We are being saved because of God’s righteousness, not despite God’s righteous.
And you all know this has to be true.
I know you do because we all know of John 1.9. Remember that verse? “If we confess our sins, even though God is faithful and righteous, He will forgive us our sins anyway and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
That’s not what it says, is it?
“If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Sometimes I hear Christians talk as if, God would be no less righteous even if He never bothered to forgive anyone. That makes a certain amount of sense, because none of us deserves to be forgiven. And there are people who God has not forgiven and will not forgive who will end up in everlasting torment which they will justly deserve. And those people will have no grounds for complaining that God is unrighteous or unjust. They will deserve their punishment and God will be righteous in so punishing them.
But the problem comes when we make the grace of God seem like some sort of accidental feature of His personality–as if God’s basic nature is vengeance and mercy is some sort of surface phenomenon which is nice for those who are forgiven, but not as much part of God’s personality as justice. The Bible guards against that conception. It says that God’s salvation is just as much a revelation of His righteousness as His punitive justice.
In fact, if we believe that God plans to spread salvation to the vast majority of the human race for the vast majority of history, that too reflects on God’s righteous character. God is the savior of the world because only in Him are righteousness and strength.
Now, perhaps I can give you some ways of understanding more precisely how and why God’s righteousness does not contradict His graciousness and willingness to forgive sinners, but rather upholds it. You may have noticed in some of the Psalm passages I read, that not only were lovingkindness and righteousness related to one another, but faithfulness as well. Therein lies part of the key. In 1 Samuel 26.23, David says that “the LORD will repay each man for His righteousness and faithfulness.” Solomon speaks of David’s “faithfulness and righteousness” in 1 Kings 3.6. Now, those words are mutually interpretive. For a man or woman in God’s covenant, they are not expected to be without sin, but simply to be faithful in keeping covenant with God by continuing to repent, confess their sins, and seek forgiveness, trusting in God alone. God’s covenant, after all, isn’t made for unfallen angels but for sinful men. We are expected to sin. That’s part of the covenantal arrangement.
In Luke 1.6, for example, we are told of Zacharias and Elizabeth: “And they were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.”
Now this, is said of sinners. In fact, Zacharias sins in the very same chapter. Nevertheless, they are described as having a righteous standing in God’s sight and being blameless in keeping all God’s laws. How can that be? Because God’s Law was made for sinners to show them how to live by faith. God’s Law told them to repent and be reconciled to God and each other, after they sinned; and to trust God to forgive them and ultimately to save them.
But if God’s covenant expects those who are considered righteous and faithful to sin, then the same covenant has to also expect God to forgive, if He is to be righteous and faithful. And that’s exactly what Scripture declares:
Psalm 143.1 & 2
A psalm of David.
Hear my prayer, O LORD,
Give ear to my supplication!
Answer me in Your faithfulness, in Your righteousness!
And do not enter into judgment with Your servant,
For in Your sight no man living is righteous.
Now here, we have a much more orthodox-sounding statement in the second verse. Even though in other Psalm, David pleads to be judged according to His righteousness, here he asks God not to enter into judgment against him. Here David uses the term righteousness to mean “sinlessness,” and admits that he is far from sinless.
Yet even here, David does not hesitate to remind the Lord of His own divine righteousness and faithfulness. That righteousness assures David that his sins will be forgiven.
God has revealed His character in His Word. He has told us that He is righteous and He is told us what that means, that he is faithful, loving, and willing to save. Furthermore, He has revealed that righteousness in what He did through Jesus Christ.
What are we to do with that? What does it mean to believe God is righteous, with all the implications that I have mentioned?
In Exodus 33 & 34 we have a real important moment in God’s covenantal dealings with humankind. Moses on Mount Sinai asks God to show him His glory. God answers Moses’ request by hiding him in the cleft of a rock and showing him the back of God’s glory. And with that visual revelation comes a verbal revelation as well, Exodus 34.6-7:
The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands of generations, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He will by now means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.
That is a declaration of God’s fundamental character. It is mentioned again and again in the Scriptures. It is even used by John, in the first chapter of his Gospel, to describe Jesus.
But with that revelation of God’s character, we have a revelation of how we should respond. Look at verse 9: Moses said
If now I have found grace in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go along in our midst, even though the people are so obstinate; and do You pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us as Your own possession.
So you see what has happened here? As soon as the words are out of God’s mouth that He is gracious and forgiving, Moses is asking Him to prove it.
We all know, from cop shows at least, the Miranda rights: You have a right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law.
God operates under similar rules. He expects us to use what He says “against Him.” When He reveals to us His character we are supposed to base our prayers and our very lives on His revelation.
God wants you to know that He can be trusted to save you. That His grace and mercy are revelations of His very being. He has forgiven and will continue to forgive you because of Who He is. Our God is a righteous God, therefore He is a savior. We can remind Him of His revelation of Himself when we pray to Him, just like Moses did. If we trust His Word, we will remind Him of His righteous character, and we will have hope in Him because He is righteous.
While my main point is that God’s righteousness is our hope, I should point out that this doesn’t mean no one should fear it. Isaiah, in addition to declaring God a righteous savior, also declares the nations under condemnation for rejecting that savior. God’s wrath is not incompatible with His righteousness, with His love. In fact, His love explains His wrath. Remember the warning attached to the Second Commandment?
I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me.
God’s wrath is His jealousy. Hell is his burning jealousy. Song of Solomon 8.6:
Jealousy is as severe as Sheol; [or Hell]
It’s flashes are flashes of fire,
The very flame of the LORD.
Wrath is fierce and anger is a flood,
But who can stand before jealousy?
God is righteous. God is loving. God pursues sinners. God offers forgiveness. But He will not be patient and longsuffering forever. And the very reason Hell is hot, is because such a great love has been spurned.
But, it’s not my purpose here to dwell on God wrath, but on the other aspect of his righteousness. His covenant faithfulness. His love. God is a righteous God and a savior. So we can trust Him. We should fix our hope on Him because of Who He is. We should continue in covenant with Him, because He is faithful and righteous to keep covenant with us.
And as we humbly work out our salvation in fear and trembling, perhaps we should consider the implications of God’s righteousness in our own sanctification. We want, if we are Christians, to be more like God. Even though we continue to be sinners, we want the Spirit to make us more righteous, and the Spirit does.
But what does it mean to be righteous? To be righteous like God is?
It means lots of things. It means to not steal, to not commit adultery. It means to keep the commandments of God. It means not to covet. And et cetera.
But in that package, let us not forget that it means to show lovingkindness to sinners, just like God does. It means to forgive. It means to keep covenant even when people hurt us.