The Choice to Live in Righteousness

Dr Gavin D Williams

The righteousness of the blameless makes a straight way for them, but the wicked are brought down by their own wickedness. Proverbs 11:5 (NIV)

One of the great joys of any pastor's life is to watch young believers develop in their faith. In this process, one observes subtle changes as these believers grow toward maturity. As the Holy Spirit works within, we often see wonderful changes that could never be accomplished by human effort. Attitudes change as they study the Word of God. Actions change as the person develops in their understanding of godly behaviour. Relationships mature as they learn to relate to others in ways that reflect the character of Christ. I find observing these changes to be one of the most wonderful dimensions of ministry.

Perhaps one of the more noticeable changes that comes with developing spiritual maturity is a sharper awareness of right and wrong. The maturing disciple develops an increased consciousness of sinfulness. As they grow in their understanding of the Word of God and allow the Holy Spirit to guide them, things that would once have passed without thought are challenged. In time, these issues no longer find a place in their lives. They are growing in their desire to live in a way that pleases the Lord.

This change should not surprise us. When Jesus taught about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, he said, "When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment..." John 16:8 (NIV). Christians have generally thought of this verse as speaking of the work of the Holy Spirit in drawing unbelievers to conviction of sin and awareness of their need for the salvation available in Jesus Christ. But the convicting work of the Holy Spirit does not stop when we come to Christ. Throughout our lives, the Spirit gently works in our hearts and minds to sharpen our awareness of sin and to lead us to a lifestyle of holiness.

The desired result of this inner working of the Holy Spirit is to see us more conformed to the likeness of Christ.[1] The process of becoming more like Jesus is what the Bible calls sanctification. The more we grow to become like Jesus, the more aware we will become of righteousness and unrighteousness.

What is Righteousness?

This leads us to ask the question: what does the word 'righteousness' mean? To many, it is one of those big Bible words understood only by theologians and the like. Nothing could be further from the truth. Righteousness is actually a rather simple concept.

The most basic meaning of the word 'righteous' is 'to be in the right.' It contains the idea of comparison with a standard or set of rules. When a person's actions are compared with that set of rules and it is clear they have done the right thing, they may be declared to be 'righteous' according to those rules. If they have disobeyed those rules, they are 'unrighteous'.

One of the most common illustrations of this principle takes place in courts of law every day of the week. When the police charge a person with a crime, they make the allegation that this person has disobeyed the laws of that land. We could say that the police believe this person to be 'unrighteous' in the context of the law. Subsequently the charged person will stand before a judge and jury in a court of law. The police put forward their allegations together with the evidence to support their charges. The person has opportunity to bring a defense and show why the police allegations are not correct. Finally the judge or jury makes a finding that the person is either 'guilty' or 'not guilty'. They could just as easily use the words 'righteous' or 'unrighteous'.

See how simple it really is! To be righteous means to be in the right when compared to a set of rules or laws. To be unrighteous means to have disobeyed or violated that set of laws.

Righteousness in the Bible

The idea of righteousness is one of the foundational truths of the Bible. Whole libraries of books have been written on this subject, so our treatment of the concept will be very basic indeed. But it is never-the-less important for us to understand. For our purposes we want to grasp four basic principles concerning the Bible's teaching on righteousness.

1. God is righteous: This is the most basic truth of the Scripture. In all that He is and all that He does, God is always right. His character is righteous and it is impossible for Him to be or to do anything that is wrong or unrighteous. Consider some passages in the Scripture which teach this principle:

"Righteous are you, O Lord, and your laws are right." Psalm 119:137 (NIV)
"Glorious and majestic are his deeds, and his righteousness endures forever." Psalm 111:3 (NIV)

"Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you." Psalm 89:14 (NIV)

"He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he." Deut. 32:4 (NIV)

Our understanding and acceptance of this truth forms the foundation upon which so many other dimensions of our faith are built. Our confidence is in the fact that the God whom we worship is truth and right; He can and will do no wrong and He does not change.

2. God sets the standards of righteousness: Only a righteous God can set the standards by which right and wrong are measured. When God gave Moses the Ten Commandments[2], He set down the basic laws which form the foundation of human society. The Psalmist writes:
"Righteous are you, O Lord, and your laws are right. The statutes you have laid down are righteous; they are fully trustworthy... Your righteousness is everlasting and your law is true... Your statutes are forever right; give me understanding that I may live." Psalm 119:137-144 (NIV
Every true and just society has the Ten Commandments as the foundation upon which its laws are built. When a society neglects these basic laws, that society will begin to decline into lawlessness, immorality and injustice.
3. All mankind has failed to keep God's standards of righteousness: Now things become more personal. It is obvious that we have all failed to keep God's set standards or law. In thought, word or deed, we have all failed at sometime in our lives. Unrighteous in one area is all that it takes for us to be declared unrighteous. Consider these Scriptures:
"Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you." Psalm 143:2 (NIV)
"All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags..." Isaiah 64:6 (NIV)
"As it is written: "There is no one righteous, not even one..." Romans 3:10 (NIV)
As we read the Bible and observe our own lives and those around us, it is clear that we have all failed to live according to God's righteous standard. We are rightly called 'unrighteous' – those who fall short of God's right standards.[3]
4. Christ is our righteousness: I can already sense your question. "What about Jesus", you ask? Jesus is the one exception to the dark story expressed in the passages above. Speaking of Jesus' righteousness, the writer to the Hebrews says. "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin." Hebrews 4:15 (NIV)
Although the Lord Jesus lived in this same world as we do, He never once gave into the temptations or demands of His human nature. Jesus was the only man who ever lived a truly righteous life. For that reason, His death on the Cross was an acceptable sacrifice for sin. The Scripture says:
"For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God." 1 Peter 3:18 (NIV)
"... 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 and is by faith." Philippians 3:9 (NIV)
When we come to God through faith in Jesus Christ, repenting of our unrighteousness, God accepts Jesus' sacrifice as the full payment for our sin. As a result we are forgiven. The record is wiped away. We are declared to be righteous before God. From that point onwards we are called to live life a new way that conforms to God's standards.
This summary is certainly very brief. But it sets out the basic facts of righteousness as we find it in the Bible.

The Creative Principle of Righteousness

There is another dimension to this issue of righteousness. It is one that we do not think about very much. I call it the creative principle of righteousness.

When God laid down the foundations of our world, he set in place a number of physical, scientific and spiritual principles by which this world would operate. Scientists sometimes speak of the 'laws of nature'. They recognize that there are a whole series of basic principles underneath the formation and operation of our physical universe.[4]

In the same way, there are basic spiritual laws behind the creation of our world. One of these is the 'Creative Principle of Righteousness'. I state it in this way:

This world was designed and created to function best when mankind lives in accordance with God's righteous requirements.
When men and women live in accordance with God's righteous laws; when nations are governed in accordance with God's righteous laws[5]; when we use the resources of our world in accordance with God's righteous laws, things work in the best possible way.

The other side of this creative principle of righteousness is that when we choose to live in ways that are contrary to God's laws and plans, we stand in opposition to God. Our plans will often come to nothing or face incredible difficulty simply because we are working against the basic plans which God has set down.

Think of it in this way. Picture in your mind a fast flowing stream. If someone jumps into that stream and begins to swim with the flow of the water, they make rapid and easy progress. But if they try to swim against the flow of water, they will make little progress and soon become exhausted. When we live in righteousness, we are flowing with God and our way will be clear before us. When we live in unrighteousness, we are pressing against God and His ways. The result can only be a struggle.

Swimming Against God's Flow:

There is a practical outworking of this creative principle of righteousness that we often see but seldom recognize. I call this, 'swimming against God's flow." Think again of the fast flowing river and a swimmer struggling against the flow of the water. Now let us imagine that the swimmer decides to swim under the water. What happens? The pressure of the flow not only makes his progress difficult, but also tends to push him back to the surface.

When people choose to live in unrighteous ways, they live in opposition to God's creative principle of righteousness. When they try to conceal their unrighteous activities, sooner or later those activities will be forced to the surface and exposed. However long things may appear to be hidden, the law of righteousness will ensure that they are finally exposed.

In the country of Australia where I live, there was a highly respected police officer. Most people believed that one day he would become the police commissioner. He was widely known for his honesty and integrity. But one day newspapers began to report rumors of an event which took place more than 30 years earlier. It was reported that when he was a young officer, this policeman had accepted a very small bribe. After an investigation he was dismissed from the police force. Although the event had remained hidden for a long, long time, this single event of unrighteousness had finally come to the surface. I am sure you can think of many similar stories in your own country.

How is it that things which were hidden for so long suddenly become known? I believe it has to do with this creative principle of righteousness. When we do what is right, we have little to fear. We are not worried that one day someone will discover our terrible secret. But when we do what is wrong, we live with the constant fear that one day our unrighteousness will become known. And it will become known: if not in this world, then when we stand at the judgment seat of Christ.

The Significance for our Journey Toward Maturity

What then is the significance of this understanding of righteousness for our journey toward spiritual maturity? As I wrote earlier in this chapter, one of the most noticeable changes that comes with growing spiritual maturity is a sharper awareness of right and wrong. The maturing believer is more aware of things that grieve the Father's heart. As a result, growing maturity leads to more righteous choices and less unrighteous choices. The ministry of the Word of God and the Spirit of God sharpen our awareness of right and wrong and give us a greater passion to live in ways that give Him glory.

This is obviously a growing and developing sensitivity. When we first come to Christ, the inner working of the Holy Spirit will cause us to focus on major areas such as wrong relationships, outwardly offensive actions or language. As we grow in our understanding of the things of Christ, the Spirit will turn our attention to issues of unrighteousness which we would not have considered earlier in our journey of faith. Look back in your own experience and reflect on the differences between your attitudes early in your journey and your attitudes today. I am sure you will see a dramatic change in your own perceptions of righteousness and unrighteousness.

However, this transformation in attitudes and thinking does not only come about by the operation of the Spirit. A mark of growing spiritual maturity is the degree to which a person consciously chooses righteousness. Things which we would once have allowed, we now choose to put away. The deeper sense of the presence of Christ through His indwelling Spirit generates in us the desire to live in ways that honour Him even in the secret places where others do not see. As a result we more consciously choose to do the right thing.

I want to consider some very practical applications of this principle:

1. Driving according to the law: Many motorists only keep to speed limits because of the fear of being caught and penalized. Once they are out on the open road and feel free from the eyes of the law, they drive at speeds in excess of the stated limits. By choosing to violate the legal standards, their behaviour is unrighteous. And yet they think nothing of this.
For the child of God the issues are different. In the Scripture I am told to be subject to the laws of men.[6] I choose to obey the law because I know it is the right thing to do and out of obedience to Christ. I choose to do the right thing even if I never see a police officer. This is the choice of a maturing believer.
2. Honesty in our taxes and finances: One of the favourite challenges in many western countries is to cheat the government taxation system. People hide income, inflate expenses, and deal in cash rather than keep accurate records. They do this in the hope that they will ultimately have more money for themselves and pay less to the taxman. This is clearly unrighteous behaviour. Many people fear the day when they receive notice that the officers of the tax department are calling to audit their taxation affairs. Why? Because they know that their unrighteous behaviour will be exposed.
As maturing believers, there should be no problem in this area. We deal honestly with our affairs, keep true records, only claim legitimate expenses and deductions and pay our rightful taxes because that is the right thing to do. Because we have behaved righteously in regard to the taxation laws, there is nothing to fear.
3. Faithfulness in employment: Many working people are looking for any opportunity to exploit their employer. They take time off without proper cause, claiming to be sick when they are not. They claim inflated expenses, make unnecessary or expensive personal phone calls and use the internet at work for personal purposes. Their attitude is that they deserve anything they can get from the boss. But this is unrighteous behaviour.
As we journey toward maturity, we realize that such behaviour is unrighteous. As believers we are instructed to deal honestly with our earthly masters.[7] As those who honour Christ, we are called to be faithful to those who employ us. It is my belief that the Christian employee should be the most faithful, honest and reliable worker in the company. Those who employ us should be confident that they can trust us with anything. This is a lifestyle that honours Christ.
4. Keeping government regulations: In Australia we have a major water crisis. Our vast land is sometimes called the Dry Continent. Many communities have strict water regulations. In the community in which we live we are only permitted to water our gardens for 30 minutes on each of three days per week. However many people ignore these regulations.
As believers who want to live righteously and have a good witness in our community, Glenda and I are very careful to obey these regulations. I have a copy of the regulations on my study wall. We refer to the regulations any time we are uncertain. We do this as part of our submission to the Lord Jesus and our desire to live righteously in every respect.
By now I think you should understand the principle I am teaching. Righteousness is not simply some grand principle to be discussed by theologians. Rather it is a vital principle that applies to every area of our lives. The more we journey toward maturity the sharper will become our understanding of that which is righteous or unrighteous.

The Outcome of Righteousness

Romans 8:28 is a favourite verse for many Christians:

"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
This verse is frequently claimed as a promise by Christians who are experiencing times of suffering or even persecution. I have frequently heard people quote the first part of this verse, "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him." Yet they conveniently forget the second part of the verse.

I believe that an important part of the 'calling' of every Christian is to live righteously. How can we expect God to work all things for our benefit and good if we are making choices that are unrighteous? If we expect to stand on promises such as Romans 8:28 , then we must recognize that an important part of our role is to give all we are able to live righteously in every area of our lives.

Righteous living means that we will choose to do that which is right even when it costs us dearly to do it. The believer who is on the journey toward maturity will stand true to this. It will be a key to your ongoing journey Toward Maturity.

For Personal Reflection:

Take a few minutes to think about your life and attitudes:

Are there any areas where you are behaving in an unrighteous manner simply because others around you behave that way?
Are there any areas in your life which need to be brought into line with either God's standards or those of the community in which you live?
Are there issues in your life which need to be confessed, repented and changed of so that your testimony is righteous?

[1] Romans 8:29

[2] Exodus 20:1-17

[3] Romans 3:23

[4]After generations of denial, modern day scientists are beginning to recognize what they call 'intelligent design'. Although they will not acknowledge the reality of God, they are beginning to see that a world and universe like ours did not just come into being. Our universe is the product of careful design and fundamental physical and even spiritual laws. I much prefer the Bible's clear declaration, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and earth."

[5] Proverbs 14:34

[6] Ecclesiastes 8:2, Romans 13:1, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-14.

[7] Ephesians 6:5, Colossians 3:22 , 1 Timothy 6:1, Titus 2:9.

This article is taken from the book by Dr Gavin Williams entitled "Toward Maturity".

© Copyright LttN Ministries Inc. 2005.