The Bible describes two kinds of righteousness that man will employ in his quest to become reconciled to God. The patriarchs Abraham, Noah and others who lived before the time of the nation of Israel were introduced to righteousness by faith. Abraham believed, and God declared him righteous for his faith (Rom.4:3). The eleventh chapter of Hebrews mentions the many heroes of faith who lived even during the time of ancient Israel. However, with the introduction of the law of Moses in Exodus 20, righteousness by obedience to the written code emerged. The one massive problem with this method of seeking acceptance with God is that humankind cannot keep this law without failure. There is no way for us to be reconciled to God through law-keeping; hence the only method remaining is righteousness by faith.
Let us start with a working definition of righteousness and then proceed to examine these two kinds of justice.
“When we translate the Greek words based on the stem dikai- into English we make use of two sets of words based on the stems, just and right. So we have just, justice, justify and right, righteous, righteousness, rightwise (old English). The use of two sets of English words for the one set of Greek words sometimes causes difficulties for students of the Bible. This is especially so when the verb “to justify,” describing God’s word and reaction, is used with the noun “righteousness,” pointing to the result of that action.”“Righteousness Definition and Meaning – Bible Dictionary.” Bible Study Tools, https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/righteousness/. Accessed 21 May 2019.
We see from this quotation that righteousness results from God’s determined action to justify and place the repentant sinner in a right relationship with himself.
Righteousness by law
Righteousness by the law is simply obedience to the law of Moses as a means of obtaining a right standing with God. Deut.6:25 says, “And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.” This kind of righteousness comes through one’s effort and hard work. The apostle Paul said that in the Pharisee religion, he practised legalistic righteousness which on coming to know Christ, he discarded as rubbish (Phil.3:5-8).
Righteousness by law ended.
The Jewish nation worked arduously sacrificing animals, observing religious rituals, being careful to avoid certain foods that were considered unclean. Their spiritual teachers made the law more burdensome by adding harsher regulations to what they already had. Appending these new rituals to the written code was all done to attain their righteousness. Paul, in Romans10:2-4 says that the Israelites did not know any better. They were ignorant of the fact that Jesus, whom most of them rejected, had brought an end to righteousness by law so that there would be righteousness for all who believed (Rom. 10:4).
Righteousness by faith in Christ
The righteousness that is by faith comes by confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and believing that God raised him from the dead. When we accept and put our trust in the finished work which Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection, God justifies us (Rom.10:9-10).
It is Paul, by way of his epistles, who gives us a vivid picture of righteousness by faith. He says that the law and prophets testified of this method of justification which had nothing to do with law keeping, but faith in Jesus Christ instead (Rom.3:21-22). Further, Paul maintains that law keeping could never justify anyone (Rom.3:20; Gal.3:21; Gal.3:11). God makes no difference in the way he accepts Jews and Gentiles (Acts 15:9; Rom.10:12-13). All must come to God trusting in Jesus Christ and not in any good work or legalistic ritual that we may have done.
Righteousness, by faith, is from God.
Righteousness by law is our works. It is our righteousness, which amounts to nothing but old, dirty rags in God’s view. On the other hand, the righteousness that is by faith comes from God. It is God’s righteousness, which he imputes to the penitent sinner. Paul was courageous enough to jettison his prestigious, Jewish pedigree that could have brought him power, fame and status in his world, to pursue the righteousness that is from God – the righteousness that comes by faith in Christ Jesus (Phil.3:4-9).
Any church or person that sidelines faith in Jesus and places emphasis on keeping the law as a means of attaining to a right standing with God, is making the same mistake the Judaizers of Paul’s day committed. Paul boldly contends that such a church or person is alienated from Christ and has fallen from grace (Gal.5:2-4).
There is only one way to obtain justification and to gain the righteousness of God. It is through faith in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.