Extra: Righteousness & Faith
Righteousness & Faith in Philippians 3:9
Philippians 3:9 comes in the middle of one of my favourite passages in the Bible and carries some glorious truths. However, fully comprehending what Paul is saying requires us to understand two things – firstly what Paul meant by the word “righteousness” and secondly how a 1st century Jew like Saul (before he was converted and called Paul) understood how he gained righteousness:
What is righteousness?
The Greek word dikaios and related words are variously translated in our English Bibles as righteous, righteousness, just, justice, justify, justification. While the word group is occasionally used with reference to the way we should live (e.g. James 1:20), for the most part it refers either to the “right actions” of God or the “right” state we attain through trusting in Christ. So to say that God is righteous, is to refer to the power of God to make right what has been wrong. To say we are “righteous” is to say that we are “made right” before God – accepted by Him. One theologian coined the word “rectification” (“rectify” from the Latin word rectus (right) + ficare (to make)) as another way of describing the state of “justification” we have as believers.
How did Saul previously understand he gained righteousness?
Having chosen them, God gave the Israelites circumcision as a seal of their membership of His people and the law to enable them to live “right” lives before Him. How they understood the place of the “law” developed over time and was influenced by outside events. During the second century BC a Seleucid (Greek) King Antiochus IV ruled over the Palestine and sought to wipe out the Jewish religion. To achieve this he banned circumcision of infant sons (on pain of death for parents), banned them from following the Jewish food laws (which included eating kosher meat that had been drained of its blood) and keeping the Sabbath (setting the Saturday aside to worship God).
These things had always been important to the Jews. However the persecution they faced cemented in their minds that these were three key outward observances that identified you as part of God’s chosen people – and how rigorously you observed them a mark of how “righteous” you were.
To help the Jews be sure that they were “right” in all circumstances the religious leaders further developed a veritable “library” of additional guidance (referred to as the “traditions” in the NT) that built on the basic OT law. The religious purists like the Pharisees were very proud of their rigid observance of every aspect of the law and traditions - especially the outward ritual observances that publicly marked them out as “righteous”. When we read of Paul referring to his past “keeping of the law” he is really referring more to these outward observances – rather than moral issues (committing adultery). Because he kept the law and traditions so well, it was like a badge to everyone that he was “in the right” before God.
Righteousness in Christ
In this chapter (3:1-10) we see Paul elaborating on how his long Jewish heritage, his circumcision and faultless observance of the law as a Pharisee, his fervent persecution of Christian “heretics” – all this was actually a dead weight (a loss), because it caused him to wrongly imagine he was “in the right” and safely part of God’s family.
Now he realised the glorious truth that only faith in Christ brought him eternal complete righteousness (made him right) before God. He was made righteous through the death of the only one who was truly and completely free of sin – Jesus, the perfect sacrifice.
In Leviticus 27:11 we read how the priest was to examine the sacrifice to judge its value. He judged the sacrifice, not the one bringing it. Let us continue to remember, likewise, the glorious truth that God does not accept us now on the basis of our own “good deeds”, but on the basis of the sacrifice we “present” – our glorious saviour, the perfect paschal lamb, who died for us.