Is Law Needed for a Definition of Righteousness?

In recent discussions, I interacted with several other believers around the question of whether the righteousness we have as believers is based on law, specifically a vicarious law-keeping on the part of Jesus. My statement was as follows:

I find no place in Scripture where the believer’s righteousness before God is because of Christ’s law-keeping in our stead. The way in which anything related to the law is imputed to the believer is not his keeping it when we could not, but his death—his taking of its curse.

Several commentators took objection to the statement, and a few indicated they thought I was saying Jesus did not live a righteous life. I am saying nothing of the sort. Most certainly the Lord Jesus lived a sinless life, never wavering from the will of his father. But the common statement that his law-keeping is the basis of our righteousness as believers is what I cannot see in Scripture.

(As an aside, I want to say I am thankful for the courteous and respectful interaction I’ve had with those who disagreed with me. These are faithful brothers in Christ who have been charitable in their demeanor. I have tried to be so as well.)

In this post, I want to address the question of whether we can know what righteousness is apart from the law. Is God’s law a standard required to define righteousness?

Knowing right and wrong without the law

The epistle that speaks more than any other about righteousness is Romans. Those in Rome who were Jews and had come to believe in Jesus surely knew the law, and knew its demands. Paul has referenced them on several occasions in the letter. “What then? Are we Jews any better off?” 3:9. But what about Gentiles, who he has said “do not have the law.” ? (2:14)

Paul affirms that Gentiles on occasion do what the law requires. They do this “by nature,” or as many have called it, “natural law.” There are some things that are obvious, because God has made them plain to everyone. He began the letter saying that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” 1:20.

Gentiles also know, at some level, a difference between right and wrong. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them” 2:15. So, Gentiles know right and wrong, righteousness and unrighteousness apart from the law given at Sinai. It is the work of the law, the knowledge of sin, a distinction between right and right—not the law itself that is written on their hearts. Moreover, there are a few things in the law that Gentiles do not know from nature. They cannot know that working on Saturday is against God’s law, nor that to blaspheme the covenant name of Israel’s God, YHWH, is likewise prohibited. This demonstrates that natural law is not equivalent to the revelation at Sinai.

Righteousness before the law was given

One also has to contend with those in biblical history who precede the law, yet who are declared righteous. Abel is near the beginning of Genesis, and while it is only in the New Testament that we get a fuller explanation of his status, he is nevertheless called righteous. “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous.” Heb 11:4. Did Abel have some revelation from God? It is almost certain he did—for he knew that to offer a burnt offering is what would please God. But while Abel was declared righteous, it is difficult to say that the law played a role in this.

There is Noah as well. Genesis 6:8-9 says “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.” Did Noah act according to law? Nothing in Scripture says so. Indeed, the New Testament commentary on him is “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” He is called an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. His forefathers, Abel and Enoch acted in faith, and it is explicitly stated that this is a righteousness that comes by faith. Law is not involved.

The next example is Abraham, the father of the faithful. For the gospel, the importance of his history is difficult to underestimate. When God does give Abraham a revelation—indeed, a promise—which Paul is at pains to contrast with law, Abraham believes God and on this basis is declared righteous. “And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Gen 15:5-6.

Law, then played no role in Abraham’s justification, in his declaration of righteousness. It is purely faith in God’s promise that forms the basis of that justification. He honored God in the belief that what God said, he would do. Abraham’s history shows that believing God’s promise was the reason God declared him righteous, not because Abraham had a law.

When Scripture speaks of law, it almost always refers to those commands given at Mount Sinai, and it is this definition I use. This is important because too many see any imperative in Scripture as law. Michael Horton says  “ ’Law’ as a principle simply refers to anything that God commands. Anything that comes to us from God in the form of imperatives (things to do or not do) is law. This can be in the form of the Ten Commandments, the elaborate specifications of the temple furnishings, Jesus’s teaching on divorce and remarriage, or instructions for life in the Spirit in Galatians 5:16–24.“[1] But this is too broad a definition. Indeed, in Galatians 5, Paul has just finished telling them that they are not under law, and they do not walk by the law, but by the Spirit. Are we to understand Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit as law?  Paul, who surely knew what the law was, gives many instructions to his congregations, but he does not say these are law.

Seeing the law in Eden

For some readers of Scripture, the idea that righteousness must conform to law flows from their understanding of a covenant with Adam, entered into prior to the Fall. This is often called the covenant of works. It is a large topic, and one I have expanded upon here. But the point to note here is that in covenant theology, what Jesus has done in his life is to fulfill the covenant that Adam did not. Now, most certainly Jesus obeyed where Adam failed. But was the substance of Christ’s obedience merely to obey the law that God gave to Adam? The problems here are manifold. First, it is by no means certain that there is even such a thing as the covenant of works. Secondly, if there is a covenant, are the terms of that covenant that Adam was bound to the Ten Commandments, as Westminster insists? This denies the place Scripture assigns to the Decalogue in salvation history. Third, it introduces a principle of works into the gospel. That is, God imputes righteousness to us because—at last—the Second Adam has kept the law, and since the reward of keeping the law is eternal life, believers are granted this because of Christ’s vicarious law-keeping.

That principle is everywhere denied. Paul affirms in Galatians “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” The covenant of works idea is an affirmation that righteousness is indeed through law, albeit kept by another. That is begging the question, assuming what one is trying to prove. Nor will it suffice to explain away Paul’s words to say that he is speaking of sinners, of the ungodly who certainly cannot keep the law, but he is not speaking about Jesus who did keep the law. There is nothing in the New Testament to support this.

Further on in the same epistle, he writes “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” Again, life (and righteousness, which he here uses interchangeably with life) cannot come from law, for that was never the purpose of the law. This, too, is an explicit denial that God promised Adam life upon the fulfilling of law. Paul does not say this is impossible because of our inability to keep the law, he assigns this inability to the law itself. Such a thing is at cross-purposes with why God gave the law to begin with—to reveal sin, and indeed, to increase the trespass.

The Sermon on the Mount: Righteousness based on law?

Finally, some point to the Sermon on the Mount as evidence that righteousness is measured by law. But in the Sermon, Jesus repeatedly points to a standard that is higher than the law—to his own person and his own words. The law said murder is sin—but I tell you, anger is. The law said adultery is sin—but I tell you, lust is. The law, in other words, was a lower standard than what Jesus was putting forth. In Matt 5:20, Jesus says “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Some have suggested this indicates Jesus has affirmed that a righteousness measurable by law is what is required of disciples, and since we cannot attain it ourselves, it must be imputed to us. (I have commented extensively on the misuse of Matthew 5 by some to insist that obligation to the law still remains firmly in place for believers. But for the most part, those who do so focus on verses 17-18.)

However, I think there are two problems in seeing Matt 5:20 as teaching a righteousness as based on law. First, this comes just before Jesus begins the comparison and contrast between the law and his own call to discipleship. His own instructions to his disciples exceed the law. Were we to say that the law defines righteousness, it doesn’t speak to what Jesus says in the remainder of the Sermon.

Second, it is a stretch to find imputation in Matt 5:20. Nothing in what Jesus says here would suggest that what he has in mind is “since you cannot achieve this kind of righteousness on your own, it will be given to you, imputed to you.” It is reading Paul’s doctrine back into what Jesus says. Now, I am not suggesting we set Jesus against Paul, as some do. That is is not a coherent hermeneutic. Nor am I suggesting that those who point to the Sermon on the Mount as evidence of law-based righteousness are trying to do that. But, I think they may be inadvertently engaging in an odd sort of red-letterism to say that this is the righteousness we must attain, but then injecting the Pauline theme of imputation into the gospel text. In other words, I don’t think the context of the Sermon on the Mount can support the idea that Jesus implies imputation of his own law-keeping as the basis of the righteousness 5:20 calls for.

Scripture presents righteousness as a theme before the law’s introduction, it gives us examples of those declared righteous before the law, and indeed when we come to the New Testament, everywhere describes the righteousness we as Christians have as apart from the law. In the next post, I look at the basis of the righteousness we as Christians have.

[1] Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, Baker, 2006), 174.

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