The Bible speaks often of being “righteous,” and we all think that probably is a good thing, and it is. The problem is that we might not quite understand what it means. There are just several words we throw around in church that we might think we know but we don't. Take when Jesus told us to be “perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Now who can be perfect like God? But if we understand that the word Jesus used for perfect also means fully developed or fully grown, well, that is a whole different matter. I think most churches can use a lot more grown-up Christians.
In the Old Testament God would call on people to follow His laws, and for those who did, we thought of them as righteous. When David was anointed to be king of Israel, God called on him to be obedient to the law; and as long as David would be obedient, God would bless him and the land. God sent prophets to call the people back to the law so they would be righteous.
What we have done with that is to infer that righteousness is following the law. It really does look like that in the Old Testament, but the New Testament gives us a different idea. Jesus disturbed the Pharisees (strict followers of the law) when he was just too loose with the law. “Why do you and your disciples eat with hands not washed?” they asked him one day. “Do you not know you are not supposed to heal people on the Sabbath?” they asked. On the one hand it looked very clear that Jesus was being disobedient to the Law, but he, himself, said, “I have not come to do away with even a comma or period of the Law but rather to fulfill the law.”
Paul was even to say that we are no longer under the law but under grace, and that alone could really mess up our idea of what it means to be righteous.
If righteousness is not necessarily following the law, what is it?
Righteousness is a right relationship with God. Righteousness is living in such a way that God would approve. This does not free us from paying attention to the law — the Ten Commandments are still valid even for today. We are still expected to respect the commands and teachings of the scriptures, but we are to go beyond the expectations of the Law.
Righteousness would mean that we pay attention to the leading of the Holy Spirit in our lives. You have heard it said, “Let your conscience be your guide,” but I have often said that your conscience will lead you straight to Hell. You can train your conscience to not bother you no matter how awful the things you do, but you cannot train the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit leads us to put out of our lives the things that are harmful to us and to others, and the Holy Spirit leads us to begin the practices of prayer, worship, kindness, forgiveness, peace and so on. As we follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit we draw closer and closer to God, and enter into a right relationship with God. God is no longer terrifying, but we come to know God as loving and gracious. God is not interested in throwing people into Hell, but we come to know God as welcoming and compassionate.
Worship takes on new meaning when we are in a right relationship with God. Our praise becomes more genuine, and we are much more open to God's voice in our lives. Our life focus turns from ourselves to others, and we see others as God's children beloved even as we are.
Yes, we will be obedient to the Law, but not from duty, rather from love. We grow into righteousness, and the process really is rewarding.
Dr. Jay Hodges can be reached at Jayhodges610@yahoo.com.