BREAKING THE “RIGHTEOUS” METER

BY MARIAH COWARD

In the first few years after God saved me I saw sin as this unfortunate parasite that was slowly sucking the life out of me. But I imagined that through enough hours of prayer, fasting and quiet time with the Lord I could successfully rid myself of these pesky leeches. I thought that through some sort of twisted idea of self-achievement I would finally be free of them. I would love God with all my heart, mind, and soul. I looked forward to 5 years, 10 years, and, if I really sucked at being a Christian, 15 years from now finally to have a pure relationship with the Lord. No more sin for me. No siree! Or at least less sin. 

I'm sorry, but that idea is so full of lies. We are all sinners by nature, every one one of us. In the deepest, hidden parts of us we are laden with sin. It's inescapable. It didn't go away after we were saved and it never will. The Holy Spirit didn't magically make us perfect little Christ followers. 

Isn’t that an uncomfortable truth, that we will always need a Savior? The weird part about our self-denial is that we know that, yet every time we sin it's a surprise to us. We think, "Oh my gosh! How could I do that?" We're taken aback. And that surprise leads to defeat as we realize we will never get it right. Why the defeat?

Let me give you an image that we all believe at times. We are so addicted to self-salvation projects that we think we have two meters. We have a "sin meter" and a "righteous meter." We break God's law and the sin meter rises while the righteous meter lowers in synchrony. And each time we repent our "sin meter" is dropping and our "righteousness meter" is rising. This is a foolish idea--an idea that is killing the hearts of Christians everywhere. 

First of all, there are no "meters." If there were, you would have both meters continually full to the brim. Martin Luther said something so simple, yet so perceptive, about our human condition. "We are simultaneously sinners and saints." Fully a sinner in ourselves and yet fully righteous in Christ. What kind of crazy split personality weirdos are we? Yet this idea is all throughout the Bible. Romans 1 paints this picture perfectly. I'll read it as our self-righteous nature tends to read it. 

“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things,'' Romans 1:21-23.

Idols! Disgusting, detestable idols. And read on to see what it got for those sinners:

“Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them,'' Romans 1:24-32.

Is that not the filthiest little list you have ever seen? Makes me shiver to imagine. Boy, am I glad I'm not like those people! But wait a minute. Keep reading:

Romans 2:1 “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.”

What? I imagine a record falling of its track here. Yes, that's right. We practice the very same things. We are filled with all manner of unrighteousness. We are full of envy, murder and strife. We are gossips and slanderers. We not only follow the evil we have seen, but we invent new evils. We are faithless haters of God to our very core. We do all these things and we approve of other people who do it, too. Are your little self-righteous feathers not bristling right now? I know mine were when I was first confronted with this idea. 

Paul goes on in a very precise way to say that we're all sinners. It's not about us, our heritage, or our ability (rather, inability) to uphold the law. 

But then we get our good news. We get our breath of life. We get our welcomed sigh of a burden lifted. 

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law,'' Romans 3:2-28.

That is good news! However, remember, all this was not just true on the day of salvation; it is true continually. We are simultaneously sinners and saints. We are inventors of evil and perfectly righteous at the same time. We are faithless haters of God and yet perfectly faithful followers of God. Not because of our own doing, but because Jesus was perfectly righteous for us. Jesus was faithful because we aren’t. Jesus invented purity for us while we invented evil for ourselves. What a glorious exchange! Our death for His life. We choose idols while Jesus chooses God for us. 

Martin Luther gave us advice that has freed me on so many occasions, "So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: "I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is, there I shall be also!" 

Agree quickly with the accuser and point to Jesus, even when that accuser is you.

Mariah is the worship liturgist at Trinity Church NWA. She loves music and theology and the intersection between the two. She is wife to Daniel and mother to Clara and Amelie. She lives in Rogers Arkansas. 

Twitter @MariahCCoward