In the days of my misspent youth, it was not at all uncommon to hear someone say, “Wow, that was righteous, man.”
Of course, back then “righteous” was a slang term for “cool” and it had absolutely nothing to do with the way the Bible uses the word.
Today, no one ever uses that word.
It is decidedly “unrighteous” to use the word “righteous” because somehow we automatically jump over the true meaning of that word to the word “self-righteous” which is a word automatically associated with “bigot” and/or “intolerant.”
And I don’t need to tell you that in today’s society, that is a very bad thing indeed.
So what does “righteous” mean?
The dictionary defines it as “morally right or justifiable.” But the Bible adds another aspect to the meaning.
In the New Testament, the Greek Word is "dikaious" which means “just in the eyes of God, approved by God, and in conformity with God’s own being.” In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word is "tssadiq" and means, “just, blameless, and innocent.” All the Biblical meanings carry with them the idea that it is God alone and one’s relationship with God that determines one’s righteousness.
All of those things used to be attributes that people strived for, but they now seem so old-fashioned and, well, just ….egotistical and judgmental.
There’s an excellent example of how society views righteousness in R.C. Sproul’s book, “The Holiness of God.”
Now, granted, Sproul wrote the book when Gerald Ford was President, but it still works today:
“A well-known professional golfer was playing in a tournament with President Gerald Ford, fellow pro Jack Nicklaus, and Billy Graham. After the round was over, one of the other pros on the tour asked, "Hey, what was it like playing with the President and Billy Graham?" The pro said with disgust, "I don't need Billy Graham stuffing religion down my throat!" With that he headed for the practice tee. His friend followed, and after the golfer had pounded out his fury on a bucket of golf balls, he asked, "Was Billy a little rough on you out there?" The pro sighed and said with embarrassment, "No, he didn't even mention religion." Astonishingly, Billy Graham had said nothing about God, Jesus, or religion, yet the pro stomped away after the game accusing Billy of trying to ram religion down his throat.”
I think we can all agree that Billy Graham is generally considered a righteous man by just about everyone. The story wonderfully illustrates how people react to righteousness today.
The thing is, the word occurs over 500 times in the Bible, so it’s not a minor concept by any means. (Interesting side note: Biblegateway shows the word 536 times in the ESV, 510 times in the KJV, 493 times in the NIV, 257 times in the New Living Translation, 107 times in The Message, and just twice in the Easy to Read Bible.)
I recently posted something on Facebook and mentioned the need for the nation to repent—and was roundly accused of shoving sin in people’s faces.
And there’s the deal.
Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins. Ecclesiastes 7:20 (NIV)
Not one of us is truly righteous. The very idea of being righteous makes us uncomfortable because we know we can never meet the standard. The Bible tells us so in Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Acts, Romans, and many others.
It’s literally in our DNA. We are born unrighteous. We can’t help it.
And so, there is this temptation to only focus on the positive aspects of Christianity—to turn our eyes away from our sin. We’d much rather look on the perfection and the love of Jesus and believe that God understands we can’t help it. He understands, right? As long as we believe that Jesus loves us, it’ll all be okay, right? God doesn’t make junk, right? We’re not really sinning, right?
But, there’s a problem with that.
If all we have to do is love Jesus, why the cross?
Why the beating and the mocking and that awful crown of thorns and the nails and the spear in the side? Why all that blood? Why would he be hanging there on that cross dying this horrible death, crying out that his God, his own Father, had forsaken and abandoned him?
The cross is offensive. It’s awful. It hurts just to think about it. It hurts in our soul.
But a God of justice cannot simply ignore sin. As little children, we all cried out at some point, “It’s not fair!” We want a just and a fair God, but what is fair when we have thumbed our noses at God and declared ourselves to be the final and ultimate judges of what is right and wrong—even if the Bible clearly calls it sin?
What is fair when God has told us that the wages of sin is death? (Romans 6:23)
The image of Jesus on the cross is the most unfair moment in all of human history. A holy and perfect God, come down to earth, never having committed a single sin in his entire life, mercilessly killed in our place to take away the sin of the whole world –past, present, and future.
"He himself bore our sins" in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; "by his wounds you have been healed." 1 Peter 2:24 (NIV)
“…so that we might live for righteousness.”
It’s the response. It’s what we do in gratitude and thanksgiving and praise for what Jesus, in the incredible mercy and grace of a loving God, did when he paid the debt we could never pay ourselves.
Righteousness is not a club we raise to crush the ungodly. Righteousness is indeed credited to us by faith (Galatians 3:11) but true faith is moved to act righteously. (James 2:21-26) Righteousness is the joyful response of a people set free from the laws we could never uphold. Righteousness is not the condemnation of sinnners (John 3:17) but visible evidence that the old man has died and a new creation has been born (2 Cor. 5:17) and lives to the glory and praise of the LORD, our God!
And if that righteousness causes someone to go out and mercilessly club a bucket of golf balls into oblivion, that might be how the Holy Spirit works on that day.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1: 9-11 (NIV)