What is it that makes a person righteous? It most certainly is not something we do (or don't do). If it were, Jesus died in vain.
The story of Abraham's faith in God is well known. He simply believed in the LORD, and the LORD counted him as righteous.1 God had spoken, and Abraham believed the promise that his offspring would someday be as numerous as the stars.
After their son Isaac was born, and Abraham and Sarah had spent several years raising this miracle child, God tested Abraham's faith to see if he loved his only son more than he loved God. Just imagine the kind of trust it took, to actually take his son up the mountain and prepare to sacrifice him! His faith was so strong that he knew God was able to raise Isaac from the dead, even if he had gone through with slaying him.
Would we be willing to trust God as much as Abraham did? James [Greek: Jacob], the Lord's brother, said that we should be joyful when we "fall into manifold temptations [Greek: adversities]2; knowing that the proof of your faith worketh patience [Greek: constancy]."3 (James 1:2b-3). The more our trust in God is tried (put to proof), the more steadfast we will be in that trust (faith).
James [Greek: Jacob] also brings out the fact that Abraham was justified by works when he obeyed God by preparing to offer up Isaac on the altar. Abraham's trust in God was evident in his works as he went up the mountain with his son--his faith was proven in his obedience. James [Greek: Jacob] tells us, "The Scripture was fulfilled which says, 'AND ABRAHAM BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS,' and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." (James 2:23b-24 NAS).
Saul of Tarsus had been very much the Law-abiding Pharisee until Jesus claimed him for His own, transforming him into "Paul the Apostle." Paul wrote that he counted all things as "loss" if only he could know Christ, and he did suffer the loss of all things. He also said that everything was "dung" compared to knowing the excellency of Christ. (The Greek word for "dung" means "what is thrown to the dogs.")4 His desire was this: ". . . that I may gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God by faith."5
Jesus put to death the flesh of man in Himself, which is the reason Paul said that Jesus was made to BE Righteousness unto us.6 Jesus is Righteousness to all who rely on Him for salvation and entrust their spiritual well-being to Him. The remnant will be made up of all who have received Jesus as their Righteousness.
We may think of self-righteousness as being a haughty or better-than-thou attitude. Although such an attitude may often be evident, true self-righteousness is far more destructive.
A religious life apart from a relationship with Jesus Christ and the Grace of God is a life of self-righteousness. This was evident with the Jews, because the righteousness of the Law was a flesh righteousness--obeyed in the strength of flesh. The Israelites had a problem letting go of their own righteousness. They were so entrenched in the Law that many rejected Righteousness (Jesus) and the freedom available through trust in Him. They had a zeal for God, but it was not according to knowledge of Him. Being ignorant of His righteousness, they went about attempting to establish their own through the works of the Law. As Paul told the Romans, the requirements of the Law ended at the Cross--fulfilled in Jesus. It had pointed the Jews to Messiah, and from then on righteousness can be found only IN HIM.7
What is grace?
Much of the church is bereft of understanding as to the true meaning of grace. Somewhere along the way, someone coined the phrase "God's unmerited favour" to define God's Grace. This erroneous, man-made definition has spread like wildfire throughout the church. It is accepted without question simply because someone passed it on, along with all the other erroneous traditions of man.
The Hebrew language does define grace as "favour" within the context of its use in the Old Testament.8 For instance, Genesis 6:8 says, "But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD." Another verse uses "favour," translated from the same Hebrew word: "But the LORD was with Joseph, and shewed him mercy, and gave him favour in the sight of the keeper of the prison." (Genesis 39:21). The "grace" of the Old Testament was simply that of finding favour in the eyes of God, or sometimes man.
In the New Testament, "grace" has a completely different meaning. James Strong defined the Greek word "charis"9 as "graciousness (as gratifying), of manner or act. . . literally, figuratively, or spiritually: especially the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life; including gratitude." This definition was translated into the following English words: "acceptable, benefit, favour, gift, grace (-ious), joy, liberality, pleasure, thank (-s, -worthy)." The words shown in bold print (my emphasis) reflect the meaning of "Grace" in the majority of verses throughout the New Testament.
God's divine influence is the work of the Holy Spirit in all who come to rely upon Christ for salvation. When we surrender to the Spirit of Grace we are "entrusting our spiritual well-being to Christ." In Galatians 2:20, Paul made clear the understanding of both Faith and Grace when he said he had been crucified with Christ, and that Christ's life now lived through Paul because of his faith in Him. The simple reality is that Paul relied on the Life of Christ, the Holy Spirit, within him. He followed with the words, "I do not make void the grace of God: for if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died for nought." (Galatians 2:21). If Paul had attempted to be righteous through adherence to the Law, he would have been denying Christ in him. God's Grace is the power of the Holy Spirit in us--it is so much more than mere "favour!"
Paul's words in Romans 3:21-26 help us understand "righteousness through faith by God's Grace." He tells how the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus has been manifested apart from the Law. This righteousness was foretold by the Law and the prophets and given to all who believe--both Jew and Gentile. Paul adds, "for there is no distinction; for all have sinned [missed the mark]10, and fall short of the glory of God; being justified [rendered innocent]11 freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."
The verse "For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God" is often used in evangelism. But Paul, in the above quote, was simply pointing out that God makes no distinction between Jews and Gentiles: ALL fall short of God's glory and need His grace to "render them innocent."
Like James [Jacob], Paul spoke of Abraham's righteousness because of his faith in God, but Paul went on to show how Grace relates to works. He asked those at Rome what was learned from Abraham's obedience. If Abraham was justified through works, he would have had cause to boast in himself, and God would have owed Abraham righteousness as payment for his works.12 But the bible tells us he "believed God," and that is why he was reckoned as "righteous." We must keep this in mind: if we could achieve righteousness through works, it would mean that God owes us because of our efforts, and Jesus would have died for no reason.
Faith and Grace are inseparable gifts from God. Without Faith, God's Grace cannot do His work in a believer, and without Grace, faith [-fulness] is impossible. We could use word meanings to make this more understandable, and say, "Without entrusting one's spiritual well-being to Christ, God's divine influence upon the heart is prevented. And without the Divine influence upon the heart, it is impossible to entrust one's spiritual well-being to Christ." Paul said, "For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, that no man should glory." (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Before His death and resurrection, Jesus taught His disciples that He was the Vine and they were the branches. Without Him, they could do nothing. And THAT is Grace--God making it possible for us to abide in Him, because He abides in us. Jesus said, "If a person does not dwell in Me, he is thrown out like a [broken-off] branch, and withers; such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and they are burned." (John 15:6 Amplified). There will be only a remnant found abiding in the Vine, while too many will be cast into the fire and burned. Tragically, they will have preferred the bondage of self and flesh over the way of the Cross.
1. Genesis 15:6
2. Greek #3986
3. Greek #5281
4. Greek #4657
5. Philippians 3:8-11
6. 1 Corinthians 1:30
7. Romans 10:2-4
8. Hebrew #2580
9. Greek #5485
10. Greek #264
11. Greek #1344
12. Romans 4:1-5