One of the interesting things about the bible is that it defies theological systematization. The bible is unruly and messy. And for some, this multivocality (which many take to be a euphemism for inconsistency and incoherence) is damning, marking the bible as an error-filled and wholly human product.
I get that. There is nothing more disorienting than growing up as a fundamentalist and encountering multivocality and discrepancies in the biblical text. This is a well worn path--disillusionment with biblical literalism--from belief to unbelief.
But while I appreciate these struggles, and struggle with them myself, there are times when I really enjoy the zany inconsistency of the bible. I enjoy the fact that it often feels like we are trying to stuff a thunderstorm into a bottle. What I love (and hate if I'm honest) about the bible is how, just when you've got something figured out, there is a chorus of voices within the text that resists what you've just created--your simplification, codification, and systematization. There's a reason, for example, why Calvinists and Arminians will never agree. They each sit on opposite ends of one of these perennial tensions.
All this struck me the other day thinking about how a lot of Church folk use the word "righteous." Specifically, they are not using the word in a biblical way. Rather, they are using the word as a theological term. A fully biblical usage leaves words messy and imprecise. But used theologically and doctrinally these words become clean, clinical, and precise. The word "righteous" in this instance is just a cog in a theological machine.
For example, when many Christians use the word "righteous" they don't have the biblical usage in mind. Because the biblical usage is all over the place. Rather, their use of the word "righteous" is governed by how the word functions in a made-man system that is imposed upon the bible. And when this man-made system is imposed on the bible a lot of the unruly stuff in the biblical text is cut out, marginalized, and left to the side.
Think of man-made doctrinal systems as a cookie cutter and the bible as the cookie dough.
What this means is that when people use a word like "righteous" they are using the cookie cutter version of the word, not the cookie dough version of the word, the biblical version of the word. That is to say, when people use doctrinal terms they are pushing a lot of biblical material to the side, ignoring a lot of the biblical material that doesn't fit into the shape of the cookie cutter system.
Let me illustrate this. One cookie cutter use of the word "righteous" is to claim that righteousness is imputed by God and has nothing to do with human moral effort. We all know passages, most of them in Romans, where Paul uses the word righteous in this way. But that cookie cutter use of the word leaves a lot of cookie dough on the cutting board. Some examples:
Matthew 25.45-46Matthew 25 is a great example of how the righteous are defined as those who care for the poor and needy and, thus, are the ones who inherit eternal life.
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
Here are some examples of personal piety earning you the label righteous:
Mark 6.20aThis passage in Luke is a nice parallel of Matthew 25 where welcoming the poor is "repaid at the resurrection of the righteous":
Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man.
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.
Luke 14.13-15Here's a curious passage in Romans, of all places, about righteousness being connected to moral effort:
"But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
Romans 2.6-13Speaking of Romans, just when you think you've got the mantra "by faith alone" down you run into Martin Luther's letter of straw.
God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.
All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.
James 2.24Following James, you can't get any more clear on the relationship between actually doing right and being righteous than the words of the Beloved Apostle:
You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.
1 John 3.7If John is to be believed then there's been a whole lot of deceiving going on! When was the last time you've heard it preached from the pulpit: "Let there be no mistake, dear congregation, it is only the one who does what is right who is righteous." Personally, I think we need some sermons like this. I agree with St. John. Christians are being lead astray.
Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
Finally, just when you hear a great sermon on how all our good works are filthy rags that we need to take off so we can be clothed in Christ...
"Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)