[Jesus] bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Peter 2:24).
When we come to recognize that Jesus died for our sins yet was raised from the dead on the third day, and now reigns as Lord over heaven and earth, we are expected to follow Him (Colossians 2:6, 1 John 2:6). Yet what does that mean? What does that look like?
In another image, Paul considered baptism as a spiritual death and resurrection, allowing believers in Christ to die to sin so they can live as servants of righteousness (Romans 6:1-23). Peter expected Christians to recognize how Jesus died for their sins to heal them from their wounds: believers were to die to sin so they might live unto righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). Serving the Lord Jesus and following Him, therefore, can be understood as abhorring and dying to sin and to live according to righteousness. We do well to understand what it means to live righteously.
What is righteousness? What does it mean to be righteous? Many people think of righteousness in terms of not doing bad things. Righteousness includes not doing the wrong, but one does not practice righteousness merely by avoiding evil (James 4:17). People often equate righteousness with doing the right things. Righteousness does indeed involve doing the right things but involves so much more: as Jesus taught, since what a man does reflects what he thinks and feels, it is not enough to just do right things (Matthew 7:17-20, Mark 7:18-23). Christians must do the right things with the right mentality and for the right reasons (1 Corinthians 13:1-3, Philippians 2:3).
Righteousness, therefore, involves thinking, feeling, and doing the right things. What are the right things to think, feel, and do? Righteousness cannot be defined by humanity; we have been corrupted by sin in our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors (Proverbs 14:12, Jeremiah 10:23). God, as our Creator, defines right from wrong and loves righteousness (Psalm 33:4-6). God has not left us without a model of righteousness: Jesus declared Himself to be the truth, the way, and the life (John 14:6), and the Apostles testified that Jesus was entirely righteous (Acts 3:14, 7:32). Thus, true righteousness is reflected in Jesus; the more we think, feel, and act like Jesus, the more righteous our thoughts, feelings, and behavior will be (Romans 8:28, 12:2). Jesus fully manifested the fruit of the Spirit; we do well to embody those characteristics in our thoughts, feelings, and actions:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law (Galatians 5:22-23).
Whereas Jesus was entirely righteous, we are sinful and continually fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). We remain beset by the struggles and temptations of sin: whereas we have the opportunity to escape any and every temptation, we will nevertheless stumble (1 Corinthians 10:13, Hebrews 12:1-2, 1 John 1:8). We will do things which God considers to be wrong (Galatians 5:19-21); we will at times fail to do good when we have opportunity to do so (James 4:17).
Thankfully, our salvation is not dependent on our perfect accomplishments; as Paul established, no one is justified before God based on perfect observance of the Law (Romans 3:20). In Christ God has proven willing to forgive us of our sins: we receive forgiveness for all past sin in baptism, and after baptism, forgiveness can be continually secured if we confess our sins, repent of them, and continue to grow in righteousness (1 John 1:9, 2 Peter 3:8). And yet we cannot use access to forgiveness as justification for sin: God knows whether we truly wish to change our thoughts and ways in repentance or not, and if we resist true repentance, we can lose what we have gained in Christ and be condemned (Hebrews 10:26-31). God shows no partiality: we cannot presume that we are righteous merely because we are Christians, but must continually seek after righteousness and repent of all unrighteousness and ungodliness in our thoughts, feelings, and actions (1 Peter 1:17-21).
Growth in righteousness is thus a process and not a singular event. The process by which we grow in righteousness is often called “sanctification” in the New Testament; it is how we strive to be holy as God is holy (Hebrews 12:14, 1 Peter 1:13-16). The goal of righteousness is sanctification, and sanctification is the will of God for every believer (Romans 6:19, 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 7). Sanctification can only take place in the Spirit (1 Peter 1:2): righteousness is manifest in His fruit, and we often need strength in the Spirit to do the right and avoid the wrong (Galatians 5:22-24, Ephesians 3:16).
As Christians we can grow into maturity, having our powers of discernment trained to distinguish good from evil and doing the good (Hebrews 5:14). Yet even in maturity we must grow and develop in righteousness (2 Peter 3:18): we must excel still more in love and doing the right (1 Thessalonians 4:1, 9). We should not despair or become discouraged as we pursue righteousness: God loves us and wants us to become more like Him, and such despair and discouragement is one of the Evil One’s most effective tools (Romans 8:31-39, 1 Peter 5:8).
Righteousness, therefore, is to think, feel, and behave in the ways God has decreed are right. Righteousness is manifest in the fruit of the Spirit, against which there is no law. The rest of our lives as believers in Jesus are defined by humbly seeking to grow in righteousness and to manifest the fruit of the Spirit more effectively, becoming ever closer to God in Christ. May we pursue righteousness unto sanctification, without which no one will see God, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry