Civil Righteousness vs. Saving Righteousness
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” (Jesus Christ, in Luke 6:32-36, ESV)
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”…Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”” (Galatians 3:10, 13, ESV)
“Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others: yet, because they proceed not from an heart purified by faith; nor are done in a right manner, according to the Word; nor to a right end, the glory of God, they are therefore sinful, and cannot please God, or make a man meet to receive grace from God: and yet, their neglect of them is more sinful and displeasing to God.” (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 16, Section 7, “Of Good Works”)
God’s Word and our Confession of Faith teach that unregenerate men cannot not sin. From God’s perspective, those who are apart from a saving union with Jesus Christ perform absolutely no good works which could avail for them as a basis or ground for their entrance into heaven, as a “saving righteousness” for them. Only in union with Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit can the believer perform genuinely good works, and even then our good works as believers are still tainted by sin, and thus cannot in any way serve as our saving righteousness before God.
Those who have not been regenerated (i.e., “born again”) by the Holy Spirit are revealed by Scripture to be in a state of spiritual death (Eph. 2:1) — dead to the things of God. God’s perfectly holy and righteous character demands that all of His revealed law be obeyed perfectly, with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, all the time, and He pronounces a curse upon those who do not abide and continue in all things that are written in His holy law (Gal. 3:10). God doesn’t “grade on a curve” or lower His holy standard to meet our best attempts! Furthermore, in order for God to consider something to be a genuinely “good work” by His standard, it must be something that is (1) required by God in His Word (i.e., not some “good work” made up by man or the traditions of men — like crossing oneself or sprinkling “holy water” on oneself or recycling or lowering one’s “carbon footprint” or some other form of humanly-devised religious or civil works); (2) it must be performed for the primary goal or end of glorifying God (and not simply done out of guilt or to feel good about oneself); and (3) it must be performed from a heart of faith in Christ. Even if a “good deed” is outwardly in conformity to the requirements of God’s law and greatly benefits both the one who performs it and others, God does not regard it as a genuinely good work unless it is done in accordance with His revealed Word, for His glory, and with a heart of faith in Christ. Otherwise, even the best outward works are only really “splendid sins” (as I believe Saint Augustine once described the good works of the unregenerate). These “splendid sins” (i.e., the good works of the unregenerate) fall far far short of that perfect saving righteousness we sinners need in order to gain entrance into heaven. Only Christ’s perfect, everlasting righteousness which He merited for us by His life of perfect obedience to God as the second Adam can avail as our title to eternal life! Only His blood and righteousness can serve as our saving righteousness — which is why we must be found in spiritual union with Him if we would be saved. As the hymnwriter says, “Jesus, thy blood and righteousness, my beauty are, my glorious dress!” Only through faith (and faith alone) in Christ and His finished work is this saving righteousness of Christ imputed to us.
However, to acknowledge the biblical truth that none of us (whether Christian or not, whether regenerate or unregenerate) can obtain a saving righteousness that will avail the judgment of the infinitely holy Almighty God by our own works and “merits” and efforts; and to acknowledge that no human good works can attain the level of saving righteousness before God (thus driving us to look outside of ourselves to Christ and His righteousness alone for justification!); does not nullify what theologians have sometimes described as the reality of a “civil righteousness” which exists even among the unregenerate.
“Civil righteousness” is that outward righteousness which enables human society to continue in relative peace, harmony and prosperity. One does not have to be a Christian to acknowledge the many benefits that come to society from the practice of civil righteousness. One does not have to be a believer to see the value of (say) being a good neighbor, or an honest businessman, or a diligent employee, or of contributing to worthy charities, or of putting one’s life on the line to rescue others from danger or to defend one’s nation from outside aggressors. Even unregenerate people often perform praiseworthy deeds of civil righteousness such as loving their children, demonstrating fair play and honorable behavior, performing deeds of heroism and courage that benefit others, and showing great kindness toward the downtrodden. Deeds of civil righteousness performed by unregenerate men often bring great temporal benefits to themselves and others; and as such we who are believers in Christ can be thankful for them. Indeed, we should even seek to emulate such deeds and to outdo our non-Christian neighbors in performing such deeds of civil righteousness.
When we who are Reformed believers stress mankind’s total depravity and inability to be and do genuine good in the eyes of God, we are not thereby denying the reality or the value of “civil righteousness.” As our Confession of Faith states, while the “civil righteousness” of the unregenerate is actually sinful in the eyes of God (because it is not properly directed by Scripture or properly motivated from a heart of faith and love toward God); nevertheless God is even more displeased when the unregenerate neglect to perform such outward good deeds (i.e., their neglect of civil righteousness is even more sinful than their performance of deeds of civil righteousness). So we do not deny the value or necessity or temporary, earthly benefits of “civil righteousness.” Rather, what we deny is that such outward deeds of civil righteousness contribute anything whatsoever toward our eternal salvation, or in any way earn or merit God’s favor and the bestowal of eternal life. The saving righteousness we need in order to gain entrance into heaven is a perfect, spotless righteousness, a righteousness unmixed with sin. As sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) we are simply incapable in ourselves of offering to God such a saving righteousness, and even our best works of civil righteousness avail nothing to gain His favor. This is why we desperately need an “alien righteousness,” a righteousness outside of us given as a pure gift of God’s grace – namely, Christ’s righteousness – if we would stand justified before God the Father. The good news of the gospel is that this saving righteousness is available to all who would believe (trust) in Jesus Christ alone for salvation from sin! The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus the Lord (Romans 6:23)!
Dear reader, has Christ’s perfect, saving righteousness been imputed to you? Has God credited to your “spiritual account” Christ’s everlasting, saving righteousness? Or are you relying on your own deeds of outward, civil righteousness to justify you before God? You need a perfect righteousness to serve as your title to heaven. Mere civil righteousness simply won’t cut it. Only Christ’s righteousness will avail for you! And the good news is that God offers Christ’s righteousness to you as a gift, to be received by simple faith. Jesus Christ, God’s Son Incarnate, obeyed God’s law perfectly, died on the cross to pay the penalty for sin, and rose from the dead on the third day. From His throne in heaven He calls all people everywhere to repent and believe in Him as He is offered in the gospel. Whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Will you repent and believe?
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (Second Corinthians 5:21, ESV)