Jun 8, 2005

Righteousness for everyone

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines the word "righteous" as "acting in accord with divine or moral law". In the 1950s through 1970s, the word was slang for something that was exceedingly good. However, that usage has fallen by the wayside as the current American culture's postmodern worldview challenges the idea of a single divine or moral law. The idea that any single definitive moral law may apply to everyone is repulsive to many. It appears discriminatory and intolerant of differences between people. To claim that one has the final moral law sounds presumptions. To claim righteousness borders on arrogance. It is no wonder that churches full of righteous Christians are unpopular with the less righteous public at large.

In Romans Paul discusses righteousness in the light of the gospel. Jesus Christ changed the entire framework of relating to God. Righteousness, as the state of being acceptable before God, gained a new meaning in this shift. Early in Romans, Paul introduces this new sense of righteousness, saying "For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, "But the righteous man shall live by faith." (Romans 1:17). Paul elaborates on this “righteousness by faith”, which in some ways were drastically different from the common idea of righteousness at the time. Much of Paul's address is to those accustomed to the Jewish paradigm. For the Jews, the symbols of their acceptance by God lay in God's covenant with Abraham and the Law bestowed upon Moses. The covenant is described in Genesis 17, where God says "I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you... And you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you" (Genesis 17:7,11). The covenant of circumcision represented the acceptable relationship between the descendent of Abraham and God. Later in Exodus, God says to Moses shortly before giving him the Law, "Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:5-6). Hence the Law was the symbol of Israel's status as God's priestly nation.

In Romans 2 Paul criticizes the symbols of circumcision that was held dearly by the Jews. In Romans 2:25, Paul argues "For indeed circumcision is of value if you practice the Law; but if you are a transgressor of the Law, your circumcision has become uncircumcision". Although a symbol of the covenant, righteousness was in fact attained by obedience to the Law. Having the symbol did not automatically include one in the righteous elite. Only someone who fulfilled the Law could be considered morally flawless and righteous.

Paul challenges these classic ideals for righteousness. He summarizes the gospel like this:
"But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested,
being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:21-24).
The latter half of this passage points out the problem with the Law. It defines the requirements for moral perfection, but in the process it effectively puts righteousness beyond the reach of mortal man. The old thinking considered Jews as the righteous chosen people of God. Paul quickly shot down that line of thinking, defining righteousness by moral perfection according to the Law. This leads to the conclusion that no man is righteous. Paul’s option is the "righteousness of God" which is "apart from the Law". This is the gospel message in a nutshell, that God has offered a new reconciliation to righteousness for all those who failed via the Law. This redemption is a gift by the grace of God to all who have failed to earn it. It is available to all those who believe; it is not only the Jews who are privy to God's grace. This is a gift made possible by the death of Jesus Christ. God had paid the price to reconcile mankind to Himself. The way to righteousness by the Law and circumcision are not able to reconcile people to God.

If anyone portrays themselves as the righteous elite, then it is certainly not this righteousness of God which is offered to all. Faith in Jesus Christ comes with the confession that one is woefully insufficient on ones own, and that one is no more righteous than his fellow man. God's intention was that mankind in general could be reconciled through his chosen priesthood. However, not only did they fail at proclaiming God's righteousness to the world, but they themselves routinely fell into following other gods. Throughout Israel's history, God routinely forgave the wandering Israelites and restored them after a period of punishment. God had set a precedent for grace through the books of the Law and the Prophets.

Now the church can learn much from Israel's history. At times Israel seemed to have taken their place as God's chosen people for granted, and fallen away into sin. In Romans 6:1-2, Paul says "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?". One cannot claim to accept God's righteousness yet turn around and mindfully act contrary to it. In Romans 6:17-18, Paul uses the analogy of being "slaves of righteousness", and likewise in Romans 8:12 he says "we are under obligation, not to the flesh". We are not to be obedient to God in order to achieve righteousness. Rather it is a response to God's love, obedience follows from having been made righteous.

In the end, the actions of the righteous speak for themselves. God had called the descendants of Abraham to be his chosen people, so that his glory on earth might be seen through them. Where the covenant and the Law did not succeed in redemption, God sent his Son. to make men righteous. He did not do this so that the righteous could stand above others, but rather that God's love might be expressed in the world through them. Jesus did not come to make disciples so that they could gloat above others, "so that all the nations might believe and obey him" (Romans 16:26). God's power is not expressed by the church's dominion over the world, but rather that his people act righteously, so that all men may share in his kingdom.

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