Herein the humble apostle calls to mind a very important admonishment, coupled with the greatest of reminders. This gospel, he writes, the gospel of Jesus, is the power to save, not merely from the punishment of sin, but to free us from our enslavement to it. The power of the gospel is the power to be, to live, and to walk in true righteousness. It is not merely a status symbol or some divine membership card; it is a constant state of communion with the Lord. Through our obedience to the gospel, we are led down the path of the blameless and the upright. We are freed from our bondage to fleshy desires and worldly goals, and are able to become, by the God’s grace, truly righteous. But, then Paul reminds them equally that, while we are able through the power of the gospel to become truly righteous, it is not our righteousness, but rather that we are able to attain to the righteousness of God. Paul recognized that without that reminder that it would be easy for one to become “puffed up,” and self-righteous. Self-righteousness is self-defeating, for the moment you become self-righteous, you fall through pride from righteousness.
To me, it’s important to recognize that Paul does in fact state that we can attain to the righteousness of God while we are on earth, because there are so many who teach otherwise. There are so many who teach that all of humanity is depraved and that nothing that we can ever accomplish could be pleasing to the Lord. Paul warns us of people who teach similar things in his letter to Titus, when he writes, “to the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled. They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him, being abominable, disobedient, and disqualified for every good work.” (Titus 1:15-16). See, there are those who teach that we can never be righteous here on earth, and Paul says that any who feel that way are unbelieving, denying the power of the Lord to make one righteous. Through the power of the gospel and obedience to the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can obtain the true righteousness in this life, however, it is not the righteousness that we acquire on our own, but rather the righteousness that the Lord guides us to, the righteousness of God.
See, all too often, there are those who claim that demands of righteousness and obedience are “works based salvation.” But those who claim that don’t truly understand the concept of this “righteousness of God” that Paul is writing about. They imagine that salvation is a ladder, with Jesus sitting idly at the top, and to reach Him, we must climb the rungs of this ladder to get to the point of being “saved.” To them, attaining to the top of the ladder is the point of salvation. To one who truly understands this righteousness though, salvation is the ladder itself, and we must climb it, but we will never do that alone. Jesus reminds us, “Behold I am with you, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). See, to the truly righteous one, it is obvious that we turn in faith to the Lord and “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) we begin to climb that ladder, with Jesus there helping us every step of the way. We choose to climb a step, but only through our faith in the Lord will the Holy Spirit help us to actually be able to take that step.
We must understand that, when we are walking in the faith, we MUST grow. There must be growth and maturity. An infant is content to crawl, babble, consume milk; but eventually that infant must learn to walk, to talk, to eat solid foods. So it is spiritually. Far too many people consider turning in the faith to be the finish line in their walk, and are perfectly content to remain spiritual infants all the days of their lives. But, there must be growth, and the only way that we can grow spiritually is through obedience to the Father, through obedience to His commands. We must recognize that our turning to the faith is not the finish line, but rather, the starting line, in the race. This is what Paul means when he tells young Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not to me only, but also to all who have loved His appearing.” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). He is referring to the suffering, the labor, the work that went into maintaining the faith. It’s this synergy of “God working through me.” (Philippians 2:13).
Paul then refers us to the rest of the Scriptures, which at the time would have been the Old Testament. He states that this righteousness of God has been revealed “from faith to faith.” This evokes this idea of the “traditions handed down” (2 Thessalonians 2:15) from generation to generation. It shows that this righteousness has been handed down, and then each generation’s ability to adhere to it has been displayed through mighty works of faith. Elijah was a man like us, but through his prayer and mighty faith, he was able to make fire rain down from the heavens. We see this displayed all throughout the Book of Hebrews, example after example of men and women who were not righteous, were made righteous through their faith, and then their faith grew into obedience. We see Noah, who believed, and because of his belief was given the revelation that the world was to be flooded and told to build an ark to save him and his family. And we see the instruction to build it come directly from the Lord. It was not his sheer faith which saved him, nor was it his sheer works, it was works in response to faith. It was obedience to the commands of the Lord. The Lord said build, he built, and through obeying what the Lord had commanded him, he was saved. We see it with Joshua, who believed on the Lord, and when the Lord commanded him to take a small army and walk around a city for seven days, on the seventh day, because of his obedience, the Lord caused the city to fall. If it weren’t for his faith, the Lord would never have given over the city, but were it not for his works, then also the Lord would never have handed over the city. We see that in the story of Israel, who were commanded to go and take the “promised land,” opted instead to send spies, and then were frightened by what the spies reported. Because they doubted the Lord, He refused to give them the land that He had promised to them. They had faith, but no works to evidence that faith. Through our works and deeds, we can either prove our faith in the Lord or show our disbelief, and each of those things are things which the Lord provides for us as the opportunity to “test to see that we are in the faith.” (2 Corinthians 13:5). If we are never able to obtain this “righteousness of God” while here, then how do we respond to the commands to “be holy, as I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:16). How do we obey the will of God, which the humble apostle has told us is our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3). Through obedience to the commands of God, we are able, with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to obtain through grace what God is in essence, the righteousness of God. We could never become god, as some religions teach, but we can “partake of the divine nature” of God, which is the righteousness of God.
Paul ends this passage by hearkening back to Habakkuk. “The just shall live by faith.” The word alone does not appear in this passage, in any translation of Scripture, in either the quote here or in the original prophecy of Habakkuk. It is this quote, in fact, which shows harmony between the Old and New Testaments, and to add the word alone puts them at odds, because all throughout the Old Testament, we see people who, through faith, exercised that faith through actions. It is important to understand that when Paul quotes this, he is explaining that faith is not a mental or emotional assent, but rather, a way of life. The just (dikaios, literally translated “righteous”) are not only those who have intellectually accepted that Jesus is the Lord, but those who live righteously in accordance to those beliefs. Consider Paul’s warning to the church at Corinth, “Do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom? Do not be deceived …neither fornicators …idolators …adulterers …homosexuals …thieves …covetous …drunkards …will inherit the kingdom. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified…” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Truly consider what he is saying in this passage. He does not say, “such were some of you, but you were forgiven, so feel free to continue.” He does not say “such were some of you, but now you’ve got an accountability partner, so we expect progress.” No, rahter, he says, “such were some of you, but you were sanctified, justified,” freed from the power that those sins had over you. And how could we ever break free from those trangressions if not through faith? And not a faith that says, “yeah, I believe,” but a faith that becomes a way of life, a faith that leads us to live righteously in accordance with those beliefs. And the mistake that we make is thinking that either there is no need for that faith, or the mistake of thinking that through our sheer willpower, we can attain those things without the help of the Holy Spirit. If human willpower alone were enough, the gyms would be just as busy in March as they are in January. That’s why it’s ever so important to strictly heed Paul’s admonishment to the church in Thessalonica to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Every time we face temptation, we must first begin with prayer. No action that can not be preceded by healthy prayer is worth doing. Try to recite the Lord’s prayer before you log onto a pornographic website, or watch an episode of a licentious television show. Try to recite the Jesus prayer before you pour yourself a shot of whiskey. Whatever you can do to focus your mind back on the Lord, that will allow you the power to defeat whatever temptation you face. That’s why the apostle teaches that we “constantly renew our mind daily” (Romans 12:2) for each day we fight temptation, and we must keep our mind focused on “things that are above, not things of the earth.” (Colossians 3:2). That is our responsibility. The Lord provides the growth, but we must plant and water the seed. The Lord does 9/10ths of the work, but He will never do all ten. He will tell us the flood is coming, tell us to build an ark, and give us the blueprints for the proper construction, but we must still do the work of building it.
“Unless the Lord builds a house, they who labor do so in vain, unless the Lord guards a city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” (Psalm 127:1). Notice in this passage, there are still those who labor, and those who watch. Though it is the Lord who builds and guards it, it is His work done through others. So too with our faith. We must attain to the righteousness of God, but we must recognize that it is the righteousness of God, not of man. He has given us the forgiveness of our transgressions, and the ability to free ourselves from them; but we must still strive to fight against them. Without Him, we could never free ourselves from the iniquity of our sinfulness, but through Him, we have the power to win the war, we must bring ourselves to be willing to fight in that war. God will never reach down and completely remove sin from us. He will, however, give us the means to defeat it when we choose to fight against it.
My brethern, we must always be careful of any theology which teaches that forgiveness of sin is license to continue in it. Stating that we will make mistakes is biblical, stating that making mistakes is acceptable, is heretical. Which is why we must return to the Lord in heartfelt repentance each time that we do make a mistake and fall into sin. Likewise, we must be guarded against any theology which states that disobedience is acceptable, or that any work required on our part makes grace anything but a gift. Grace is the gift that we accept that allows us to climb the ladder at all. We must be equally guarded against any theology that tells us that we must climb it in order to reach God. There will and must be works, and there will and must be righteousness; however, each of those things must come from the Lord alone. To think that we can be made righteous by our works as well as thinking that we must not be made righteous at all are equally heretical. Likewise, thinking that sin is allowed is equally heretical to thinking that we must attain righteousness before we are able to come to God.
There is a very narrow path that we must walk, being led by the Lord, and straying neither to the right nor to the left. When confronted with temptation, we can neither give into it, nor can we think that we can conquer it with our own willpower; for the end of each of those is the same. We must rather flee temptation the moment it appears, and run in prayer to the only One who has the power to truly resist it. In all things, at all times; we must truly seek the righteousness of God, by the grace of God, for the glory of God.