September 1, 2021 | By Jay Ashbaucher
This question is prompted by many people’s perception of the present-day world. Many are sensing an overall moral change in the world, not for the better, but for the worse. If there is a God who created all things, and if there is a God who is holy and free of all evil, and if there is a God who loves, cares, and communicates with the world he made, would not this God be the perfect source of what righteousness means. Indeed, such a God has spoken to humans in a book commonly called “The Bible”, and there we learn what righteousness is, how we can be righteousness in our relationship with God, and how to treat others by practicing what’s right in our relationships.
We all have a sense of right and wrong, but the problem is that people differ greatly in what they think is right. Consequently, most people in the world do what is right in their own eyes rather than letting God determine what is right. Righteousness is important because the Bible tells us that righteousness exalts a nation and its people, but unrighteousness will disgrace a nation and its people (Proverbs 14:34). Heeding Godly righteousness may not matter to most of the world, but it greatly matters to the individual who wants to learn how to live the right way. From the God who speaks through the Bible, we learn the following about what righteousness means.
First, righteousness is a state of being declared right with God. God promised a man named Abraham that he and his wife would have a son together, that their ensuing offspring would grow into a great nation, that their nation will possess a land of their own, and that through their promised son, the whole world will be blessed. It turns out that Christ Jesus is the son God was referring to, and through whom the whole world would be blessed. When Abraham believed God and God’s promises, God reckoned it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). We learn about this righteousness and how it applies to us by reading Romans chapter 4 in the Bible. For God to reckon any person as righteous means that by believing in God and his promised Son, God declares that believer to be right with him. In other words, individuals, through their faith, are made right in their relationship with God by being declared not guilty of their wrongs. This designation of righteousness is a gift no one deserves, but by the grace and good will of God, believers are given the status of being righteous in God’s eyes.
Second, righteousness is the practice of doing what is right. There are people throughout the Bible who are described as being righteous because they do good and practice things God deems to be right. These good works do not earn them the status of being right with God, but they can be called righteous persons for believing there is a God and a right way to live. There was a man named Cornelius who was a Roman soldier. He was said to be a good and righteous man, but he was not a believer in Christ Jesus. God sent a man to tell him about Jesus, and through faith in Christ, he was declared by God to be righteous. When people are made right with God through faith in God and his promises, according to Jesus’ words, they are born again (John 1:12-13; 3:3). Jesus baptizes them with the Holy Spirit (John 1:29-34), and they receive a promised new heart that wants to love and obey what God says is the right way to live (Ezekiel 36:25-27). Persons born of God practice doing what God says is right (1 John 3:9-10).
None of us is perfect, but in Christ Jesus, the believer desires to grow in overcoming wrongs and in doing what is right. If believers do wrong, God’s grace has made a provision for them to avoid guilt and self-putdowns so they can rise above their sinful ways and keep growing toward righteousness. The Bible says, “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). This is because of what Jesus did for us on the cross to satisfy God’s holy anger against our sin. It means that when we sin, being declared righteous and not guilty by God is to be believed so that we do not feel we are bad people and therefore put ourselves down with feelings of guilt or shame. We simply confess our wrong, believe God’s forgiveness with a thankful heart, and move on to keep getting better at overcoming our wrongdoing and pleasing God by doing what is right (1 John 1:9; 2:1-6).
A third kind of righteousness described in the Bible is self-righteousness. This is a wrong way to achieve righteousness with God and others. Self-righteousness can be practiced in two ways. First, it is trying to be right with God by being good and obeying his laws and teachings. We can never be righteous in God’s eyes by obeying his laws because we can’t do it perfectly. Our need for God’s righteousness rather than our own is made clear to us by reading the story of a man named Paul in Philippians 3:4-11. Second, self-righteousness is an attitude that we are better than others. This attitude is never condoned by God. Jesus told a story of two men; one thought he was better than another because he lived a good life by doing what he thought pleased God, while the other person lived a sinful life. The one who knew he was sinful and guilty of wrong was given mercy and forgiveness because of his honesty and humility, while the self-righteous person was not justified by God.
Fourth, righteousness is needed by God in order to forgive sins. Because of his holiness and perfect justice, God must punish the wrongdoer, or he would not be a fair and just God. God’s holiness (his justice) cannot allow him to be merciful to sinners (John 3:36). That is why Christ’s death is needed for God to be righteous in forgiving sinners. It is just for God to forgive because Christ took our punishment for us.
Is there righteousness in the world? Yes, because God never left us. Many who know his love and righteousness are living among us and are doing what God says is right to do. They are loving others as Jesus did and are overcoming evil by doing good in meeting people’s needs. All who seek the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, as Jesus encouraged according to Matthew 6:33, will be rewarded, for the Lord of righteousness is coming and then his justice and love will prevail throughout the earth. All nations and people will bow to him and there will finally be a world in which there is no more war, violence, or divisions. Peace and love will reign because, unlike this present world, doing what is right will rule in all relationships. But for now, righteousness exists in our world through people who know God, have experienced his forgiveness, and who do their best to practice the kind of right living that Jesus teaches.