Even within Christian churches that look fairly homogeneous doctrinally-speaking, we can find diverse attitudes. For example, there are currents of more liberal or fundamentalist approaches to religious practice. One such current that can be problematic within churches is self-rightness. I don’t mean the arrogant presumption that one is perfect. I mean the tendency to let “righteousness” become an idol. It’s an easy trap for any of us to fall into so we need to examine our motives carefully. What is the purpose of righteousness? The answer should be love.
Righteousness is defined as the character of being righteous; purity of heart and rectitude of life; the being and doing right; conformity in character and conduct to a right standard. The notion that righteousness can be viewed as circumstantial or relativistic is popular among Christians today, i.e. that we should love first, and obey second if we find it situationally conducive. In other words, love is greater than law. This concept subordinates God’s law to one’s interpretation of love which makes each man a law unto himself. That is not scriptural.
God requires followers of Christ to pursue righteousness by the moral laws He has given us. Some may debate this, but let’s not digress into grace and justification. The Apostle Paul, Mr. Grace, himself, told Timothy that he was to pursue righteousness in 1 Timothy 6:11: “But you, O man of God, . . . pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness.” In any case, the concern here is when righteousness becomes an end in and of itself, rather than a means to an end, which it rightly is. We should deeply consider our motivation for being righteous. Purpose matters.
Any such examination should start our pursuit of righteousness at the same place, i.e., repentance. God looked down from heaven and declared “. . . there is none who does good, not even one (Psalm 14:3). We also know that even our best is not enough. Isaiah says that all our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isaiah 64.6).
So, being righteous isn’t enough if one describes righteousness as obedience to law. God’s way is too big for us to achieve it through any technical compliance. James explains how easy it is to miss the mark (sin): “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well; but if you show partiality, (that was the topic he was speaking to here) you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, ‘Do not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘Do not murder.’ Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law” (James 2:8-11).
Christ did say that He came to expand the law and when He did, He described that even looking on a woman to lust after her was committing the sin of adultery. If we sin in any small way, we are guilty of sin in its entirety. Hence, it is possible to keep the law technically but break the law in its spiritual intent. The Pharisees are a good example of this. They were very technical. They practiced law-keeping in detail, but they didn’t understand its purpose (Matthew 23:1-36). Their motivation was self-righteousness rather than love. As a result, their law-keeping was harmful, and Christ condemned them vigorously.
We are not to be hypocritical, but we certainly need to admit we are vulnerable to the same problem. In striving to overcome, righteousness can become its own goal and we can get just really zoned in on and focused on establishing our personal” rightness”. We can harm others in our reflexive pursuit of selfish ends. That is short-sighted and quite wrong-headed.
If we’re not to be putting righteousness out there as a goal, then what? The Bible is very clear. “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness, ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, all are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Romans 13:8-10).
Godly righteousness then, requires love. It is not just about disciplined compliance with the technical points of the law. These concepts force us to ask some questions of ourselves. Does that mean we’re just supposed to love people and establish some sort of a hippie commune with no boundaries? No, we are never to subvert God’s law by human reason. It is impossible to truly love unless we are obeying God’s law. God’s law is love. It has strict guidance and boundaries that cultivate justice, peace and unity that underpin love in both individual and community relationships. Law maps the path we follow to our goal of love. The point is that real overcoming must stem from giving love, not getting righteousness.
I would argue, then, that law defines love, but we might also say that love illuminates how to keep the law. If our obedience to God’s law is motivated by love, then we are enabled to keep the law more perfectly. Since scripture is principles based there are frequently questions about how to apply the judgments, and statutes, and laws that we can read in the Bible. As Paul said in Romans 13.10, “ . . . Love is the fulfillment of the law.” Love is the means.
So, thinking actively and lovingly about the effect that our actions will have outside ourselves makes us more likely to succeed in fulfilling the law. However, if our only source of motivation is about what we gain from obedience, the goals may be good worthy goals, but alone they are selfish. It puts the choice of good and evil on almost equal footing for us because it’s all about its effect on us. We can choose to gratify our desire to sin, or we can choose to gratify our desire to be righteous.
Sin has very negative consequences and a wider range of them that are not initially seen. It takes years for one to see the impact of one’s actions and how far that ripple effect goes. There is an immediate blast zone to sin and there is a fallout zone. It goes much further abroad. And we see that over time as we observe life and the choices that we make.
Moreover, love is a superior motivation for good choices than righteousness is. Simply pursuing righteousness does not necessarily make one godly. Christ distilled the law as love towards God and man. The apostle Paul in Galatians paraphrased that quite succinctly: The entire law is summed up in a single command, “Love your neighbor as yourself “(Galatians 5:14) and we need to keep in mind that God has a greater purpose for us than merely our own self-justification through obedience.
He is building a family and His end goal is that we each become like Him (Genesis 1:26). God is love and He desires to build His loving nature and character in all mankind. His instructions in the Bible were not given primarily as a grading rubric for us to achieve a certain level in this system that He has provided but so that we have a path, a map, a way to become as He is.
The best motivation for overcoming our nature is not the selfish goal of achieving righteousness. Instead, we are to conform to the law for the purpose of cultivating love toward God and our fellow man. Rather than striving to achieve righteousness by obedience, we should strive to express love through righteousness because the purpose of righteousness is love.