Sara and I have just begun a fresh reading through Romans to hold what we’ve been learning about trauma and sin up to the light of Paul’s understanding of redemption.
In the first chapter, Paul mentions “the righteousness that comes by faith,” which is the theme of the entire book—how God does by grace what human effort could never achieve. I’ve taught this book many times throughout my life. On this read, it became clear to me how much the meaning of that phrase has changed over time. Truth, it seems, has a trajectory. It’s not a set of facts we come to believe, as if we could clearly see all its implications from the outset. Instead, Truth is the reality we come to embrace over time as Jesus continues to reveal himself and his light to us.
Reflecting on our journey with that phrase provides an interesting roadmap for the fascinating adventure Sara and I have shared.
In my younger days, I would have interpreted that phrase to mean “the good deeds that come from ‘the’ faith.” I would have seen faith as the total of the New Testament rituals and principles I believed and tried to implement. My focus was on my obedience to a list of New Testament expectations. Looking back, I wouldn’t say it led me to more righteousness but more of an appearance of righteousness. I learned how to act better, especially when I was being watched, but doing so only drove the unrighteousness deeper as it found refuge in “righteousness indignation” or “religious arrogance.” Both can be so easily justified as they provide the excuse we need to live a loveless life.
In my twenties and thirties, I would have interpreted that phrase as “the perfection that faith should produce.” This meant the perfection of my actions was the tool I used to evaluate the quality of my faith in God. In my more honest moments, every sin or failure became a source of condemnation and the constant demand for me to try harder. In moments of cognitive dissonance, I would find comfort in the fact that I was working harder than most other Christians I knew as if Jesus were judging on the bell curve. Again, the fruit of that was not righteousness but simply me trying harder to meet God’s standards.
In my mid-forties and early fifties, I would have interpreted that phrase, “Trusting God is the righteousness he seeks.” Some of what Paul says elsewhere underscores this. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” So that was better but still not complete. While there was no shame in it nor any call to perform better, it still didn’t allow me to recognize the transformation God wanted to do in my heart. My alleged faith became a cheap substitute for how he invited me to live rightly with myself and others instead of being the source of that transformation.
For the last twenty years, I have come to interpret that phrase as, “the whole-hearted living that results from my growing trust in Father’s love.” Rather than being an oppressive obligation God puts on us, righteousness is the essence of the freedom to be all God created me to be. I make my better decisions in his wisdom when I am at rest in him instead of striving. Growing trust does produce growing freedom. It not only seeks to untwist me from the distorting of darkness but also engages me with God’s purposes unfolding in the broader world. In my struggles, I’m less bogged down by my well-being and am increasingly aware of how he is loving me and the people around me. Though his way may mean greater pain in the short run, it leads me to a better way to deal with the uncertainties of life. It reminds me that my work is not trying to act more righteously but to find rest in his love and his work in the situations that confront me each day.
In each case, I would have used the exact phrase but applied it quite differently. Those who say, “I just believe what the Bible says,” don’t realize how often they interpret its words. We all do it, often in the vacuum of religious biases or our comfort. They can easily distort its meaning even as we claim to hold fast to the truth of Scripture. What we take Scripture to mean is always an interpretation. In the Jesus Lens, I said the most dangerous Christians in the world are those who don’t know they are interpreting the Bible and assume their interpretation is the only right one.
I have found that my interpretations of Scripture continue to change under the increasing light of his Spirit as he intersects with the reality of my life. How I have come to see “the righteousness that comes faith” in sharper focus over time has clarified its meaning for me. I can only wonder what insights this next decade might bring.
I love that my life is still being shaped by Paul’s words, confirmed by the continuing work of his Spirit in my heart. Seeing how those two line up has provided me the adventure of a lifetime as I awake each day with anticipation as to what he is still refining in my heart and mind.
Also of note—
The next gathering of the He Loves Me Book Discussion, which will take place on Saturday, November 11, at 1 p.m. Pacific Time. You can find the link for this conversation on the Group Page on Facebook, or if you are not a member of Facebook, you can write me for a link. These conversations are held and recorded on Zoom. We stream them live on my Facebook Author Page for those who don’t want to be in the Zoom discussion, and you’ll find our previous conversations there.
This week, we’ll cover Chapters Six and Seven: “The Tyranny of the Favor Line” and “What Shall I Give to God.” Each of these further breaks down the futility of trying to earn God’s favor with our good works or gifts and invites us into the depth of his love that overcomes all our need to perform.
If you’ve missed previous chapters you can find them here: