INTRODUCTION. The first of a short series of posts giving my thoughts on topics like the absolute nature of being righteous or unrighteous, how it is that one who is wholly unrighteous can become fully righteous in God’s sight, how to reconcile a declaration of God’s righteousness with unrighteous behavior, and others. Degrees in the manifestations of (expressions of, displays of) unrighteousness and of righteousness, and the reason for these degrees.
I want to spend the next few posts considering the concept of righteousness and what it means to be righteous, but before we get too far into these critical topics, it would be good to establish some basic ideas.
“RIGHTEOUS” IS AN ABSOLUTE TERM
Every person who ever lives is either completely righteous or completely unrighteous. That is, “righteous” and “unrighteous” are terms which represent two states or two conditions that are mutually exclusive. You are either 100% righteous or you are 100% unrighteous, and there is nothing in between. “Righteous” and “unrighteous” are words like up or down, top or bottom, yes or no, right or left, on or off, positive or negative. These “either/or” words are called “absolute words” or “absolute terms” because they have no presence of degrees; it is either one or the other.
KEY CONCEPT: In the Bible, “righteous” and “unrighteous” are absolute terms. Every person is either righteous or they are unrighteous, and there is no third category.
This is a very important concept to understand because it nullifies many of the most common descriptions of our own moral condition, descriptions which are full of relative and vague terms. When people are asked about their own righteousness or about their condition before God, they will offer something like, “I think I’m a pretty good person.” Whatever that means, it leaves THE question unanswered: “Are you righteous before God? Yes or no.”
But why spend time thinking about righteousness? And why is it important to know whether I am righteous or unrighteous in God’s sight? Righteousness a critical topic because it is essential for salvation. To enter heaven, you must be perfectly righteous in God’s sight, and yet we are all helplessly trapped in our unrighteousness and are, therefore, under the condemnation of God. We require perfect righteousness but possess perfect UNrighteousness and are without any available means of escaping from our unrighteous state. The question thus becomes, “How can anyone be righteous before God?” This would be impossible were it not for the gospel.
Since there is “none righteous, no, not one” (Psalm 14:1, 3; Romans 3:10ff; cf. Psalm 143:2; Jeremiah 5:1; etc.) and all are therefore unrighteous before a holy God, the Lord has graciously provided the gospel as a way to save sinners. Through the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Lord will declare a person to be righteous on the basis of that person’s faith in Jesus Christ. The Lord’s declaration of their righteousness in time forever transfers that person into the kingdom of the righteous.
We have just stated the good news of the gospel that God will declare any person to be righteous if that person will place their faith in Jesus Christ. So, the Lord declares them righteous by their faith and, at that moment, their righteous eternal life in Christ begins. (Have you responded to the gospel? Have you placed your faith in Jesus Christ?)
This is the most important message that could ever be proclaimed, that by faith God will justify (declare righteous) the ungodly (Romans 4:5), and my writing could be complete right at this point.
BUT NOT DECLARED UNRIGHTEOUS
But, as I continued to think about the unrighteous and God’s declaration of righteousness, I noticed another idea that caught my attention.
We have said that, by faith, God declares the unrighteous person to be righteous. On the other hand, the Lord does not declare a person to be unrighteous. Why is this so? If the Lord declares a person righteous based on their faith, why would the Lord not also declare a person to be unrighteous?
The main reason is that, since every person is, by nature and by action, unrighteous (John 3:17-18), a declaration from God about our unrighteousness is unnecessary. We have all fully merited our unrighteousness by our sins. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The Law of God given at Sinai clearly renders us all unrighteous and our unrighteousness is evident for all to see. The sad fact is that all of us are born in a state of unrighteousness and in that state, we remain (unless we place our faith in Jesus Christ) and in that state we will die. Then, on the last day, we will be judged by Jesus Christ (Romans 2:16) and cast into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). Unless we have come to faith in Jesus Christ, we are absolutely unrighteous and stand fully condemned before God. God graciously warns us about our unrighteousness and our consequent condemnation not only in the pages of the Bible, but also by the inner voice of our conscience (Romans 2:14-15), in the power and the glory of God’s creation (Romans 1:19-20), in the reading of the Law, and in the proclamation of the gospel, so man is without excuse. In short, there is so much evidence of our inherent unrighteousness that a declaration from God is unnecessary.
But there is another, perhaps more important reason God does not declare the sinner to be unrighteous. Recall that when an unrighteous person initially and savingly places their faith in Jesus, God declares them to be righteous, and because of God’s declaration, that person is eternally righteous and will never be unrighteous again. The point is that God’s declaration creates a permanent state that cannot be changed. The person’s righteousness can never be lost.
Now, if God’s declaration of righteousness created an eternal state of righteousness, then God’s declaration of unrighteousness would likewise create an eternal state of unrighteousness which could never be changed and from which the unrighteous could never escape. If God declared the person to be unrighteous, that person would be eternally unrighteous because God’s declaration (or decree) establishes the final state. Therefore, to prevent an unrighteous person from being permanently and irredeemably fixed in an unrighteous state, God withholds His declaration of unrighteousness and instead issues warnings to the unrighteous person through the Law and by means of the conscience and through the proclamation of the gospel so that the unrighteous person will repent of their sins and will place their faith in Jesus. Then God will issue His decree that this unrighteous person has now been declared eternally righteous and is bound for heaven.
SDG rmb 5/20/2022 #533