| Ethics Versus Righteousness
By: Jerry S. Maneker
“Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of
regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost…. (Titus 3:5)
The above verse of Scripture implicitly distinguishes “ethics” from “righteousness!” “Ethics” frequently denotes and
connotes values that are relative to time and place. For example, in some cultures corruption of public officials is viewed
as despicable. Yet, in some other countries it is viewed as laudable, in that more qualified people may apply for jobs in
the public arena if they know that beyond their salaries, they will get payoffs and other forms of perks associated with
their position. What we view as ethical may well be viewed as foolishness to others.
“Ethics” denotes a system of moral principles or rules of conduct dealing with the rightness or wrongness of motives
(which, ultimately, only God knows) and behaviors that are frequently consequences of genetic and social forces which,
quite frequently, involve very circumscribed “free will.”
“Ethics” is frequently viewed as being related to “decency,” which is also frequently related to time and place. For
example, public nudity is considered indecent, unless one is in a nudist camp. Many Christians view ethics and
decency, as conventionally defined, to be hallmarks of the Christian faith. When we read that we are to “Abstain from all
appearance of evil” (1Thessalonians 5:22) we immediately think of ethics and decency as defining the Christian life.
It’s true that we are not to cause hindrance to the Gospel or cause a weaker brother or sister to stumble, but ethics and
decency are not the heart of the Gospel message. If it were, our good works would define us as Christians and, since
many atheists do good works and are ethical and decent, “faith” would be largely irrelevant in our Christian walk.
I’m not advocating that we avoid ethical behavior and decency as is culturally approved! I am advocating, however, that
the heart of the Gospel message doesn’t reside here. It resides in the “righteousness” that has been imputed to us by
“Righteousness” denotes an attribute of God (for example, see Romans 3:5), the context of which shows that the
righteousness of God means essentially the same as His faithfulness which is consistent with His own nature and
promises to us. Romans 3:25-26 speaks of His righteousness as exhibited in the death of our Kinsman-Redeemer,
which shows all people that God takes sin very seriously; the death of Christ demonstrates that quality of holiness in Him
which once and for all shows His condemnation and His ensuing forgiveness of all sin to those who trust in Him.
For the most part, the Apostle Paul uses the term “righteousness” (dikaiosune) as that gracious gift of God to people
whereby all who implacably trust Jesus are brought into right relationship with God. This righteousness is unattainable
by obedience to any law or by any merit of our own, or any other condition than that of trust in Christ.
The person who trusts in Christ becomes “the righteousness of God in Him” (2Corinthians 5:21) and becomes in Christ
all that God requires him or her to be; all that he or she could never be in himself or herself. Only by faith in Christ can
we appropriate God’s righteousness that He imputes to the Christian! (Romans 5:2; Ephesians 2:8-9)
Ethics and decency are relative concepts and attributes; “righteousness” transcends time and place and is only
obtained as the free, undeserved gift of God to those who implacably trust Him to deliver, keep, protect, and heal them
throughout eternity. As Groucho Marx said in one of his films, “Are you going to trust me or your lying eyes?” Do we
trust the promises of God or our life-circumstances, “ethics” and “works?”
One basic ingredient in the Old Testament idea of righteousness is relationship, both between God and man (Psalm 50:
6; Jeremiah 9:24) and between man and man (Deuteronomy 24:13; Jeremiah 22:3). Righteous action is action which
flows out of God’s gracious election of Israel; God Himself is righteous (2Chronicles 12:6; Psalm 7:9). In the Old
Testament, the coming Messianic ruler is seen as the special recipient and instrument of the divine righteousness; “The
Righteous One” was a Messianic title. (Isaiah 53:11; Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14)
In the New Testament, human attainment of righteousness falls far short of a true conformity to the divine will (Romans 3:
9-20; Luke 18:9-14; John 8:7). No matter how “righteous” we try to be, we fall far short of God’s righteousness and that
is why the Perfect Sacrifice was necessary to redeem us from the consequences of all of our past, present, and future
sins, as well as our very sin natures.
By implacable trust in Jesus and His work of atonement, our unrighteous selves receive God’s righteousness, in that we
are given a true relationship with God which involves the forgiveness of all sin, our reconciliation with God, and a
standing with God as “righteous,” although we don’t deserve that standing.
All of our unrighteousness was dealt with on that Cross!