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Righteousness by Faith #23: Righteousness by Faith & the Cultural War

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” Romans 1:17

During my lifetime the pendulum of righteous living within our culture has swung drastically. And in that swing, it shows the difficulty of Christians actually being righteous within our culture.

Many believers lament the changing mores taking place. People who were ashamed of their lifestyles now parade and protest for their version of normal life to be, well . . . normal. And it seems that a growing chorus of opponents is marginalizing our version of influence over society.

But wait! When you take a walk through American history and the righteousness of the church, you get a mixed bag. I am not talking about ancient history. Some of the worst offenses in human compassion during the Civil Rights movement were from people in the church—even when their opponents were, often enough—other believers of a different skin hue. Not just in the South, either. In the name of Jesus, certain military operations were considered ‘righteous.’ Convoluted ideas about morality were advanced in an effort to keep God blessing America.

Today there is talk about war on Christianity. What this seems to mean is that people want to remove or redesign the public arena so that Christian thought no longer dominates our society. But this battle offers us an opportunity to rethink living out a righteousness by faith.

Paul sent one of his most powerful letters to the church in Rome. Now the first century Roman Empire hardly qualifies as a bastion of Christian faith. He starts by reminding his readers that God is the source of all righteousness—that the gospel reveals this aspect of God. I wrote about this truth in the first several blogs in this series. But Paul has a deeper purpose in mind as he pens this letter. He is bringing clarity to a problem that has dogged the early church for much of its brief history.

What do you do with the righteousness problem brought about by including the Gentiles as full members of the church? This was a hot issue for several reasons. They were a different ethnic group from the first believers, who were Jewish. They understood none of the niceties of the righteous requirements of the Law. They brought differing versions of righteous living to the table. They did not understand about clean and unclean foods and definitely had a suspicious former relationship with idols.

There were other reasons for this tension, but the point that Paul makes at the beginning of his letter comes from Habakkuk. “The righteous will live by faith.” Let me unpack that powerful verse.

When you seek to define how to live righteously in an ever changing world, we know that God is wholly righteousness. Unfortunately, we also live after the Fall, which means even we who are believers tend to use God to justify our unholy version of righteousness. We cannot be sure that the way of life we promote is not also part of the problem. The Jewish believers thought their version was the true one. The Gentiles couldn’t get some of the rules that their older siblings in the faith were trying to impose on them. Pride and control were getting in the way of being a life-giving community.

Who was right? Who was wrong? This verse cut right through the questions. You will live by faith. God’s way is not always so black and white that human morality can capture it in an all-encompassing document. But it is realized through an ever-increasing relationship.

By faith we humbly admit that God’s ways are not our ways; God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. By faith, we submit to midcourse corrections as we realize that the standards we hold are far from the character of God. By faith, we realize we cannot get life in community right without knowing God better.

I find this truth devastating at times. My own personal history has shown me that I was living by moral rules that prevented me from questioning my culture. I need to continually learn how to live out righteousness by faith through pursuing intimacy with God. It is God who is in the process of conforming me to the likeness of Christ instead of confirming me in my version of Christianity. Especially one that has the reek of self-righteousness as a substitute for a righteousness by faith.

More to come…

-Steve Smith