For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:2-4)
Paul was writing here of the Jews. Paul spoke with particular authority about this because he was a Jew, trained in the highest Jewish traditions by the greatest teacher of the time, and he had once zealously protected the Jewish tradition of the law against the upstart followers of Jesus. And then, he dramatically encountered the risen Jesus.
Paul is saying that the Jews were ignorant of God’s righteousness because they sought to establish their own righteousness, instead of accepting (submitting to) God’s righteousness. Paul knew this because Jesus was the embodiment of God, righteousness and all, in the flesh.
But righteousness seems sometimes like a nebulous concept. It seems better understood with “self” in front of it. It’s hard to think of righteousness without thinking self-righteous. In truth, only God is righteous. We can only try to understand His righteousness.
Another way to look at righteousness is through the lens of “rightness”. Simply put, God is right because he is God. When we think we are right, especially in comparison or contrast to God, we are asserting that we are the measure of right, rather than God.
Of course, this supposes that there is a God, which Paul glosses over (perhaps) as self-evident. (“For what can be known about God is plain….” (Romans 1:18)). The Christ follower assumes that Jesus speaks for God, which Paul accepts implicitly (as one who had a direct encounter with the risen Jesus).
Some people view Christians as self-righteous for daring to hold up a standard of conduct or worldview to which people should subscribe. Who are they to claim they have a corner on the truth and morality?!
But, it all comes down to Jesus. For Paul, everything he taught rested on one thing, and one thing alone – the resurrection of Jesus.
“[I]f Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.… And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile….” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17)
The message that rests on this foundation is that Christ died for our sins, and He rose from the dead and appeared to many people, including Paul, himself. (1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 8) According to Paul, Jesus even appeared to 500 people at one time, and most of those people were still alive when Paul wrote those words. (1 Corinthians 15:6)
The significance of Jesus rising from the dead is almost self-explanatory. Who does that! There were hundreds of people who witnessed it, and many people who claimed to witness Jesus, risen from the dead in the flesh, were willing to die for that testimony.
Jesus even called it. He said many times over during his life that he would die, and that he would rise again. He even predicted the number of days between his dying and his rising. The significance of this feat underscores the importance of what he said and did during his life.
But the most important thing for us is that he died for our sins. He died in our place. He died to pay the penalty for our unrighteousness (sin) so that we could be counted as righteous in God’s eyes. He satisfied the demands of a perfectly just God so that God could be perfectly merciful toward us, not counting our sin (unrighteousness) against us.
And all of this is just right. It is just as it should be because God is just so. He created this world, and everything in this world, including us, exists according to God’s design. This is the righteousness, that we might also call rightness, of God. God is right, and we are wrong if we take a different view.
That we consider these things to be true is due to the sign, the only sign that Jesus gave us, to indicate that he was telling the truth: that is the “sign of Jonah” – that he would die and three days later rise from the dead. (Matthew 12:39; 16:4; and Luke 11:29)
Going back to Paul’s admonition to the Romans, we don’t want to be one of those who are ignorant of the righteousness (rightness) of God, who seek to establish their own righteousness (rightness). We believe in Jesus, who gave us plenty reason to believe him by dying for our sins and rising from the dead. We believe in the righteousness that God extends to us through Jesus – the righteousness of God – which is not earned by us, but simply received. We believe that God is right, and we are right to believe that.
Though every man be a liar, God is true (right).