If you work to become more righteous, is it true you are not accepting God’s righteousness?


Mr. Jeff,

A friend posted this on Facebook. I've read it over and over, and I just can't grasp what is being said. I'm always skeptical when a writer only quotes one Bible verse when he has so much to say. Sounds to me like a false doctrine or some of it does anyway.

Some Christians believe that they have to work at becoming more righteous. And they kick themselves when they do wrong. They don’t realize that by doing these things, they are not seeking God’s righteousness, but are trying to establish their own righteousness by their law-keeping and right conduct.

Righteousness is not about right conduct. It is a gift from God to us through Jesus. And since it is a gift, we cannot earn it by our law-keeping and right conduct. We can only receive it!

How do we receive this gift? We receive it through the cross. God made Jesus “who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” So today, we are the righteousness of God in Christ. We are as righteous as Jesus is!

But some of us think that in the body of Christ, there are different classes of righteousness, like the seating classes in an airplane. They think that some of us have economy-class righteousness, others have business-class righteousness and a select few have first-class righteousness.

That is nonsense! When God gave us Jesus, He became our righteousness. So we have His righteousness. This means that we are 100 per cent righteous in God’s eyes! We cannot but have first-class righteousness!

"For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (II Corinthians 5:21).

At the cross, the divine exchange took place. Jesus took our place so that we might take His place. He did not deserve to be made sin, but He was made sin in our place. We did not deserve to be made righteous, but we were made righteous because we received His righteousness. What good news! What amazing grace! Too good not to pass on.


The author of this piece is alluding to Romans 4. But the author confuses Law, which is talking in this passage about the Law of Moses with all law. Paul's point is that Jew and Greek are both saved by faith and not by the Law of Moses.

What Romans 4 Is Discussing

"What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? 'Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.' Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due" (Romans 4:1-4).

If Abraham’s justification came solely by the things he did, there might be an occasion to boast in his personal accomplishments. In other words, did Abraham’s justification come because he was circumcised? It was, after all, what the Jews took pride in (II Corinthians 11:18; Philippians 3:3-4; Galatians 6:13). But such a boast cannot be made before God since all, including Abraham, sin. Circumcision was a part of God’s law, but it didn’t make a person righteous according to the law because the law wasn’t just about circumcision.

Nor was the fact that Abraham was circumcised the cause for God crediting him with righteousness. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 which plainly states that it was because of Abraham’s belief that God credited him with righteousness. This same passage is quoted in James 2:23 to show the importance of works in belief. You will find commentators arguing that faith and works are opposites, such as “Throughout this whole argument, faith is set in direct opposition to works, in the matter of justification” [Jameison-Fausset-Brown Commentary]; yet, this cannot be when the same verse is used to prove that both faith and works are necessary. Rather both Paul and James are arguing against the idea that faith and works can be separated: Paul is dealing with works without faith and James is dealing with faith without works.

We should also note that when Abraham was told this, it wasn’t because he had been an alien sinner who never obeyed God in the past. Melchizedek had previously called Abram a follower of the Most High God (Genesis 14:19). Abram has been following God for years. What Paul is proving is that it wasn’t because Abram kept a work of the Law, such as circumcision, that made him righteous. It was because of his faith that God declared him righteous, even though he had sinned.

"But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,  just as David also speaks of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: 'Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the LORD will not take into account'" (Romans 4:5-8).

To further prove his point that it is faith that makes a difference, Paul cites David in Psalms 32. A man who has been forgiven of his sins is in a happy state. It doesn’t mean that he did no wrong. Instead, his sins are buried and not charged against the man. Matthew Poole notes:

“The same thing is expressed three several ways; there are three things in sin to be considered:

  1. There is an offence against God, which is said to be forgiven.
  2. There is a filthiness in sin, which is said to be covered.
  3. There is guilt in it, which is said not to be imputed.”

It is God who chooses not to hold accountable, not the man who earned God’s favor or put God into his debt. But once again we note that we are not talking about the initial forgiveness of an alien sinner. David had been following God most of his life. David’s quote is in the context of a man who has been obedient to God but has failed to be perfectly obedient.

"Is this blessing then on the circumcised, or on the uncircumcised also? For we say, "Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness." How then was it credited? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, so that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be credited to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised" (Romans 4:9-12).

The Jews considered themselves blessed because they descended from Abraham, but Paul asks if Abraham’s justification only affected the Jews. He notes that it was Abraham’s faith that caused him to be justified by God, but that justification came while Abraham was still uncircumcised. Abraham was justified in Genesis 15, but he wasn’t circumcised until Genesis 17, about 15 years later. Therefore Abraham received justification while a Gentile.

Circumcision was the sign or witness that Abraham had entered into a covenant with God. However, he received that sign that showed his already existing faith while a Gentile. This was purposely done to demonstrate that Abraham was the father of all who believe, not just the Jews. Circumcision did not contribute to Abraham’s justification or to the promises made to Abraham. It only marked him, after the fact, that he was following God.

All of this means that the same justification can be imputed on any who believe, Jew or Gentile (Galatians 3:7,29; Romans 2:29).

"For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation" (Romans 4:13-16).

Abraham was promised that he would be the father of many nations (Genesis 17:4-5). But that promise was not given to Abraham because he was special or to his descendants because they had the law. At the time, the law had not yet been given. The promise was given because of Abraham’s faith.

If keeping the Law of Moses made people heirs, then it sets aside the need for faith. Abraham’s justification by faith would not be just. Those seeking justification by works of the law without faith are cut off from the promises given before the Law of Moses as a result of faith. If justification was by the Law of Moses, it would be earned; but the inheritance comes by promise and not by obligation (Galatians 3:18).

All the Law of Moses brings is God’s wrath because all men sin. The very existence of law results in sin because sin is the breaking of a law (I John 3:4; Romans 3:20; 5:13; 7:8-11; I Corinthians 15:56; Galatians 3:10). Man is unable to keep the law perfectly, so by law, he can only be under wrath. The Law of Moses cannot justify a man.

"For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, (as it is written, 'A father of many nations have I made you') in the presence of Him whom he believed, even God, who gives life to the dead and calls into being that which does not exist" (Romans 4:16-17).

Since justification cannot be by the Law of Moses, it must require faith. God designed it in this way that it might be a gift from Him. Since it depends on God and not man’s perfect obedience, the delivery of the promises are solid and will be delivered to everyone (Galatians 3:22). Paul proves his point by again quoting Genesis 17:5 and noting that God said: “I have made you ...” (Hebrews 6:17-18).

Is Paul Saying We Don't Need to Keep the Law?

Actually, what Paul is saying is that obedience to the Law never causes God to owe us salvation. God set the requirement for gifting men righteousness based on faith. But Paul sees faith as intertwined with obedience to God's Law. He starts and ends Romans talking about the "obedience of faith" (Romans 1:5; 16:26). A person cannot be faithful to God without obedience. As Jesus said, "If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father's who sent Me" (John 14:23-24). Neither faith nor obediences earn us salvation, but both are required of us by God before He grants us salvation.

Does Being Made Righteous Mean We Are Without Sin?

Paul repeatedly stated that we are credited as righteous.  That word, "credited," is significant. It means we are treated as righteous even though we are not actually righteous. All of us have sinned and so we don't deserve to be called righteous. This is different from Jesus Christ, who never sinned and is righteous. The author tries to make it sound as if we become the same as Christ but this cannot be. Even after being saved, sin remains a problem for the Christian. "If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us" (I John 1:8). The only reason we are being treated as righteous is that God grants us the gift based on our faith, which includes our obedience.

Does Jesus Being Made Sin Mean He Is No Longer Righteous?

God has made reconciliation possible by having the sinless Son of God to be sin on our behalf. This is not to say that Christ became sinful or guilty of sin (I Peter 1:19; 2:22; Hebrews 7:26; I John 3:5), but that Jesus became the sin offering on behalf of our sins. There are a number of verses in the Old Testament where the word “sin” is used to refer to the sin offering – the Hebrew word chattath can be translated as either sin or sin-offering, see Leviticus 4:23-24 where it is used both ways (also Hosea 4:8; Ezekiel 44:29). In doing so, we are able to become righteous in Christ (Romans 5:19; Colossians 1:21-22). One way to read this is that Christ was treated as if he were sin, though he was without sin so that we who are in him might be treated as if we were righteous, though we are sinful (Isaiah 53:12; I Peter 2:22-24).

Righteousness Is a State

The author does get one point correct. Righteousness is a state of being. If you are saved, you cannot become more saved. If you are being counted as righteous, you cannot become more righteous.

However, the author makes this sound as if no effort is required to remain righteous or that no obedience is required of those whom God grants forgiveness of their sins. Paul told us, "So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13). This work doesn't make us more righteous or more saved. But God requires us to put effort into our salvation.

How do we receive the gift of salvation? See What Saves a Person? It is not just one thing, which is another point the author gets wrong. There are many things that work in concert that results in our salvation and not one of them can be left out.

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