Are you a righteous person? Which is to say, are you morally right, good, and virtuous? You probably think so but how do you know? That’s the easy part. Your moral uprightness, goodness, and virtue are always measured against some form of performance-based upon laws, rules, standards, etc. They may be laws that govern conduct or even ideas. Do the ‘right’ things, hold the ‘right’ ideas and you are righteous, good.
There is a rather large problem, of course, with all this and Paul puts his finger on it. He writes of having “… a righteousness of my own, based on law,…”. Your brand of righteousness is based upon whatever assortment of laws, rules, standards, etc. that you have cobbled together to build your own personal brand of morality. Your righteousness is a relative righteousness based upon your own code of law. On the ladder of perfect righteousness, even by your own standards, you probably have quite a ways to climb but you probably think you have climbed high enough to settle into a comfortable, if mediocre, form of righteousness.
All you have to do is look beneath you at those on the lower rungs, or those climbing the wrong ladders all together, to validate your righteous place in the world. Once most people find that place of righteous mediocrity, they stay put. And from that safe, smug, self-satisfied place on the ladder, it is hard, very hard to hear the gospel.
Both Paul and Martin Luther were Olympic champions when it came to ladder climbing. No mediocre morality for them! Paul was the Pharisee’s Pharisee. He could proudly boast that he kept the law as no other. Blameless was the word he used.
Luther was recognized by the Augustinian order of friars, a group of professional religious ladder climbers, as one of their very best.
But it was not their success in righteousness and virtue that made them Christian. In fact, it was their moral striving in the law that finally broke them. For Paul, who in his righteous indignation breathed threats and death against Christians, that breakthrough came when the Risen Christ (God Himself) appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. And, in effect said,
“Paul, in persecuting Christians according to your version of law, your self-righteous pride in your moral uprightness is making you an enemy of God.”
Luther climbed and climbed the ‘make yourself righteous’ ladder until the effort increasingly exposed his sin, broke him and he collapsed into a despairing heap.
There was something necessary about their efforts. Paul and Luther climbed way beyond mediocrity on the righteousness ladder. One ended up in pride, the other in despair. And it was only then that God could expose the futility of their efforts in the law and reveal to them, through the gospel, what the late Alvin Rogness once called the “glorious alternative.”
Through the gift of God’s grace and mercy in Christ, Paul and Luther were liberated from being fake caricatures of righteousness into the righteousness of Christ and the freedom of a living faith. Luther gloried in Paul’s words, and so may we:
“Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, so that I may gain Christ and be found in him not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:8-10).