"Now as he reasoned about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and answered, 'Go away for now; when I have a convenient time I will call for you." (Acts 24:25)
The Apostle Paul reasoned about "righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come" before Felix, the Roman governor. This reasoning frightened Felix--for it brought too much exposure of his own sin and state of spiritual peril--and so he dismissed Paul from his presence. Although the Gospel that Paul preached to Felix was not "effective" in converting him, at least on the spot, it was the right Gospel for Paul to preach to Felix, for it was the true Gospel.
Our current state of Christian Evangelicalism is so confused about the Gospel that Paul's Gospel sounds foreign to our ears. "Why," we ask, "would he preach the Gospel in the categories of 'righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come' when he could have given Felix a simple-minded Gospel presentation?
Paul preached the Gospel with integrity and biblical fidelity. He rightly understood (and thus is our example to follow) that in order to preach the Gospel, the evangelist must reason about "righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come." But in what manner, exactly, did Paul preach these things to unbelievers?
This current lesson will explore only the first term in Paul's reasoning to Felix: "righteousness." When Paul "reasoned about righteousness" before Felix (and the irony is that Paul, the vulnerable prisoner, was courageous in preaching, while Felix, the powerful governor, was shaking in his boots at the power of the message), what, specifically, did he preach to him?
There is no way to answer this question with absolute certainty. Doctor Luke, the author of the book of Acts, does not give us the record of what, exactly, Paul said under the subheading of "righteousness." And if we were to study all of the ways in which Paul reasons about "righteousness" in his New Testament epistles, we would end up writing a multi-volume series of tomes in order to try to explain the vastness of our findings.
Using an introductory form, then, we will limit our study of Paul's reasoning about "righteousness" to some brief, but nevertheless complex thoughts concerning three specific categories: the righteousness of God; the righteousness of Christ; and the righteousness of the believer.
(1) The righteousness of God is foundational for a true understanding of the Gospel: "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ...for in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith..." (Romans 1:16-17).
God's "righteousness" is the practice of His holy nature and the execution of His holy justice. In His righteousness, God never does wrong and thus is always extolled for His justice: "righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne...the heavens declare His righteousness, and all the peoples see His glory" (Psalm 97:2, 6).
Still, the wonderful news is that God, in His astonishing mercy, is willing to grant His own righteousness to unjust, unrighteous people, by faith. The transaction of God "imputing" (that is, crediting) His own righteousness to us is a transaction that only comes via the wire-transfer of faith. Through faith in God's merciful promise of righteousness, we (who, apart from faith, are unrighteous, filled with evil, self-condemned, and deserving of the judgment of an everlasting Hell) can be granted, apart from any righteousness of our own, God's own righteousness:
"But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe." (Romans 3:21-22)
(2) Christ accomplishes the "imputation" of God's righteousness to us through faith, by way of His incarnation. As the Son of God who has taken upon Himself human flesh, He is fully divine and fully human. In His divinity, He is the righteousness of God. In His humanity, He embodies the righteousness of God on our behalf. That is, when we see Christ in the Gospels, we see true righteousness. But this also means that once He has ascended to His Father, it will be necessary for the Holy Spirit to convict the world "in regard to righteousness," for the world will no longer see the living Christ in its midst:
"And when He [the Holy Spirit] has come, He will convict the world...of righteousness, because I go to the Father and you see Me [the human embodiment of righteousness] no more." (John 16:8, 10)
God sent Christ into the world because "He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor; therefore His own Arm [that is, Christ] brought salvation for Him; and His own righteousness, it sustained Him. For He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; He put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloak" (Isaiah 59:16-17).
Thus Christ was baptized "to fulfill all righteousness." (Matthew 3:15) At the baptism of Christ, His death and resurrection were foretold, publicly, and especially as they spoke of the only way in which God's righteousness could become our own: through the one God-man, Jesus Christ.
(3) The righteousness of the believer comes only by faith in Christ: "...that I might win Christ, and might be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness which is of the law: But that which springeth of the faith which is in Christ. I mean the righteousness which cometh of God through faith in knowing Him and the virtue of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His passions, that I might be conformable unto His death if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection from death" (Philippians 3:8-11, William Tyndale's translation).
Apart from faith in Christ, we are not righteous. We are not "good people." Since all of life is created by God and for God, even our so-called altruistic deeds and acts of compassion are tainted by rebellion against God. An atheist who tends to the needs of the poor is doing his deed in a wicked manner, because he is divorcing his deed from the worship of the triune God. A professing Christian who is not truly born from above, who lacks true repentance and true faith in Christ, may do "religious" things at church on Sunday mornings, but this is notauthentic righteousness. Rather, "we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteous acts are like a filthly garment" (Isaiah 64:6).
Only by turning away from our sinful deeds and believing in Jesus' subsitutionary death for us (He died in our stead, absorbing the wrath of God [that we deserved] in His own body, on the tree), may we have His righteousness in us:
"For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Corinthians 5:21)
Thus Christ, Himself, is our righteousness: "For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes" (Romans 10:4). His indwelling presence constitutes our righteousness.
However, having received Christ, His righteousness is something that we must put into practice: "He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous...Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God" (1 John 3:7, 10). If the righteousness of Christ is in us, it will flow out of us in works of righteousness. There is none who is truly born again in Christ who does not begin to, and continue to practice righteousness in his everyday living. All true Christians shun wicked deeds and practice holiness.
And yet our righteousness will not be perfected until the coming of the blessed hope, our heavenly glorification in Christ: "For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith" (Galatians 5:5). The righteousness of Christ in us is growing, steadily, with ever-increasing movements towards perfection. But our hope is that sinless perfection, pure righteousness, which cannot be attained in these mortal bodies, will be realized once we throw down our temporary dwellings and enter into our permanent residences in Heaven.
The Gospel, then, has much to do with "righteousness." If we claim to preach the Gospel but do not reason about righteousness, then we are misleading evangelists. Beloved, let not the Apostle have to say to us, "Awake to righteousness, and do not sin; for some do not have the knowledge of God. I speak this to your shame" (1 Corinthians 15:34). Rather, let us preach and practice the righteousness of Christ.
Paul "reasoned about righteousness" before Felix, and we ought to do so before a world that so desperately needs to tremble at the Words of the Gospel, once again.