The Controversy of Righteousness

In this post I will describe how the world is constantly at odds with Christ, and how this conflict between them always centers on the definition of righteousness. To begin, we will note that Christ engaged in vigorous finger pointing, explicitly and persuasively calling out the sinful nature of those who resisted him. I will describe the two kinds of lies the world uses against Christ in this controversy and highlight the need to completely reject partially-true accusations. Hopefully, this will give you a better understanding of the strategies the devil is using to keep people from saving faith in Christ.

Many Christians seem to think that the church’s mission is to be accepted by the world. In truth, the church should not try to be accepted by the world, because there is constant hostility between Christ and the world. The church should be rejected by the world, or perhaps more to the point, the church should demonstrate that the world is rejected by God. We do this by faithfully confessing the truth without compromise in the face of all the hostility the world can muster.

When the church confesses the truth without compromise, it is a faithful representative of Christ. Jesus did not come to soften the requirements of God or show that God and the world were anything less than diametrically opposed. When Christ delivered the sermon on the mount, he not only revealed the beauty of true holiness, he explained that even the best men and women fall dramatically short of the righteousness that is required. He didn’t lower the standards; he explained how high they really are.

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

Matthew 5:20-22

The world is evil. The men and women in it are evil. They are creatures destined for destruction, disobedient to righteousness, as we all were before Christ redeemed us. But despite being rotten to the core, the world will not admit it’s own vileness. This results in a constant controversy over the definition of righteousness. The controversy is seen in the conflict between Christ and the generation of Jews he was sent to.

“…You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”

Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.

John 8:44-49

They would not come out and say “we reject righteousness.” To say that would admit that they must change. Instead they accused and condemned Jesus. Jesus was literally the most righteous person to ever set foot on the earth. He was the kindest, the most generous, the most honest man ever. He was also the most objectionable, the most hated, and the most lied about.

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.

Matthew 10:24-25

As Christ and the world stand face to face, each calling the other evil, one is lying and the other is telling the truth. Can you tell which is which?

When Christ condemns the world, he condemns it truthfully. The world is full of backstabbing, double dealing, and self-righteous hypocrisy. Christ taught us that the two great commandments are to love God and love your neighbor. The world is busy finding how many ways those commandments can be broken. Some of it is very creative! But whether the corruption is cliched or novel, the light exposes it for what it is.

In contrast, when the world condemns Christ, it condemns him by one of two kinds of lies. One kind of lie is to condemn him for what he is not, for example, they called him a drunk. Drunkenness is a sin, but Christ was not a drunk, so when they called him that, they were lying. Another kind of lie is to condemn him for what he really did do. For example, he really did heal men on the sabbath. When they said healing on the sabbath was contrary to righteousness, they were lying again.

Both kinds of accusation have a true element. When Christ is condemned for drunkenness, the truthful element is that drunkenness really is wrong. When Christ is condemned for healing on the sabbath, the truthful element is that he really did do it. The technical term for a partly-true accusation is: false.

Note carefully that in this sense, partially true is totally false. When a Pharisee condemns Jesus for drunkenness, the Pharisee is entirely wrong, no matter how persuasively he decries the evil of drunkenness. No one should respond by saying, “well, he does have a point.” His point is to reject Jesus, in order to defend his own self-righteousness. It is a controversy of righteousness. Does the Pharisee truly have anything to condemn Jesus for? If he does, then he has a point. If he does not, then he has no point. Partly-true accusations are entirely false.

If we fail to reject partly-true accusations, then we will soon find ourselves united with the Pharisees in condemning Christ. We will find ourselves backing away from him. Why does this follow? Because we can be confident that we will hear partly-true (read, false) accusations against Christ. We have heard them already. When we hear them, we must decide what to do with the accusation. The only way to remain unreservedly devoted to Christ is to recognize the accusations as false and reject them. If we fail to reject them, we become casualties in the war over who is right and who is wrong.

The world engages in the controversy of righteousness in order to challenge Christ’s authority, and not for any other reason. If Christ is corrupt, then he is not fit to hold the authority he claims. If his teachings are suspect, then we may (indeed, we must) pick and choose as we see fit. He then ceases to be an authority. He is then one voice among many, and the world is freed from the loathsome obligation to submit to him.

This dynamic explains why there can be no compromise with those who resist the righteousness of Christ and his teachings. The real issue is Christ’s authority to tell us how to live our lives and to judge us for our decisions. Because of this, any “compromise” is total surrender to the world. More than that, to come to an agreement with the world in this controversy, is to align with the world in rebellion against Christ.

But if the world is not righteous, then it has nothing with which to answer Christ’s accusation. If Christ is righteous, and the world is not, then the world is desperately in need of the forgiveness and the redemption that he alone can offer.

If we, in the church, take Christ’s side in this controversy, then we can feel, as he feels, the weightiness of every day. We can see, as he sees, the desperate need of those who have not yet submitted to the righteousness of God. Then we can hold out the gospel as the life-saving, all-or-nothing proposition that it truly is.

On the other hand, it is possible that we don’t see what’s really going on in this controversy. It’s possible to be taken in by the sincere-sounding speech and the partial truths. If we forget that the world is at war with Christ, if we think this is a mature conversation between adults, if we don’t recognize it as a knock down, drag out fight… as a screaming, blue fit… as a last-ditch effort to deny that the kingdom of God is at hand, then we can not offer the life-saving solution, which is admission of guilt, and turning away from sin, to trust in Christ.


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