Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Establishing a throne: What is righteousness?

This is the fifth and final article on a series entitled Establishing a throne. Previous articles are:

  1. Is Jesus a Democrat or Republican?
  2. How is it established?
  3. Who sits on it?
  4. What is justice?

This article looks at the last phrase of our key verse for this series:
In love a throne will be established;
in faithfulness a man will sit on it --
one from the house of David --
one who in judging seeks justice
and speeds the cause of righteousness.
-- Isaiah 16:5
Our society does not talk much about righteousness. This is unfortunate since I believe it is at the very core of the defining issues of the present generation. Warren McGurn in the Wall Street Journal opines that the conflict in our society is not due to “culture wars” but rather “constitutional wars.”[1] While I think I understand what he is saying, that there is an element to the conflict that is based on differences of understanding how the constitution should be applied, I disagree on which is cause and which is effect. I think there are different visions for our society and culture leading to the constitutional disagreements, not that those constitutional differences drive the culture. I believe the laws of a society reflect the values of that society. They are an encoding of what that culture believes to be right. For example, with the long-standing conflict of abortion and the newer issue of so-called “gay marriage,” both sides typically frame the argument as human rights issues. The problem is neither of these are fundamentally human rights issues but rather issues of righteousness.

So what exactly is righteousness? This is not a hard question. The dictionary defines it as “the quality or state of being righteous; holiness; purity; uprightness; rectitude; conformity of life to the divine law.”[2] Deuteronomy 6:25 defines it simply as following God’s commands: if we are careful to obey all this law ... that will be our righteousness. There is not really much wiggle room in either of these definitions. In both cases, the standard of God’s law is the basis for righteousness. The problem I see with our current cultural situation is we do not bring this into public discourse. We try to have conversations on fundamentally moral issues without an absolute moral framework. We hold the discussion on political or morally relative foundations and so we have lots of arguments, amendments, demonstrations and disagreements without addressing core issues or coming to a resolution.

Another interesting question: is righteousness something that involves personal, religious beliefs that are independent of society as a whole? Alternatively, can we apply the concept of righteousness to a culture? I believe it to be both. There is the concept of personal righteousness, wherein we as individuals need to realize we will stand before the Judge of the universe and be held personally accountable for our actions. Old Testament prophets talk about individuals being responsible for their own sin; the son is not responsible for the father’s sin nor is the father responsible for the son’s. Paul exhorts us to pursue righteousness by living lives of faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Jesus, Paul and John all tell of judgment to come. These are but a few examples.[3] Scripture is replete with more.

The issue we as a society have ignored, and what may be offensive to many, is the concept of righteousness applying to a group of people, whether it is a nation, culture or society. Many try to raise the “separation of church and state” argument. The problem is the misapplication of this phrase when used in this situation. The concept, worded this way by Thomas Jefferson in some letters and encoded in our constitution as the First Amendment, means the government will not support and establish an official state denomination or sect.

This concept has its roots in the history of Europe where the Catholic Church had ruling power shared with kings. Due to political differences between nobility and liturgical leaders, there were many conflicts. Eventually some countries established other denominations as their official ones that, in some countries, continue to the present day.

At the founding of the United States, the Constitution eliminated an official, established, state religion to avoid the conflict and possible oppression that it can foster. However, no one intended an abandonment of Judeo-Christian ethics or a banning of the reference to scripture from all things public and politic. In fact, many early leaders recognized that without scriptural values as a base, this country would not survive.[4]

Regardless of what the Founding Fathers thought, scripture tells us “righteousness lifts up a nation, but sin is a disgrace in any society” and that “the way of wicked people is disgusting to the LORD, but he loves those who pursue righteousness.”[5] Even if early or contemporary Americans think religion has no place in society, God will disagree. Israel was judged for their corporate sin.[6] God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for the wickedness found in them.[7] Through these and other passages,[8] it is clear that God judges societies for their collective sins independent of whether or not they acknowledge His rule.

Because of this, many in the present day are concerned about the repercussions due to unrighteousness in our own society. Even though they individually follow God’s commands as best they can, they are still concerned about the lack of concern in the culture as a whole to follow them. They know that even though Daniel was one of most righteous men who ever lived, he did not escape captivity when judgment fell on his society.[9] The active disdain evidenced by some quarters of our nation towards scriptural commands puts us as a country in a dangerous position before the King. We cannot continue to ignore divine law and expect to continue enjoying the blessings we have had up to now.

On the other hand, we see oppressive, religious fundamental societies in the Middle East where groups walk around brutally enforcing their version of righteousness and we recognize this is not a good model to follow either. While we may admire the passion some Moslem sects have for their cause, we cannot adopt their means. Some things are clearly condemned in the Bible; there are also many things not so clear. I do not agree with all my Christian brothers with what constitutes all aspects of righteousness and would not want to be under their control any more than those who disagree with me want live with my understanding of God’s laws.

Clearly, there needs to be liberty to allow individuals to seek of God’s will and responsibly follow it. At the same time, because of the corporate responsibility we share, we need to arrive at some means of agreement with what the minimal standards are. At issue are those in our midst who will not seek to follow God’s rules in any measure. It is not a matter of disagreeing on degree or subtleties; these individuals outright reject clear scriptural teaching. I wonder if there is a way to reconcile these groups. Perhaps this is why in the end, God himself will return to set things right.

Getting back to the text, what is the “cause of righteousness” and how does one “speed” it? Personally, I find this phrase hard to understand. Translations that are more literal render it as “hastening righteousness” which I find easier to comprehend. Simply, Jesus the King urges and facilitates our growth in righteousness. There are two ways I see this happening. As above, one is on a personal, individual level and the other is on a corporate level.

First, Jesus came the 2000 years ago to save individuals from their sin. We each owed a debt where the only payment was our death. When the perfect Jesus died in our place, he paid that debt for us. When we accept this payment, He imputes His righteousness to us and we receive God’s approval and life.[10] Because of this right standing we now have before the Father, we have authority to live righteously. Before the imputation of righteousness, sin bound us like slaves. Now we are free from sin and have the capacity to live righteous lives. By freeing us from this bondage, Jesus makes it possible for each of us to be righteous.

Finally, he will return to save us from our corporate sin. As alluded to above, there are two sub-points here. One, there are areas that Christians honestly disagree over when it comes to understanding what scripture says. They are not both right, and in fact, they may both be wrong. In order to clarify these areas, He will reveal unambiguously by His appearing and instruction how we are to live. Two, there are those who will outright reject His decrees and laws. They have no interest in righteousness; no desire to follow His commands. These He will remove. In both cases, He will ultimately cause righteousness to increase on a global level.

In conclusion, Jesus has caused, and will cause in the future, an increase of righteousness. First by imputing His righteousness to us, then through the agency of the Holy Spirit imparting righteousness to us as we mature in Him and finally by establishing a global government wherein righteousness reigns.

Footnotes

1. Opinion piece by William McGurn in the Wall Street Journal online.
2. righteousness. (n.d.). Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. Retrieved December 09, 2008, from Dictionary.com website: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/righteousness
3. Ezekiel 18:19-20,30-32; 1 Timothy 6:11; Matthew 25:31-46; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15; Revelation 20:12-15
4. Washington’s Farewell Address: Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
5. Proverbs 14:34; Proverbs 15:9
6. Jeremiah 2:20-28
7. Genesis 18:16-19:25
8. Deuteronomy 9:5: Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thy heart, dost thou go in to possess their land; but for the wickedness of these nations Jehovah thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may establish the word which Jehovah swore unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Isaiah 58:2: They look for me every day and want to know my ways. They act as if they were a nation that has done what is right and as if they haven’t disregarded God’s judgment on them. They ask me for just decrees. They want God to be near them.
9. Ezekiel 14:14,20: Even if these three men--Noah, Daniel, and Job--were in that country, they would, by their righteousness, rescue only themselves," declares the Almighty LORD. ... As I live, declares the Almighty LORD, not even Noah, Daniel, and Job could, by their righteousness, rescue their sons or daughters. They could rescue only themselves.
10. I Corinthians 1:30: You are partners with Christ Jesus because of God. Jesus has become our wisdom sent from God, our righteousness, our holiness, and our ransom from sin.

Romans 5:18: Therefore as by the offense of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.

II Corinthians 5:21: God had Christ, who was sinless, take our sin so that we might receive God’s approval through him.

Philippians 3:9: This means that I didn’t receive God’s approval by obeying his laws. The opposite is true! I have God’s approval through faith in Christ.