You must have righteousness in order to have eternal life! There are many texts in the Bible that would prove this quite conclusively, two of which are Isaiah 33:14, 15 and Psalm 15:1, 2: “Who among us is going to dwell with this everlasting fire, an everlasting burning, a devouring fire, with everlasting burnings? It is the one who walks righteously.” “Who is going to dwell with You, Lord, in Your holy hill? It is the one who walks righteously.”
The first fact about righteousness is that you have to have righteousness or you are not going to heaven. It is that simple. But the next fact about righteousness is the one that is startling, when you realize that you have to have it to go to heaven, to have eternal life. The second fact about righteousness is that you and I do not have any!
“All our righteousness is like a defiled garment.” Isaiah 64:5. Like a leaf that fades away, we are carried away as on a wind with our iniquities. Or, as Paul quoting from the Old Testament says, “There is not anybody that is righteous. Not even one. Not one.” Romans 3:10.
So, the first fact is, you have to have righteousness or you are not going to have eternal life. But the second fact about righteousness is that we do not have any righteousness. There is not one person who has it, the Bible says.
The third fact about righteousness is actually two definitions. What is righteousness? Romans 7:12 says, “So, then, the law is holy and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”
God’s Law is righteous. The first definition of righteousness is this: righteousness is that which is in harmony with the Ten Commandments. It is that simple! Righteousness is what is in harmony with the Ten Commandments because the law is righteous.
What if you break the law? The answer is given in 1 John 5:17: “All unrighteousness is sin.” What is sin? Sin is breaking God’s Law. (1 John 3:4.) All unrighteousness is sin, so unrighteousness is when the law has been broken. Righteousness is when the law is being kept, because the law is righteous.
Read 1 John 2:1 for a second definition of righteousness. “My children, these things I write to you, in order that you might not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous One.”
We are not righteous, but He is righteous; therefore a second definition of righteousness is that Jesus Christ is righteous, so righteousness is that which is like Him. This, of course, does not conflict with the first definition, because Jesus said, in John 15:10, “I have kept my Father’s commandments.”
Since Jesus kept His Father’s commandments, the definitions do not contradict; they just complement each other. Righteousness, first of all, is that which is in harmony with the Ten Commandments or, second definition, righteousness is that which is in harmony with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.
Study It Out
A fourth fact about righteousness I will leave for you to study out, and then you can tell me whether or not you believe it. I believe this is the case. When you are perfectly righteous, then you are holy.
With the Heart
A fifth fact regarding righteousness is that righteousness has to do with the heart; that is, with the motives, the thoughts, and the feelings. Jesus brought this out very clearly in the Sermon on the Mount. “For I say to you, that except your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will in no case enter into the kingdom of the heavens.” Matthew 5:20. The people were in a state of shock when Jesus said this because they thought that the scribes and the Pharisees were the most righteous people on the face of the earth.
The people wondered how this could be, but Jesus went on to explain that righteousness has to do more with what is on the inside than what is on the outside. For example, continue reading in Matthew 5: “You have heard that it was said by them anciently, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever shall murder shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother is liable to condemnation, and whoever will say to his brother, ‘Raca!’ will be guilty before the council. But whoever will say, ‘You fool!’ will be answerable unto hell fire.” Verses 21, 22.
What is it that Jesus is talking about here? He is not talking about the person that actually did what Cain did and took a club or a spear or a sword and killed somebody, but He said, “If you are angry with your brother.” In fact, the apostle John, reporting on this very same idea later, in 1 John 3, strongly declares, “The person that hates his brother is a murderer.” In other words, if I do not physically kill you, but I hate you, I have broken the law.
You see, it appeared as though the Pharisees were keeping the law on the outside, but Jesus said, “That is not good enough. Your law keeping has to come from the heart.” Because we are human beings, we tend to look at what is on the outside.
Jesus did the very same thing with the seventh commandment, which He talks about in Matthew 5:27, 28: “You have heard it was said to them in old time, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that if a man looks on a woman to lust after her, he has committed adultery with her already in his heart.”
The Lord says that you did not commit adultery with your body, but you did it in your heart. See, the commandment, as Paul says, goes right to the heart, to the spirit; it even divides asunder between the soul and the spirit. It goes to the thoughts and the intent of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12.)
So, a fifth fact about righteousness is that it has to do not only with what you say or do, but with the heart, motives, and feelings.
Decision to Do Good
In Philippians 3:4, 5, Paul said, “If anybody could be confident in the flesh, I could be even more. I was circumcised the eighth day.” This was done in accordance with the ceremonial law given to Abraham in Genesis 17.
The Gentiles who had come into the Jewish religion could not say that. They may have been circumcised when they were 20 or 30 years of age, but they could not say what Paul could say. Paul could say, “Listen, I am blameless according to the law. My parents were in the faith, and I was circumcised the eighth day, according to the law. Not only that, but, I was of the stock of Israel; I was born of the tribe of Benjamin. I was born into the covenant people. Not only that, I have practiced carefully, perfectly, my religion.” Paul declared, “I was a Hebrew of the Hebrews. Concerning the law, I was a Pharisee.” In fact, he was so zealous in his religious experience that he says, “According to the righteousness which is of the law, I was blameless.” (See Philippians 3:5, 6.)
Paul was someone who decided that he was going to do right, and he was being very successful, but the sixth fact in regard to righteousness is that you cannot become righteous by deciding to do what is good. Paul had already done that.
Paul decided to do what was good, and he had a good start. He was born to the right race, into the right family. His parents saw that he was circumcised on the eighth day, and he kept the law.
Notice what he says next: “But what things were gain to me, I reckoned to be loss for Christ. Indeed I consider all things to be loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and consider them refuse, that I might gain Christ, and might be found in him. And that I might be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is of the law.” Philippians 3:7–9.
Paul had the righteousness of the law; he said that he had it blameless, but, he said, “I want, when the Lord comes, to be found by Him not having my own righteousness, which is of the law.” Why? Because, the righteousness that he had, as a Hebrew of the Hebrews, as a strict Pharisee, was not good enough! Jesus said, “If your righteousness is not better than the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will in no case enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The apostle Paul found out that his righteousness was worthless to gain eternal life. He found out that he could go through all the forms, rituals, and ceremonies and he could keep the ceremonial law perfectly, but not go to heaven.
It is actually still the same in the Christian church today. I believe in the ceremonies of the new covenant. I have baptized many people—that is one of the ceremonies of the new covenant. The communion service is a ceremony of the new covenant. I keep those ceremonies, but all the things that you and I can do that are right will not earn for us eternal life.
Paul thought that he was doing it all perfectly, but he realized that what he was doing was not worth anything. “Be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness of God which is by faith; that I might know Him, the power of His resurrection, the fellowship of His suffering, being made conformable to His death, if, by any means, I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though as I had already acquired, but I pursue after, and I follow after, if I might attain that which has been attained for me by Christ Jesus. My brethren, I do not consider myself to have attained, but I follow after, and, forgetting those things that are behind and stretching forth to those things that are before, I pursue after the mark of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Verses 9–13.
So, we cannot become righteous by deciding to do good or be good. And that brings us to the seventh fact about righteousness, which is also covered in Philippians 3:8–14.
If we are going to be righteous, we must receive righteousness from Jesus Christ. We have to receive it from Him because we cannot generate it; we cannot make it. Not only have we all sinned, as it says in Romans 3:23, but we cannot generate righteousness. Remember, righteousness has to do with the heart, and we do not have righteous hearts that can generate righteousness.
In what condition are our hearts? Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that, “The heart is deceitful above all things and incurably wicked.” This is the kind of heart that each of us has, or, as Paul stated in Romans 7:18, “I know that in me there dwells nothing good.” This emphasizes the fact that we cannot be righteous by deciding to do good. If we are going to be righteous, we must receive righteousness from Jesus Christ. How can we receive righteousness? There are several texts in the Scriptures that will help us to understand.
Can or Cannot
We are living in a very passive age. The nineteenth century was an optimistic age. People believed that they could do almost anything. They got that idea, of course, from the teaching of evolution, which became prominent during the last half of that century. They thought that humans were getting better and better. All of the inventions that were being developed reinforced this idea in their thinking. They were very optimistic and declared, “We can do it!”
It is a very interesting thing to see, when you study history, that theology very often follows in the path of what people are already thinking. In the nineteenth century, a perfectionistic theology developed. Ellen White had quite a bit to say about this. At one time she wrote: “I have met many who claimed to live without sin. But when tested by God’s word, these persons were found to be open transgressors of his holy law.” Review and Herald, February 22, 1881. This was a big problem at that time.
The twentieth century became the most pessimistic century of all time. People said, “We cannot do it,” and theologians developed a theology to go along with that. If the people did not think they could do anything, then how would they be saved? Oh, they thought, the Lord will do everything. In Adventism, we call that the New Theology—the Lord is going to do it all. We are going to be saved by professing faith in Christ, and we will be justified; the Lord will do everything. We may be living like the devil, but the Lord is going to save us because we profess faith in Him.
We are living in this pessimistic age when people say, “We cannot; the Lord is going to do everything.” Actually, the Lord is going to do everything, but He is not going to do it without our help! He is not going to do it without our cooperation.
With Fear and Trembling
Philippians 2:12 says, “So then, my beloved, just as always you were obedient, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, with fear and trembling work out your own salvation.” This is not the language of a person saying, “No, I cannot do anything.” Paul says, “With fear and trembling work out your salvation.”
Someone may question whether or not this verse is teaching salvation by works. Well, in a way it is. Read the next verse: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work out his good pleasure.”
God wants to work out a work of salvation, a work of righteousness in our lives. We do not have any righteousness of our own. The only way we can get any is if He gives it to us, but we have to cooperate. In fact, Paul says, “You need to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”
What does it mean to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling”? The Bible teaches that all of us have what is called “the sin which so easily besets” or “easily besetting sins” or “easily entangling sins.” It talks about that in Hebrews 12.
Now, if you are working out your salvation with fear and trembling, you are looking at yourself and saying, “Lord, this, this, and this I can see are besetting sins to me, and from reading the Book of Revelation, I know that it is only the overcomers that are going to go to the kingdom of heaven. These are besetting sins to me, and I need Your divine help to come into my life to change things.”
It is unfortunate that some people are spending all of their time just bemoaning their condition and saying, “I cannot do it,” instead of looking in faith to the Lord, and saying, “Lord, help me to have a change in my thinking, a change in my heart, a change in my motives, a change in my feelings, and a change in my thoughts, which will produce a change in my words and my actions.”
Commenting about this, Ellen White wrote: “The secret of Satan’s power over God’s professed people lies in the deceitfulness of the human heart. Their constant stumbling and falling reveal that they have not maintained a stern conflict with their besetting sins.” The Signs of the Times, December 13, 1899.
Did Paul maintain a stern con-flict with his besetting sins? In Philippians 3, we read that he said, I forget what is behind, I cannot change that, but I am stretching, pressing, pursuing, struggling toward the mark. He was cooperating with the Holy Spirit.
[Bible texts quoted are literal translation.]
Pastor John Grosboll is Director of Steps to Life and pastors the Prairie Meadows Church in Wichita, Kansas. He may be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or by telephone at: 316-788-5559.