A righteous person loves doing God’s law so much (Romans 2:13) that he strives for excellence in every way (Philippians 1:10-11). Ironically, loving the law leads to spiritual death (II Corinthians 3:6), and the only way to actually follow the law is by faith in Jesus Christ (Philippians 3:9). In righteousness by faith (Romans 10:5-6), one has the ability to fulfill God’s command to be perfect (Matthew 5:48) and holy (II Corinthians 7:1).
All Christians agree that righteousness is something to pursue.
Righteousness by the Law
The law protects through knowledge.
Without the law, people naturally will become evil (Genesis 6:5). Because of this, God gave Moses the 10 Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Galatians 3:19), also known as “the law” (John 1:17), to teach us about sin (Romans 7:7,12).
Righteousness is doing what the law says.
Righteousness is hating evil.
More than just doing the bare minimum, righteousness is about hating evil so much (Romans 12:9; Proverbs 8:13) that we are initially tormented by the lawlessness surrounding us and within us (II Peter 2:8).
Perfect law-based righteousness seeks to kill others.
Without faith, the only way to have a perfectly just society is by killing the evil (Leviticus 20:27). The law teaches us to kill (II Corinthians 3:6), meaning it is a ministry of death and condemnation (II Corinthians 3:7,9). This was personified when the main writer of the Bible killed thousands of Christians in the name of “righteousness” (Philippians 3:6).
Righteousness seeks for excellence and perfection.
This hatred of evil pushes us to excel in everything we do (II Corinthians 8:7) so we can be blameless on Judgment Day (Philippians 1:10) and so that we can be perfect (Matthew 5:48).
Righteousness by the law leads to one’s own death.
Despite how zealous one might be, no one can be righteous through obedience to the law (John 7:19; Romans 9:31). This is because following the law comes with a curse (Galatians 3:10). Because the law gives us the knowledge to sin, our sin nature entices us to sin even more (Romans 7:5,8,11). Willpower can never overcome the sin nature, always leading to death (Galatians 3:21; Romans 7:10).
Righteousness by Faith
Faith saves us from the law.
Jesus condemned sin itself when He died on the cross (Romans 8:3). Those who accept Jesus in faith die to the law of Moses and its requirements (Romans 7:4) and can’t be condemned for breaking the law (Romans 8:1). This is because we are reborn in the Spirit (Romans 8:2; Romans 7:6), and are now living by the Spirit to fulfill the righteous requirement of God to be perfect (Romans 8:4; Galatians 3:11). This new righteousness is not our own but from God (Philippians 3:9), so much so that we actually become the “righteousness of God” (II Corinthians 5:21).
Righteousness can only be perfected through goodness.
Righteousness without faith leads to intense hypocrisy. Jesus believed the Pharisees were extremely righteous to others (Matthew 5:20) yet were not truly righteous due to their hypocrisy (Matthew 23:23,28). They cared more about following the law than doing what’s right (Luke 6:9). This slight differentiation is why those who practice goodness are better than those who only practice the law (Romans 5:7). Jesus gave an example of this through the Rich Young Man. He wondered what was “good” (Matthew 19:16). Jesus knew he thought goodness was lawfulness (Matthew 19:17,20). Yet Jesus said that to inherit eternal life, he must go beyond the law by stopping loving the world’s riches over God (Matthew 19:21). When love is genuine, it grows goodness which helps us actually be righteous in the right way (Romans 12:9). It grows our conscience to a more pure state that seeks a clean conscience not following a rule book (I Timothy 1:5).
Righteousness leads to holiness.
One aspects of seeking righteousness through faith is that it should cause us to separate from the unfaithful (II Corinthians 6:14,17). By spending more time with true believers, we become holy, or “set apart,” ready to be a servant of God (II Timothy 2:21).
Our purpose should promote what’s right, not condemn what’s bad.
As a servant of God, our primary purpose or ministry is to promote righteousness instead of condemnation (II Corinthians 3:9). We saw how the law leads to condemnation, but that strategy doesn’t work long-term (Romans 7:10). The only way to grow society is by focusing our time and energy on that which is right (Philippians 4:8), and by avoiding evil, it will slowly perish (Titus 3:9-11).
How do I be righteous but not a perfectionist?
Although we are called to be righteous and aim for perfection (Matthew 5:48), oftentimes this feels like a burden too heavy to carry. Sinners and our own sinful nature make us feel unworthy (Romans 7:23; Matthew 23:4), but Jesus’ expectations are light (Matthew 11:30). The first step in killing perfectionism is realizing that the cross is the end of fear, shame, and guilt (Romans 8:1). It doesn’t matter how much you fail because only those who choose to sin go to hell (Hebrews 10:26-27). Read more about Confidence in Salvation. The key is deeply understanding that if you practice righteousness, then you already are as righteous as God (I John 3:7).