It's human to try to justify ourselves — witness Job's example! But what does God require of us in terms of righteousness?
Millions of professing Christians believe they can come to God "just as they are"! They reason that Jesus Christ "did it all" for them at the cross. All one has to do now, they believe, is accept Jesus in the heart, profess to love Him and be "born again." Sounds simple, doesn't it? But does God's plan of salvation really work this way? Does Jesus' sacrifice remove all responsibility from us? Why, then, does the apostle Paul tell us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12)? And what does it mean, exactly, to be born again? If you have not read our startling free booklet Just What Do You Mean... Born Again? Consider the driver who violates a traffic law. Suppose that when this driver appears in court to face sentencing, the judge instead forgives him — absolves him of guilt and sets him free. Does that mean that the driver is free to go out and violate traffic laws at will from then on? No! The laws are still in force, and he will incur their penalties every time he breaks one. Though the driver is freed from the penalty of this past lawbreaking, he still has a responsibility! So it is with Christians. Christ's death paid, in our stead, the penalty for our sins (Rom. 6:23, 5:8-10). But that does not free us from responsibility after we accept that sacrifice. After all, God required even Jesus — who never sinned and thus did not bring the death penalty for sin on Himself — to suffer many trials in order to learn to obey His Father while in a physical state of existence (Heb. 5:8). And it just doesn't make good sense that that same God would not require any more from you and me than to say we love Him and "give our hearts" to Him. Understand: God's Church definitely does not preach salvation by works. We are saved by God's grace through faith, and even that faith is not our own but Christ's faith, which God gives us through His Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:8). But while we live under the grace of God, God requires us to obey His commandments and perform Christian works. And those works determine what reward we shall receive in God's coming Kingdom. In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30), the servant who, symbolically, thought Christ's sacrifice had done it all and thus did nothing himself did not even qualify for salvation, let alone a reward! How many times have you heard of parents who withheld a wayward son's inheritance until the son complied with their wishes? The inheritance is a gift. There is nothing the son can do to earn it — the parents give it to him freely. But the son must do certain things to qualify to receive that gift. It is the same with salvation. Salvation is God's free gift to us. We don't earn it by any works. But there are certain things we must do to qualify to receive it. The point is unmistakable: God will not accept you or me just as we are. He demands that we prove our love and obedience to Him (Jas. 2:18-20, I John 2:3-6, Jas. 1:21-27). We are now nearing the season of the Passover, the annual memorial of the death of Jesus. God instructs us to examine ourselves during this time (II Cor. 13:5), especially in light of Jesus' perfect sacrifice and our imperfect conduct. Are you satisfied with your spiritual progress as a disciple of Christ? Do you sometimes feel you have little to repent of — that God will receive you as you are now? God will not accept you without your heartfelt repentance. Let's see why.
Job and his three friends
Recall the Old Testament story of Job. God, to teach a special lesson, allowed Satan to kill Job's children, destroy all Job's material possessions and afflict Job with painful boils all over his body. Most of the book of Job is made up of a dialogue that took place between Job and three of his close friends after these tragedies occurred. Job 1:3 tells us that Job was the greatest person of the East. His friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, may well have been professional associates of his. The three came from, apparently, some little distance, each from his own place (Job. 2:11), to comfort Job: "And when they raised their eyes from afar, and did not recognize him, they lifted their voices and wept; and each one tore his robe and sprinkled dust on his head toward heaven. So they sat down with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great" (verses 12-13).
Finally Job spoke. His torrent of unwitting words, though, only clouded the issue at hand. Why was Job being afflicted? After all, wasn't he a righteous person? Job went to lengths to try to substantiate his sinlessness. No human other than Jesus was ever completely sinless. All humans sin — break God's holy, righteous laws (Rom. 3:23, I John 3:4). Even if a person could manage to sin only "a tiny bit," whatever that would mean, God would still need to clear all character defects from his life (I Cor. 3:12-15). God has no intention of coexisting forever with unholiness and sin (Rev. 21:22-27). Once Job attempted to defend himself, his three friends could not sit idly by, nodding their approval to his slightly warped self-assessment. Enter jealousy. Sure, they respected him — they probably envied his greatness. They likely even feared him. But they felt they had to set him straight. Here was their chance to deflate someone to whom they previously may have had to play second fiddle. Read Job 15:9-10. How often had they observed his wealth, his way of carrying himself, his impeccable speech, his insightful decisions and unimpeachable wisdom? But now, yes, he was sitting in a pile of ashes suffering from putrid boils! Wasn't it obvious that something was diabolically wrong with Job? How could they remain quiet? Jealousy prevailed. Enter self-righteousness.
What generally happens when one person is jealous of another? Often he will do his best to belittle the other. How? By extolling himself, for he, of course, is the standard by which he rates (and berates) others. When one does this, he is proclaiming his own righteousness (Prov. 20:6, 9, 21:2). Notice what Eliphaz the Temanite said to Job: "Should a wise man answer with empty knowledge, and fill himself with the east wind?... What do you know that we do not know? What do you understand that is not in us?... I will tell you, hear me; what I have seen I will declare" (Job 15:2, 9, 17). When one is self-righteous, he does not recognize that he is self-righteous. He can't at the time, or he would not be so livid in his own defense. Job's three friends no doubt came to Job with good intentions. But their good intentions were liberally mixed with their own self-importance and self-righteousness. We all suffer from this problem on occasion. We can be our own worst enemy!
Job's great enemy
Job did battle with a false god — himself! He had a problem with vanity. Satan is the author and perpetuator of vanity, and this world has readily adopted the ways of vanity in every area. That's one reason wrong peer pressure can destroy you. Job, at that point, was his own worst enemy because he allowed his thoughts and accomplishments to obscure his perspective of and relationship with God. Job's attitude is well summed up by his statement in Job 27:5-6: "Till I die I will not put away my integrity from me. My righteousness I hold fast, and will not let it go; my heart shall not reproach me as long as I live." Job was saying, in effect, "I uphold my integrity!" Silent-film star Charlie Chaplin once offered a humorous portrayal of the pompous, self-important attitudes displayed by Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. In Chaplin's skit, these two Fascist leaders were seated on old-style, hand-cranked barber chairs. Each took turns cranking himself higher and higher in the chairs, until both were sitting at an absurd and perilous height. The lesson was clear: Both thought too highly of themselves. Likewise, Job's enemy was his self-importance and self-righteousness: "Then Job answered and said: 'No doubt you are the people, and wisdom will die with you! But I have understanding as well as you; I am not inferior to you. Indeed, who does not know such things as these?'" (Job 12:1-3). Job went so far as to even dare God to show him what his sins were (Job 13:23). Here is the point about our weak condition as human beings: Had Job directed this specific question to God from sincere humility and a desire to correct error, God could have helped Job immediately. But Job was determined to defend himself and his supposed superiority. A needless squabble had erupted between the three friends and Job over who was superior. Although each ostensibly admitted that God was, their responses to one another belied a deeper feeling of their own superiority. The key is to daily compare oneself with God and only God. Jesus had no difficulty with this. He had been divine before He became human. He knew the difference between being a carnal human and being God. That's why when He experienced the weakness and frailty of human existence, He humbled Himself even to the point of death on the stake (Phil. 2:8).
What is righteousness?
The righteousness of God, clearly, has nothing to do with the self-righteousness of man. Our own human righteousness is no better than filthy rags (Isa. 64:6)! We have seen that self-righteousness is worthless. What, then, is godly righteousness? Notice Psalm 119:172: "My tongue shall speak of Your word, for all Your commandments are righteousness." There it is! A direct and specific Bible definition. Could anything be plainer? Numerous other scriptures also show that true righteousness is God's way of life, as defined by God's commandments. All God's commandments are summed up in two great commandments: love toward God and love toward neighbor (Matt. 22:35-40). And I John 5:3 tells us that we express love toward God by keeping His laws, specifically the great laws of love embodied in the Ten Commandments. We are to keep these Ten Commandments in the spirit as well as the letter of the law. The apostle James calls God's commandments "the perfect law of liberty" (Jas. 1:25), and indeed, obeying these laws liberates us from pain, suffering and death, both premature physical death as well as eternal death In the lake of fire! The righteousness of God is defined as keeping His commandments. A rich young ruler asked Jesus Christ the age-old question, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall T do that I may have eternal life?" Jesus answered, "If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments" (Matt. 19:16-17). Was Jesus kidding? Did He later change His mind on this matter, so vital to salvation, and decide that His death would free humanity from the responsibility to keep the same commandments He referred to here? Let's see what the apostle John said in about A.D. 95, more than six decades after Jesus' death: "Blessed are those who do His commandments, that they may have the right to the tree of life [symbolic of eternal life], and may enter through the gates into the city [the heavenly Jerusalem, symbolic of God's Kingdom]" (Rev. 22:14). It's quite obvious that Jesus didn't change His mind, since that same Jesus is the one who delivered the messages in the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:1)! Do you believe Him? You must, you know. God cannot allow anyone to live and rule with Him who will not agree with and obey Him. Would you?
You can't do it alone
Of course, you cannot obey God's commandments on your own power (Rom. 8:7). You can't make yourself righteous. It takes the power of God's Holy Spirit, which God only gives to those who obey Him (Acts 5:32). God must impart to you His own righteousness — His own nature. You must allow Jesus Christ to live His life over in you (Gal. 2:20). God's Holy Spirit helps us to perform God's righteousness — to obey His commandments. And when we fail — and we will from time to time — we must acknowledge those sins and repent before our God, and He will then apply the sinless, shed blood of our Savior to blot those sins out of existence (1 John 1:8-10). We are near the Passover season, and Jesus is our Passover (I Cor. 5:7). Especially at this crucial time, we are expected to examine ourselves to see whether we really are in the faith (I Cor. 11:28, II Cor. 13:5). Job finally recognized he had not been as much "in the faith" as he previously had presumed (Job 42:1-6). Are you? Will you approach this Passover with Job's former approach, challenging someone to specifically number your sins if they can find them? Or will you compare yourself to Jesus' perfect example and then ask God to help you see and overcome all your iniquities and sins? If you will follow this latter course, God will pardon you and bless you as never before — He will help you overcome and qualify for His Kingdom. Of such things, salvation is made!