Philippians: Righteousness

October 20, 2017

Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (Philippians 3:9)

Man was made to walk with God in the cool of the shade with unrestricted access to fellowship with his Maker. The all knowing, all powerful, and all sufficient One was more than enough to meet the deepest needs of his people. However, the serpent crept into the garden and tempted the man and woman to mistrust the goodness of God. In acting on that mistrust, fellowship with God was broken, and ever since that day, man has been restless. Like a fish out of water, man has been living removed from the very medium we were made for, with an uneasiness that things are not as they should be. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we don’t like being separated from God, so we seek by any means possible to return to right standing with God. At the end of the day, our longing is for righteousness.

Righteousness is a legal term meaning morally right or justifiable; free from sin or guilt and perfect. It means that upon close scrutiny by a judge or jury, one is found to be perfect and without fault. Inherent in the human condition is a deep understanding that we are not righteous and a desire to be so. Tim Keller argues that every person desires to be found righteous, and that there are three approaches people take in order to become righteous.

The first is the irreligious approach: those who don’t know God depend on things like achievements, appearance, success, power, wealth, and the virtuous aspects of their character in order to be approved and accepted. These people are always physically or mentally building up their resumes and the things about them that make them worthy of approval or acceptance. We all do this at times when we forget about God, and live as if he doesn’t exist.

The second is the religious approach: those who believe in God but seek approval based on their moral and spiritual performance. A belief that if we just do enough to please God then we will be accepted by Him. This approach is at the core of most major world religions, and describes the unknowing approach of many even within Christianity today. Paul saw this approach as dangerous and offensive because it was antithetical to the third, true, and only way we can be made righteous: The Gospel approach.

The Gospel approach is that God reveals and draws us to Himself, and by grace through faith, we are once and for all made righteous before God. It is an “alien righteousness,” given to us as a gift, dependent upon Christ’s payment for sin on the cross on our behalf. It’s as if we are wearing a white robe in God’s presence, given to us as a gift from Christ. Our righteousness comes from God and is by faith, as Paul says.

Paul, in essence, had dotted every I and crossed every T in the pursuit of right standing before God. If right standing could have been earned, he would have earned it. However, righteousness couldn’t be earned, and instead the pursuit made him hateful, spiteful, and violent. Especially when a group of people (Christians) came along saying that anyone could be made righteous by accepting God’s free gift of grace as attained by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul was determined to snuff from the face of the earth this “blasphemy” that made all of his qualifications of no value at all.

That all changed when he met the resurrected Lord face to face on the road to Damascus. Paul became gripped by the Grace of God, and became a glutton for the presence of God, which he experienced as a result of that grace. He ultimately went on to pen the words that changed a similar story for Martin Luther which read:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,
to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith,
as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.'” (Romans 1:16-17)

Of his meditations on Romans 1: 16 and 17, Luther says this:

“At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I … began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith… Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open…The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the justice of God had filled me with fear and hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.”

Justification by faith was the great truth that dawned on Paul, and later on Luther, and dramatically altered
the trajectory of the church. Because Christians are justified by grace along through faith alone in Christ alone, their standing before God is not in any way related to personal merit. Good works and practical holiness do not provide the grounds for acceptance with God. God receives as righteous those who believe, not because of any good thing He sees in them. Not even because of His own sanctifying work in their lives. But solely on the basis of Christ’s righteousness which is reckoned to their account. This is the Gospel, and it is good news indeed!