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A Righteousness by Faith #3: What can being a mess teach you?

That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. Philippians 3:8-9

Of all the characters Charles Schultz created for his long-running Peanuts comic strip, Pigpen stands in a category all by himself. Unlike Lucy, he doesn’t pretend he has it together. Unlike Snoopy, he does not try to pretend he is someone or something other than he is. He does not apologize for his dust. In short, he is a mess and he knows it.

This is a difficult lesson for the rest of us to grasp. We would prefer to put on our best face, speak out our best lines and keep the messiness of our souls carefully tucked away in our invisible inner closet. If we can get through most of life without people discovering the truth about ourselves, we will be thankful, if not whole.

Paul understood this all too well. In his former life, he was furiously righteous, trapped by the illusion that he was a holy man. In the guise of his delusion, he went out threatening, arresting and hurting people. Hate was his teaching method for trapping others into the same life he lived.

Now he was freed from the burden of his own righteousness because of Jesus. So he did not want his friends, those to whom he had proclaimed the gospel, to come to grief through teachers determined to handcuff them back to righteousness by law. It did not matter to him if these teachers claimed to know Jesus or not. Paul knew the righteousness taught by those teachers was a snare that would keep his friends away from the work of the Spirit.

This point is behind his dismissal of his former religious credentials. They were all a product of the flesh— deceiving Paul about his own excellence. When Paul speaks of wanting a righteousness that comes by faith in Christ instead of one based on the Law, he is recognizing two things.

The first is his inability to keep an external law, holy though it is. Yes, he had been faultless in his execution of the Law’s demands. But he knew now that he had been lying to himself about being a good man. In reality he was a mess. He had been fooled like so many before him by the lie that you cannot stray into unrighteousness if you work hard at a holy life. When his eyes were opened on his revenge tour to Damascus, the illusion was swept away. Not only was he not a good man, he had no means of becoming one by anything he could do.

The second thing that Paul knew now was that the deep change that comes from ‘righteousness by faith’ was because he was now found in Christ. Paul is not merely talking about accepting Jesus. He is referring to something substantially more. Paul understood that when Jesus showed up, he was included in Christ. He was no longer a hell-bent rebellious son of Adam. As God’s child, he now possessed Jesus’ spiritual genes. The righteousness being produced in him was not of his origin, but from Jesus doing in him what he could not do for himself.

The old Paul would have found this admission humiliating. The new Paul was grateful. “I learned the hard way that I was a mess. My own best efforts I now consider the same as the stuff you find on the ground in a pigpen. Nothing I could produce was really righteous when you put it next to Jesus. And now I live by faith, trusting Jesus to produce that same kind of righteousness in me because my whole future depends on it.”

-Steve Smith