That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.
So back to the question: What, then, is righteousness?
I once started a class by asking the participants to take the string and scissors I supplied and cut off what they considered a foot’s length. It rapidly became clear that no one’s string measured the same. So how did we decide which person’s ‘foot’ was actually right? I brought out a ruler. The ruler provided the authoritative standard of whose string was a foot or not. And none of them actually had it right.
This is also true of righteousness. There have been a ton of authorities throughout church history that set out the parameters of what it means to be righteous. But there is only one standard by which we can measure. And that standard of righteousness is God alone.
This may surprise some of you, thinking that the Bible is the standard. While the Bible contains what God has revealed about Himself, it does not contain all that God is. In Romans 1:19-20 Paul points to God’s power and divine nature being clearly seen in all of creation to explain why humans have no excuse to deny that He is.
And what can we know about God’s divine nature from both Scripture and creation? As Creator, he is the standard of all that is right. God did not look around and discover the best ideas to put His creative work together. He looked within Himself, within His eternal community of what we call the Father, Son, and Spirit, and created all creation to a standard He called ‘good.’ It was good because it measured up to Himself. His being defined what was good and right—and still does to this day.
Unlike the ruler, God was not made the standard. Somewhere in history, certain people decided that they wanted 12 inches as a universal measurement. Then came along another group that thought centimeters were a better standard. Other people groups established their own measuring sticks. But no one voted that God be the standard of righteousness. He just is. He is the I AM. He is above the vote, not dependent on human support for being appointed the standard bearer, because all that is exists because He made it.
So what is righteousness? Its foundation is the being of God. You and I often think of righteousness in terms of doing, such as doing justice or acting lovingly. But it is different with God. He is love. He does not act lovingly or justly because it is the right thing to do. He acts in these ways because it would be impossible for him to act differently. Love, justice, mercy, holiness—and the list goes on—are the makeup of His most intimate nature. He is all these and more. He is beyond our ability to ‘get it’ as created beings.
This is precisely why Jesus came into the world—to show us the Father. How would we, who are easily swayed by the moral currents of our culture, understand what righteousness is if God had not laid it out for us in the person of Jesus? What would we know about what we are created to be—in the image of God—if Jesus, the last Adam, had not put it on full display through his life, his death and his resurrection?
This is why when we are speaking about righteousness, we are speaking about realigning our hearts with God. Righteousness will never be developed in us by you and me following a list of moral obligations or dedicating ourselves to doing everything the Bible says. Righteousness appears in us as we, by faith, know God, yield ourselves to Him and clothe ourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ.