Are You Righteous?

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

2 Corinthians 5:21

Ethical behaviorism is a term Psychologists use which defines righteousness exclusively in terms of what a person does or does not do. In this sense, a righteous person is one who does the right things and avoids the wrong things. An unrighteous person is one who does the wrong things and avoids the right things. Defined this way, righteousness is a quality that can be judged by an observation of someone’s behavior. Virtue and uprightness is purely a matter of outer conduct without any hint of what goes on inside you.

William Hordern illustrates well how this definition of righteousness is the definition held by the world:

The law enforcement institutions of society are concerned with right behavior. They do not care why people obey the law, so long as they obey it. The person who breaks no laws is righteous in their sight regardless of the motivation that produces law abiding behavior.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus breaks radically from this definition of righteousness. He cuts through the outer behavior of a person and looks at what’s in the heart. Jesus insists that righteousness is not simply a matter of what we do or don’t do but rather a question of why we do or don’t do it. The Biblical view of righteousness is not a behavoristic view that looks simply at the outward action. It  always looks within to the motivation of  the act.

A few years ago when my boys were younger, they would gather all the neighborhood kids in our yard to play football. And every once in a while a pass would be overthrown, landing in my neighbors grass. My neighbor (an angry, grumpy, old curmudgeon) would always come outside and scream at my boys and their friends, threatening to confiscate the ball if it happened again. My boys, being young at the  time, would always come inside with tears in their eyes, lips quivering, because they were scared of our neighbor. Well, being the scrapper that I am, there were countless times that I wanted to march over to my neighbor and give him a piece of my mind. I wanted to make it clear that if he ever yelled at my boys again…well, you get the idea. I never did, though. I would stare him down from time to time, but I never went next door to let him have it. Some would assume that my refusal to let loose on my neighbor was an act of righteousness: I was exercising love, patience, self-control. But was it?

Only God and I (and now you!) know the real reason I never went off on my mean neighbor: the potential risk to me was too high. I didn’t want to get in trouble, I didn’t want him calling the police, I didn’t want him filing a complaint against me to our neighborhood association, I didn’t want him gossiping about me so that people in the neighborhood would think less of me. After all, everyone knows I’m a pastor and I didn’t want to tarnish my image. And on, and on, and on. In other words, the very thing that may have on the surface seemed righteous was motivated by something terribly unrighteous: selfishness.

So the apparent “righteousness” of my deed was destroyed by the motivation that inspired it. It wasn’t as “righteous” as it seemed, to say the least.

Hordern goes on, spelling this out very clearly:

Before an act of murder or adultery is committed there has first been the motivations of the person involved. In his or her heart there has been a murderous anger or an adulterous lust. What Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount is that many people may have the same motivations in their hearts without ever carrying out the external actions. There may be many reasons for not acting upon our motivations, but obviously one of the most common reasons is a fear of the consequences. The laws of all societies make it perilous to commit murder and laws or social pressures of all societies make it costly to commit adultery. Therefore when a person refrains from such actions it may not be because their heart is pure but simply a matter of self-protection. Jesus is saying that where the motivation for not acting on one’s desire is selfish, that person is as unrighteous in God’s eyes as the person who actually commits the crime.

The reason this is so important is because many Christians think God cares only that we obey. In fact, many believe that it is even more honorable–and therefore more righteous–when we obey God against all desire to obey him. Where did we get the idea that if we do what God tells us to do even though “our hearts are far from Him”, that it’s something to be proud of, something admirable, something praiseworthy, something righteous? Don’t get me wrong, we should obey even when we don’t feel like it (I expect my children, for instance, to clean their rooms and respect their mother and me even when they don’t feel like it). But let’s not make the common mistake of proudly equating that with the righteousness that God requires.

The truth is that God isn’t concerned with any kind of obedience; he’s concerned with a certain kind of obedience. What motivates our obedience determines whether or not it is a sacrifice of praise. Doing the right thing with the wrong heart reveals deep unrighteousness, not devout righteousness. T.S. Eliot said it best, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”

If any kind of obedience, regardless of what motivates it, is what God is after, he would have showcased the Pharisees and exhorted all of us to follow their lead, to imitate them. But he didn’t. Jesus called them “whitewashed tombs”–clean on the outside, dead on the inside. They had been successful in achieving “behavioristic righteousness” and thought that’s what mattered most to God. But Jesus said, “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28). Again, Jesus shows that real righteousness is a matter of the heart–what’s on the inside matters more than what’s on the outside. This is what he meant in Matthew 5:20 when he said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wants to set us free by showing us our need for a righteousness we can never attain on our own, an impossible righteousness that is always out of our reach. The purpose of the Sermon on the Mount is to demolish all notions that we can reach the righteousness required by God–it’s about exterminating all attempts at self-sufficient moral endeavour.

External righteousness is something we can all achieve on our own with a little self-discipline and a lot of self-righteousness. But Jesus wants us to see that regardless of how well we think we’re doing or how righteous we think we’re becoming, when “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” becomes the standard and not “how much I’ve improved over the years”, we realize that we’re a lot worse than we fancy ourselves to be–that unrighteousness is inescapable, that “even the best things we do have something in them to be pardoned.”

In Matthew 5:17-48, Jesus shows me that whatever I think my greatest vice is, my situation is actually much worse: if I think it’s anger, Jesus shows me that it’s actually murder; if I think it’s lust, Jesus shows me that it’s actually adultery; if I think it’s impatience, Jesus shows me that it’s actually idolatry. This painfully reveals my righteousness for the house of cards that it really is. It cuts to the heart and shows me my deep need for outside help, for an “alien righteousness.”

Only when our understanding of righteousness “exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees” and goes beyond outer conduct, will we see the  impossibility of achieving our own righteousness and the necessity of receiving Christ’s righteousness. There is nothing that sinners hate more than to be told that there’s nothing they can do, that everything has been taken out of their hands, that no matter how hard they try, their best is never good enough. And yet, we’ll never be free until we give up fighting for a righteousness we can claim as our own.

In a sermon entitled “The Death of Self”, Gerhard Forde shows how the work of Christ on our behalf finally kills any presumption that there’s something acceptable we can bring to God:

At the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane when the crowd comes out against Jesus with swords and clubs, the disciples want to do something. They still want to do their bit for God. They want to take up the sword and risk their lives, perhaps, and fight. One of them grasps a sword and cuts off the ear of one of the assailants. But Jesus will have  none of it: “Put up your sword,” he says, “for there is absolutely nothing you can do!” In Luke’s account, Jesus even stretches out his hand to undo what the disciple had done–he heals the wounded man. At that point, no doubt, everything within us cries out in protest along with the disciples. Is there nothing we can do? Could we not at least perhaps stage a protest march on God’s behalf? Could we not seek, perhaps, an interview with Pilate? Could we not try to influence the “power structures”? Something -however small? But the unrelenting answer comes back, “No, there is nothing you can do, absolutely nothing. If there were something to be done, my Father would send legions of angels to fight!” But there is nothing to be done. And when it finally came to that last and bitter moment, when these good “righteous” men finally realized that there was nothing they could do, they forsook him and fled.

Can you see it? Can you see that hidden in these very words, these very events, is that death itself which you fear so much coming to meet you? When they finally saw there was nothing they could do they forsook him and fled before this staggering truth. You, who presume to do business with God, can you see it? Can you see that this death of self is not, in the final analysis, something you can do? For the point is that God has once and for all reserved for himself the business of your salvation. There is nothing you can do now but, as the words of the old hymn have it, “climb Calvary’s mournful mountain” and stand with your helpless arms at your side and tremble before “that miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete! It is finished; hear him cry; learn of Jesus Christ to die!”

In the cross, “God has stormed the last bastion of the self, the last presumption that you really were going to do something for him…He has died in your place! He has done it. He made it. It is all over, finished, between you and God! He died in your place that death which you must die; he has done it in such a way as to save you. He has borne the whole thing! The fact that there is nothing left for you to do is the death of self and the birth of the new creature” (Forde).

As everything, he became nothing so that you, as nothing, could have everything. You bring nothing to the table except the unrighteousness that makes Christ’s righteousness necessary. The perfect righteousness of Christ has been freely credited to your bankrupt account forever (what theologians call “imputation”). The gospel is good news for those who have finally been crushed under the weight of trying to make “righteousness” happen on their own.

  • paul st. says:

    cool blog thanks. the rightous bothers? Wow thats even before my time and i’m old.

  • Mitchell Hammonds says:

    Absolutely stunning… now that’s worth getting up on Sunday morning to go hear. Many Thanks!

  • It doesn’t matter how many times I hear this I’m always amazed. Thank God.

  • Yes. Law will not address the depth of the human problem. We need ontological transformation— change of “being” before “behavior”– by spiritual regeneration. But (as you detail) we cannot produce this change in ourselves (nor in others). Even parenting is largely mechanistic. It’s not necessarily naturalistic — absent God, but parents cannot give their children a new nature. We point them to matters of the “heart” but we cannot give them a “new heart” (in New Covenant terms). God said, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19).

    Yes, we need a recreation or new creation by the renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) for the restoring of the image of God in us (II Corinthians 3:18). We need the God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” “to make his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ” (II Corinthians 4:6). We need to be reconciled to God to become a “new creation” in Christ (II Corinthians 5:17).

    It really isn’t surprising that Paul said, “All this is from God” (II Corinthians 5:18).

  • Steve Martin says:


    Great post!

    We ARE declared righteous for Jesus’ sake. Period. Not the end of the story (however). Just the beginning.

  • paul st. says:

    there are times when we need to confront people, but do it in a way that does not bring reproach on God. Sometimes we just need to let sleeping dogs lay.

  • jeremiah says:

    I heartily agree about the Sermon on the mount dealing with the heart. And I also see that in the midst of the Sermon He calls us to outward action and even sums up the whole Sermon on the Mount with the story of the wise man and the fool and telling us that the only difference is that some heard and didn’t do His teachings and others heard and did what Jesus said.

    I agree with Steve, our declared righteousness is not the end of the story, just the beginning but not to be forgotten it is the foundation and effects everything else!

  • mark mcculley says:

    The righteousness which exceeds that of the Pharisees is not “ontological transformation”, even when we give our god the credit for transforming us. Thank you god, that I am not ontologically like that sinner over there.

    The righteousness which exceeds that of the Pharisee is the righteousness of Christ, obtained by Christ’s obedience even to death, done outside of us, and imputed by God to the elect.

    “The righteousness which exceeds” is not merely a Pauline category. Forde in context (Tullian also) is teaching that Matthew also knows a righteousness which is received by imputation and faith alone. The papists trust in their “ontological transformation”.

    “No wonder if such persons look upon imputed righteousness as the shadow of a dream, who esteem those things which evidence its necessity to be but fond imaginations. And small hope is there to bring such men to value the righteousness of Christ, as imputed to them, who are so unacquainted with their own unrighteousness inherent in them. Until men know themselves better, they will care very little to know Christ at all.”
    John Owen

  • Wow, what an incredible post! By Christ alone we are made fully righteous!

  • Jim McNeely says:

    I think this is, again, wonderful. Already we have such great comments as well; mark mcculley you made me laugh! I have to get some Gerhard Forde to read, I had never heard of him before I started reading this blog.

    A lot of people I talk to think that grace means you draw the lines of the law more loosely. They think it means making legalism a little easier, a little more palatable. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, grace allows us to draw the lines of the law tighter, because we are not trying to make it easy, we are trying to kill the flesh definitively. We are actually looking at the law in truth, seeing the message it really brings. Isn’t this the message of the sermon on the mount? You are weak, hungry, and spiritually impotent. You don’t believe me? Let’s press the law down to the very intentions of your heart. How weak do you feel now? The house built on the rock realizes its own impotence, and attaches its strength and hope to something more sure than itself.

  • Susanne Schuberth says:

    I absolutely agree with your latest post: we’ll never be righteous at any time in our life on earth. Jesus is the only one who is righteous, holy and abundant in grace and love for us.
    After struggling for many years to be a “good christian”, I broke down mentally being confronted with crushing self-knowledge PLUS Jesus’ overwhelming love for a great sinner.
    It was not easy for me to realize that I’m an unkind and boastful pharisee, until I infringed His laws angrily. Being sick of my own hypocrisy, I didn’t want to be a well-behaved Christian any more.
    But it’s been a strange experience that Jesus didn’t stop to love me at all, even though I rebelled after years perfectly fitting to “religious behaviourism”.
    HE didn’t let me go. Now I really know what amazing grace is about.
    His love is so thrilling and passionate that it seems possible for me today, that (some day in future) I can forget myself actually and be free of my self (esp. of my selfmade theological virtues, haha).
    Jesus makes me forget everything: my debts, my trauma(ta),…

    Dear Pastor Tullian, I’m truly grateful that I found your blog and sermons on the Internet. Moreover I’m very pleased to see that God is with you and blesses all your activities.
    Thank you for being the one you are.
    Best wishes and blessings from our loving God, “grace upon grace” (John 1,16) for you, your wife, kids and your ministry

  • PAUL says:

    Susanne, your post discribes my life completely. Most of my life was trying to live up to the law and I ended up in a cycle of sin that almost ended my life. Paul was so rite when he said “The power of sin is the Law”. My journey in Grace started with me totally empty of myself and my GRACE FILLED WIFE sitting on the back porch every night for a month while she read Max Lacato’s book “The Jesus I Never Knew”. Like you I am now set free by God’s Grace and that broke the cycle I was in. God Bless

  • Lisa Lato says:

    Oh my gosh, yes!!!!!!!!! You’ve stated it so well!

  • Kathy Morse says:

    2Cor.5:17 use to be a scripture I loved to hate. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come.”
    I wasn’t meeting my own expectations of how I thought a Christian should be. I wasn’t seeing the new creature that I thought I should. It made me doubt my salvation. How thankful I am that God in his perfect time revealed to me that true freedom and peace come once you realize God saves us not because of righteous things we have done are doing or will do, but because of his mercy. Titus 3:5 I love Forde’s quote “recognizing the fact that there is nothing to do is death to self and birth of the new creature.” It helped me to rightly grasp the meaning of 2 Cor. 5:17 “It is finished” the old is gone and the new has come. Amen to that!

  • Matt Kim says:

    Amazing post, Pastor Tchividjian. Thanks so much for all these wonderful blog entries, they have been changing my life and the lives of my friends.

    Grace, grace, life and peace.

  • Steve Martin says:

    Here’s an excellent Advent quote by Bonhoeffer is this very short (under 12 min.) sermon:

    An excellent counter to our hustle bustle lives at this time of the year.(me thinks)

  • Susanne Schuberth - Bavaria (Germany) - says:

    I really rejoiced at your posting yesterday, thanks a lot!
    It’s so encouraging for me to see that I am not the only one having made such deep and harmful experiences.
    Admittedly, it made me sad to read that you almost lost your life at that tough time. But, look, how much God loves you: He gave you a wonderful wife by whom you were supported so much. That reminds me of two verses in the Bible:

    “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD.” (Proverbs 18,22)
    “House and health are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the LORD.” (Proverbs 19,14)

    In this sense, I believe you’ll make it, because “Two are better than one,…” (Ecclesiastes 4,9).

    In my humble opinion, it somestimes lasts many years, quite often decades yet, until the Lord heals all mental disorder caused by abuse, rape, other violent acts or the loss of beloved ones.
    It may be both exhausting and healing, when I cry heartbreakingly about the same wound for the 101st time.
    But the good news is: JESUS heals every broken heart as it never has been hurt at all.

    So, Paul and your grace filled wife – God bless you both abundantly

  • PAUL says:

    Pastor Tullian, As from my post above to Susanne my life and family was literally saved by the illumination of the Gospel of Grace by the Holy Spririt using Teachers as yourself, Joseph Prince, Bob George, Charlie Bing etc. I relize with all the different coalitions pulling together among modern day Teachers in the media such as Gospel Coalition, GES, Elephant Room, Wretched and all the theological uproar this has caused the one thing that sustains us sinners in hard times is that you and the Grace Teachers I mentioned above DO NOT DISQUALIFY THE SAINTS. I downloaded one of your sermons that was filled with Grace Teaching and at the end you made a statement that set me free. (Paraphrasing)Don’t look for anything else from me. The Gospel of Grace is all I got. I have weakened, sick, depressed, living in condemnation family members and friends that have been told the damands of the law from the pulpit all their lives and I am sending books and videos of yours and others to them and I am seeing them being lifted out of the grave of dispair and even seeing this cause physical healings in there bodies. Praise The Lord Jesus Christ. Please always stand by “Its All I Got” and do not DISQUALIFY THE SAINTS because some of them are my family and friends. LOL and All The Glory Be To God.

  • Paul ST says:

    I love the book ” Jesus plus Nothing Equals Everything” I am savouring every word. I particularly like the sentence where you say; and I quote; “We fail in our doing because we fail to grasp first what Christ has allready done.”
    gospel gold. thanks.

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  • Toni says:

    Pastor Tullian,

    I love your blogs and this one in particular is so directional for me. I also agree with the previous posts, Susanne and Paul, in how through your messages grace has radically changed all of me. Thankfully it has been painful. Recently going through some difficult times this message has transformed my walk with Christ. Before I know I would have viewed these difficult times with contempt and probably walked away from it all. But through your desire for us to know deeply of the grace that is ours I see and know how deeply I am loved.

  • Arnold F. Silva says:

    “We cannot understand the Christian gospel until we know what sin is. Yet modern secular Councillors urge us to ignore both the word and what it tells about our rebellion against God and his law. Sadly, the church to often serves as an echo chamber for such cheap and short-sighted wisdom. It’s literature spreads the message that all is well. But it is only when we begin to see our sinfulness that we are able to discover God’s forgiveness.”–The Banner of Truth Trust. When one has a self-righteous attitude they are not recognizing their sin, and taking the position of a judge. Sanctification is the process whereby the Holy Spirit works in the life of the believer and gradually conforms the believer to the image of Jesus Christ. — Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. –2Co 3:17-18

  • “Righteous” is one of those words that I always have a hard time discussing with my students. Some of them are very young, and I wonder how far I can go into the topic without losing them. You’ve given me some great nuggets of wisdom that I hope I can properly convey to my kids. Thank you for sharing!

  • […] Tchividjian, read more here GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); GA_googleAddAttr("LangId", […]

  • […] to noteworthy articles from other blogs and websites. Are You Righteous? by Tullian Tchividjian As everything, He became nothing so that you, as nothing, could have […]

  • Per-Olof Malk says:

    This message shows what happens when the Holy Spirit is opening the secret of the cross of Christ. Then we see we are absolutely nothing and we see Christ is absolutely enough and trustworthy. Tullian has got the gift to preach the real Gospel in such a way that we can see why it is called “the power of God”. Thank you for spreading this Gospel.

  • […] month or so ago I made the point in this post that confidence in my transformation is not the source of my assurance. Rather, the source of my […]

  • […] month or so ago I made the point in this post that confidence in my transformation is not the source of my assurance. Rather, the source of my […]

  • […] looks simply at the outward action. It  always looks within to the motivation of  the act.   (‘Are You Righteous?‘ Tullian […]

  • […] while back I made the point in this post that confidence in my transformation is not the source of my assurance. Rather, the source of my […]

  • Liberate says:

    […] while back I made the point in this post that confidence in my transformation is not the source of my assurance. Rather, the source of my […]

  • […] while back I made the point in this post that confidence in my transformation is not the source of my assurance. Rather, the source of my […]

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