the first priority, even if it means sacrificing another relationship or our desire for material satisfaction. Do not be fooled; we are never righteous in our relationship with someone if we love them more than we love God, or if we sin with them to keep the relationship.
Impossibility of 'Self-Righteousness'
True righteousness can never be self-generated or self-perpetuated. The man who strives with all his might to be "righteous," i.e. doing all the right things, while ignoring or looking down on others cannot be righteous. Just as our righteousness with God is totally dependent on his gracious forgiveness of the sins that separate us from him, so is our righteousness with other people. For example, Paul, as we saw earlier in Philippians 3:9, earnestly desired that it not be “a righteousness of my own that comes from law; but that which is through faith in Christ Jesus-the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith." In Romans 3:20, Paul further states that “no one will he declared righteous in his sight by observing the law." We must understand that whatever righteousness we have is only because we are forgiven sons and daughters, by faith, and this is a gift of God, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9). Our righteousness with others requires the same forgiveness and grace and faith. We must “settle matters quickly" and “not let the sun go down on our anger." We must have the righteousness of God by being more interested in sustaining the relationship than executing justice due.
Righteousness, in the true meaning of the concept, cannot be had in a closet. The measure of righteousness is always in the context of another relationship. Thus, “self-righteousness" is really a contradiction in terms.
Righteousness of the Church
In Isaiah 9:7, the prophecy of Jesus states that he will establish and uphold his kingdom with justice and righteousness. Right relationships are the building blocks of a great church. This is perhaps one of the greatest discoveries of the multiplying ministries and their worldwide impact. It also divulges the greatest failure of many churches that have taught the right doctrine but were not serious about the relationships that establish and uphold the kingdom. We are not and cannot be autonomous or independent as part of the kingdom of God. The demands of true righteousness form the “joints and ligaments," the relationships, that hold the various parts of the church together. Righteousness sustains the very purpose and meaning of the church as the community of saved people who serve as the light to the world and the salt of the earth.
Righteousness of Evangelism
In light of the true definition of righteousness, evangelism can no longer he "one of the things that God expects me to do." It actually is fulfilling the demands of the relationships that surround us every day. God's eternal plan has been to reconcile all people to himself and unite people where sin has divided them. (Read Ephesians and 2 Corinthians 5.) The encounters we have daily with many people, no matter how prolonged or how brief, are relationships that set demands on us for our example, our patience, love, consideration, kindness, etc. When we meet these demands, we are righteous. When we fail, we are unrighteous. Also, when sin is not forgiven, there is always a barrier to a relationship. We know that no relationship can he complete and unified while sin remains on either side. Thus, the fulfillment of the demands of every relationship we have is eventually the repentance that leads to forgiveness from God and from each other. Only then can unity and harmony between two people be complete.
Attempting to fulfill this need in the relationships that surround us is evangelism in its purest form. It cannot be relegated only to a scheduled activity but must rather he a comprehensive passion to see all relationships restored completely according to God's plan. The righteousness of God manifests itself in his striving to do all he could to bring us back to him without compromising truth and the nature of God. Righteousness for us must have his one focus: striving to do everything we can to bring others to a right relationship with God without compromising truth and the nature of God.
Call to Righteousness
Each of us must seriously reflect on the depths and importance of Biblical righteousness in our lives. We must begin to live out this concept with the passion of Jesus, never compromising its purity for our own selfish ambitions or pride. When the objective of our lives is right relationship with God and with all men with all the force that God has given in the Bible, we, as a movement, will continue to see growth, not only in the number of people who are brought into the kingdom, but in the quality of the fabric of the kingdom itself.
©Frederick Faller. Used here by permission.
The challenge before each of us is to reform our understanding and use of the work “righteousness” so that when we hear it and when we think it, we see the fulfillment of relationships. This is not easy. We have no word in our language (English) that adequately translates to this concept and our culture does not have a conceptual basis for it. To do this will require a deep repentence, a metanoia, a changing of our mind until we see it properly.
A good study is to go through the Bible and find each instance of the word righteous, or righteousness and re-write the verse (in context of course) to include the idea of a “right relationship.” Reflect on these verses until you see righteousness. I have included a few favorite examples below: Remember that right relationships include God and other persons.
Matthew 5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for right relationships, for they will be filled.”
Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of right relationships, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Mathew 5:20 “For I tell you, that unless the rightness of your relationships surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."
Matthew 6:33 “But seek first his kingdom and his right relationship with you, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Matthew 25:46 “Then they (the goats) will go away to eternal punishment, but those with a right relationship (to God) to eternal life."
Romans 3:21 “But now a right relationship with God from God, apart from the law, has been made known, … This right relationship from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”
Philippians 3:8b–9 “I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a right relationship (to God) on my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ — the right relationship that comes from God and is by faith."
There are many other passages that show the struggle Paul had to inject righteousness into the church built out of the Greek society that also had no word to translate this deep concept. Just remember: righteousness is all about relationships.
1 Thessalonians 5:12-15, Philippians 2 (whole chapter), Ephesians 4-6 (an incredible challenge to right relationships), Galations 6:1-5, 1 Corinthians 13:1-12, 1 Corinthians 8, 10:14–31, Romans 14-15, 1 Corinthians 6:1-11, Romans 12:3-21