The Naked Church – Chapter – 14 Righteousness That Comes from Faith
I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God.
For he has clothed me with garments of salvation
and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fourteen – Righteousness. No other word connected with the life of God breeds less excitement than this one. Terms such as intimacy, peace, abundant life, healing, joy, and wholeness all evoke hunger. We relish these gifts of God but righteousness? People turn up their noses the moment they hear the word, and that is truly sad, for righteousness is the greatest gift that God has offered us.
The enemy has so disfigured people’s concept of holiness that many no longer recognize it, much less want it, in their lives. Many see it as an unreasonable list of rules they must obey, while others see it as demands they are incapable of satisfying. Both are a far cry from the righteousness that Jesus wants to give us. At best, many people see righteousness as one of the unpleasant costs of being a Christian.
Peter said that nothing could be further from the truth:“(God) sent (Jesus) first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (Acts 3:26). Our freedom from sin is not a necessary pain to earn God’s blessing, but one of his greatest blessings.
Righteousness is God entrusting his glory to earthen vessels. It is liberation from the destructive forces that rip our lives apart and estrange us from fellowship with God. Seeking that instead of material comfort will restore the perspective we need to see God and walk with Him.
A Hunger for Holiness
The Naked Church – Chapter Fourteen – Paul’s words in Philippians 3:7-11 have been affectionately called the Magnificent Obsession. Paul talks about the drive that directed the course of his life: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul wanted to grow closer to Jesus with every passing day.
Just knowing Jesus, however, wasn’t the only thing for which Paul hungered. He also wanted to be like him: “I consider [all things] rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from law, but that which is through faith in Christ.” Paul didn’t see righteousness as competing with his pleasure; it was his pleasure.
But Paul made it clear that the righteousness he sought was not one which comes by observing law. He knew that kind of righteousness all too well. Just a few verses before, he talked about his life as a Pharisee: “As for legalistic righteousness, [I was] faultless.” Before he came to know Jesus, Paul knew the bondage of trying to please God by a system of rules and regulations. He knew its frustration and rigidity, and that it never succeeds.
Don’t forget that the same system that made Paul “faultless” as to the law also made him the “chief of sinners”. That was not an overly humble assessment of himself. He was very specific about the depth of his sin, calling himself a blasphemer, a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Remember, his passion for it literally led him to unwittingly kill God’s people in God’s name. But he was still persecuting and killing others hardly someone who knew God’s heart.
The weight of legalistic righteousness produces anger. Even where it appears successful, it has only driven sin inward. The misery of earning our own righteousness makes us want to force others to do the same. That’s why legalists are almost always angry people. Cross them and you will find out just what lengths they’ll go to in advancing what they believe to be God’s agenda, and how quickly their temper explodes. Many a Christian leader’s spouse or staff knows the truth of this, having witnessed or suffered it in unguarded moments.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fourteen – No wonder Paul repudiated the righteousness that comes from the law, and took pains to clearly distinguished it from righteousness that comes from faith. The major reason believers don’t hunger for holiness today is because they misunderstand the process that brings it to them. Despite Jesus’ work on the cross and his implementation of a new Covenant that promised to change us from the inside out, the approach of Western Christianity to righteousness is not much different from that of the Pharisees. Though we admit that Christ fulfilled the law on our behalf, and mock all the picky rules the Pharisees had invented to make God’s law to Moses more clear, we nonetheless have continued their tradition. Today we call them “New Testament principles” and in some places even “God’s laws.” Our lists are just as long and our rules just as picky. Look at our prescribed guidelines for worship services, marriages, dating, finances, and successful church programs. When God’s presence loses reality among his people we always retreat to codes of conduct.
God’s Word does give us clear instructions about what pleases him, but we make a fatal step when we encourage people to fulfill those instructions outside the context of their own vibrant relationship with God. Regretfully, legalistic righteousness is the only kind most people know about, even though it is always destined for failure.
Richard Foster, summing up a study of the book of Romans, made this conclusion: The apostle Paul went to great lengths to show that righteousness is a gift of God. He used the term thirtyfive times in that epistle and each time struck home the fact that righteousness is unattained and unattainable through human effort.
Attempting to gain righteousness through human achievement can yield only two results, both negative. First, the strong of will can produce an external righteousness, but it is only skin deep. Jesus pointed past the righteousness of the Pharisees to the greed, hate, and pride that seethed beneath the surface. Such people retreat to a false security that insulates them from God’s presence.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fourteen – Second, and most common, is the frustration which many people feel when that method keeps failing. When I was younger I remember being overrun with conviction, confessing my sin to God, and promising never to succumb again. But it never worked, and every few months I was back there again trying to convince God I was serious this time. I lived in condemnation because I thought that if I really loved God enough I could choose him above my sin.
Without a proper understanding of how we participate in God’s righteousness, we are prevented from fully tasting God’s goodness. Nothing pales the temporal happiness that sin offers any faster than the joy of God’s presence. Many people have never seen a Christianity that exciting and vibrant. All they’ve seen is people weighted down by the obligations of church attendance, Christian works, and ethics.
No wonder people are not excited about God’s righteousness— they’ve never found a way to participate in it! But Paul spoke of a righteousness that comes from faith, one that is produced in us as we simply love God. I know this sounds too good to be true, but doesn’t everything else about God sound that way?
The remainder of this chapter will show how God makes us righteous so that we can cooperate with him and reap the fruits of it. Before we look closely at the process, however, there is one prerequisite: To be free of our sin we need to view it like God does. This is the heart of repentance, an attitude we must continue to cultivate as we walk with God.
Our struggle with sin does not end just because we become believers. No matter how successful we are at hiding it for a time, eventually we come face-to-face with our own sin. We reap its consequences and know how much we grieve God. And since few people confess sins to others anymore, we feel alone in our struggle, the bad apple that can’t get it right.
But guilt alone won’t bring us to freedom. Even Scripture states that sin is pleasurable at least for a time (Hebrews 11:25), and explains how it easily entices us to do the very thing we don’t want to do (Romans 7:18-20). To see our sin as God does, we must see the destruction that it causes us. As long as we think of it only as God’s test to see if we love him more than having fun, we miss the point.
Sin doesn’t hurt him, it hurts us—and only him because of what it does to us. We’ve been told that sin separates God from us because he cannot look on it. But who hid from whom in the Garden of Eden? It wasn’t God in the bushes, but Adam and Eve. God can and does come to us in our sin, but our sin makes us cringe from his presence and blinds us to his reality.
His warnings about sin are not to see if we love pleasure more than him, but to tell us that sin destroys us. God denies it to us for the same reason we deny our children the freedom of playing with a can of gasoline and a book of matches. When we see sin in this light, no one could ever truly love God without hating sin as well.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fourteen – The church continues to miscommunicate this fact in its passion to condemn sin. We think the fear of judgment will bring repentance so we rail at people for not adhering to God’s standards. We say we hate the sin but love the sinner, but never find a way to live that out well enough to convey it by our actions. We end up either looking like we love both or hate both. Jerry Cook, author of Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness, demonstrated in an interview with Leadership Journal how the two can fit together:
I remember the first homosexual I ever talked to at length. I realized two things: (1) I really cared for him and (2) I was deeply committed to the fact that his lifestyle would utterly destroy him. Now—how to convey both of those facts? I said to him at one point, “I am really committed to you as a person. I love you, and in doing so am committed to confronting your lifestyle and helping you see how destructive it is.”
Such a view of sin gives way to hunger. Righteousness is not our punishment; it is our joy. Those who earnestly seek the righteousness of God and find it will never be miserable, but full of joy. This is the righteousness that comes from faith. To see how God brings it into our lives, let’s first see how sin works in us.
The Way of Sin
No one had to teach us how to sin. We don’t go to weekend seminars to learn how to sin more effectively. The desire to please ourselves leads to sin quite naturally. You can even see it in children only a few months old. They want what they want when they want it and are willing to make anyone around them miserable until they get it. Crying to make a need known develops quickly into a demand to get it now. James 1:14,15 tells us how sin works in us:
Each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
Though we often blame it on the devil, the enticement to sin comes from within us. We all have desires centered on self-pleasure. When that desire meets an opportunity to fulfill it, sin is conceived.
Living by the quest for material comfort will make every circumstance a temptation. The enemy helps the process by creating circumstances that will focus us on our sins and give us the opportunity to fulfill them. James compares this meeting of desire and opportunity to a sperm and an egg. When they come together, sin is born. He continues the analogy by saying that matured sin results in death.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fourteen – The death referred to here is not just our physical death, but also the death of our spiritual nature. This process of death starts with our very first sin, slowly destroying us from the inside. Notice that what is important in this process is not the acts we call sin, but the evil desires that produced them. Sin is measured by our motives, not our actions. The Pharisees even made fasting and prayer a sinful act because they did it for the praise of men and not the love of God.
To find out how Jesus sets us free from sin, let’s consider four different views about how we should deal with our sin.
1. Many people want Jesus to break the chain only at the last link. As fallen creatures we will always sin; we just don’t want to bear the consequences of it. To them salvation can’t heal us from sin; it just ensures that it won’t result in our eternal death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer called this message cheap grace because it is incomplete and valueless. It doesn’t challenge us to change, but provides us with an excuse to stay as we are. Who could ever content himself with forgiveness that can’t bring healing? If we really hate our sin, we will want to be free of it.
2. Others think we’re just not supposed to sin. People who believe this try to conquer sin by sheer force of will. They have strong desires to sin, and even the opportunities to do so, but they think they should receive enough grace from Jesus not to sin. This is the legalistic righteousness we spoke of earlier and James doesn’t give this idea much credibility. Once desire and opportunity conceive, he said, sin is born.
You might be able to hold off an evil desire for a time, but eventually it will wear you down. The denial of fulfillment only increases the desire. The only way to win by this means is to redefine sin so as to only include those things you are not tempted to do or can fulfill for other selfish motives, such as the attaining of spiritual status as the Pharisees sought.
Why is it that we so easily forget that in our own strength we are as powerless against sin as the day he brought us into his kingdom? If he doesn’t change us we won’t be changed.
3. Still others seek victory by denying themselves any opportunity to fulfill sinful desires. This sounds good and such thinking probably gave rise to the monastic movement. We can achieve righteousness by creating a vacuum where no temptation exists. Throw out your TV; avoid unsaved friends; don’t put yourself in any situation where you can fall to sin.
Though this thinking has some merit, it is incomplete and ultimately unworkable. Certainly we shouldn’t toy with those things that destroy us. Someone dealing with lust will be better off without a hidden stack of Playboys nearby. But we cannot rid ourselves of all temptation, and even if we did, this would only result in frustration because our intense desires would go unfulfilled and unhealed. This solution also focuses only on negative acts and doesn’t prepare us to live in obedience that extends Christ’s life to other people. Obedience omitted is sin as well.
4. That leaves only one other place to deal with our sin: our self-based desires. And that is exactly where Jesus pointed in Matthew 5: “You have heard that it was said . . . ‘Do not murder.’… But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”
I used to hate this passage. I grew up in the church, never committing the “serious” sins the Bible deals with, and this passage made me feel like just when I got things right God, changed the ground rules. I had been denying myself desires that others were fulfilling. Why should I bear the same punishment as those who had the pleasure of doing them?
The Naked Church – Chapter Fourteen – What a warped view we have of sin! Jesus was not attempting to increase our guilt with this passage, but to identify where he wants to heal us. Sin begins in the self-preference that produces our evil thoughts. God wants to turn the process around and make righteousness flow as easily out of my life as sin used to.
The Way of Righteousness
In Romans 6:12-23 Paul outlines the process of righteousness that can be produced in us by faith. It stands as an excellent counterpoint to the Scripture we just examined in James. Here are a few excerpts:
Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God … and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness.
Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap is holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Paul’s instruction clearly shows us how God make us righteous through faith.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fourteen – Righteousness begins inside us. Even as the evil desires within us met opportunity and produced sin, so God’s desires within us can find opportunity to bear righteousness. Instead of every circumstance being a temptation, it becomes a legitimate trial of my trust in Father’s love for me. As I grow daily in my love and trust for him, I won’t trust my own schemes to please myself. This results in holiness, and when that matures, it yields the fruit of eternal life.
This is not to say that righteousness earns our access to heaven, but that as he transforms us we experience more of what true life is. He has made us holy by his work on the cross. He justified us so that we could qualify for relationship with God based on his gift alone. But the process doesn’t end there. Living justified, he also sanctifies us by transforming us from the very core of our being so that through our deeds and actions we might reflect his glory.
What a marvelous process! God gives us a whole new perspective of life that frees us from trusting ourselves, and then allows us to trust him. Trust severs the root of sin, which is only trying to provide for ourselves that which God will provide. By learning to live in him, our need for self fulfillment is severed at the root. We don’t need to spend our efforts fighting sin, but only on loving God.
Our part in that process is twofold. First, we come often to enjoy God’s presence so that we are filled with his perspectives. Second, we reckon ourselves dead to sin, and no longer need to be driven by the need to indulge it or avoid it. Instead, we can present ourselves to God as “instruments of righteousness.” That can be as practical as each new day literally offering our bodies to him in prayer: “Here are hands, feet, and voice for you to use today, Father, however you see fit.”
The Naked Church – Chapter Fourteen – Focusing on the Spirit’s leading in our lives is a far more effective way to achieve righteousness than trying not to sin. If I asked you not to think about spinach for fifteen seconds, you could not do it. In fact that’s all you would think about. The same is true of sin. By trying to ignore temptation we fall victim to it. In Romans 7 Paul said that he did not even know what coveting was until he read the law that says “Do not covet.” That command alone set him thinking about what he shouldn’t be coveting, and he discovered a number of things he didn’t have that he wanted. This attempt, Paul concluded, “produced in me every kind of covetous desire.”
The same process also works with righteousness. As we behold God’s glory and relate to him, we’ll find ourselves free from sin’s clutches. In the time you were thinking “spinach” earlier, you probably didn’t think once of strawberries. Haven’t you known times when you were so enjoying God’s touch in your life that days passed without you being aware of or fulfilling sinful appetites? That’s the renewal of the mind that only intimacy can produce.
That is the beauty of righteousness by faith. God will produce it in us as we love him. You’ll find him not just changing the way you act, but changing the thought processes that leads to destructive actions. In other words, you’ll learn to serve your spouse not because you are obligated to, but because you love him or her enough to do so. Walking close to God, you won’t be able to take advantage of others without sensing God’s grief at their hurt.
This is a life-long process of transformation, and if we expect instant perfection we’ll be disappointed. As we grow in intimacy we’ll grow in righteousness. Whenever you find yourself in sin, confess it to God, knowing that his work has already cleansed you. Determine to draw nearer to him so that it will no longer win over you. But don’t waste your time having feelings of condemnation that will only separate you from God and the healing he wants for you.
Early in my ministry, severe chest pains drove me to the doctor. The diagnosis: stress induced by my profession. More accurately, it should have been stress induced by my response to my profession. I was trying to obey God and still live up to our society’s standards of a successful church. The paradox was killing me. I had trouble sleeping nights and was plagued with chest pains.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fourteen – The doctor told me to find another job, but when I asked God about it, he made it clear that it wasn’t my job he wanted to change, but me. I sought God earnestly for healing, drawing closer to him than I ever had before. He started to work on that part of my flesh that seeks the approval of others, another damaging result of our material mind-set.
So skillfully did God change that area of my life over the next year that I don’t even remember when the chest pains and sleepless nights ceased. I only recognized that they had some months later when I was lying awake because of an athletic injury I had suffered earlier in the evening. Suddenly it dawned on me: I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain awake, kept from sleep by my anxieties.
God had changed me, and the only thing I did differently was to draw closer to him. That is righteousness produced by faith. He gets the credit, not me. There is absolutely no room for us to boast as if we’d done some great thing. And now, whenever I find the old symptoms rising again, I need only look at my relationship with God, and invariably I’ll find that it has begun to slip, that I’m falling into religious patterns and losing the freshness of his presence.
Righteousness rising out of our relationship with God is the only way we will be changed. Everything else is just a placebo. It may trick us for awhile, but the disease of sin still eats away at us from the inside. We may worry about people abusing this process, but no one really in love with Jesus and whose life is touched by him every day can help but be changed into his likeness. The Fruit of Righteousness
Righteousness by faith brings lasting fulfillment and joy. It gives us a new perspective about everything around us. No longer will our quest for personal comfort hide God’s work from us. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Corinthians 4:16-18).
Here is the fruit of breaking the materialistic bonds that so distort our intimacy with God. The rise and fall of circumstances will no longer hold such power over our minds and emotions.
The Naked Church – Chapter Fourteen – Living to please God will value eternal considerations over temporal ones. God’s glory will be produced in us above our need for personal comfort, and the unseen spiritual world will be placed above the seen material one. With this perspective we will be able to see God more clearly and follow his objectives with greater certainty. All of this is produced by a simple hunger to be holy and a willingness to cooperate with God as he accomplishes his work in us.
As you follow him, you too will step back in surprise at the things he will change in you that right now look like insurmountable bondages. You will find the depth of true joy and happiness that result only from inheriting God’s righteousness. It is truly one of God’s greatest gifts.
Produced with permission from Wayne Jacobsen.