Works Righteousness vs. Gift Righteousness

Works Righteousness vs. Gift Righteousness

Romans 1:17 – …the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

When someone is nearing death, it is common to hear someone say they need to hurry up and, “get right with God” which is a way of communicating the concept of righteousness.

The righteousness of God is a phrase Paul uses eight times in Romans (1:17; 3:5, 21, 22, 25, 26; 10:3 [2x]), in addition to multiple other terms. If God is holy and right (righteous), and we are unholy and wrong (unrighteous), the question us how can we be made right with God and righteous before God? In the simplest terms, there are two ways this question is answered:

1. My works (or works righteousness)

In life, we are used to getting what we earn which explains everything from our grade point average in school to our performance review and salary at work. In various religions, people are taught to do something righteous to get right with God. Examples include ceasing desire (Buddhism), living in obedience to the Koran (Islam), reincarnating to repay your karmic debt (Hinduism), and living in harmony with the rest of creation (New Age), etc. Secular forms of works righteousness include being a social justice warrior, political activist, or advocate for the latest cause all intended to show that you are a good person who is helping undo all the bad in the world. Either way, someone or something else is the problem, and I am the solution to fix that problem.

2. Jesus’ works (or gift righteousness)

The Christian gospel says that we are the problem and cannot be the solution. We are all unrighteous, and only God is righteous. Therefore, the something that needs to be done can only be done by God through Jesus Christ. Jesus lived the perfectly righteous life without sin, died as a substitute in my place for my sin to meet the demands of righteous justice, and rose to give the gift of righteous eternal life. This is why Paul teaches that “righteousness” is not of us, but only “of God” and received by us from God “by faith” in Christ.  Some English translations will explain God’s righteousness as having been “given to you” by God and “received” by you as a gift you did not earn.

Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4 and the same Scripture is also quoted in Hebrews 10:37 and Galatians 3:11. Theologically, this is called justification by faith for shorthand. It is one of the most precious Christian doctrines and in many ways the heart of the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther was training as a lawyer in Germany when he was nearly struck by lightning. Believing the sparing of his life was a sign from God, he became a Catholic priest and monk dedicating his life to ministry. Using his legal mind to earnestly judge his life by the demands of Scripture, he became so tormented that he was going mad becoming increasingly aware of his sinful unrighteousness without any hope. He punished himself for his sin to repay God, spent hours confessing his sin to a priest begging God’s forgiveness, and wrecked his physical, emotional, spiritual, and mental health. As a professor of theology at the University of Wittenburg, he had a history altering experience with the Holy Spirit teaching Romans 1. God revealed to Him gift righteousness which delivered him from works righteousness and he explains, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

This insight is one of the three towering truths of salvation which Paul expounds upon in the remainder of Romans:

  1. God’s work for us: we are justified by grace and declared righteous by God through faith in Jesus Christ by imputed righteousness.
  2. God’s work in us: we are regenerated, or born again, by the power of the Holy Spirit by imparted righteousness.
  3. God’s work through us: we live the Christian life as members of the church doing ministry to serve the mission of God as the fruit of imputed and imparted righteousness.

Have you received the gift of God’s righteousness as a gift of grace by putting your faith in Jesus Christ? 

To find the free Romans study guide for individuals and small groups, hear Pastor Mark’s entire sermon series on Romans, or find a free mountain of Bible teaching visit or download the Real Faith app. 

Mark Driscoll
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