Requirements for salvation: Righteousness

In the way of righteousness there is life; along that path is immortality. (Pro 12:28)

'Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.' (Mat 25:46)

We are looking at the biblical requirements for salvation with particular reference to Old Testament believers. In this fifth study we are going to look at the necessity of righteousness.

If we examined no other scriptures, our opening texts should convince us that righteousness is necessary for salvation.

What is righteousness?

Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. (Heb 5:13)

What is righteousness? Righteousness is doing what is right in the sight of God. The Bible tells us that those who do what is right are righteous, just as he (Jesus Christ) is righteous, and warns us not to believe anything else (1Jo 3:7).

Righteousness is a theme that runs through the whole of the Bible. It begins in Gen 6 with Noah (a type of Christ) who, through his righteousness, saved himself and seven others (symbolic of God's elect) from the wrath of God; and ends in Rev 19 with a description of the wedding garments of the bride of the Lamb, which are the righteous acts of God's holy people.

Both of those examples refer to a person's own righteousness, and not to Christ's righteousness.

Three kinds of righteousness

The Bible teaches three kinds of righteousness, which it likens to clothing. The first is our own righteousness prior to conversion, which Isaiah describes as like filthy rags (Isa 64:6).

The second is our Lord's righteousness, which was symbolized by the garment he wore next to his body (Joh 19:23):

The Bible uses nakedness to symbolize sin (Gen 3:6–7; Rev 3:17–8) because we cannot hide our sins from God (Heb 4:13). Jesus was crucified naked. The garment that symbolized his righteousness was removed from him. Then he who had no sin became sin for us (2Co 5:21); God laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isa 53:6).

The garment was an undergarment (the Greek word describes a close-fitting inner vest), which meant that it was hidden from view. Natural man was unaware of our Lord's righteousness, and still is. It's visible only to spiritual eyes.

When the soldiers took it from him they decided not to tear it (nothing can be removed from Christ's righteousness), so they cast lots for it (Joh 19:24). One of them walked away with it, but it would have been of little benefit to him unless he put his faith in what it symbolized.

The third and final kind of righteousness is our own righteousness after conversion. These are the righteous acts of God's holy people, which are the wedding garments of the bride of the Lamb. God gives them to us, but we have to put them on (Rev 19:7–8). They are the good works (Greek works, deeds) he has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:10).

The need for Christ's righteousness

This is the account of Noah and his family.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God. (Gen 6:9)

Gen 6:5 describes how great people's wickedness on earth had become and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil all the time. The human race had become so depraved that God was about to destroy it, and yet there was one man who was living a righteous life. That man was Noah.

How was he able to do that in a world that had become totally wicked? He couldn't do it by living according to his sinful nature as everyone else was doing. Noah was able to live righteously because he was born again; he was an Old Testament believer who was indwelt by the Spirit of God and was living according to the Spirit (Rom 8:5).

But if Noah was a righteous man, who escaped God's wrath by his own righteousness (produced, as it was, by God's indwelling Spirit), then why do we need Christ's righteousness for salvation? The answer is because Christ's righteousness is perfect, and our own righteousness is imperfect.

The Bible says that there is no one on earth who does what is right and never sins (Ecc 7:20). Noah found favour with God through his righteousness (Gen 6:8–9), but later made some wine, drank it and became drunk (Gen 9:20–1). Drunkenness is sin (Gal 5:19–21). He also lay uncovered (naked) inside his tent, symbolizing his sin.

Every righteous person in the Bible had flaws, except for one. Jesus didn't sin from the moment he was conceived until the moment he died. He was sinless perfection in a human body. Through him, only, can we be saved (Act 4:11–2).

Just one sin caused mankind to be driven from God's presence in the garden (Gen 3:23); we cannot re-enter his presence unless we are perfect. We are made perfect by receiving Christ's righteousness, as our own, by faith (Rom 1:17).

The need for our own righteousness

He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. (Psa 23:3 ESV)

But if Christ's righteousness is perfect and available to us by faith, then why do we need to live righteous lives to be saved (Mat 5:20)? The answer is because faith without action (Greek works, deeds) is dead (Jam 2:17). Faith by itself cannot save us: we make our faith complete by what we do (Jam 2:20–2).

In the 16th Century, Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, received the revelation that justification—the act of God considering a sinner righteous—could not be achieved by his own attempts to live a righteous life, but only through faith in the righteous life that Jesus had lived on his behalf (Rom 3:21–4).

Rejoicing in that truth, he taught that a person is considered righteous by faith alone, and not by what they do. That is not true. In fact the opposite is true. James tells us that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone (Jam 2:24).

How did Luther interpret the truth he found in the letter of James? He believed it wasn't divinely inspired and tried to have it removed from the Bible. Should we do the same? God forbid!

Paul uses Abraham to teach the righteousness that comes from faith (Rom 4:1–5), and James uses Abraham to teach the righteousness that comes from what we do (Jam 2:21). Both are true, and both are necessary for salvation.

Get yourself ready

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (Jam 1:19–20)

Since the time of Luther, the church has preached the righteousness that comes from faith, often neglecting to preach the righteous life that God wants us to live as a result of our faith (Rom 6:13).

As our Lord's return draws near, we need to put our wedding clothes on (our righteous acts), and keep them on, so that when he appears we will not be shamefully exposed (Rev 16:15).

Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death. (Pro 11:4)

Michael Graham
November 2009
Revised August 2022

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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