The issue of righteous in the life of the believer hinges completely on one of two concepts: either personal performance or grace. We can’t mix the two. They are totally different realities. And I must choose to invest my faith in one or the other (although we often try to live in a bit of both). Attempting to mix the two only gives rise to confusion, disappointment and ultimately despair.
A performance perspective, called legalism, would imply that I can be taught to live (in affect, perform) in a way that satisfies God’s natural demands for holiness as a result of my own efforts. On the other hand, a grace perspective causes me to realize I am granted righteous status in God’s mind as a result of those demands being met on my behalf by Christ’s holy life and vicarious and atoning death.
This classic debate rages in varying degrees throughout Christianity and has for nearly two thousand years. But I believe the problem is rooted in a simple misunderstanding of what Jesus’ life and death was all about. To understand how an imminently holy God could be holy and at the same time, receive me who is not, is illogical, if it were not for the fact that there was a performance of a perfect life that satisfied His righteous standards. This performance demand was satisfied by Christ’s sinless life.
Christ’s death would not have been efficacious if His life had not been perfect. He lived a perfect life, He performed at the level that God’s righteous standards required and then died the death that a sinner deserved who could not live perfectly. He died the death that I, even all of mankind, deserved to die. By accomplishing both a perfect (sinless) life and dying as a sacrifice, He made grace a possible reality for us all. He earned the favor of God through His righteous living and made the blessing of holiness applicable to all of us who could not measure up in our own works, but simply believed in Him as the Savior who died in our stead. This is grace in its simplest form. My best efforts leave me totally short of God’s holy standards!
One could say then that Salvation and blessing does come through righteous works and holy performance, just not mine. It comes to us as a gift of grace and as a result of Christ’s perfection as a man. Therefore, it is only as I am “in Christ” that I am acceptable to God. In this way God’s standards are met and my position of favor and forgiveness is ensured.