Summary: Living under the blessing of grace we need to be reminded that a life of righteousness follows our salvation. A righteous life is difficult to live in an unrighteous society.
THE TROUBLE WITH BEING RIGHTEOUS
“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags…” (Isaiah 64:6).
The subject of righteousness is very disturbing for a number of reasons. First of all, “righteousness” is not a word we use very much in our conversation and so we may struggle to define it. Then, when we do understand “righteousness” we feel very uncomfortable because, if we are honest, we don’t feel very righteous. And oddly enough, if you do feel righteous, you probably aren’t. More likely people would say you are “self-righteous.”
Jeff Bridges wrote, “Christians can never in themselves merit salvation through their personal holiness.” Our righteousness is like a filthy rag before a holy God. One of the early church fathers said, “Even our tears of repentance must be washed in the blood of Jesus.”
As post-modern Christians then, our response to the trouble of being righteous is to rely on grace for our salvation. Don’t worry about righteousness since you can’t earn it anyways. To preach righteousness is to promote a form of legalism, we might say. But that too is a misunderstanding of what it means to live the righteous life.
Is grace enough? To say that it isn’t is heresy. To accept the all sufficient grace of Jesus Christ and not be changed by it is also heresy or apostasy. To be apostate is a theological term that says “you have fallen away.” You have cheapened the free gift of God by treating it like a possession when it ought to possess you.
Isaiah looked ahead to the time when the Jews would live in captivity in a foreign land. He saw that their life with God, their spiritual walk, would be tripped up by the lifestyle of the Babylonians and by other Jews who would lose heart. To encourage the faithful in a strange land, Isaiah gave them the words of Isaiah 51 to remind them of the true nature of their righteousness and why they needed to hang on.
1. Pursue Righteousness
The LORD begins with a stern “listen to me” and uses this earnest appeal three times in speaking to Judah. “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD…” (51:1). There are many voices in our heads, a cacophony of thoughts that pretend to teach us. The LORD says, stop listening to the skeptics and the mockers and even to your own heart – listen to me. If you pursue righteousness, listen to me!
What is righteousness? It can be defined as moral uprightness, as law abiding. When it is used in relationship to God it takes on its true meaning: “yearning to please God.” Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” (Mt 5:6). Blessed are those who ache to please God with their lives.
Now we know that we can never please God with our lives, with our actions, for they are just filthy rags before him. So how can we pursue this elusive righteousness? What does it look like?
a) It is lived by faith – We have the benefit of the NT to show us how righteousness is lived out. Isaiah is called the Romans of the OT and so we turn to Romans to help us. Paul professed, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘the righteous will live by faith’” (Ro 1:16-18).