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Righteousness and sin

We’ll begin this article by considering the concepts of righteousness and sin. As we often do, we start with a question.

What is sin?

There are a number of definitions we could try out from Scripture. For example, we might say that sin is breaking the laws God has given, say, the Ten Commandments; i.e., that if you break the ten commandments, that’s sin. Well, we could go along with that to a certain extent, but it doesn’t seem a completely satisfactory definition. For example, most of us don’t keep the Sabbath in the way laid out in the Law of Moses, so there’s at least one of the Ten Commandments that we break. Yet the New Testament makes it clear that we are not sinning even though we do not follow that commandment, because the obligations of the complete Law are not laid on the Gentiles.

Here’s another approach to defining sin: Paul, in his letter to the Romans (14:23), says that anything which is not from faith is sin. I find that quite a useful definition. If my faith is motivating me to do something, and I choose to do something else, it’s going to be sin.

In contrast, everything Jesus did was motivated by his faith. His Father was in him and he was in his Father. Here the definition of righteousness could be expressed as, “Not my will, but your will be done.”

In this way, righteousness is about being willing to subject our freewill to God. He’s given us freewill, the ability to choose, and He wants us to give it back to Him, to say: “Not my will, but your will be done.” Sin is, in some sense, the opposite of that. The attitude of sin says to God, “I know you want me to do this but I actually want to do that other thing.” I think that’s what Paul was getting at when he wrote, “…everything that does not come from faith is sin.”

Loving God = Loving Neighbour

In the gospels, Jesus gives a description of righteousness in action: “One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: ‘Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ Jesus replied: ‘ “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment’” (Matt. 22:35-38).

But Jesus doesn’t stop! That’s not enough! He continues, “The second is like it, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’!”

I think Jesus is saying that the only way you can actually love God is by loving your neighbour. If you think you love God, that you have in your heart such warmth and love for God, yet you don’t actually care about anyone around you, and have no sense of warmth or compassion for people, then John says you are a liar!: “We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:19-21).

There’s a real sense in which our love for God is manifest in our love for one another. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “The second is just like it!” He’s perhaps saying, “It’s essentially the same thing – the first commandment is, You shall love God, and the second is the same, Love your neighbour.” We should not think that these are two separate commandments, but two aspects of the same command. If I want to know, “Am I loving God?”, a very good test is to ask, “Am I loving my neighbour?”

How are we saved?

Now let’s step back and think once more about the actual work, the death and resurrection of Christ — and so on. I’d like us to ask a question which I’ve heard people debate over the years:

Has the ‘mechanism’ of salvation changed with the death of Christ?

I know some Christians who hold to a doctrine of distinct dispensations. For them there was a huge change at the death of Christ. The whole structure of salvation changed. Some even think that yet another epoch started at Pentecost. Each of these epochs (in these types of dispensation doctrines) comes with its own mechanisms of salvation, and what was acceptable to God in one epoch may not be acceptable in another.

Are there really dispensations like this? Or, to put the question the other way round: Has the ‘mechanism’ of salvation always been the same? I’ve heard this question asked in the following way: “Is the sacrifice of Christ efficacious for those in the Old Testament?” Now, to be honest, I never really knew what that question meant. Not because of the strange word ‘efficacious’ (it just means ‘effective’), but because I could never figure out what ‘effective’ meant in this context. The concept seemed too woolly, too fluffy, for me to understand what really was being asked. Fortunately, Paul allows us to sidestep the question completely. We’ll look at what he says in Romans.

Abraham and David

Paul writes in Romans 3 about the nature of the salvation that we have in Christ: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:21-24).

Paul is describing our situation under Christ. He continues in the transition from Romans 3 to Romans 4, and in the process answers this question of ‘dispensations’ very definitively for us. While in the midst of talking about salvation, the ‘mechanism’ of how we are saved, and the way in which we are made righteous, he writes: “What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter?” (Rom 4:1)

Let’s just stop there! Even without going further, the obvious question is, why on earth would Paul look to Abraham if Abraham were saved by a different ‘mechanism’ than we are?! It wouldn’t make sense. Paul is talking about salvation, about righteousness, about being justified before God, and he says: “Okay, let’s look at Abraham and see what he discovered in this matter.” Then he goes on to draw parallels between Abraham and us. He describes the way Abraham is saved and, as if that’s not enough, he adds: “David says the same thing when he speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works” (v. 6).

So, Paul looks at both Abraham and David and says, in effect, “These men already understood salvation, and they’ve been telling us about it. It’s part of what the Law and the Prophets have been testifying to.” We cannot avoid the implication that Abraham and David are saved in the same way that we are saved. It wasn’t that God had one way to save them, and has come up with a different way to save us. Abraham and David were saved by the same ‘mechanism’, the same process, by which we are saved.

The substitutionary theory of salvation (which we discussed in an earlier article), popular among a lot of other churches, involves a change in the ‘mechanism’. After the death of Christ, according to the substitution theory, the debt has been paid and God is now free to bring people into a relationship with Him. But the evidence of Paul here is that we should learn from what saints like Abraham and David understood about salvation because they comprehended things about our salvation also.

So, how are we saved? What is it that we should think about when we’re looking at our salvation? What is the ‘mechanism’?


Now this is one of those places where, ideally, we would have this lovely intricate ‘mechanism’ which says, ‘First this happens, then that happens.’ It’s almost a let-down to discover that the process of salvation is so simple that it’s staring us in the face all the time. There’s no mysticism about it. It is simply that God chooses to forgive us.

That’s how we’re justified. God says, “You have sinned and I’m going to take your sins away.”

Fundamentally, the ‘mechanism’ of salvation is forgiveness. We have sins that separate us from God and God is willing to take them away.

Glory of God

But hang on! God doesn’t forgive everyone. If salvation was merely about God forgiving, then maybe He could just save everybody. So there must be something more.

Cast your mind to the events of Exodus 34. Moses wants to see the glory of God, and God agrees. But when God’s glory is actually revealed to Moses it is not how we might expect it. Moses doesn’t get to see a really bright light, or an immensely loud noise, or any other spectacle as we might otherwise assume. Instead, the glory of God is contained in a declaration about His character. While we may all be familiar with the words, we may not have noticed something odd about them: “Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation’” (Exod. 34:5-7, NIV).

Have you noticed that there’s a paradox in tghe Glory of God?

Here’s what I mean. The glory of God is both to forgive and to punish — it’s both of them! It’s not that God always forgives and it’s not that God always punishes. He says that He forgives the wicked, but at the same time He doesn’t leave the guilty unpunished. So which is it? Forgiveness or punishment?

The resolution to the paradox is that the glory of God is actually in the balance between forgiveness and punishment. It is the choice between forgiveness and punishment that is the expression of God’s glory.

This leads us to think more fundamentally about the question, “Why does God punish?” and, “Why is there even a judgement? Why doesn’t God say, You know what? I’m just going to let everybody into the kingdom!” After all, God is God; He could, surely, do that. He could do anything, couldn’t He?

This line of thinking could lead us astray. There are things that God cannot do. He cannot contradict Himself, for example. That’s why God cannot sin, nor even be tempted by sin.

Constraint triangles

In business there is a concept that may be called a ‘constraint triangle’. It reflects the idea that it is simply not possible to have everything at the same time. To see a constraint triangle in action, imagine a triangle with each vertex (the pointy bits) labelled with Cost, Quality, and Time. The rule of the game is that you get to pick any two of the constraints, but cannot ever choose all three at the same time.

Suppose your client comes to you and says, “I’d like you to make me one of your widgets and I want you to give me the lowest price possible but the highest quality.” So you say, “Ah! Then that’s going to take me some time, as the only way I can cut the cost that much would be to slot it in the odd bits of time between other jobs.” They get low cost, high quality, but at the expense of having to wait for it.

If they then say, “Oh no! I need that widget by tomorrow!” you might well respond, “Well, if you need it tomorrow, I’m going to have to charge you more because I’ll have to pull people off other jobs in order to get your job done. It’s a rush job and will cost you more. The alternative is to compromise on quality — it won’t be the best work I can possibly do.”

The constraint triangle expresses these fundamental tradeoffs. You can’t have all three points in the ‘constraints triangle’ at the same time. They are in tension with each other; each one pulls away from the other two.

God’s constraints

It seems to me that God is also under constraints. God would dearly love to have all of these things:

  1. Human freewill (that we have a choice);
  2. Loving community (people together, fellowshipping, supporting and nourishing each other);
  3. Universal life (His desire that no one should perish).

God would like all three, but not even God can have all three. Let’s see this by considering a few examples.


First, if God wants everybody to live, and also wants it to be a loving community, He would have to give up on human freewill. Human freewill manifests itself in many ways. Sometimes, with God’s help, it manifests itself by love and concern for others, but all too often, it manifests itself in selfishness and harm of others. If God wanted to have every human being form part of a loving community, regardless of his or her personal desires, He would have to remove his free will, to take away his freedom to choose his own way, his capacity for choice. Man could not be permitted to harm or destroy. God would be able to satisfy the ideals of loving community and universal life, but at the cost of human freewill.

This is not acceptable to God. One of the fundamental things He has done right from the beginning is to provide individuals with the opportunity to choose. God didn’t create mechanistic robots with pre-programmed responses. Instead He wanted individuals with individual sentience, and individual desires, who would perhaps choose partnership with Him.

Removal of human freewill is not acceptable to God. So if He isn’t prepared to give up on human freewill, what about the other two possibilities?

The World Today

One of the other possibilities open to God (at least temporarily) is to give up on the loving community. This is really hard for God. But that is what He has done in the world today. Today He says, “I am going to give people freewill, the ability to choose, and to allow their actions to have an impact on other people. I am going to let the sinner live. I’m going to allow the evil man to work his evil. I’m not going to bring judgement — yet!”

Now there are times and places where even today God says, “This can go no further. I’m going to bring an end to this!” But, by and large, the situation we are in today is that human freewill is exercised freely, and God allows all men and women to live. And the result is: today’s society. We do not have a loving community in the world today.


But a time is coming, says the Lord through Malachi (3:18), when we will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who love God and those who do not. In this future, God will ultimately relinquish the practice of everyone being able to live. Instead, He will craft His loving community out of people who have freely chosen such a community. The Kingdom will be made up of people who, out of their own freewill, wish to live and participate in loving community.

Automatically, this means that there are some who won’t fit in that picture. Judgment, and punishment — the distinction between the righteous and the wicked — is simply a logical consequence of the ideals of both human freewill and a loving community. The very fact that we have human freewill means that there are some people who choose that they do not want a loving community. They wouldn’t want to live in one; they wouldn’t want to participate in one. So, at the end of the day, God has to say to those, “You will sleep, you’re going to be destroyed, you will be oblivious, and cease to exist.” God treats human freewill as so important that He’s willing to respect people’s decisions that they prefer eternal oblivion rather than eternal life in His kingdom.

The question for each of us is, What do I want? Deep down, in my inner being, do I really want righteousness? Or do I actually prefer sin?

On the day of judgement our hearts will be laid open, and the decision will be made.

John Launchbury

(With many thanks to Paul Launchbury for his help in the development of this series)

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