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The Righteousness Ladder

Most Christians, at some point in life, will stop and wonder whether or not they believe enough or have faith strong enough. What brings this doubt?

  • Life just hurts. Have you been in a place when you could swear there was a steady beeping sound just before a load of grief or stress was dumped on your head? During these times, we are prone to wonder where we had fallen short of God’s expectations, searching high and low for to uncover the area of life that still is not sufficiently yielded.
  • I have sinned. We have relationships that need constant attention, but inevitably we come short of what is required of us, or we cross a line that should never be crossed. Someone is wronged at our hand. When the fault comes to light, confession and repentance are needed to bring that relationship back into working order. In order to inhibit or prevent another occurrence, we put in place preventive maintenance measures.
  • I want to please God. There are times when we want God to work in and through us, so that the change might be palpable. We yearn for those things that just feel right—or as right as they can be in this world—and show to us that we can be satisfied with the results. We determine that this a good time to get more serious and to be “holy in all your conduct” (1 Pt. 1:15).

In each of these three scenarios, we resolve to double down on our efforts to close the distance between ourselves and the Lord through a regimen of spiritual disciplines (Bible study, prayer, and good works). We seek, through sheer determination, to work our way into God’s good graces. There is one problem: that approach does not work. The work has already been completed. What do I mean?

People get into their heads that they can be made right before God by doing the right things in the right way and some have enough foresight to recognize that all this effort may be really hard work. Actually, it is impossible—and that is a good thing. We tend to perform these in order to show our stuff or to gain approval. Either way the object of attention is me. I am the focal point, and I will get the credit with God for all this effort. The issue is that our righteousness cannot be worked out in that way. Our righteousness was never to be attained by works, but by faith.

We like a challenge to prove ourselves, and some will accept the extreme to prove something can be done. Paul wrote to the church in Rome about the effort:

For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, Do not say in your heart, “Who will ascend into heaven?” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim). – Romans 10:5-8

All of us want to work our way up the righteousness ladder: “If only I could do this,” or “If only I could do that.” We will go to almost any extent, even to go on some great trek to find Jesus, so He can do something for me. Paul says that none of this is necessary. God cannot be found through a mighty undertaking to find Christ, because He accomplished the undertaking for us. Jesus cannot be brought up from the grave to do something: having been given as the only acceptable sacrifice for our sin, He was raised for our justification (Rom 4:25). Neither can He be brought down from heaven: He is ascended, ever making intercession (Isa 53:12; Heb 7:25).

Jesus has died, risen, and ascended to the right hand of the majesty on high (Heb 1:3). Because He has finished the necessary work, our part is just to believe and confess it. No amount of effort can earn what has already been earned by the Lord Jesus.

“Because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” —1 John 10:9-11

One might think, “This is all fine and good for the one who has never believed before, but I’ve been a Christian for some time now. How does this apply to me and wanting to grow in Christ?” The answer is the same: You cannot gain ground in your righteousness by your works.

The spiritual disciplines mentioned earlier are not our measuring stick of progress. Neither are they our path to attain more of Christ. Scripture, prayer, and good works are all gifts of God. Scripture reveals the Lord of heaven and earth, Creator of all things, and His work of redemption to purchase for Himself a people. Prayer is given that we might communicate rightly with the Lord of glory. Good works are given so that we might walk in them, and that those who see will give glory to God. When we take these and turn them into a tool to gain more of Christ, we turn the gifts into works and tell the Lord that we will finish what was left undone for our growth.

The good news is that Christ died for our sins—all sin past, present, and future—was buried, and rose again according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3-4). He appeared before God on our behalf only once to put away sin by Himself (Heb 9:24-26). Because of this we are lavished with wondrous benefits (Eph 1:3-14). Let’s rest in all that and not try to add to it.

Steve Bricker is from Cedar Rapids, IA, where he shares his life with his wife of 35 years, Sandi. A software developer by training, he has a M.A. in Theological Studies from Faith Evangelical Seminary, Tacoma, WA. His main interests are Biblical Theology and Church History. He is active at Maranatha Bible Church through leading Bible studies and small groups and serving on the deacon board. In addition, Steve writes at What Accords with Sound Doctrine.