Day 9: What is True Righteousness?

18 Feb What is True Righteousness_

Illustration: Juliana Crownover

Those teachers deceive both themselves and you when they suppose that those who are descendants of Abraham according to the flesh will most certainly share in the eternal kingdom, even though they are faithless sinners and disobedient to God, suppositions which the Scriptures show have no foundation in fact…Besides I have already shown that they who were foreknown as future sinners, whether men or angels, do become so, not through God’s fault, but each through his own fault.[i]

Justin Martyr (d. 165), Dialogue with Trypho

Opening Prayer

Father of All Mercies, we ask you graciously to regard the devout prayers of your people. Grant that we may hold to the Faith which we profess and likewise love and cherish your heavenly bounty to which you are calling us, through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.[ii]

Old Testament Lesson

Ezekiel is a post-exilic prophet which means he is ministering to exiles in Babylon. The prophet responds to a popular saying among the exiles which questions the justice of God in punishing children for their parents’ sins.[iii] After all, towards the end of the seventy years of exile, many of the first generation of exiles had likely died. Ezekiel counters that their worldview is inadequate. One’s conduct determines one’s fate.[iv] Any generation can escape the fate of its parents by embracing true righteousness. This true righteousness means practicing social justice and moral uprightness. This is what ensures the ongoing stability of a covenant relationship with God. Thus, righteousness, lived out in service to others within a covenant community, is a key factor for the spiritual life. This also means that references to “life” and death” in the passage are not specifically about biological existence, but about fellowship with God within the community.[v]

Ezekiel 18.1-19

1The word of the LORD came to me, saying, 2”Who are you to recount this proverb about the land of Israel, which says, ‘The fathers ate sour grapes, and the teeth of their children have become dull.’”

3As I live, says the LORD, “This saying is not for you anymore in Israel. In fact, every life belongs to me. 4Indeed, the life of every father, and likewise the life of every son is mine. Now look: the life of the one who sins will die! 5But the righteous man – he will practice justice and righteousness. If he doesn’t eat pagan sacrifices on the mountains; and doesn’t look for help to the idols of the house of Israel; and doesn’t defile the wife of his neighbor and doesn’t have sex with a woman during her menstrual period. 7If such a man doesn’t mistreat anyone; and he returns collateral to a borrower; and he doesn’t commit robbery, but he gives his bread to the hungry and clothes the naked with his garment. 8If he doesn’t charge interest and receives no usurious profit; and he keeps himself from vice, but executes true justice in relations with men; 9if he obeys my statutes and keeps my ordinances to do them, he is righteous. He will live,” says the LORD.

10”But if the father bears a violent son who sheds blood and does one of these things (mentioned above), 11even if his father did none of them — for example, if he eats pagan sacrifices on the mountains and defiles the wife his neighbor. 12Or, if he mistreats the poor and needy, or if he commits robbery, or if he doesn’t return the collateral or if he looks to idols for help or if he commits an abominable act – 13let’s say he lends at interest and receives usurious profit. Will he live? No way! He’s done all these abominable acts. He will surely die. His own blood will be upon him.

14But, if a son is born and he sees all the sins of his father which he did and is afraid and does not do likewise. So, for example, if he doesn’t eat pagan sacrifices on the mountains and doesn’t look to the idols of the house of Israel for help and doesn’t defile the wife of his neighbor. And if the man doesn’t mistreat anyone and doesn’t keep the collateral and doesn’t commit robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and clothes the naked with his garment. 17If he keeps himself from vice and doesn’t charge usurious interest, but he practices justice and obeys my statutes, he will not die for the iniquity of his father. No, he will live.”

New Testament Lesson

Jesus is speaking to a group of Jews in Judea who “believed” in him. Yet, just a few verses later we learn that this same group has been trying to kill Jesus. This is an obvious disconnect. John sets up this seemingly absurd contrast to make an important point. It is not enough just to “believe” in Jesus. Jesus’ teaching only makes headway in a believer’s life when the disciple lives out Jesus’ teachings in action. Notice what Jesus criticizes his listeners most for is their inability to “do the works of Abraham.” They can’t claim to be sons of Abraham if they aren’t doing the social justice and moral righteousness God requires of them. As Jesus acts like the Father, so they should be acting like Abraham. Instead, Jesus calls them sons of the devil and denies that they are in a covenant relationship with God. Their actions condemn them, no matter what their stated beliefs claim.

John 8.31-47

31Now Jesus was speaking to the Jews who had believed in him: “If anyone continues in my instruction, you are truly my disciples. 32And you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” 33They answered Him, “We are the offspring of Abraham and no one has ever enslaved us. How is it that you say ‘You will become free?’” 34Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin. 35And the slave does not have a permanent place in the household. On the contrary, the Son has a permanent place. 36Consequently, if the Son has made you free, you will certainly be free.

37I know that you are the offspring of Abraham, but you’re trying to kill me because my instruction isn’t progressing in you. 38Whatever I have seen while with the Father, I say. So do what you heard from the Father!” 39They answered and said to him, “Our father is Abraham.” Jesus replied, “If you are children of Abraham, then you would be doing the works of Abraham. 40But now you’re trying to kill me, someone who has spoken to you the truth about what I’ve heard from God. Abraham didn’t do such a thing! 41As for you, do the works of your father.”

Then they said to him, “We were not born illegitimate. We have one father, God alone!” 42”If God were your Father, then you would love me, for I have come forth from God and now am here. 43I have not come on my own accord, but God sent me. Why don’t you understand what I’m saying? Is it because you can’t hear my teaching? 44You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out the defiling passions of your father. Your father was a murderer from the beginning and doesn’t stand in the truth since there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks on his own accord since he is a liar and the father of lies. 45But, since I am telling you the truth, you don’t believe me. 46Who among you can find me guilty of any sin? If I speak truly, why don’t you believe me? 47The one who is of God gets the words of God. Since you don’t get it, you are not of God.”

Questions for Reflection

  1. What does moral uprightness mean to you? Is there an objective, revealed, standard of morality by which we ought to live? Where do you get your standards of right and wrong? From TV? Family? The culture? The Bible? Church teaching?
  2. The prohibition against usury (lending at interest) has been almost completely forgotten in our society. Are you judicious in your use of debt? How are your financial decisions affecting your spiritual life? What would it take to be debt-free?
  3. On what basis are you confident that you have a relationship with God? The Jews in our NT reading “believed,” but had completely deluded themselves. How would Jesus react to you?
  4. The apostle Paul seems to think that the Christian faith is really only “taught by the Spirit” (1 Cor 2.13). What Christian teachings do you despise? Why?

Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)

What is true righteousness? This has been a central question in Christian theology for centuries. As children of the Reformation, many of us have been taught that righteousness is not something that we have. Rather it’s something God has. The free gift of grace comes in God’s “imputing” to us his righteousness. Thus, even though we’re “guilty as sin,” God’s righteousness covers us, and thus we’re already declared “not guilty” because of the gracious work of God in our lives. Perhaps this teaching is best summed up in Martin Luther’s words from his commentary on the book of the Romans:

God’s righteousness is that by which we become worthy of His great salvation, or through which alone we are accounted righteous before Him….Only the Gospel reveals the righteousness of God, that is, who is righteous, or how a person becomes righteous before God, namely, alone by faith, which trusts the Word of God…The righteousness of God is the cause of our salvation. This righteousness, however, is not that according to which God Himself is righteous as God, but that by which we are justified by Him through faith in the Gospel. It is called the righteousness of God in contradistinction to man’s righteousness which comes from works.[vi]

So, in Luther’s view, God provides us with an alien righteousness, a righteousness not our own. We’re “declared” righteous, even though we’re still sinners. Our works have nothing to do with it.

This traditional view has been roundly criticized over the last few decades in New Testament scholarship. This “new perspective” came from research into the history of Judaism, which uncovered that most first-century Jews were not the legalists that the Protestants of the Reformation made them out to be. There was never an expectation that the OT Law had to be kept perfectly. Rather, all that one needed to do to maintain a covenant relationship with God was to keep certain key markers such as circumcision, a kosher diet and attendance at three yearly religious festivals in Jerusalem. To do these things was to be righteous, meaning that one was a member in good standing of the covenant community.

With this new understanding of Judaism, scholars then began to re-consider what the doctrine of justification might mean. Imagine a law-court on the Day of Judgment where there’s a judge (God), a plaintiff (our accuser) and a defendant (us). For the judge to be righteous simply means he needs to run the case fairly, to consider all the evidence and to be impartial.[vii] Thus, it makes little sense to say that God “imputes” his righteousness to us. Rather, to be declared righteous means to be declared not-guilty, really not guilty, not on the basis of someone else’s righteousness, but because the court says so.

And what would make the court say so? We’re still sinners after all. True, but we’re vindicated under the covenant not by being perfect, but for the things we’ve done to be faithful to the covenant. This is why every text in the NT that talks about our judgment discusses it in terms of our works. Thus, it really matters that you’ve been baptized (the sign of the New Covenant). It really matters that you participate regularly in the Eucharist where we receive the grace to live the Christian faith. And it really matters that you have a heart for the poor, and you do acts of mercy. These things are important because “faith without works is dead” (Jas 2.26).

N.T. Wright says it well:

If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say that the judge imputes, imparts, bequests, conveys or otherwise transfers his righteousness to either the plaintiff or the defendant. Righteousness is not an object…If and when God does act to vindicate his people, his people will then metaphorically speaking, have the status of righteousness….But the righteousness they have will not be God’s own righteousness.[viii]

This means that Paul was not making up some new notion of righteousness in the New Testament. He was seeing it as a well-trained Jew would, in fact, like Ezekiel would. To be in a covenant relationship with God meant to be righteous. And one became was by doing social justice and being morally upright.

Thus, for Jesus, a declaration of faith is not enough. Praying Jesus into your heart at a religious rally is not enough. It matters how you live your life because your works will ultimately vindicate your faith. It’s true: we need the grace of God to live the Christian life. We need grace to be saved. But the Christian life is ultimately about cooperating with God in his ever-present invitations to join his work. He promises to see us through if we will be faithful to him.

Potential Applications

  • Financial Freedom

Make a plan to get out of debt. Create a spreadsheet with all your debts. Track your income and your spending. Figure out ways to curtail spending so you can apply extra payments toward your debts. For many, pursuing financial freedom is one of the key ways to free up time for your spiritual life.

  • Confession

Jesus says that “everyone who practices sin is a slave of sin.” Make an appointment with a priest to confess your sins and experience the joy of absolution.

  • Pursue Social Justice

Find someone who is struggling in life, and try to help in whatever way you can. Try to become involved in the person’s life, not just give money.


[i] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, trans. Thomas B. Falls, Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: CUOA Press, 2008), 140, p. 361.

[ii] The Anglican Breviary, 443.

[iii] Daniel I. Block, The Book of Ezekiel, Chapters 1–24, New International Commentary of the OT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 558.

[iv] Ibid., 564.

[v] Robert W. Jenson, Ezekiel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009), 147.

[vi] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Classics, 2003), 40–41.

[vii] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 98.

[viii] Ibid., 98–99.

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