Righteousness Comes From God

Righteousness Comes From God July 10, 2022

Rublev: Icon of St Paul / Wikimedia Commons

Paul always loved the Jewish people. He was one of them. He always saw himself as one of them. His faith in Jesus did not diminish his hopes and fears for his people. He always believed they had a special place in the world. He always hoped for their salvation. “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Rom. 10:1 RSV). The people of Israel had a very profound religious faith, one which encourage many of them to have a great zeal for God and what they believed was God’s desires for them. He understood that zeal because he had it himself. He never lost I, though it became transformed through his faith in Jesus.  Nonetheless, he also understood how such zeal could be problematic, that is, it could easily become misdirected and used for some evil, for he saw how it had caused him to do so in his own life. He persecuted Christians because he thought he was defending God and God’s ways. Paul also thought that the way to please God was to be righteous, and that righteousness was something which one established for themselves. It was a belief which he knew was commonly accepted by people throughout the world. They always had some moral or religious foundation for their belief, such as the Law of Moses; strict adherence to that law was all that was necessary for righteousness. Paul did not entirely want to discount the thought process which led to this conclusion. The promotion of the Law of Moses, or of any moral law, was good, but the Law, by itself, could not lead us to perfect righteousness. God’s righteousness, God’s holiness had to be shared with us for us to truly become holy, and so the purpose of the Law, and every moral law, should be to promote God’s righteousness, so that once we realize true righteousness comes from God and not ourselves, we could embrace it for ourselves:

I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified (Rom. 10:2-4 RSV).

The revelation of Christ teaches us that the pursuit of righteousness, though commendable, cannot be fulfilled by ourselves. We need God’s help. The moral law is good, but it is a limited good. The moral law, in any form in which it can take, should be seen as a pointer beyond itself. It should show us our need for something beyond ourselves. It is derived from something else, beyond ourselves, and beyond itself. God is the source and foundation of every good, and so the source and foundation of the good contained in the moral law. We can, therefore, look not just to the law, but to the source, to God, and when we do, we will realize it is not the law but God which brings us righteousness.  Moral reflection, the moral law, even the best kinds, those with divine inspiration, are limited in value, but within those limits, they can be and should be praised. What they should do is help us place our trust in God, and not turn inward and trust only in ourselves. This way, trusting in God, trusting in what was revealed through Jesus, we can find ourselves transcending the righteousness of the law. We will embrace Jesus, God with us, and through him, partake of and enjoy the righteousness of God. That righteousness comes to us as grace; when we cooperate with it, when we embrace it, it will transform us. This is what Paul had to learn, and once he did, he understood better the Law of Moses, its value as well as its limitation. It was Jesus which made this all possible, for in Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is truly at hand, and the eschaton has become immanent in the incarnation:

But the righteousness based on faith says, Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved (Romn 10:6-10 RSV).

We must not deny the value of the moral law; we are not to think sin is fine. We must not ignore sin,. But we must also realize that the solution to sin, to the harm which we have caused by our sin, is not found in ourselves. So long as we try to do all things all by ourselves, we cut ourselves off from God, and so by turning inward, we turn away from love. As sin is unlove, by turning away from such love, we embrace the path of sin. Nonetheless, as it is often some form of the good which leads us to act as we do, some distortion of the good, this means, even with sin, there can be all kinds of good intentions involved in our actions. Though sin leads us away from the fullness of the good, we still intend some good by our actions, some form of righteousness which we establish for ourselves. The problem is the good which we establish is imperfect. And yet, because there remains some element of the good willed in our sin, we will find even within our sin a pointer beyond the sin which we have done, a pointer to the good and the greater righteousness of God. Within every act, within every person, there will always be a place where God can be found at work, because God is engaging each and every good, even if it is a deficient good, hoping to build it up and strengthen it so it can be finds its proper place in the greater good.  That is, in every act, even in every sin, there will always be some opening for God and the revelation of God to get through to the sinner, and help them move beyond the limited good they have established for themselves and towards the absolute good, the good of God. Faith, belief, in Jesus takes us there, not because Jesus would have us reject the law and the prophets, the moral law and our conscience, but because in the good found in them points us back to God. The key is to see the work of God in that good, and then embrace God in the midst of that work. Then, we will find ourselves partaking, not just the limited good, but God, and the righteousness of God which is found with God. We are justified by faith in Jesus because we discern the truth, that the eschaton is immanent in the world. We embrace the immanent eschaton, realizing, through it, we receive grace, and therefore, we understand what it means to say that the kingdom of God at hand. If, on the other hand, we see Jesus at work, willing to take us in and make us great, and we deny him, because we think we should do it all ourselves, our response will be like that of the demon-possessed men in Gadarenes, who said, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” (Matt. 8:29 RSV). If we deny Jesus, if we deny the grace which God offers us through the good which we have attained, and so try to construct a good for ourselves apart from that grace, alas, all we shall have is the abyss.

Paul loved his people. He saw God had indeed been at work with them. He didn’t want to deny the Law of Moses, but he wanted his people to understand it properly, so that they would not use it as a tool of self-justification. He prayed for them. He had great hope for them and their salvation. He never gave up that hope. He hoped all Israel would be saved. He knew it would be wrong to dismiss them and the good which they had achieved. It was by understanding how he was able to see God at work in and through them, he also saw how God was also at work with the Gentile. We, then, should be moved similarly, to look to the world with hope, to see the coming of Christ into the world as the source and foundation of that hope, so that though we do not know if our hope will be fulfilled, we know we have good reason to hope that the whole world will be saved. With that hope, we can then find ourselves motivated to work for the kingdom of God, to reveal it is truly at hand, because all people have within them the foundation they need to find their own place in it.

 

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