Are You Righteous?

Because this is a crazy week (39 interns arrive today), I’m going to be re-posting some important posts. Back to fresh blogging next week.

“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.

  • By the grace of God, I know that in reality there is no criminal half as bad as I know myself to be in possibility.

    I am a recovering Pharisee. I loved religion for so long that my heart often desires to bring out the scrapbooks of our good times together. I am relentlessly painting pictures of Egypt.

    Without Christ and His constant reminder of the true state of my soul and the profoundity of His accomplishment on the Cross, I would be lost to a life of dark, self-righteous cycles of pride and despair

  • Kathy Morse says:

    Of all your posts I have read this by far was the most liberating of all. Thank you for re-posting.

  • Steve Martin says:


    (sorry, I don’t have time this morning for a long tome icluding numerous Bible verses that prove WE DO NEED TO DO SOMETHING)

    (but no doubt others will fill in for me)

  • Susanne Schuberth (Germany) says:


    Oh, what a pleasant surprise to re-look at the article on which I commented for the first time here on your site, Tullian!

    This posting is a good one which I can only recommend. And I’m starting to figure out…that in the meantime I’ve learnt a lot by reading your blog posts and the comments of my brothers and sisters. I’m sitting here, so much has changed…I feel blog posting today is an important part of the invisible Church, provided to build up the Body of Christ…in love (Eph 4:11-16).

    Uh…I can’t help posting the following song text for I love it :)

    Jon Foreman – IN LOVE Lyrics

    In love, in love, in life, in love
    In you, in love, in death, my love
    In time, in love, in place, in love
    In form, in love, in death, my love
    My God, my love, my life, my love
    Is yours, my love, my bride, my love
    This cross, my love, is mine, my love
    To bear, my love, to die, my love
    This cup, my love, this bread, my love

    My life, my love, is yours, my love
    Come drink, my love, my blood, my love
    My life, my love, in death, my love
    My God, my love, my life, my love
    Is yours, my love, my bride, my love
    This cross, my love, is mine, my love
    To bear, my love, its time, my love


    Every blessing to all of you,

  • Kyle says:

    It seems it’s even a little more complicated than that. My motives are usually mixed. If I lust after a woman and do not commit adultery with her the reasons may be more complex than just selfishness. What If I lust after a woman but I do not pursue an affair because I really do love my wife (obviously not perfectly or I would not have lusted) or because I do not want to bring reproach on the name of Christ. The lust is still sin but it doesn’t seem as wantonly craven as someone who only refrains out of selfishness. What then?

  • I really needed this reminder today. Thank you for pouring the gospel out to me and reminding me of how righteous I am in God’s sight because of what Christ has already done!

  • John Dunn says:

    The death of the “old self” in the death of Christ destroyed all presumption that there was anything acceptable we could ever bring to God. Agreed.

    But the Gospel didn’t end there with a full stop, as so many seem to imagine.

    Christ arose from the dead, and we with Him to newness of Life! Our old man is completely dead, but Christ now lives in us and through us by His Spirit. His resurrection life in us produces lives that are now pleasing and acceptable to God . . . not for forensic legal merit, but for entering into the promised eschatological Rest of joyful covenant communion with our Redeemer Husband!

  • Nothing says religion like, “Yeah, but…”

    Nothing says Jesus like, “It is finished!”

  • […] has a message burning in his bosom, the leading edge of which is expressed in his recent re-post, Are You Righteous? It is a critical message which liberates men and women from the hamster wheel of self […]

  • Steve Martin says:



    It’s much too late to try and recapture any bit of innocense. The horse left the barn a long time ago.

    You are in bondage to sin (along with everyone else on this planet) and you desperately need a Savior.

    And thanks be to God that you have one!

    PS- Even your righteous deeds are as filty rags when it comes to your goodness. Our best doesn’t even come close to being good enough.

  • anonymous says:

    Ridiculing comments about sharing more scripture for walking by the Spirit is disheartning; such a great gift to be spurred on toward love and good deeds, especially the more the day approaches. The word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. The Lord is so gracious to give us many warnings about fleshly walking – self-righteousness; nominalism, licentiousness, all so significant today. In these last days people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness but denying its power. Avoid such people. It is very good to be reminded we are not our own, bought with the highest price. Incredibly, God is making appeal to the world through us. That appeal doesn’t seem very appealing, not very compelling sometimes. Let’s join together in prayer that the Lord make us increasingly, even today, the praise of His Glory.

  • […] Are You Righteous? – Tullian Tchividjian. 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.” […]

  • James says:

    Yes! Steve Martin,
    Thank you, Any body who knows and understands the book of James could bring much to a conclusion quickly but because of such a wide diversity of denominational interpretations I am of Apollos, but I’m of Paul…they’ll never be an absolute true answer in the sense of specific denominational teachings that’s what keeps these blogs a blazing. Have you ever thought why Tullian backs and uses the higher percentages of his foundational beliefs credited to a Lutheran teacher verses a Presbyterian.It has been said there’s know one teacher who is going to teach you in a manner that all he teaches will be always what you believe and what you except according to your understanding and study of God’s truth, being nondenominational there’s room or a buffer being that just because he is of this or that denomination doesn’t mean that teaching is positively accurate. but if your nondenominational your in a better position not being able to say well a baptist… specifically pinpointing a particular, in the same position as any other believer in Christ (without denominational preference)…without the pointing to this or that denomination, after all Jesus wasn’t denominational nor is he the founder or father of it, man is! Why? simple! because of man.

  • John Dunn says:

    Ha! Yes Steve you absolutely MUST do something as a result of the Gospel. Through believing the Gospel you will be vitally united to the Vine! Such living union to Him will irresistably necessitate and guarantee that you will begin to bear abundant spiritual fruit through His new life living powerfully in you via His Spirit. The chief fruit of the Spirit is divinely wrought Love . . . the true fulfillment of the Law’s dim shadow.

    So does the Gospel necessitate “doing”? Absolutely, because it regenerates the barren wilderness into a lush Garden with the living streams of Christ’s Spirit. Those who are thus reborn become the promised New Creation, a living branch in the true Vine, a living branch in the true Olive Tree, and producing the succulent fruit of the Spirit.

    The Gospel says “done”.

    But the Gospel also says “live abundantly”!

  • Paul St says:

    Once it is clear and actually believed that only we who “without works” believe much in Christ are righteous before God,once that preposterous joy actually hits us,a new day dawns. Such
    righteousness is simply complete in itself. It is like the joy and ecstasy of love. It is its own apology . It needs nothing. The way is cleared for good work

    Therefore I wish to have the words “without work” understood in the following manner: Not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works. For grace and faith are infused without our works. After they have been imparted,the works follow.

    Good works are God’s work in the believer.

    excerpt from
    “On Being A Theologian of the Cross” reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation,1518 by Gerhard O. Forde

  • mark mcculley says:

    Since the justified elect are also “sanctified”, why don’t we just
    begin by thinking about our sanctification. Some day, if we have time, we can think about justification, but since everybody in the church is a Christian (the sacraments tell us so), then let’s spend most of our time talking about how we progress from being sinners to gradually stopping our sinning.

    Of course I am being sarcastic. I do not assume that everybody in the congregation is a Christian. Since water baptism is commanded only for those with assurance, then baptism is not in order to assurance. The pattern of most Calvinists today is to say that, since we are both justified and sanctified, then we don’t need to talk about justification, because the order between justification and sanctification doesn’t matter, and if the Spirit doesn’t sanctify you, then you will not be justified in the end of the day. So they talk mostly about “sanctification”. Calvin (3:3:19)–“The
    Lord freely justifies His own IN ORDER THAT he may AT THE SAME TIME
    restore them to true righteousness by sanctification of His Spirit.”

    We need to define “sanctification”. Most Calvinists define it in terms of a gradual transition to more faith and less sin. They think this happens for two reasons. One, they think God gradually imparts inner “real” (not forensic) righteousness to Christians. Two, they think the progress depends on a synergism, where more effort on our part means more sanctification on God’s part.

    Calvin (3:16:1)—“Do you wish to attain righteousness in Christ? You must first possess Christ, but you cannot possess Him without being made partaker in His sanctification.” Of course this is true, but what do we mean by “sanctification”? Are Christians completely sanctified, like they are totally justified? Or is “sanctification” about the indwelling of Christ breaking the power of sin in the hearts of Christians? The typical Calvinist answer is to say, sure, Christians are totally sanctified by the death of Christ demanded by God’s law for the imputed sins of the elect, and yet, at the same time, that Christians are also not yet completely sanctified because the power of sin still indwells Christians (along with the indwelling of Christ).

    This, to say the least, is confusing. Are we sanctified or not? Of
    course the Bible is not easy to understand, but we need definitions. If we are made holy by Christ’s death, but are only party holy (and getting holier) by the inward work of God, what does “holy” mean? Is being “holy” a whole entire thing, an either/or thing?

    Calvin tells us to “recognize a double acceptance of man before God.” (3:17:4) The one acceptance is based on Christ’s work apart from us, outside of us. But the other acceptance is based on Christ’s work in us by His Spirit, and since that is not yet finished and complete, that seems to mean that no living Christian is totally accepted yet. If not “sanctified”, then not accepted. I very much disagree with Calvin teaching that our acceptance before God is not based on justification alone. But then of course I also disagree with Calvin about what “sanctification” is. I think the Bible teaches that Christians are totally sanctified when they are justified. This does not mean that I think justification and sanctification are the same thing. This does not mean that I think justification is enough by itself. I know that Christians need many blessings, not only including future glorification but also present sanctification. But if sanctification is in Christ, and if Christ is totally sanctified, those legally in Christ are totally sanctified. And at the same time sinners.

    Most Calvinists simply don’t think you can be sanctified and at the
    same time a sinner. They think you can be being sanctified, and at the same time a sinner and thus not yet sanctified. And this is why they have no problem saying that sanctification is by synergy. Since they think of sanctification as something imperfect and incomplete, they don’t want to blame God for that, so they step up and take part of the credit for the project of sanctification. We could always try harder, and thus be more sanctified.

    I certainly can agree that the Bible speaks of God accepting our
    works. But God accepts our works because God accepts our persons. God does not and will not accept our persons because of accepting our works. Good works are pleasing to God when they are done by those who are already completely sanctified. and any works done to be “more accepted” are not acceptable. So when Calvin writes of a second acceptance, we need to make a clear distinction between having our works accepted (a good thing in and of itself) and the legalism which still thinks we need works to be accepted. God does not accept that legalism. God hates that legalism.

  • Kathy Morse says:

    The Old Covenant – conditional law – what you must do, promoted a self righteousness – a self sufficiency.
    The New Covenant – unconditional grace – what Jesus has done produces a Christ Righteousness that is obtained through faith.
    The Old is gone the New has come! Hallelujah what a Savior!
    Communion is the celebrating the fact that our to-do list is done.

  • James says:

    John Dunn,
    Good, really good!
    As believers cannot understand the hypostatical union of the two natures in Christ’s Person, so we cannot comprehend the mystical union of Christ and believers. The souls of the redeemed, however, are satisfied to find these mysteries expounded in the word of God. Men are not at liberty to interpret this mystical union according to their own opinions. Finite men are not expected to be able to comprehend the infinite; but what they are unable to comprehend, they apprehend by faith.

  • James says:

    John Dunn,
    Something else I read,

    Nature’s best illustration concerning the manner of regeneration is the art of grafting. Grafting has always been a wonder to men. The trunk, into which the good branch is grafted, is absolutely wild. By nature, the wild trunk sucks the sap and forces it throughout the tree. But the graft has the wonderful power of converting the sap and vital forces of the wild trunk into something good, thus causing the tree to bear good fruit. This does not mean that the good branch has no opposition from the old trunk. The wild trunk vigorously resists the good branch by forming wild shoots below the graft. In this manner, the old trunk seeks to prevent the sap from flowing through the good branch to the bud. Therefore, the wild shoots below the graft must be cut off.Depraved man, by nature, is compared with Ishmael. Ishmael,
    a wild ass, was sinful by nature. All his works were motivated by the energy of his wicked and deceitful heart (Jer. 17:9). Ishmael, the man after the flesh, could never become Isaac. Isaac, the son of promise, represents the work of regeneration. As Ishmael represents man born of the flesh, so Isaac typifies man born of the Spirit. Nicodemus, the unregenerate ruler of the Jews, is compared with Ishmael. As Ishmael had observed the ordinances, so Nicodemus was one who followed the vain traditions of his fathers (I Pet. 1:18). But the natural seed of the Jews, with whom the teacher of Israel was affiliated, could not produce spiritual life. By nature, Nicodemus could not produce the new birth, any more than the wild trunk of a tree could produce good fruit. Thus, as Isaac came in solely by the promise and power of God, so Nicodemus must be born of the Spirit. The regenerated man is one man with two natures. Scripture represents the Christian as a new creature (II Cor. 5:17). His body is the same, but the disposition of the soul is changed. The unrighteous soul of man, by nature, is made righteous by the uncreated righteousness of God. Regeneration
    brings in a new nature which contends with and conquers the corrupt nature. Isaac, born into the tent where only Ishmael had formerly dwelt, is an illustration of the new birth. lsaac (the new nature) must contend with Ishmael (the old nature) until the tent (the body) falls in death and Ishmael (the flesh) is cast out. A husbandman does not cut down an engrafted tree, but only takes away wild branches below the graft; neither does a regenerated man crucify (mutilate) his body, but mortifies the deeds thereof.

  • Susanne Schuberth (Germany) says:

    This is now the second ‘letter’ that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up ‘your’ sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming?”

    I read this letter (here 2 Pt 3) yesterday…and I wondered

    (1) about the answer to the aforementioned question:

    “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. “


    (2) about how we should look like when the Day of the Lord will have come:

    “What sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!”

    Seems as if there’s a lot to be done
    Till heaven and earth will be gone.

  • […] Tullian T.: …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. […]

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