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Righteousness is the utmost concern for any true believer. We want to know what is right, and we want to do what is right. But righteousness can be a paradox too.

The New Testament addresses the problem of the "law" with regard to righteousness. Paul says that the first five books of the Old Testament (i.e. the Law) were "holy". And yet something went wrong when people started measuring righteousness purely on the basis of the written code of rules. God was trying to teach certain disciplines, but he could only achieve his goal when people were fully aware of their total dependence on God's superior wisdom and righteousness.

Here is the truth in traditional "grace" teaching, which may have been missed by Gandhi and others, and which may easily be missed by ourselves if we are not careful.

It is true that the church in general has turned the grace of God into an excuse to willingly disobey everything that Jesus taught. However, God has always been able to achieve more with the religious failures than he has been able to achieve with the religious successes. He doesn't want us to be "bad", but he does want us to be aware of just how bad we are... even after all of our best attempts to be good.

Improvement stops when anyone believes they have achieved perfection. And improvement is God's real measure of righteousness. It's a direction that he is looking for, rather than a destination. The most filthy rotten sinner who is trying to stop sinning is the one who will receive God's mercy in preference to a smug, self-satisfied "saint".

The question is: Are you improving? You cannot improve if you think you have arrived.

The traditional communion passage in Corinthians asks people to examine themselves before they partake of the bread and the wine, to determine whether or not they are worthy to partake. It warns that anyone who partakes unworthily brings damnation on themselves. This is a classic illustration of the contrast between righteousness and self-righteousness. "Worthiness" for a Christian comes only from an awareness of our unworthiness.

The communion ritual symbolises the grace of God, made available through the shed blood of Christ. But this forgiveness is only available to sinners. If you are not aware of your sinfulness, you are not worthy to receive that forgiveness, and you face damnation.

Jesus said, "I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Matthew 9:13) Obviously he wants us to be righteous. But we can only move in that direction by recognising that we are not righteous. We are sinners. We don't have to even try to be sinners to qualify for the title. We are forever falling short of God's perfection, even when we try our darnedest to be "good".

We can (and should) be doing everything we possibly can to improve our relationship with God, but in the end we will still be unrighteous... unworthy... sinners in need of God's forgiveness. It is only recognition of our need for forgiveness that makes it available to us. It is only recognition of our unworthiness that makes us "worthy" to partake of the blood of Christ. And it is only recognition of our unrighteousness that leads us to God's righteousness. Any concept of righteousness apart from this is nothing more than self-righteousness... the sin of the scribes and the Pharisees, and something that the Apostle Paul called "the chiefest amongst sins".

When Jesus sent his disciples out two by two, he said that they should enquire as to who was "worthy" to help them, and only to accept help from such people. He was countering the tendency to see faith missionaries as beggars, who must be graciously assisted by the patronising superiority of society's "good guys". In keeping with the rest of his message, it is clear that "worthy" supporters would not be those who looked down their noses on the disciples. They would be those who considered it a privilege to help God's messengers. If there was any hint of self-righteousness in the donors, then they were no longer worthy to help true disciples of Jesus.

When we are truly living by faith in God (and not in the donations), we will not be so desperate for funds that we will justify self-righteous donors. Anyone who feels insulted that we would even consider that they may not be worthy to help us has automatically disqualified themselves. Their own perceived worthiness is their damnation. If you think you are worthy, you are not.

People are used to being questioned about their worthiness for employment, their worthiness to join various clubs and organisations, their worthiness to vote, to receive awards and honours. They humbly submit to examinations to prove their worthiness, and by so doing, they accept the possibility that they may fail. But when it comes to examining one's worthiness in God's eyes, people take offence at anyone questioning their worthiness. This is most true when it comes to their worthiness to financially support God's messengers.

Because we live by faith, and because we distribute Christian tracts on the streets, religious people tend to think it is their duty to "test" us with theological questions before they can give us ten cents for a Christian comic book. But the moment we try to question them about their beliefs, or their worthiness to support us, they take offence.

It is the nature of Pharisees to believe they are God's appointed judges over everyone else, but that no one else has a right to judge them. This attitude, however, is what condemns them in God's sight. And it is what makes God prefer the worst sinner (in the eyes of the world) over them. If you think you are worthy, you are not.

Sadly, the grace teaching has been perverted into something even vile than the self-righteousness of the Pharisees. Religious people in Jesus' day were self-righteous about their good deeds, their prayers, their fasting, their gifts to the poor. Such people exist today as well, and they continue to make God sick. But the new breed of Pharisees are self-righteous about their lack of good deeds. They are proud of their false humility. Their claim to worthiness is based on their total lack of Christian discipline, and their total lack of interest in ever being disciplined.

This is what Gandhi saw in so many of his supposedly Christian friends. They boasted that righteousness no longer mattered to them. (And Gandhi added that their lives certainly backed up what they taught!) This new breed of Pharisees argued that they had been forgiven, and that was all that was needed. Because they were forgiven, they were on a plane far above anyone like Gandhi, who was still trying to be good.

It is the descendants of these people today who specialise in cult bashing. They teach that mainline Christians can commit adultery, rip off their employees, neglect their children, lie to themselves and God, and still be saved, simply because they are not trying to be good. They are proud of their unrighteousness.

Any group that dares to question this whole sordid state of affairs is labelled a cult, and condemned to hell on the grounds that they must be trying to "work their way to heaven". In other words, Christ's words of consolation to a penitent sinner have been turned into justification for boastful sinning. They boast that they sin every day, in word, thought, and deed, and they are proud of it. Rather than making them truly humble, truly aware of their unworthiness, their sinfulness has made them proud and self-righteous.

The relationship between God's righteousness and self-righteousness is a paradox, because what may start out as genuine humility can easily evolve into self-righteousness after we discover God's grace. Paul's warning to the Corinthians must never be forgotten if we are not to become derailed from appreciating our true relationship with God: "Let those who think they stand, take heed, lest they fall." (1 Corinthians 10:12) And let those who think they are worthy fall on their faces before God in repentance for their self-righteousness.

(See also Lest You Fall.)

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