There is a righteousness that is imputed to the believer as part of his justification by faith in Christ. It is the righteousness of God, and although it does not belong to the believer, it is attributed to him. But there is also a righteousness that is imparted to the believer as part of his sanctification, which is also by faith. This has to do with the righteous acts of the saints, practiced by faith in God through the power of the Holy Spirit, for which God confers, gives, or bestows righteousness to the saint for his or her godliness. This second kind of righteousness that is imparted in connection with sanctification is the kind I would like to focus on right now.
There are many references to this practical righteousness in the New Testament, but a few examples will suffice. For instance, Jesus taught us the level of righteousness required to enter the kingdom of heaven. "For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mat 5:20). While the scribes and Pharisees had a righteousness that comes from the Law, they did not have God’s righteousness that comes by faith in Christ. But they also practiced their righteousness before men to be noticed by them. Therefore, the Lord said, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” (Mat 6:1). Immediately after saying this, he gave two examples of practical righteousness, namely prayer and giving to the poor.
Once you have been justified by faith and received the gift of God’s righteousness in Christ, you must practice your righteousness. That involves doing righteous deeds, such as prayer, fasting, worship, Bible reading, giving tithes and offerings, not stealing, not accepting bribes, serving in the Church, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, and giving to the poor (Mt 25:35-36). The Lord calls this "your righteousness."
In Revelation, John mentioned the reward the saints receive for this practical righteousness. He wrote: “Then I heard something like the voice of a great multitude and like the sound of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, saying, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God, the Almighty, reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready.’ It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” (Rev 19:6-8).
As Matthew Henry said, "God takes notice of the good that is in his servants, to their honor and benefit."
Don’t Trust in Your Own Righteousness
Now I would like to turn to the Old Testament for some passages about practical righteousness, which teach us more about what it is and warn us not to trust in it. Ezekiel wrote:
"But if a man is righteous and practices justice and righteousness, and does not eat at the mountain shrines or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, or defile his neighbor's wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period-- if a man does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, does not commit robbery, but gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with clothing, if he does not lend money on interest or take increase, if he keeps his hand from iniquity and executes true justice between man and man, if he walks in My statutes and My ordinances so as to deal faithfully--he is righteous and will surely live," declares the Lord GOD. (Eze 18:5-9).
In that passage, we learn that when a man is righteous and practices righteousness, then He is considered righteous in God’s sight. Several examples of righteous deeds are given. However, listen to the following warning against trusting in your own righteousness:
"And you, son of man, say to your fellow citizens, 'The righteousness of a righteous man will not deliver him in the day of his transgression, and as for the wickedness of the wicked, he will not stumble because of it in the day when he turns from his wickedness; whereas a righteous man will not be able to live by his righteousness on the day when he commits sin.' "When I say to the righteous he will surely live, and he so trusts in his righteousness that he commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds will be remembered; but in that same iniquity of his which he has committed he will die. "But when I say to the wicked, 'You will surely die,' and he turns from his sin and practices justice and righteousness, if a wicked man restores a pledge, pays back what he has taken by robbery, walks by the statutes which ensure life without committing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die. "None of his sins that he has committed will be remembered against him. He has practiced justice and righteousness; he shall surely live. "Yet your fellow citizens say, 'The way of the Lord is not right,' when it is their own way that is not right. "When the righteous turns from his righteousness and commits iniquity, then he shall die in it. "But when the wicked turns from his wickedness and practices justice and righteousness, he will live by them. (Eze 33:12-19).
While a sinner who turns from his sin and serves God in righteousness will live, the same cannot be said of the righteous man who commits sin. The Lord says a righteous man will not be able to save his life by his righteousness on the day when he commits sin. Put differently, a righteous man will not be able to live by his righteousness on the day when he commits sin. When the righteous man trusts in his righteousness such that he commits iniquity, none of his righteous deeds will be remembered; rather he will die in that same iniquity of his that he has committed. This is the danger of getting comfortable once you become justified as a Christian, and thinking that from now on the matter of sin will never have any bearing on your salvation.
Job was a righteous man
The LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered My servant Job? For there is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, fearing God and turning away from evil." (Job 1:8).
"As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord's dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful. (Jas 5:10-11).
Job was godly, harmless, true, abstaining from all evil, and clinging to innocence. He endured suffering patiently and practiced righteousness.
Noah was a righteous man
Another excellent example of a righteous man was Noah.
“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The LORD said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.’" (Gen 6:5-7)
“But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. These are the records of the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God.” (Gen 6:8-9)
“Then the LORD said to Noah, ‘Enter the ark, you and all your household, for you alone I have seen to be righteous before Me in this time.’” (Gen 7:1).
“Noah did according to all that the LORD had commanded him.” (Gen 7:5)
“By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.” (Heb 11:7)
“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment; and did not spare the ancient world, but preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly;” (2Pe 2:4-5)
So the Scriptures say that Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time. He was a preacher of righteousness, who walked by faith with God and did according to all that the Lord commanded him.
Daniel was a righteous man
He refused to defile himself with the king’s meat and wine, preferring instead to fast and pray.
“But Daniel made up his mind that he would not defile himself with the king's choice food or with the wine which he drank; so he sought permission from the commander of the officials that he might not defile himself.” (Dan 1:8)
Daniel possessed an extraordinary spirit, and was known as a man who served God continually. He was faithful. Even his enemies could find neither grounds for accusation against him, nor any evidence of corruption in his conduct.
“Then this Daniel began distinguishing himself among the commissioners and satraps because he possessed an extraordinary spirit, and the king planned to appoint him over the entire kingdom. Then the commissioners and satraps began trying to find a ground of accusation against Daniel in regard to government affairs; but they could find no ground of accusation or evidence of corruption, inasmuch as he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption was to be found in him. Then these men said, ‘We will not find any ground of accusation against this Daniel unless we find it against him with regard to the law of his God.’" (Dan 6:3-5)
No negligence or corruption was found in him. He was reliable and did not do anything wrong or dishonest. Daniel was an excellent example of a righteous man. By his faith, he shut the mouths of lions (Heb 11:33).
Noah, Daniel, and Job
In fact, God Himself recognized the righteousness of these three men. And it's worth noting that two of them -- Noah and Job -- lived before the Law of Moses was given, which proves that righteousness does not depend on the Law. We saw that Noah found favor with God and the Lord saved him and his whole family from the flood that destroyed the earth. Job’s health and possessions were restored to him and God answered his prayers for his friends. Daniel had dreams and interpretations of dreams. God protected him from the mouths of the lions, and answered his prayers. The Lord also spoke to Ezekiel about these three men and their own righteousness.
“Then the word of the LORD came to me saying, ‘Son of man, if a country sins against Me by committing unfaithfulness, and I stretch out My hand against it, destroy its supply of bread, send famine against it and cut off from it both man and beast, even though these three men, Noah, Daniel and Job were in its midst, by their own righteousness they could only deliver themselves,’ declares the Lord GOD. ‘If I were to cause wild beasts to pass through the land and they depopulated it, and it became desolate so that no one would pass through it because of the beasts, though these three men were in its midst, as I live,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘they could not deliver either their sons or their daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the country would be desolate. Or if I should bring a sword on that country and say, “Let the sword pass through the country and cut off man and beast from it,” even though these three men were in its midst, as I live,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘they could not deliver either their sons or their daughters, but they alone would be delivered. Or if I should send a plague against that country and pour out My wrath in blood on it to cut off man and beast from it, even though Noah, Daniel and Job were in its midst, as I live,’ declares the Lord GOD, ‘they could not deliver either their son or their daughter. They would deliver only themselves by their righteousness." (Eze 14:12-20)
The point that God was making here to Ezekiel was that when He decides to bring judgment on a country, even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were there, by their own righteousness they could only deliver themselves.
This reminds me of when Abraham said to the Lord, "Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” (Gen 18:23). Abraham interceded for Lot and managed to get God to spare him from the judgment that was about to come upon Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord still brought judgment on those cities, but spared Lot and his family.
Likewise, when God has determined to bring his judgment down on a place, even the presence of these three righteous men altogether – Noah, Daniel, and Job – would not stop Him from carrying out His plan. Those men by their righteousness would only save themselves. And in fact, Daniel was carried away into exile along with the other Hebrews when God sent the Babylonians to bring judgment on Israel during this period when Ezekiel received this message. Daniel’s life was spared and it went well with him in captivity, partly because of his righteousness. But his presence did not spare the nation from God’s judgment.
How This Righteousness Works
I'd like to touch briefly upon how this righteousness works, because it is such a foreign concept to most people these days in the Church. The Bible teaches us that your faith and your deeds work together and your faith is made complete by what you do (Js 2:22). James also taught, "that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." (Jas 2:24). He said our righteous deeds are part of our justification. King Solomon referred to this as God "justifying the righteous by giving him according to his righteousness." (1Ki 8:32; 2Ch 6:23). We are justified not merely by having a certain opinion about Christ, or profession of Him, or by believing without obeying, but by having the kind of faith that produces good works. These are works of self-denial like the ones produced by Noah, Daniel, and Job, as well as others like Abel, Abraham, Lot, and our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The apostle Peter said we must die to sin and live for righteousness (1 Pe 2:24). Therefore, we must sow in such a way as to receive a harvest of righteousness (Js 3:18). The one who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward (Pr 11:18, NIV; Gal 6:9).
Putting it All Together
My point in all of this is that in addition to the righteousness imputed to us when we are justified by faith, which does not belong to us, but is God’s perfect righteousness, there is also a practical righteousness that is given or bestowed by God as we grow in sanctification, which is the character of Christ. This is what Jesus called “your righteousness.” The Lord said we need to practice our righteousness, and taught us how to do so in a way that pleases God. Noah, Daniel, and Job were good examples of how we as disciples of Christ should practice our righteousness. And He is coming with His reward to render to every man according to his deeds. "Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done.” (Rev 22:12).
Attribution notice: Scripture quotations taken from the NASB, unless otherwise noted. The Good Samaritan by Dan Burr of Dan Burr Illustration copyright 2013 used by permission. The Daniel in the Lions' Den painting is by Briton Rivière (1890) and is in the public domain. The Noah painting is by Joseph Anton Koch circa 1803 courtesy Wikimedia. Painting of Job and his Friends by Ilya Repin, 1869, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Author's note: If you enjoyed this article, I also recommend Righteous Deeds and White Robes, Doing What is Right, Your Rewards Are Based on Your Practice, The Righteous Will Shine Forth as the Sun, Is Practical Righteousness a Lost Truth?, Faith Works!, The Judgment Seat of Christ, The Obedience of Faith, Striving to Enter the Kingdom of God, and The Difference Between a Disciple and a Believer. Other related articles are available on the Home page. You may also access my complete blog directory at "Writing for the Master."
Do You Want to Know Him?
If you want to know Jesus personally, you can. It all begins when you repent and believe in Jesus. Do you know what God's Word, the Bible says?
“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mar 1:14b-15). He preached that we must repent and believe.
Please see my explanation of this in my post called "Do You Want to Know Jesus?"
Len Lacroix is the founder of Doulos Missions International. He was based in Eastern Europe for four years, making disciples, as well as helping leaders to be more effective at making disciples who multiply, developing leaders who multiply, with the ultimate goal of planting churches that multiply. His ministry is now based in the United States with the same goal of helping fulfill the Great Commission. www.dmiworld.org.