God Is Not a Legalist (And Righteousness Isn’t What You Thought It Was) – Part 2

Photo by Philippe Put

Righteousness is not what you think it is.

When it comes to righteousness, most of us think like Pharisees. We see it as a position we must earn or else a quality we must create within ourselves through our actions. We’re wrong on both counts. (Explore this further in Part 1 of this discussion here.)

Jesus said our righteousness must surpass (“abound above”) Pharisee-righteousness if we even want to enter the kingdom of heaven. Paul agrees: he constantly tells us that we are justified (“made or proclaimed righteous”) with God by faith, not by works. Paul and Jesus are making the same point.

The same point Jesus made when he said that if we want to enter the kingdom, we must be born from above.

So what is kingdom righteousness? How do we get it, and what does it look like?

Put briefly:

Righteousness that comes by faith is righteousness that comes by relationship.


Think of this in terms of relationship with someone close to you. Your child has certain “rights” by virtue of being your child. Your friends have a “righteousness” with you—a standing and position in your life—because they are your friends.

I am like my parents in many ways, not because when I was born I was given a bullet-pointed list of how to live like them, but because they raised me, because I have their DNA, because we have been through countless situations together in which I watched them respond and learned how to go and do likewise.

Relationship bestows positional righteousness, and relationship also creates certain qualities within us.

God offers us the same kind of righteousness. Our righteousness can be universes beyond that of the Pharisees because it’s not about behavior modification, and it’s not about perfecting and following lists of rules or principles.

It’s about becoming God’s child (positional righteousness) and learning, through relationship, to live like he does (practical righteousness).

Both of these things require our involvement. We have to accept. We have to believe. We have to receive.

But those things are not “works.” They are the opposite of works: they are positions of yielding, of surrender. They’re simple choices to trust and to be loved by God.

That’s why Paul says our salvation is by grace. It’s all by the favor of God shining on us—not because we earned it, but just because he loves us.


Jesus’s constant use of the name “Father” for God—applied indiscriminately to everyone who heard him, as in “our Father,” “your Father”—points to the key difference between Old Covenant (law) righteousness and New Covenant (Spirit) righteousness.

(As a side note, not everyone Jesus talked to was a child of God. He made it clear that their own response would determine who was and who was not. But the offer was open.)

Israel was brought of bondage in Egypt to become God’s slaves (Leviticus 25:42, 55). Although the term “slavery” is entirely negative in our day, this was actually an enviable position in the ancient world. God had raided their old, cruel master and carried Israel off as his prize. What this meant for them was that God brought them into his household, gave them meaningful work to do in building his kingdom, and took on responsibility to care for, protect, provide for, and dwell among them.

God gave them a right-standing with himself that we can think of as “slave-righteousness.” Not only that, but slavery wasn’t the end game. God always intended to manumit (release from slavery) and adopt his slaves, making them his children.

This is why all Jesus’s “our Father” talk is so meaningful. In Jesus that manumission finally comes to pass, and we are given a right-standing with God that “abounds above” slave-righteousness. We are invited into something even better: “son-righteousness.” This happens when the Holy Spirit is sent into our hearts and we are born again, becoming children of God—children of heaven—who in a sense carry his DNA within ourselves.

It’s Paul who puts this underlying message of Jesus’s most clearly:

Before this faith came, we were confined under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith was revealed. The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus . . .

Now I say that as long as the heir is a child, he differs in no way from a slave, though he is the owner of everything. Instead, he is under guardians and stewards until the time set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were in slavery under the elemental forces of the world.

When the time came to completion, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Galatians 3:23-26, 4:1-7)

To break it down:

Our righteousness (right-standing) with God used to be the position of slaves in his household, protected by the law. Now, our righteousness (right-standing) with God is the position of sons in his household and heirs of his kingdom, filled with his Spirit.

The Bible also calls this “the righteousness that comes by faith” (Romans 4:13).


Righteousness that comes by faith is righteousness that comes by relationship.

After all, that is what faith is. Faith listens to God. It believes him. It trusts him. It goes to him. It chooses to walk with him. It prays to him. It commits to him—the other side of the two-sided coin that is faith is faithfulness.

The law was given as a guardian, to keep Israel sanctified and safe as God’s people until Jesus came to lead them into full sonship. But in a sense, righteousness has always been by faith—it has always been by relationship.

Are you righteous before God?

It depends.

Do you have a relationship with him?

Does his Spirit live in your heart?

Have you received the free gift of becoming his child—not through your own effort, but just by opening your heart and saying “yes” to him?

This is the righteousness Jesus taught. It’s a righteousness that begins and ends in the words “our Father.”

(This is Part 37 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.)




2 responses to “God Is Not a Legalist (And Righteousness Isn’t What You Thought It Was) – Part 2”

  1. Sue Thomson Avatar

    This is beautifully said. What an excellent article. It describes again to us that our burden is lifted and we have the hope of Jesus, the true desire of our heart.

    1. Rachel Avatar

      Love this comment — thanks! Yes, what an incredible truth that what we most truly desire is exactly what God is GIVING us — himself.

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