Does God expect us to be righteous or faithful? What’s the difference and does it matter?

“But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” 1 Timothy 6:11

We know that as Christians we are called to pursue these things, but what is righteousness? What is faith? To what extent can we achieve either? And what is the relationship between them? For a very long time I have considered questions like these.

Job himself questioned our ability to be righteous: “But how can a man be in the right before God?” (Job 9:2 and again in Job 25:4).

People in the Bible have been called faithful (Hebrews 11 and others) and they have even been called righteous (Abel, Lot, Job, Noah, Joseph, John the Baptizer and his parents). As I began a deeper study of the idea of faith, I began to differentiate these two terms in the Bible more clearly. I began to recognize the differences between them as it relates to God’s ultimate plan for all of mankind.

I’m going to warn you up front that this blog is a bit more nuanced of a topic and may even be considered a “doctrinal argument.” I am going to outline a deeper word study of “faith” and “righteousness” and then outline their relationship to each other as it relates to our response to God. Don’t run (or navigate away)! Just because it’s doctrinal doesn’t mean that you should exit these discussions or this blog post if you don’t feel ready for “doctrine” yet! There is value to listening to a theological or doctrinal argument even if you aren’t ready to define your own position on it yet. In fact, often the best questions about these topics come from someone with a fresh set of eyes.

Faith and Righteousness Defined (in a kid friendly way)

The best place to start when learning something new is to define the terms. I might have skipped over this step entirely as an adult except that I was talking to a 4-year-old when righteousness came up in our household. I consider it a great parental challenge to use simple words children already know when defining a new term. Understanding the words you use to define a term is just as important as being accurate. If we use words that we don’t know when defining a new word, we are less likely to remember the meaning. I realized very quickly when I began teaching children’s Bible studies that I needed to prepare definitions in advance because it is harder than you think and it can even be laughable if you try to define words on the spot…at least, if you are me.

So, in what is becoming my signature move, I am going to do use children’s definitions since they use words we all likely know. I want to show you that “doctrine” can be accessible to anyone and doesn’t have to be full of lofty or difficult words.

Righteousness means “to do the right thing” or “to do what is right” or “to be in the right”.

With my children, we follow up that definition with a reminder of who defines what the right thing is (God). While I have learned a few more lofty, nuanced definitions of righteousness, I believe this one works, though I’m sure a good scholar would argue with me.

The Bible defines Faith for us in Hebrews 11:1 as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (NIV). This verse emphasizes that faith means you believe God about the things He says, even though we can’t see Him or His promises haven’t yet occurred. That is absolutely a big aspect of faith, but I want to look at the word in a slightly different way, which I believe is equally supported in Scripture.

In an earlier blog post about faith, I offered this definition I was taught for children:

Faith – trusting, believing and obeying God.

When considering our call to have faith, it is generally helpful to consider whether we have these 3 components as the Scriptures associate each of these aspects with faith. These three ideas go hand in hand and are all important parts of our need to have faith. If you believe God about all that He says (even though we cannot see Him), and trust that He will do as He says (even though it may not have happened yet), then you would obviously seek to obey Him also. Check out the full blog post here.

Faith – trusting, believing and obeying God

Righteousness – doing what God says is right

God is…both!

Though for many, it goes without saying, I am going to spend a moment to recognize that God is both faithful and righteous and the Scriptures are filled with declarations of these attributes. God is the ultimate and perfect definition of these terms. God is faithful in that He keeps His word and we can trust in every promise He has given us. God is completely just, right, true, and perfect. He alone defines what is righteous and true. Here are some of my favorite verses about these attributes of God:

God’s Faithfulness

  • 2 Thessalonians 3:3 The Lord is faithful, who will establish you and guard you from the evil one.
  • John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
  • Deuteronomy 7:9 Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations,
  • Hebrews 10:23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.
  • Psalm 145:17 The Lord is righteous in all his ways and faithful in all he does.

God’s Righteousness

  • Zephaniah 3:5 The Lord is righteous, he is in her midst, he will do no unrighteousness. Every morning he brings his justice to light; he never fails,
  • Psalm 89:14 Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; love and faithfulness go before you
  • Revelation 16:5 And I heard the angel of the waters saying: ‘You are righteous, O Lord, the One who is and who was and who is to be, because You have judged these things’
  • Deuteronomy 32:4 The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he.
  • Psalm 116:5 Gracious is the Lord and righteous; yes, our God is merciful.
  • Psalm 145:17 The Lord is righteous in all his ways and faithful in all he does.

Two Parts – God’s part and our part

As I considered the definition of the Gospel for a recent blog series, I slowly recognized a distinction between understanding “What is the Gospel?” and then “What is God’s outlined response to the Gospel?” A dividing line emerged. God crafted a beautiful plan to save us (the Gospel), but we have to respond according to His outline!

Much of Scripture can be broken out in a similar manner and there is of course a set of fancy words to describe them from grammar school: “Imperative” and “Declarative”.

Declarative – God’s Part:

Grammar definition – a statement

My definition for Bible study – God says something that is true or explains something

Example: The Gospel call

Imperative – Our Part:

Grammar definition – commands or requests something from the reader

My definition for Bible study – Our expected response to what God says

Example: Our response to the Gospel

Righteousness – God’s Part

Righteousness – doing what is right – is comparing our actions against a standard. You are either “in the right” or you are not. It is possible to be righteous or “in the right” on a particular topic, even if you had some wrongdoing yourself as in the situation with Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38. We are also told to strive for righteousness in our lives, with Jesus even saying we need to be more righteous than the pharisees (Matthew 5:20).

But in a very ultimate sense, righteousness is a standard that God says needs to be met.

“For being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness.” Romans 10:3

Failing to meet that standard results in God’s wrath.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…” Romans 1:18

We can only join God if we are righteous. We need to be righteous. But there is a problem. We are not righteous. Very few (10 men other than God and Jesus) were ever labeled with this term and it is not clear that their righteousness would have sufficiently met God’s standard. We may be righteous in one situation, but when looking collectively at our lives, we fall far short of that standard. Most of the examples of those who are called righteous in the Bible also cite examples of their sin at least one time. Humanity was altogether unable to escape God’s wrath by ourselves. If you are familiar with Romans, the verse below might have already come to your mind.

As it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” Romans 3:10-12

The Law as a means to Righteousness?

Naturally, humanity sought ways to achieve righteousness on their own, and the most common place to seek that out in the time before Christ was to rely on the Law given to Moses for the people of Israel. In Romans 7:12, the Scriptures say that the law God gave to Israel is righteous, so if people sought to follow the law perfectly, then they would be all set, right?

Well, no. God explicitly answered this in Galatians 2:16: “by works of the law no one will be justified.”

The Law served an important purpose, but it wasn’t to make us righteous. The purpose was to give us knowledge of sin and show us our need to have sin removed.

“Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” Romans 3:20

Those who looked to the law to achieve righteousness were seeking their own righteousness. We already discussed that our own righteousness falls miserably short of God’s standard.

Why do we have the Law then?

The law was intended as a tutor to help us understand our need for rescue and point the way to the Messiah.

“Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.” Galatians 3:24

If God required righteousness from us to be saved from the wrath of our sin, the Law clearly shows us that we will not make the cut. The Law made sin and our desperate need for a remedy to it that much more apparent. Through this Law, God provides countless foreshadows and signs of the coming Savior so that those who followed the law might see them, and believe in Jesus. Those who studied the law meticulously 2,000 years ago were well aware of these clues and were looking for one who would fill that role.

Righteousness comes through Christ!

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” Romans 10:4

The Law was always intended to point us to Christ, who was the perfect sacrifice for us because He did what we could not: live a perfectly righteous life in the flesh.

God did not abandon us. He knew that we couldn’t possibly join Him due to our unrighteousness, but He wanted to make a way for us to be restored. God grants us incredible mercy and love in that He has provided a path for us to become righteous through Christ!

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” John 1:9

“For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” 2 Corinthians 5:21

The standard of righteousness has been met by the precious blood of the lamb! In Romans 5:17, God calls righteousness a free gift through Jesus Christ!

God has clearly done an incredible thing in addressing this problem for us. That is an understatement. He has allowed us a way to meet His righteous standard when we had none. We cannot take any credit for being called righteous enough to avoid God’s wrath because it is God’s doing.

We are still called to pursue righteousness but we have to recognize that even at our best, most righteous level, it could not save us because we have not done so perfectly.

But these points are all still part of God’s part–declarations about the things He has done to allow us to become righteous.

Now for our part…

The free gift of righteousness is given to us by Jesus and in order to receive it, we simply need to have faith in Him. Everyone does not accept this gift, but all have access to it. If God considers us faithful, we may become righteous before God!

Listen to all of these Scriptures that echo the same message…

  • Romans 3:21-22 “But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”
  • Galatians 2:16 “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
  • Romans 5:1-2 “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory.”

Faith – Our Part

We are declared righteous by faith. But is faith like righteousness? Is it unattainable? Is striving after faith the same kind of pitfall as striving after our own righteousness? Are we attempting to earn our salvation?

These are all arguments that certain religious people make.

Though we are called to pursue both faith and righteousness in our lives, these two terms are not interchangeable. Faith is different than righteousness. Righteousness is a standard. Faith is a commitment. A commitment is measured differently than a standard. A commitment is a continual choice and is measured by effort and sincerity rather than by accomplishment, though they certainly go hand-in-hand. When the Bible discusses faith, it is often discussed as something that happens over time. We are called to stay faithfully committed until our death. We are encouraged to finish the race of faith. I have 12 references to staying faithful until death in my notes, with 7 coming from Hebrews alone – the book about Faith.

“And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Hebrews 6:11-12

Our commitment is shown moreso by our dedication to the components of faith (trust, believe and obey) and willingness to grow than by whether we perfectly achieve them. I like to compare this kind of commitment to a marriage. Marriage is a lifelong commitment to that person until death. It is not enough to simply refuse to leave the marriage. You must actively dedicate yourself to your marriage and growing in it to show real commitment. I’ve seen far too many relationships that are still technically together, but the commitment was lost long ago and they are merely ships passing in the night.

What is interesting about the times “faith” is mentioned in the Scriptures is that it is not described as something God supplies, but rather is used almost exclusively as our expected action towards God.

Let’s go back to our kid’s definition of Faith – trust, believe and obey God. We understand that these are imperatives – our response to God. God gives us all sorts of great reasons to trust, believe and obey Him, but they are still things we have to take action on. We will of course fall short, but God instructs us how we can become clean again through repentance.

Trust – Hebrews 3:14 – “For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ.”

Believe – Hebrews 4:3 – “For only we who believe can enter his rest. As for the others, God said, “In my anger I took an oath: ‘They will never enter my place of rest,’” even though this rest has been ready since he made the world.”

Obey – Romans 6:16 – “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?”

God Transforms Our Part

Let’s look at Abraham in the Bible:

“For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.””

‭‭Romans‬ ‭4:2-3‬

“For we say that faith was accounted to Abraham for righteousness.” ‭Romans‬ ‭4:9‬ ‭

Abraham wasn’t justified by his works. But Abraham believed God and showed his faith. That is what caused him to be counted righteous. His commitment to faith. His trust, belief and obedience to God were all tested to confirm his commitment to God. And God transformed his faith into righteousness!

Abraham is just one example. Faith is most often the imperative…our part that is needed to be granted righteousness by God. Let’s look again at Romans 5:

“Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of God’s glory.” Romans 5:1-2

God declares us righteous (declarative) by faith (imperative)!

“For every child of God defeats this evil world, and we achieve this victory through our faith. And who can win this battle against the world? Only those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God.”

‭‭1 John‬ ‭5:4-5

This is not based on one decision but rather your commitment to God. But we must make a choice. Christ has satisfied the standard of righteousness for us and asked that we respond with something we can achieve: faith – a commitment to God that we will continually strive to trust, believe and obey Him.

God doesn’t declare us faithful. That part is up to us. He simply calls us to respond that way by choice. We do something within our control and God transforms it into His righteous requirement.

Many have received the free gift of righteousness by their faith. They were not perfect, but they didn’t have to be. They simply needed to stay committed to their faith. This is not a work, but our response to the glorious call of salvation that Christ has brought to us all.

  • Romans 1:17 “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.””
  • Romans 3:22 “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”
  • Romans 5:2 “Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.”

God’s help for the Faithful

And God doesn’t stop there. If you are committed to faith and become a Christian, God will strengthen and increase your faith. What you bring forward, God graciously multiplies. Even those with Jesus among them who could see God in the flesh were consistently told by Jesus himself that they had weak or little faith (Matthew 8:26, 14:26, 16:5 and others). The Apostles prayed that God would increase their faith (Luke 17:5). Notice that none of these examples started with someone who had no faith.

Though we must choose to commit to God in faith, He offers help even with our part.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2

God established this plan of redemption for us and if we commit to Him, He can perfect our faith. Thanks be to God!

“For he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.” Proverbs 2:8

We understand what a commitment is. We even know, if we have lived long enough, that we will fail at some point during our journey. But our commitment is shown through our effort to do better and not give up, to seek to overcome. We also understand that a standard is either met or it is not. There is no room for failure. We are continually called to have faith until the end of our lives. Not as a list of accomplishments or works, but as a sign of our continued commitment to God. God, in His faithfulness, declares us righteous!

God has asked for our commitment in exchange for declaring us righteous. What a glorious trade!

God only asks us to do what He knows we can and He takes care of the rest! He will not place a burden on us that is more than we can bear (1 Cor 10:13). He lovingly provides an achievable path for us and asks us to choose. Will we choose Him?

I’m not sure if this post will help anyone else. In fact, I wonder if I wrote it only for my own wrestling and organizing of the argument. It has taken me months to finish after all and I wasn’t sure how to connect all the ideas swirling in my head for a long time. However, I have become convinced that many of the lofty arguments on these topics don’t add up. I have laid out for you my thought process in what I hope is an accessible way.

I am not a seminary student, but I have become a student of the Bible. I have come to realize that I can work through these doctrinal questions and I don’t have to rely on theologians and in fact, I may disagree with their lofty arguments based on a deeper examination of the text myself. I hope that you will strive to do the same.

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