What is biblical righteousness?

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What is biblical righteousness?

May 2, 2024 - and

Homeless man holding out a piece of bread. By Viacheslav Yakobchuk/stock.adobe.com

Homeless man holding out a piece of bread. By Viacheslav Yakobchuk/stock.adobe.com

Homeless man holding out a piece of bread. By Viacheslav Yakobchuk/stock.adobe.com

“The problem with the hypocrite is his motivation. He does not want to be holy; he only wants to seem to be holy. He is more concerned with his reputation for righteousness than about actually becoming righteous. The approbation of men matters more to him than the approval of God.” (Augustine)

As we begin our discussion of what it means to pursue biblical righteousness, take a moment to reflect on Augustine’s warning. All of us are prone to pursue the approval of men over the approval of God, and this danger looms especially large when it comes to issues like justice, equality, and the host of other endeavors that Scripture associates with righteousness. Yet, Christ was clear that what we do for our glory rather than for God’s glory will not lead us down a path he can bless. When the praise of others is the totality of our reward, it will leave us empty and hungry for more every time.

Whether it’s changing your Facebook picture or social media profile to show support for the latest cause or sending thoughts and prayers before moving on with life, it’s easier now than it’s ever been to put forth the façade of righteousness while keeping people from seeing that there is nothing of substance hiding behind the mask.

Christ calls us to something more than that, and if we want to show the true depth and value of our faith to the world around us, then we must hold ourselves to his standard.

So what does that look like?

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What is righteousness?

In Matthew 5:6, Jesus tells his disciples, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” The Greek word translated here as “righteousness” is dikaiosynen. It conveys the basic ideas of justice and integrity. But there’s more to the term.

First, there’s an internal sense here: personal character and morality. Not just what you do but who you are. “Righteousness” here requires personal, intimate holiness, a person whose attitudes and motives are just. The word means to be the same thing in private that you are in public, to be godly in character in both places, every day.

Second, righteousness is horizontal. It points to our actions with others. The word means to practice uprightness and justice with all we know.

Lastly, it’s vertical, necessitating that we are right with God. The righteousness we are called to exhibit in the inner and outer aspects of our lives must flow from a relationship with God. We can do good things and be good people, but to be truly righteous as the Lord desires for us to be requires a personal, intimate walk with him. And that connection to our creator is what helps us avoid the trap Augustine described.

You see, there is often a fine line between seeking justice and becoming judgmental. If we do not seek righteousness from a place of humility, then we run the risk of acting unjustly in our pursuit of justice. When we look at the culture’s attempts at righteousness, this is often where they fall short of God’s standards. Far too frequently, their response to inequality, injustice, and a host of other very real issues is to find someone or some group to blame and then make their lives worse rather than focus on how to improve the lives of those who are suffering.

That is not a mistake we can afford to make today.

So as we seek a better understanding of what it means to pursue biblical righteousness, let’s take a closer look at how these principles play out in some of the most significant and contentious areas of justice in our modern culture.

Racial equality

Nelson Mandela once wrote, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love.” One of our culture’s biggest issues today, however, is that we’ve largely given up on trying to teach people to love. Fortunately, that’s where—as Christians—we should be particularly well-equipped to help.

We can’t solve a problem, though, unless we are first willing to admit that it exists.

We discuss the history of racial inequality and the legacy of slavery in greater depth in “What does the Bible say about racism?,” but the short version is that it continues to be an issue even if our society has made dramatic strides over the last sixty years. However, just how big of an issue remains an object of debate, and people’s perceptions are often driven by factors that go beyond the facts.

For example, Coleman Hughes describes how “the Bush years and early Obama years represented a fairly healthy equilibrium for America on the issue of race. The majority of Americans—both black and white—believed that race relations were good. Then, after 2013, something changed. Around that time American attitudes toward race relations took a nosedive. By 2021 about half as many Americans felt that we were in a good place as felt that way in 2013.”

He argues that we can “rule out the idea that actual racism suddenly increased in 2013. If there had been an uptick in the popularity of white supremacy or an uptick in the number of unarmed black people shot by police, then we might have reason to suspect that there was an increase in racism. But neither of those is the case. Support for white supremacy has been steadily declining for decades, and so has the annual number of police shootings.”

Instead, he points to the advent of social media and phones with the ability to record and share humanity’s most racist moments as skewing the public perception of racial inequality in a way that captured the American understanding. It’s easier than ever for a false but emotionally provocative version of events to outpace the truth in ways that are difficult to correct. As such, the very real examples of racial inequality can seem more normative for our culture than they actually are.

As Christians called to serve the One who is truth (John 14:6), it’s crucial that we do not let false narratives drive our understanding. And when it comes to racial inequality, that means recognizing and embracing the progress we’ve made while understanding that we still have a long way to go.

So what role can we play in that process?

The biblical foundation for rejecting racism

As mentioned before, Christians are uniquely equipped to combat issues of racial inequality because equality in the eyes of God is foundational to our faith.

The human story begins in Genesis 1, where God “created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (v. 27). Every person is created intentionally by God in his own divine image. Thus, every person is sacred and equally valuable. Every form of racism, by definition, is to be rejected.

And while Israel did not often live out that truth well, it was a central focus of the early church.

As Paul writes, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In a world where the Jews hated the Gentiles, more than half of Rome’s population were slaves, and women were typically treated as possessions rather than people, Paul’s statement was as radical a claim as could be made. Yet, all it really did was reiterate the truth God had instilled in us from the very first moments of humanity’s existence.

And he reiterated that truth to the Romans, writing, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (Romans 10:12). Now it’s our job to live as if we really believe it and to help others do the same.

Ultimately, our race is an aspect of the uniqueness with which the Lord has created each of us, but it was never intended to define how we see ourselves or others. Instead, our identity should be based in our resemblance to God rather than to those who share a similar skin color to our own.

Legislation and the civil rights movement were essential to improving the lives of those who faced legalized discrimination. But laws cannot change people. Only the Spirit can do that. As a result, Christians are on the front lines of this spiritual battle for the soul and future of our nation.

To that end, we all have a role to role to play in combatting racial inequality in whatever form it takes, but understand that the most effective way to do that will always be with an eye to helping people experience Christ as we also work to help them experience the justice and righteousness that he expects from each of us.

Gender equality

Many of the same arguments applied to race can apply to gender as well. Both are immutable qualities that, far too often, have defined the way a person is seen by those around them. Yet gender is another category that Scripture makes clear is part of who God has created us to be but was never intended to be the primary lens through which we see ourselves or our role in the larger world.

This too is another area where the early church, when at its best, went against the grain of first-century culture to break down barriers and give people the opportunity to fulfill God’s calling for their lives as equal members of the body of Christ.

That said, the reputation does not always reflect the reality when it comes to popular perception of how the Bible views the role of women. When people charge Scripture with the kind of patriarchal privilege that, the argument goes, renders God’s word outdated for our modern times, they point to two of Paul’s more notable statements on women:

  • He does “not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2:12).
  • And he writes that “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission” (1 Corinthians 14:34).

Those passages, as well as others at the heart of such opinions, are addressed in greater detail here. But for our discussion today, it’s important to note that such a view often takes these verses out of their literary and historical context in a way that distorts the true purpose behind them.

That said, there is room for disagreement with regard to the proper role of women in church leadership and society in general. This is not an essential issue of the faith unless the discourse reaches the point that it becomes divisive and distracts from our larger calling to help people know Jesus.

That’s why fighting for gender equality in a way that, at the very least, establishes that women and men must both be treated with respect and dignity is the essential and biblical starting point for any larger discussions about righteousness in this arena. The minute either of those qualities leaves the conversation, the conclusion becomes secondary because we have necessarily stepped outside of God’s will.

So with those ground rules in mind, what does it look like to fight for gender equality in a biblical way?

The pay gap problem

One of the most frequently cited pieces of evidence for gender inequality in our culture today is the pay gap between men and women, and it serves as a good example of how genuine inequality can exist while still not being as dramatic as it’s often portrayed.

As of 2022, the disparity for all workers over the age of sixteen left women earning roughly 82 percent of what men earn. That statistic hasn’t changed much over the last twenty years as the gap was 80 percent in 2002. However, considering that in 1982 the gap stood at 65 percent, it still marks substantial improvement across the forty-year period in which it was measured.

Moreover, among workers ages twenty-five to thirty-four, the wage gap has shrunk even further, with women now earning 92 percent of what a man would expect to earn. That the gap exists is, to some extent, a sign that we still have work to do, but the progress is worth recognizing.

However, it’s important to note that the gap is likely never going to go away fully, and that’s alright. You see, while discrimination undoubtedly accounts for part of that disparity, factors like educational attainment, occupational segregation, work experience, and personal choices have been empirically proven to bear more responsibility for the pay gap than employers simply opting to pay men more than women.

In fact, a large reason for the shrinking disparity between genders among the younger generations is due to many of those factors becoming more equal.

This information is relevant to the larger task of understanding how to pursue biblical righteousness in the area of gender discrimination because it shows how complex and multifaceted the arguments surrounding the disparity between men and women in our culture tend to be. It’s not as simple as men being privileged over women—even if that is still the case more often than it should be. Treating this issue as endemic to our culture, when the evidence shows that’s simply not the case in most circumstances, undermines any attempt to address that discrimination when it is truly present.

A better approach is to simply treat people like God does: equal in all the ways that matter most but uniquely created to be a distinct and beloved individual within his family of faith. To that end, we should stand against discrimination and inequality when we see it, whether it’s in regard to gender, race, or any of the other inalienable qualities that threaten to displace that understanding as foundational to how we treat one another.

And that approach is relevant to the next topic we’ll discuss as well: immigration.

Immigration

One of the most contentious areas of the cultural discourse today pertains to immigration and, specifically, how to approach those who enter the country illegally.

Scripture is clear that we are called to “treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you” and to “love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34). And, perhaps knowing that command would be difficult to accept, the Lord concluded it by stating, “I am the Lord your God.”

Moreover, Abraham—one of the most powerful warlords and people in his region—is praised for the hospitality he showed toward the strangers who passed by his tent near the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). That the strangers ended up being angels of the Lord does not change the fact that he didn’t know that when he first rushed out to meet them. His concern was on blessing those he had the opportunity to help.

Clearly, God’s word prescribes an approach to the foreigner and stranger that places the initiative with us and demands a level of respect, as well as the recognition of their basic humanity, that is lacking at times in today’s culture.

At the same time, applying those examples to today is not as straightforward as simply opening our borders and welcoming any who choose to come inside. After all, the statement that we are a nation of laws is not wrong, even if it does get thrown around a bit too carelessly at times. Scripture is clear that we are to heed those laws as long as they do not cause us to sin (Romans 13:1–2; 1 Peter 2:13–14; Titus 3:1), and the general enforcement of immigration laws is not a sin so long as the way in which they are enforced does not cross that line.

Those Abraham welcomed were not trying to stay or break any laws to get there. Rather, they were travelers for whom he cared before sending them on their way. That is a very different description from those who attempt to cross the border illegally in order to establish at least a semi-permanent residence in the country. So while his actions can and should guide our approach to being hospitable toward others, that hospitality must be viewed within its larger context before we apply it to the question of modern immigration today.

The Bible does not call us to have open borders, but it does call for us to maintain them humanely and in a way that recognizes the general dignity of someone created in God’s image. Between those two poles, however, there is much room for debate. We just need to be sure that, in the midst of that debate, we never forget that God loves and cherishes every one of the people involved and calls us to do the same.

Economic righteousness

A fourth area in which we are called to pursue biblical righteousness pertains to economic equality. Yet, this is also perhaps the area in which the nature of what such equality looks like is most misunderstood.

The notion that money is the root of all evil is among the most commonly misquoted passages of Scripture. The truth is that Paul warns that it is the love of money that is the root of all kinds of evils (1 Timothy 6:10).

One of the reasons why the love of money leads so easily to sin is that it tempts us to fundamentally change our relationship with God from the personal, life-giving relationship Christ died to make possible to the transactional sort of faith that has characterized the vast majority of world religions from ancient times to today.

When our primary concern shifts from God to anything else—but especially money—then it is easy for him to become a tool at our disposal to get what we truly want most. I doubt many of us would ever phrase it like that or even intend to make that choice. But viewing God as a means to our end rather than the end we should be pursuing is a temptation that dates back to the Garden of Eden. As such, it’s unlikely that we’ll outgrow it anytime soon.

Moreover, given that a key aspect of biblical righteousness is reliant on a thriving relationship with God in which he is our king, seeing him as anything less than that will necessarily make such righteousness unattainable.

So how can we do better, particularly as it pertains to economic disparity and inequality? A story from the book of Acts can give us a good place from which to start that discussion

The cautionary story of Ananias and Sapphira

Toward the end of Acts 4, we find a note about how the believers had everything in common, with Barnabas praised in particular because he “sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:37). Verses 34 and 35 make it clear that he was not the only person engaging in such giving and that the community as a whole was able to better focus on serving the Lord because of the generosity that characterized their interactions with one another.

It could be tempting to read this passage and conclude that either our churches today should be engaged in the same level of communal living or that such giving was merely meant for that particular period in Christian history. The start of chapter 5, however, provides an important context from which we should understand why God inspired Luke to include those notes about Barnabas and the others.

In this passage, we’re told about a man named Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, who also sold a piece of property and donated part of the proceeds to the church. Instead of praise, however, both died because, on separate occasions, they each lied by stating that they donated all of the money they received for the land.

Their greed led them to try and deceive the Lord and their fellow Christians. Verse 4 is clear that God wasn’t mad that they kept back part of the proceeds. They were free to keep or give as much as they wanted. The problem was that their hearts were more focused on earning the praise of their fellow believers than on actually serving the Lord. They wanted to be seen in the same light as Barnabas but did not give with the same spirit.

And note that we’re never told how much each party received for their respective pieces of land. It could very well be that even the portion of the proceeds that Ananias and Saphira donated amounted to more than what Barnabas gave. Scripture doesn’t specify because the price isn’t the point. Rather, it’s the faithfulness to give according to the Spirit’s leading and for the purpose of serving him rather than ourselves.

This biblical guidance on how we should view the resources God has granted us simply means to give in obedience to what the Lord asks and to do so with a willingness and joy that inspires others to see God in our sacrifice. There will never be a universal dollar amount attached, and the Lord wanted to make that clear from the very beginning of his church.

The biblical call to help the poor

When we think about this passage in the context of pursuing economic righteousness today, it doesn’t necessarily mean selling property to help provide for the needy (though it can if that’s what God asks of you). Rather, it simply means approaching our possessions, our time, and our finances from the perspective that God is king over all of it, to do with as he sees fit. And that starts with relying on the Holy Spirit’s guidance rather than our own.

After all, when Jesus told his disciples, “You will always have the poor with you,” he was not being hyperbolic or glib (Mark 14:7). Human history shows that poverty is likely to be a problem until Jesus returns to set things right himself. The factors that create such economic inequality are simply too diverse and personal ever to eliminate it fully.

However, we must never accept the inevitability of poverty’s existence as an excuse to do nothing. Christ was clear that we are called to help the poor, and God’s word is filled with promises of what awaits those who ignore or oppress those in need, as well as of the blessings awaiting those who follow his guidance in caring for them.

Ultimately, the community of faith is quite large and, together, God’s people really can make a difference in the fight against economic inequality. And even if it’s a problem that will never be fully solved, every person we help is a step in the right direction. That said, we must be sure to follow the Lord’s guidance in understanding what role he has called and equipped each of us to play.

Not every good cause requires your financial support and involvement. God will let you know when, where, and how to help if you take the time to ask him. But discerning between his voice and those of everyone else—including your own—requires a level of intimacy and obedience that will only come with practice.

Just as in the fight against racial discrimination, gender inequality, and immigration, the government and society at large can take measures to help, but if we’re relying on them to fix things then nothing is going to ultimately change for the better. So take some time to pray and ask God to help you understand what part he would have you play, then be both attentive and obedient to the opportunities he brings your way to help those in need.

We all have a role to play, but we’ll be far more effective if it’s the role God has asked us to fill. And that same general philosophy is relevant for the last application of what it means to pursue biblical righteousness: the stewardship of God’s creation.

Creation care

Before we discuss what it means to pursue biblical righteousness in the realm of creation care, it’s important to note that the Bible was not intended to be a science textbook. While we believe that God’s word speaks with authority and truth to every subject it addresses, we also know that it was not written to define the age of the earth or the size of the universe. It tells us what we need to know to follow Jesus, not all we would like to know about the world he created. So long as scientific declarations do not contradict intentional biblical truth, there can be no conflict between the two.

And while there is room for debate on how God created everything and how long he took to do so, one thing that Genesis 1 and 2 make abundantly clear is that the first responsibility he entrusted to humanity was to partner with him in stewarding that creation well.

So what does that look like?

In an interview on The Denison Forum Podcast, Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger made the point that the biblical creation account calls us to rule over creation as God rules over it, and that doesn’t look like a domineering or selfish approach to the world. Our charge is to “serve and protect” his creation. And we can’t do that if we see the world as something created for our benefit rather than his.

God’s creation was meant to be a beacon of his glory and a constant reminder that he loves us. As Dr. Mark Turman described in that same interview, all of us can likely think back to a time when we marveled at the beauty of nature and came away thinking some version of “I just don’t understand how anybody can not believe in God when they look at this.”

After all, God didn’t have to make creation beautiful to be functional. He designed the natural laws and could have done whatever he wanted with his creation. Yet he chose to make something we can enjoy and something that, even if you’ve seen it a thousand times, can still take your breath away. He did that for a reason and then entrusted us with the privilege of caring for it.

And if our approach to that creation is more focused on ourselves than him, we’re not going to steward it well.

Yet, creation care means more than just obeying God’s call to tend the world he made. For many, especially among the younger generations, taking care of the environment is seen as a moral imperative. For example, 40 percent of millennials and 49 percent of Gen Zs said that their personal values play a defining role in where they’re willing to work and in what organizations they will take part. And there’s no reason to believe those factors have any less influence on which church they would consider attending or how they will perceive the gospel when it’s shared. Consequently, for an increasing percentage of the population, demonstrating a regard for the importance of taking care of the environment is an issue of evangelistic importance as well as environmental.

For example, even something as simple as recycling can be an avenue to sharing the gospel. If you live in a neighborhood or apartment complex, the odds are decent that at least one of your neighbors cares about the environment enough to see it as an essential part of being a good person. It could be that, for them, the gospel will ring a bit hollow coming from someone who isn’t willing to recycle.

That doesn’t mean it should be that way, as the truth of the gospel is not contingent on the messenger, but it’s an example of the ways in which taking care of creation could open up opportunities to tell people about its creator. If all your neighbors recycle, then they’re likely going to notice if you choose not to. And, if that’s the case, it could be that maintaining the environment is a key step in maintaining your witness.

So take some time to pray and ask God if there are any ways in which you could improve your witness and your faithfulness to his calling by taking better care of the world that he created. Then be open and willing to obey what he shows you, even if it seems a bit surprising in the moment.

Conclusion

In this essay, we’ve examined what it means to pursue biblical righteousness as well as several of the arenas in which that struggle plays out most in our culture today. Before we conclude, however, let’s take a few moments to review and reflect on some practical steps we can take to better pursue genuine righteousness as God’s word defines it.

First, we must want to be righteous.

Decide that you will be godly in character, actions, and faith if you are nothing else. Choose holiness above everything. Hunger and thirst for it. Settle for nothing less than righteousness as the central attribute of your character. Seek it with desperation and passion. Then you can receive it from God.

Second, admit that you are not righteous without God.

Here’s what Scripture says of us: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, there is no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:10–11 NIV). This is the biblical doctrine called “total depravity.” It means that every part of our lives is affected by sin.

In the eyes of a holy God, “There is no one righteous.” Think about your last sin. That one sin alone is enough to keep you out of God’s perfect heaven. So, admit that you cannot be righteous without the help of God.

Third, seek the righteousness of God by faith.

You cannot make yourself righteous. That’s why the beatitude to which we turned at the start of this essay is in the passive tense: “They will be filled.” Not “they will fill themselves,” for we cannot. This is not a call to try harder to be better. It is not works righteousness. We can do better for a while, but, ultimately, we’ll fall and fail again. I’ve tried. So have you.

Instead, accept this fact: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV).

Christ is our righteousness. He will impart to us his Spirit, his holiness, and his character. This is the exchanged life. Believe that Christ lives in your heart, by faith. Ask him to make himself real through your character, your personality. Ask him to help you exhibit the righteousness of God.

And find encouragement in the fact that Jesus did not say, “Blessed are those who are righteous” but rather, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” God knows our sins and he knows our fallen natures. He doesn’t expect us to be righteous in everything as soon as we are saved. However, he does expect us to seek after that righteousness with resolve and passion.

There is something in all of us, saved or not, that calls us to goodness. We can ignore it until the voice becomes so faint we seldom hear it, or we can pursue it until it becomes constantly recognizable in our lives.

Every time we say yes or no to God’s call to pursue righteousness in ourselves and in the world around us, we move forward or backward along that line.

In which direction will you go today?

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