the crown of righteousness
Many Christians have been taught that righteousness is an unattainable goal to work towards, having been read the verse quoted by Paul from the Hebrew Bible, that "there is none righteous, no not one" (ROMANS 3:10). It is put forth that we cannot achieve righteousness by our own actions but that instead it is something given to us by GOD after we become HIS sons, or perhaps after resurrection. Many surmise that instead of us working towards being righteous, that GOD just instantly makes us righteous, some calling it a son-ship right. But as we study righteousness in the Scriptures we discover evidence to support the idea that it is indeed something believers were instructed to work towards becoming.
We have two questions before us. First, what did Paul mean when he wrote that there was none righteous, and second, can one then obtain righteousness?
The passage Paul quoted in his letter to the believers at Rome is most likely condensed from ECCLESIASTES 7:20. It is interesting that when we go back and read the verse in ECCLESIASTES from which Paul quoted, we find, "For there is not a just [righteous] man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not". Clearly the verse is not saying that there is not a righteous man upon the earth, but rather, that there is not a righteous man upon the earth that doesn't sin. There were righteous men! This must be the fact of the case because we don't have to look far in the Book before we find righteous men upon the earth (GENESIS 6:9).
Even during the gospel period our Lord revealed to His disciples that "many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them..." (MATTHEW 13:17), so we know that there must have been many righteous men. Scripture names a few for us. There was Abel (MATTHEW 23:35 HEBREWS 11:4 1 JOHN 3:12), Noah (GENESIS 6:9; 7:1), Abraham (ROMANS 4:2), Lot (2 PETER 2:7-8) and Zacharias (MATTHEW 23:35). Then during the times of the Christian Scriptures there was Simeon (LUKE 2:25), John the Baptist (MARK 6:20), Mary's husband Joseph (MATTHEW 1:19), of course Yeshua (Jesus) the Christ (1 JOHN 2:1), Joseph, the counselor (LUKE 23:50), and reportedly Cornelius the centurion (ACTS 10:22).
Obviously Paul knew that righteous men had lived, so when he wrote that there was "none righteous, not even one", he must have meant something beyond what is commonly thought. In searching out this apparent discrepancy, let us consider what point Paul was trying to make in this letter to the believers at Rome. Let's go through the epistle and look at Paul's various uses of righteousness and see if we can uncover anything which might shed light on our quest. His first usage of the word translated righteous, dikaios, is most revealing.
- RSV ROMANS 1:16-17 For I am not ashamed of the gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness [dikaiosune] of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "He who through faith is righteous shall live."
We read here that it is the gospel that reveals the righteousness of GOD. And what according to Paul is written therein? That by way of faith, the righteous shall live! There is no reason for us to interpret live here as some do, "live again after resurrection", as if only eternal life is meant. The context of the scripture Paul is quoting (HABAKKUK 2:4) is clearly referring to how the righteous would live through the great crisis with which they were faced. The righteous were promised that they would survive, by faith. As faith is hearing and then believing what is heard from GOD (ROMANS 10:16,17), it is self evident that righteousness has to do with obedience to GOD. Thus Paul is clearly intending that apart from faith, no one can be righteous, "not even one".
Paul's next usage of dikaios is also most enlightening.
- ROMANS 2:13 For not the hearers of the law are just [righteous, dikaios] before God, but the doers [poietes] of the law shall be justified [dikaioo].
The word doers in the above verse is translated from the Greek work poietes. Surprisingly, it is rarely (six times) used in scripture, being first found in ACTS 17:28, translated there as poets. It has to do with making something, as in making a poem.
Therefore, those named in scripture as being righteous must have been doers, not just hearers. They were not righteous by just hearing something or even just by saying something, but only by making something. Many today think that just because they go to Church and hear a good sermon that they are saved, or even righteous. Paul's argument is that his readers must go beyond hearing; they must become doers. James agrees.
- JAMES 1:22-25 But be ye doers [poietes] of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer [poietes], he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: for he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was. But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer [poietes] of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.
The whole matter is summed up here in this epistle of James. He warned that his readers might hear the word of GOD and feel moved by its message, howbeit, as they got on with their lives, the message was soon forgotten. Instead, James encouraged them to act upon that word if they were to retain it. They needed to make something of it. After entering their ears, it must find its way to their hearts. Only then will it be of any lasting profit.
To the believers in Galatia Paul wrote that "....no man is justified [dikaioo] before God by the law...." (RSV GALATIANS 3:11). Again quoting the passage from Habakkuk, Paul seems to be contradicting himself. On the one hand he writes the Galatians, "no man is righteous by the law", but then he writes to the Romans, "the doers of the law shall be righteous". What is the answer to this apparent contradiction? What is Paul saying? Is righteousness by faith or is it by the law?
This entire subject about what Paul meant in these two epistles is a theological mess. Opinions are all over the board with no one solution emerging as the accepted one. The best we can hope for is to possibly unravel some of the difficulties and see perhaps a simpler meaning from what Paul might have intended. Truth is generally simple and the closer we can get back to simple, the closer to truth we should be.
The phrase the law doesn't necessarily mean the Mosaic Law. It equally can refer to any "law as prescribed by custom or statute" (Bullinger's Lexicon). Actually, faith itself is a law.
- ROMANS 3:27-28 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.
They were righteous by the law of faith, but not by a prescribed law, such as the Mosaic Law. The law they were made righteous by is "the law of the Spirit", not "the law of sin and death". So our first unraveling is to not assume that Paul always meant the Mosaic law when he mentions law.
- ROMANS 8:2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
Probably what Paul was endeavoring to teach the believers at Rome, was that without GOD's guidance there is none righteous, no not one! Only by grace could one be guided into the way of faith and only by faith could he become righteous. If someone tried to become righteous on his own, by his own dead works, he was doomed to failure. Likewise, to the believers at Galatia Paul was writing that by just mechanically obeying the Mosaic law, without faith, no man was righteous. Only by faith could one be righteous. Only by hearing and then obeying that which was heard, only by obeying the law of the spirit, could they become righteous.
- ROMANS 3:20-23 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified [dikaioo] in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without [apart from] the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of [in, ASV] Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.
All men had by their dead works come short. By dead works, no flesh could become righteous. But if they believed what they had heard from GOD, by doing what HE had told them to do, then by their obedience each of them could become righteous. Grace enabled them to live by faith. As they did, that faith, which was the same faith Abraham had (ROMANS 4:16), that faith would make them righteous.
This key may unlock at least some of Paul's meaning. There was really nothing all that wrong with the Mosaic Law. What was wrong or right was from what angle his readers were attempting to become righteous. Was it by faith or was it without faith? Obviously some of them thought and taught that their Gentile brothers must observe the Mosaic law to be righteous; and others may have thought and taught that there was nothing good in the Mosaic Law. Both groups were right but then both groups were also wrong.
- ROMANS 6:16 Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?
Thus, righteousness came from obedience just as sin came from disobedience. Every time they obeyed GOD, they became more righteous. Every time they disobeyed GOD they became more unrighteous. This is what Paul meant when he wrote that "Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness" (ROMANS 4:3). It was counted unto him! Each time he acted upon what he heard from GOD he was made a little more righteous. Abraham was being made righteous as he believed, as he acted upon what he heard from GOD. As such, faith "was reckoned [counted] to Abraham for righteousness" (ROMANS 4:9).
- ROMANS 4:23-24 Now it was not written for his [Abraham's] sake alone, that it was imputed [counted] to him; but for us also, to whom it shall be imputed [counted], if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead.
Paul does not write here that they were made righteous by simply believing "on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead", but rather that righteousness was counted unto them if they thus believed. It is only a step on the journey to being made righteous. It is only the beginning as one would "walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham" (ROMANS 4:12). This journey is set forth by our Lord when He revealed, "Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled" (MATTHEW 5:6). It is a continued cycle. One hungers, then they are fed, then they are filled, then they hunger again.
The revelation that righteousness is something to be measured and counted out, Yeshua put forth when He declared, "For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven" (MATTHEW 5:20). If righteousness is to exceed then it must somehow be increased; it must develop, it must grow (2 THESSALONIANS 1:3). Righteousness increases in direct proportion to one's obedience to the word of GOD which they hear.
- ROMANS 10:3 For they [Israel] being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.
To obtain the righteousness of GOD, one must submit themselves unto GOD. That is why some of these scribes and Pharisees lacked GOD's righteousness. Going about to establish their own righteousness they lacked GOD's guidance, they frustrated GOD's grace.
In contrast to establishing one's own righteousness, Yeshua instructed His followers to seek GOD's righteousness (MATTHEW 6:33). The first usage of this word for seek is when GOD warned Yeshua's stepfather that "Herod will seek the young child to destroy him" (MATTHEW 2:13). Herod didn't just casually kick around the idea of killing Yeshua. He with tenacity and determination fiercely sought the child, even murdering "all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under". With a like intensity of determination they were to seek GOD's righteousness.
Righteousness requires faith, but faith requires grace. Without grace there is no faith and without faith there is no righteousness. Grace reveals, it inspires and it teaches (TITUS 2:11-12). Mercy forgives, but it is grace that helps one acquire that which he needs to accomplish his transformation (HEBREWS 4:16).
Paul wrote to Timothy that "All scripture is ... profitable for ... instruction in righteousness" (2 TIMOTHY 3:16). The word "instruction" has to do with training and educating. Hence, the words of GOD train one to be righteous! Grace is GOD giving the training. Faith is the believer engaged in that training. Righteousness is the result of that training.
Thus, righteousness is a crown. Crowns are given in recognition of one's place in life. If one rejects GOD's grace and choose to be guided by the lusts of his old man instead of by the spirit of GOD, then there is no crown of righteousness awaiting him. If he is willing to become righteous, he must first receive GOD's guidance. Then having heard HIS words, he must then believe them by doing what GOD requires. This is the renewing of one's mind to GOD's word, that he might thus become transformed, that he might then prove HIS perfect will.
- 2 TIMOTHY 4:7-8 I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.
A crown of righteousness was awaiting Paul. This recognition by "the righteous judge" was the result of Paul's walk. He fought a good fight, he finished the course he had been called to and he kept the faith by continually hearing GOD and then obeying that which he had heard. Obedience is work! By works he was made righteous. But not by dead works or evil works. "None, not one" is made righteous by those works. Only by good works, by obeying GOD, can one be made righteous.