With all the lawsuits flying back and forth over the last few days in regards to President Trump’s executive orders it started me thinking about that great word of the law court “righteousness.” Righteousness by faith is a term that we throw around continually, but have we ever sat down and deciphered what it actually means?
First of all we need to remember that righteousness is an attribute of God and secondly righteousness does not reside within “us.” The third thing we should remember about righteousness is that it is a legal term that springs from the courtroom.
Another point of interest is that in many texts that speak of righteousness we also have the terms “God’s steadfast love,” “salvation,” “justice/just” and “truth/truthfulness.” And though we often talk of these terms such as salvation and righteousness as if they are interchangeable, there are nuances of the words that give insight into the righteousness of God.
In his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N.T. Wright gives us a short primer on the basic concept behind each of the above words or phrases. Salvation can be looked at as God’s rescue mission while steadfast love “is that because of which He will woo His people back again, forgiving their previous wrongs.” (p. 796) Truth or trustworthiness is the idea that God is faithful to declare what He says He will do and does what He says He will do. Justice is the characteristic that reminds us that God can be trusted or relied upon to always do what is right for us.
That brings us to righteousness. Wright simply defines this as “God’s faithfulness to His previous commitments.” I know that may well be an oversimplification but it gives us a skeleton to hang some flesh. The idea of righteousness being associated with the court of law comes from the Israelite courts, which were civil, and had no defense attorney’s or prosecutors. The judge decided the merits of the case upon its own weight and would make decisions that were honest, fair, and fit the offense. The innocent would be vindicated and the perpetrator would receive sentence. These judges also had the responsibility to look out for the proper treatment in court of widows, orphans, and others who had no one to intercede for them.
When the judge decided the case fairly it was called “judgment,” and when the judge does everything properly himself he is righteous, “in the right.” In order to discharge his duty properly the judge must be righteous and dispense judgment without bias or prejudice. We could say that he has to decide the case properly and then take the appropriate action based upon his righteous decision.
When the word “righteous” is applied to one of the people standing before the judge it can have the meaning of the “status” of that person. He is declared righteous, “in the right”, while the other person is declared to be “in the wrong”. But the word, also in association with standing before the judge, also can refer to the moral character of the person. They are of good character in regards to the lawsuit. Now here is the kicker. What happens in the court when the judge gets it wrong and the guilty party is declared innocent? The judge, not knowing his error, will still declare the person righteous so we have sinners being declared righteous “being in the right” before the court.
Of course God never makes mistakes in His judgment so our declaration of being declared righteous is always upon the basis of our being guilty but the great judge of the Universe finding in our favor. There are no mistakes in God’s review of the case, no overlooked facts, just grace. Now here is the even more important aspect of this, if anything could be considered more important than the other when speaking of righteousness, is that the judge is the one who is righteous and the plaintiff is declared righteous by the verdict of the court.
Wright gives an example that helps us understand this all a bit clearer. David is hiding in a cave when King Saul enters the cave to relieve himself. David manages to cut a piece of Saul’s robe and when the King is safely away from him he calls out to Saul. “May God judge between me and you. May God avenge me on you but my hand shall not be against you…….May God therefore be judge and give sentence between me and you. May He see to it and plead my cause and vindicate me against you.” 1 Samuel 24:12-15
This passage is set up as a courtroom drama. David has called God to judge between him and Saul in regards to their conflict and then to give sentence. He is calling upon God, the righteous judge, to do justice within His great court of trustworthiness. Saul’s reply further amplifies the court setting of the encounter between himself and David. “You are more righteous than I; for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil.” 1 Samuel 24:17
The verdict of this encounter is not based upon David having a more moral character than Saul, as anyone who has read about David’s life knows that isn’t the case. It is based upon the righteous decision of God who confers that David is in the right and declares a “status” upon him as “in the right” (righteous). Therefore, the verdict “to be in the right” is a matter of status conferred by the court and not a matter of moral character. The result when we speak of righteousness it is always, in regards to ourselves, a status given to us and never a condition of our being made righteous.
The idea of “righteousness by faith,” can therefore be thought about as our faith that God our judge is righteous in His judgment and His verdict towards us always just. Some of us may have just taken a big gulp here and wondered how this is good news. After all if I stand before God won’t He know how in the wrong I am and judge me accordingly? Not to worry!
Remember, earlier in the post we defined “steadfast love” as God’s wooing His people back forgiving us of our sins.” And that is exactly what He does through Jesus and the Spirit. When Jesus went to Calvary He fulfilled the covenant God made to Abraham, that He would be faithful to it by providing a Savior that would undo all the harm done originally through Adam’s sin.
When Jesus died on Calvary’s cross He defeated sin, death, and Satan. Through the breaking of their strangle hold on all God’s creation including us, we were free to accept the grace of God. Jesus’ death on Calvary was not to appease an angry God who had to pour wrath out upon sinners. Jesus’ death was a manifestation of the righteousness and love of the Father who, through the sacrifice of the Son, brought us back into harmony with that love for all who accepted this gift of grace.
Jesus’ death freed us from the bondage of sin, death, and Satan and brought us into the presence of the righteous judge who, through His Son, promised us “Whosoever believeth in me shall never perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16 Jesus’ death redeemed us(brought us back from slavery) and declared to us the “status” of being declared righteous “in the right” by the righteous judge who dispenses justice, mercy, and compassion to a broken humanity.
At the cross we come to God with outstretched arms and He covers us with His love and forgiveness. He has paid the ultimate price in sacrifice and blood and suffering to bring us home. It is at the cross He cries out to the world “I love you.” It is at the cross where we cry out, “God remember me when you come to your Kingdom.” It is at the cross where the Father declares us “righteous” because He, as the great Judge, has hammered down the verdict righteous.
The court of Heaven is the court at the cross. Through the Spirit we are in the hands of a righteous judge who always declares justice and His justice is always “mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, love, compassion, and peace of heart for all who ask. Righteousness by faith is not righteousness because of your faith, it is righteousness found in God by your faith in that righteousness.
It is all about God.