Is the Christian righteous or unrighteous? A simplistic yes or no answer is misleading. This is a tricky question that calls for theological care, and it’s a question from Jason. “Pastor John, I have recently been listening to your old sermon ‘Our Hope: Righteousness.’ In it you mention that ‘full and perfect righteousness lies in the future. It is our hope, not our possession.’ This is in reference to Galatians 5:5: ‘For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.’ Can you clarify for me what it means to be righteous? I thought it meant right standing. In placing my faith in Jesus, does that make me righteous at the time of profession? Or does ‘righteous’ mean ‘perfect,’ and that’s why we’re not righteous now? Can you clarify for me the various stages of righteousness in the history of a believer?”
Oh, I will love to try, because this is just so close to the heart of what the gospel is and who Christ is to us. Getting this distinction is right at the heart of the gospel and right at the heart of Reformation discoveries five hundred years ago. So here we go. Let’s try.
Two Forms of Righteousness
Even though there are particular passages about righteousness that are unclear to me, frankly, as to their precise meaning, the overall picture in the New Testament is clear. Just to keep matters as simple as possible without distorting the reality, I would love to say there are two basic uses of the word righteousness in this regard.
One is reckoned to us — counted to us, imputed to us; pick your word — through faith, which comes from God as a gift in the moment that you receive it by faith. That would be because Jesus has done that righteousness. He has performed that righteousness, and his is counted as ours. We call that imputed righteousness. The other use of the word would be righteousness that we ourselves are acting out or living out in our daily lives.
Perfect and Progressive
Both of them — not just one of them, but both of them — are through faith. But not in the same way. The first is an imputed gift counted as ours. That gift is received through faith. The second kind is an imparted gift — not an imputed gift but an imparted gift — which we ourselves perform by faith in his power (2 Thessalonians 1:11). The first kind of righteousness is perfect. The second kind of righteousness is progressive.
We will someday be perfected — at the end of our lives, when God completes our process of becoming practically, personally, perfectly righteous. But right now, in this life, this righteousness is not yet perfect. And the relationship between these two kinds of righteousness is that we can’t make any progress in practical, lived-out righteousness until we are accepted by God, forgiven for our sins, and declared to be perfectly righteous with the imputed righteousness of God in Christ.
That’s tremendously important to see because it means that the effort that we make by faith through the Holy Spirit to put to death sins and become more and more practically righteous is not the basis of our right standing with God. It is the consequence or effect of our right standing with God. That’s huge. If we get those switched around, we don’t live the gospel; we don’t have the gospel.
Faith and Works of Faith
The gift of the first kind of righteousness is called justification, and we receive it by faith alone (Romans 3:28; 5:1). This means that it happens instantaneously through our faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord and treasure. It happens at the very instant of our first act of saving faith, which God gives us in the new birth.
“We are justified with Christ’s perfect righteousness the very instant that we have faith, before we do any works of faith.”
At that very instant, God is then, and from that moment on, one hundred percent for us and not against us. We have no condemnation (Romans 8:1), even though before that we were children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). At that moment, for the first time, by the Spirit, through faith, we are able to kill specific sins and make progress in God-pleasing, practical, lived-out righteousness.
Before we had faith, we could not please God at all or perform true righteousness, because without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). But as soon as we were given faith, in that instant, we were justified. None of the works of righteousness — none of our own works of righteousness that come from faith — could ever be the basis of justification. We are justified with Christ’s perfect righteousness the very instant that we have faith, before we do any works of faith.
Now if that’s a complicated paragraph, stop and read it again because I meant what I said. I think it’s biblical. Let’s look at a few passages of Scripture to show that these things are so. What I’ve been stating so far are almost all theological conceptions built on texts. Here are the texts.
Let’s start with imputed righteousness, the righteousness that is reckoned to us by God because of Christ. Look at Romans 5:19: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners [that’s referring to Adam], so by the one man’s obedience [Jesus] the many will be made righteous.” That’s what I mean by imputed righteousness.
Here it is from Romans 4:6: “David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works.” So there’s the biblical basis of the word imputation or reckoning. “He counts righteousness apart from works of the law.”
Or, we have Philippians 3:8–9: “I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him [in union with him], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”
Those are at least three illustrations of righteousness that we have as a gift from God through faith. None of our practical lived-out righteousness is the basis of that gift. As Paul says in Titus 3:5, “[God] saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness.” So he refers to good works of righteousness that we can actually do, and then he says those aren’t the basis. He continues, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”
Now, what about the practical, lived-out righteousness? That’s what we do now by the Spirit, since we have been made alive through faith by the Spirit. Here’s Romans 6:13: “Do not present your members [that is, your hands, feet, tongue, sexual organs] to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”
“We can’t make any progress in practical, lived-out righteousness until we are accepted by God and forgiven for our sins.”
You don’t make yourself alive by doing this. You’ve been brought from death to life, so now present your members as instruments of righteousness. Paul says clearly that in this life we are not yet perfect in righteousness of our own. Here is Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect [oh, that’s so important], but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
So, here’s the glory and the mystery of the Christian life. We are already righteous in Christ, and so we have peace with God (Romans 5:1). And in the peace of that acceptance with God, we strive for righteousness in our daily lives not only because we know that this confirms that we are God’s people (2 Peter 1:10), but also because this is the most deeply satisfying way to glorify Christ.