It is easy to find a righteous pagan. Walk into any hospital, gym, or coffee shop and it won’t be too long before we run into someone who by all accounts is an honest, respectful, helpful individual. Their hands are clean and their words drip integrity. That is because even a non-Christian can be righteous in a human sense. But a clean heart, emptied of all selfish self-seeking desires is another thing.
Only our Creator, by His own strength and power, can create a clean heart in us. That is why, no matter how a person may appear outwardly, no matter how righteous he may be by our measure of the term, we are all recalcitrant rebels in relation to God. Before our Creator, our heart is as wide open and broad as the sky. And that is the difference between our human measure of righteousness and God's measure of righteousness.
God does not care about the truth that appears as a consequence of what our hands do or our mouth speaks. He only cares about what is in our heart. Only the righteousness that He bestows on us by His speaking matters to our Maker. But that kind of righteousness, the kind that creates an untroubled heart, cannot be grasped in this life. It must always be received through faith and hoped for by us.
But the path of old Adam's heart is always crooked. It causes us to constantly turn our attention toward what we imagine we need and goes looking for what justifies that need. Or, to put it another way, our heart always wants something and our mind is always justifying what our heart wants. We are born with this compulsion. A heart that wants nothing that is not from God can only occur by the Holy Spirit speaking the Gospel into our hearts. The only way for us to enjoy the righteousness that is imputed to us on account of Christ Jesus is through the work of God.
The Holy Spirit Must Cling to Us
The proper question then is not, "Is our Creator pleased with our work, and will He impute it to us as righteousness" but, "Are we satisfied with the work of Christ Jesus, which is imputed to us as righteousness?"
If we are honest, the answer is, "No, of course we are not satisfied with Jesus' righteousness being imputed to us." We will always choose to elevate our works, our integrity, and our helpfulness, even in the face of God Himself. We will even use Jesus' work as a jumping off point for our own works. "Sure, Jesus did the heavy lifting for us," we say, "but there's still the clean-up that needs doing!"
A heart that wants nothing that is not from God can only occur by the Holy Spirit speaking the Gospel into our hearts. The only way for us to enjoy the righteousness that is imputed to us on account of Christ Jesus is through the work of God.
We imagine that with enough effort we can appear before our Creator cleaned-up, righteous, and prepared to receive our just desserts. How can He reject us? However, when the Gospel sweeps away all claims we may launch at God about our deserving, all that is left for us to cling to is Jesus' work, His conception, bloody suffering, and death for us. Then, humbled by the limitless love of God in Christ Jesus, we are humbled by the knowledge of our self-righteousness and the fact that He still forgives us, even though He knows that as soon as we are declared righteous (even, often, while we are hearing the declaration of our justification) we are pulling back from Him, looking around for an exit, because there is work to do, sacrifices to be made, and God's grace and favor to earn.
That is why the Holy Spirit must cling to us, run us down, bring us back into the fold, and sustain us each day and always. The Holy Spirit working through the Gospel is the only hope we have that there is, in spite of ourselves, grace and righteousness and mercy that causes God to say about us, "That is good!"