“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.
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, but 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. 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 sin 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.
A graduate of Columbia International University (philosophy) and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (M.Div.), Tullian has authored a number of books including Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Crossway). He travels extensively, speaking at conferences throughout the U.S., and his sermons are broadcast daily on the radio program LIBERATE. As a respected pastor, author, and speaker, Tullian is singularly and passionately devoted to seeing people set free by the radical, amazing power of God's grace.
When he is not reading, studying, preaching, or writing, Tullian enjoys being with people and relaxing with his wife, Kim, and their three children: Gabe, Nate, and Genna. He loves the beach, loves to exercise, and when he has time, he loves to surf.