Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Matt. 6:33e “. . .and his righteousness;. . .”
“Righteousness” deals with practical behavioral details. Each member of God’s kingdom must seek to fulfill its duties of citizenship by living up to its code of conduct. Our King demands a high personal standard of holiness. God makes us His children, not to display us in artificial settings as museum pieces, but to present us in the real nitty gritty world as examples of how to live. In the marketplace, at work, at school, we are to live on a higher plane than those around us do.
Believers are called to be salt, light, and leaven in society, to be examples lifting the level of conduct in those around us. To defeat gambling, a nation must have citizens who unequivocally refuse to participate in it, and who can thus speak with authority against it. Spokesmen have to be pure through and through before they can be a potent voice against evil. Otherwise, in the critical moment of decision, when push comes to shove, there is a hesitation, a hiccup, and the day is lost.
Our country’s failing war against drug abuse is a classic example. We are losing because a huge percentage of Baby Boomers do not hold strong convictions against using drugs. There is hesitancy among many, a feeling that using drugs is not terribly evil. Thus, our anti-drug laws are not as respected as they ought to be.
The crying need of this hour in our land is righteousness. We desperately need true heroes, people who live godly lives, who can stand on their own integrity as a platform from which to speak up with authority for righteousness in the culture. Some, denying this responsibility to society, selfishly want to withdraw from the culture and let it rot. “Their religion is barely sufficient to fill up the vacuum within their own ribs, where their hearts should be. This selfishness is not the religion of Jesus. The religion of Jesus is unselfish: it enlists a man as a crusader against everything that is unrighteous. We are knights of the red cross, and our bloodless battles are against all things that degrade our fellowmen, whether they be causes social, political, or religious. We fight for everything that is good, true, and just” (Spurgeon). To be a true blessing to our culture, seek righteousness first. Determine to live and speak for a level of godliness which lifts all around us.
To adequately understand the full extent of the righteousness required of believers, we must take time to acknowledge the third person possessive pronoun in our text. People need “his” righteousness, the kind God possesses and dispenses.
Righteousness is a basic attribute of God. In His innermost essence, God is spirit (JN 4:24), a holy and almighty (RV 4:8) light (1 J 1:5) of consuming fire (HB 12:29), a merciful and gracious (EX 34:6a) love (1 J 4:8) abundant in goodness (EX 34:6b). “Righteousness” is the term we use to describe the consistency with which God portrays these and all His many other glorious traits. The word describes His settled conviction to always do right in every given situation.
God relates rightly to everyone and everything–whether it be the cosmos of planets and stars, the natural order of plants and animals, or the spiritual realm of people, angels, and even demons. God is righteous, always doing right in all His relationships. In all His deeds, in everything He does, no one can ever accuse God of being unfair or acting improperly. This is, by definition, “His righteousness.”
Unfortunately, people by nature lack this vital trait of God. We are by birth, by choice, and by habit unrighteous. Due to our sin, we do not inherently possess the ability to relate rightly to God, to others, to Nature, to things around us, to sin.
The most basic need of every human being is righteousness, to be able to relate rightly with everything in our own personal environments. Since only God inherently possesses this trait, we must find a way to transfer it from Him to us.
How a person becomes righteous is what spawned the Reformation. In the Middle Ages the Church taught that righteousness was something a person merited, a reward earned through good deeds and taking the sacraments of the Church.
Martin Luther, while a priest in this medieval system, made a pilgrimage to Rome to visit holy sites and earn merit before God. Topping a hill and first seeing the city, he was overcome with emotion and fell to his knees, crying, “Hail, Holy Rome!” While there, Luther decided to visit an especially holy site to gain merit and to shorten his dead grandfather’s stay in Purgatory. The Church had brought to Rome from Jerusalem a flight of steps tradition said Jesus climbed the night He appeared before Pilate. Pope Leo IV had granted indulgences of nine less years in Purgatory for each of the twenty-eight steps climbed on your knees while praying. Luther, worried over Grandpa, and having struggled for five years to obtain righteousness, hoped this holy deed would bring his anxieties to a climactic end. He believed this act would earn righteousness for him and shorten Grandpa’s stay in Purgatory. However, while climbing on his knees and saying the proper prayers, Luther’s mind drifted to, and rivetted on, a Bible verse he had often taught as a professor. He remembered Paul saying he was not ashamed of the Gospel, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (RM 1:17). Luther suddenly understood, God’s righteousness is not earned, but received as a gift on the basis of faith. People righteous (same Greek word as just) by faith are the ones who live, who have spiritual life (PH 3:9). From that moment, the die was cast for Luther. He spent years studying the Bible intensely, separating the true from the false in Church dogma.
The righteousness of God becomes our possession only as we by faith place our trust in Jesus, who is our righteousness (1 C 1:30). At Calvary, Jesus displayed ultimate righteousness by dealing with sin decisively, not flippantly. Being God, Jesus had to be right in all His dealings, even with sin. He had to die as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world, and as a perfect substitute for the sinners of the world. God reckoned the sin debt of mankind paid for in His perfect Son’s death. As a result, our everlasting destiny is determined not by goodness or badness, but by what we do with Jesus. If He is rejected, the result is everlasting separation from God. If Jesus is received, the result is forgiveness. In God’s ledger our sins are reckoned, imputed, to Jesus’ account and thereby declared paid in full (RM 4:22-24). At the same time, Jesus’ righteousness is imputed to our account (2 C 5:21). Then His righteousness is imparted to us as a trait to be fleshed out in our daily lives (PH 1:11). Our duty is to act in ways appropriate to kingdom citizenship, to let the righteousness which controls God’s behavior also control ours.
Since this concept draws heavily on accounting principles, I will illustrate it from the world of finance. Pretend you just became a millionaire by winning the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. A few minutes ago Publishers had all the money, and you were poor, but now you are going to receive part of their wealth. For this to happen, a procedure has to be followed. First, money has to be imputed, reckoned, to your account. Someone in the business office has to say, this million dollars needs to be transferred from us to the winner. Second, you are given a check to deposit in your bank. Third, you withdraw the money and, spending it with reckless abandon, go live like a millionaire. Note the progression–the money was imputed to your account, imparted to you, and then disseminated by you.
Grasping the doctrine of imputed, imparted, and disseminated righteousness makes this teaching a gracious gift of God. It gives an objective standard whereby we can measure how well we are doing at seeking God’s righteousness first. This doctrine grants us a way to know for sure we are saved (1 J 2:29; 3:7,10). Imputed righteousness proves its existence through imparted and disseminated righteousness. Being a Christian is something we receive, are, and do. It is a personal relationship with Jesus which results in a radical behavioral change in us (1 P 2:24).
We spend a lifetime improving, yielding more and more to the righteousness planted in us (2 C 9:10). And as we grow in righteousness, we lift people around us to a higher, better plane. A Christian’s life uplifts the quality of life for everyone nearby. The lives of family, friends, plus fellow workers and students, should be improved by the life we live. The preacher Rowland Hill used to say that a man was not a true Christian if his dog and cat were not better off due to it. Amen! Seek first God’s righteousness, and be a blessing to all who know you.