How to be Righteous and Win God’s Approval

Surprising Truths

By Grantley Morris


How to be Righteous

How to Win God’s Approval

True Righteousness

Tragically, multitudes of apparently Christian people mistakenly think they are trusting Jesus as their Savior. God yearns to cleanse them from all unrighteousness but they have no idea that they have not let him do so.

Here’s a test as to whether you are genuinely trusting in Jesus as your Savior: will you risk your eternity by telling your divine Judge to forget all your years of sin-avoidance, righteous living, prayers, tithing, service to God, good deeds and doctrinal purity, and to judge you solely by what Jesus did on the cross?

Hedging our bets by trusting Jesus as our Savior and hoping that our good works might also help us win God’s approval is as impossible as hoping an airplane will take us soaring heavenwards while we insist on always keeping one foot on the ground. Just as the only way to soar heavenward is to put all your trust and weight in the plane and let go of the ground, so the only way to soar heavenward when you die is to let go of your every supposed moral and spiritual achievement before and after salvation and put all your hope of divine approval in what Jesus has done for you. We must do what the apostle Paul had to do:

    Philippians 3:4,6  . . . If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: . . . as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.

Wow! “. . . as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” is his honest self-assessment. Nevertheless, he continues:

    7-9 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, 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 and is by faith.

If anyone had reason to put confidence in his devotion to God and his own efforts to do good, it was Paul. Nevertheless, what made the apostle great is that he despised all his moral achievements as garbage. The King James Version calls his efforts, “dung” and this rather offensive word seems closer to the feeling of revulsion that the apostle wished to convey than milder terms. In his highly acclaimed commentary, Gerald F. Hawthorne, Professor of Greek at Wheaton College, renders the word, “unspeakable filth.” He says the word, “seems to have meant by usage either:

    (1) ‘dung,’ ‘muck’ both as excrement and as food gone bad
    (2) ‘scraps’ i.e. “what is left after a meal”
    (3) ‘refuse.’

It is also used,” he continues, “to describe a pitiful and horrible thing, like a half-eaten corpse, or “filth” such as lumps of manure . . . It is quite improper to weaken its meaning in any way by translation or by interpretation . . .” (Source)

As Paul looked to the time when he would face his Judge and be asked why he should not be thrown into hell, the mighty apostle wanted to be found without the slightest defense – other than the fact that Jesus had died for him. He ditched every other possible claim – any and every thing that some might think could help him be judged as being passable. This man, who really knew God, staked his whole eternity solely on the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. He was putting all his eggs in one basket.

This refusal to try to hedge one’s bets is what saving faith is all about.

The Apostle was not being superspiritual nor especially humble; he was simply applying Biblical truth to his own life. For example:

    Isaiah 64:6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags

When reading this as a child I used to think of a mechanic’s dirty, smelly rags. Then I discovered that God was painting a picture far more repulsive than that and far more in keeping with Paul’s spiritual insights. In the original language it is a reference to rags smeared with bodily filth (literally, a menstrual cloth). It is saying we might as well proudly display our bodily filth as hold up to God our noblest attempt at godliness. Our best efforts are infested with the disgusting maggots of pride, selfishness and impurity. To try to pass that off as righteousness is to insult God. And as stark as this picture is, it is used elsewhere as well (Ezekiel 36:17).

It is far, far better to be guilty of horrific sin and beg forgiveness, than to be so deluded as to imagine we could impress God with our “righteousness.” No wonder Jesus said there was far more hope for prostitutes than for those who thought themselves respectable (Matthew 21:31). No wonder the tax collector, overwhelmed by his sin, warmed the heart of God, and the Pharisee touting off to God his “good deeds,” left God cold (Luke 18:10-14). Only one of them saw his desperate need to beg for mercy; only one received it.

There are those Jesus weeps over; of whom it is written:

    Proverbs 30:12  . . . who are pure in their own eyes and yet are not cleansed of their filth

    Proverbs 16:25 There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.

They genuinely believe the first half of the following Scripture describes them but they are actually in the second category:

    Proverbs 18:13 He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.

The trap laid for each of us is to not admit the extent of our own sinfulness – not even to ourselves – because such an admission would devastate our pride; shattering any illusion that we are better than those we are tempted to look down on.

Our would-be Savior longs for us to exchange our fake righteousness for divine righteousness.

    2 Corinthians 5:21 God made him who had no sin [Jesus, the only sinless one ever to assume human form] to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Our Judge is eager to credit each of us with the humanly unattainable moral purity and exquisite perfection of the Holy Lord himself. Tragically, however, there are those who forfeit this stupendous gift because it would mean confessing that they are no better than anyone else. They remain polluted by their sins because they refuse to abandon the delusion that they are morally superior to such obvious sinners as rapists, serial killers and Satanists.

Did those last words stagger you? Then what do you make of the following?

    Matthew 5:20-22,27-28 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, “Raca,” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell. . . . You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

On a hot summer’s day someone mindlessly tosses a cigarette butt out of a speeding car. It extinguishes harmlessly and the offender promptly forgets he ever did it. A few minutes later, on the same stretch of road, with the same mindless intent, someone else does the same thing. This time the butt happens to land on a patch of dry grass, igniting a wildfire that ends up destroying a vast area, including thirty houses and killing fifteen people and torturously scarring and maiming others. The results are vastly different, and yet there is not the slightest moral difference between the two acts. If our loved ones were among the fifteen killed, it would inflame our passion even more. Never forget, however, that no one loves people more than God does.

Countless variations can be played out in which morally identical actions can have devastatingly different consequences. We long to punish people according to the consequences of their actions but it would be wrong for God, who sees the heart, to judge less severely those who, merely through circumstances beyond their control, happen to cause no harm.

    Romans 3:20-25 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. . . .

By “the law,” the Bible means God’s standards as outlined in the very Word of God. This is far superior to our self-made morality, and yet it still fails to put us right with God.

The above passage says, “There is no difference [whether God-fearing Jew or idolatrous pagan; a tithe-paying Pharisee or a money-grubbing tax collector] for all have sinned . . .” We keep thinking there must be a difference. God keeps insisting there isn’t.

    James 2:1-4, 9-11 My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? . . . But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker.

Can you grasp what James is saying? Under divine inspiration he declares that anyone offering a better seat to someone because he is rich makes one as guilty before God as a murderer!

We are breaking the same Ten Commandments – the same divine set of laws – when we covet as when we murder.

There is no moral difference between someone who in a flash of anger wishes someone were dead, and someone who has a loaded gun in his hand at that critical moment. Someone who through fear of getting caught does not commit a crime is no more moral than someone who is braver and commits the crime. The wages of sin is death. Once you are dead, you cannot get any deader, whether it be through a “respectable” sin such as abusing our God-given body through overwork, or a sin society thinks is despicable.

    Romans 2:1 You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

Instead of “you who pass judgment,” the New King James Version says, “O man, whoever you are who judge” (the older version is similar). This more accurately reflects the Greek by emphasizing that this truth applies to every person.

This Scripture sends us reeling in shock. How can it be that whatever sin we accuse someone of committing, we ourselves are guilty of? We suppose there are many sins we have not committed, and yet our presumption of innocence merely highlights what deluded hypocrites we are. To wish someone dead is to murder.

    1 John 3:15 Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.

    1 John 4:20  . . . anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.

To dress in the hope of sexually arousing someone who might not want those feelings is to rape. To keep back part of your tithe is to steal from God (Malachi 3:8). King Saul let his soldiers hold on to some of the livestock God told them to destroy. Though they claimed this was for the noble reason of sacrificing the animals to God, the Lord declared it rebellion against God and therefore the equivalent of witchcraft (1 Samuel 15:23). To be greedy is to worship an idol (Ephesians 5:5, Colossians 3:5).

My longing – and God’s – is to not condemn you, but to bring you to the point of surrender so that you can cease the endless struggle to justify yourself, or feel inferior or superior to others, and simply accept divine forgiveness in all its wonder and endless scope. This is one of life’s most liberating and exhilarating experiences.

What makes gossip and being judgmental so delicious? Everyone on this planet is loved of God so why would anyone who claims to love God delight in putting down someone God loves? Or, as James puts it:

    James 3:9-11 With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. . . . My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?

Why does finding someone we can somehow convince ourselves is worse than us make us feel better? Surely this can only happen if, despite our lip-service to Christian doctrine, we secretly worry that God’s approval depends on what we do or don’t do, rather than what Christ has already done. Some of us act as if we fear that God’s love and salvation is so limited that we have to compete with others for it. Others are so nagged by guilt that they try to turn the spotlight off their own conscience by seeking to focus it on someone else, like Adam accusing Eve, and Eve pointing the finger at Satan. This could only happen if we doubt the glorious truth that our divine Judge fully cleanses us from all sin simply by us trusting Jesus to do it.

We are in a tiny boat, furiously baling out water in a desperate, ultimately futile, attempt to stay afloat. Towering above us is God’s luxury liner, offering security, dignity, rest and refreshment. The sooner we admit to ourselves that our attempt to save ourselves is both hopeless and foolish, the quicker we can enjoy God’s liner.

Studying biblical revelation about sin will remain a bewildering and apparently contradictory topic until we understand that a nation’s legal system – even divinely ordained legislation – is, of necessity, markedly different from the standards by which we will be judged after death.

The law that came through Moses was given to a nation. It was not spiritual. It was not designed to change the human heart. Nor was it designed to reveal – much less execute – divine morality. It was solely a practical way of restraining fallen people from anarchy – a disincentive to unregenerate people who might otherwise rape, pillage and kill each other to the total destruction of society. To fulfill this function it was impossible, for example, to have the same penalty for committing murder in one’s heart (of which perhaps all of us are guilty) as for those who take someone’s life, even though, as explained later, from a purely moral perspective there might be no difference between the two acts. Sins can differ hugely as to how much they threaten society but all are identical as to how much they appall God and – outside of Christ’s forgiveness – threaten our eternity.

Whereas Moses’ mission was to reveal laws for a nation, Christ’s mission was to reveal God’s holy standards. It was not that they were contradicting each other; it was that they were addressing quite different issues. Moses was called to focus on external, obvious matters – sins that grossly affect those sinned against and rip the fabric of society. It was so external that without two or three witnesses there could be no conviction. And it was so consequence-based that we read such things as:

    Exodus 21:20-21 If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two . . .

Christ, however, dealt with hidden matters of the heart and spirit that might have no direct impact on other people but nevertheless greatly affect the sinner and the God whose eyes pierce the heart.

Relative to each other, some of us seem fairly innocent and some seem very guilty. But this is by our sinful standards. We are like serial killers feeling morally superior to pedophiles, and pedophiles feeling superior to murderers; or million dollar embezzlers considering themselves better than armed robbers, and muggers believing the paltry sums they steal make them less culpable than embezzlers.

We could speak of heterosexuals who briefly fall into adultery looking down on homosexuals, and homosexuals who are faithful to their partner for life seeing themselves as more righteous than adulterers. On and on we could go. Hypocrisy has a million mutations and it is only the ones that others fall for that look hideous; our own looks saintly. Finding our own brand of hypocrisy highly seductive, we are lured into labeling some sins as less grave or more excusable, and where we draw the arbitrary line just happens to put our offenses in the lesser category. We find ourselves easily convinced by the cleverness of our own arguments but, despite the infinity of his love for us, our Holy Judge cannot be partner to such hypocrisy.

Whether we like it or not, our Judge is divine. He does not judge by human standards. As the stars tower high above the earth, so are his standards, and the sooner we start thinking like he does, the better.

You might feel less defiled – or more defiled – than other people, but that’s not how God sees it. His standards shatter all distinctions.

    Romans 3:22-23  . . . There is no difference, for all have sinned . . .

For a surgeon about to operate, usual standards of cleanliness are hopelessly inadequate. You might be filthy and someone else walks off the street looking spotless, but by the standards the surgeon must maintain, both of you are equally untouchable. It can make no difference if the person approaching him is the love of his life or the most important or popular or respectable person in the world. Regardless of how special someone is or how clean by normal standards, a surgeon must not lower his standards. So it is with God. We might distinguish between sinners, but God cannot. Perfection is his only standard. We get just one shot at living a perfect life and we have all blown it. We have all missed the mark. Whether we missed it by a millimeter or a kilometer, means nothing. We all missed, and that’s all that counts.

In the penetrating eyes of the Holy Judge, no one can be more lost or guiltier than you. On the other hand, when you receive divine forgiveness through Jesus, no one can be more forgiven than you. Although outside of Christ, we all stand condemned, in Christ, we each stand spotlessly pure before the Holy One.

Simple logic suggests that our spiritual enemy, whom Scripture calls the Deceiver and the Accuser, would muster all his evil cunning to distort this simple truth. If the Evil One wanted to keep people from the wonderful forgiveness that Jesus offers, he would try to convince them that they are not bad enough to need forgiveness. Or failing that, he would try persuading them that they are so bad that they cannot be forgiven. Either way, the result is the same. If he utterly lost that battle, and people became Christians, he would then try to get them to feel less sinful than others – producing bigots, arrogant fools and hypocrites. For those resistant to this attack, he would try the opposite lie, hissing that they are too sinful to be fully blessed by God or be mightily used of God. Either way, it would render them powerless. So it’s obviously to the Deceiver’s advantage to make you feel that total cleansing is impossible for you. Don’t let him get away with such lies.

And what about this?

    Luke 6:37 Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

If judging involves anything, it involves considering oneself to be morally better than someone else.

    Romans 14:10 You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.

Note how this Scripture links judging and looking down on someone.

Let’s look a little deeper at judging:

    1 Corinthians 4:3-5 I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. . . .

So without Christ we were all equally dead in our sin and in Christ we are all equally forgiven.

If you ever feel greatly loved of God, then that is one of the rare times when your feelings match spiritual reality. If, however, you ever feel like congratulating yourself over some moral or spiritual achievement, or if you think yourself slightly better or more worthy of divine approval than some degenerate, then you are deluded; you are in the precarious position of having missed a basic spiritual truth.

    Romans 4:2 If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God.

    1 Corinthians 1:27-29,31 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. . . . Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”

    2 Corinthians 11:30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.

    Galatians 6:14 May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ . . .

    Ephesians 2:8-9 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.

We can, without delusion, unashamedly enjoy the rush that boasting brings – but only by boasting of God, delighting in his perfection and in his unfathomable love for hopeless sinners; never in us deserving anything more from God than the fate earned by the greatest reprobate earth has ever seen. Except for boasting in God, all other boasting will see us humiliated on Judgment Day.

If ever you imagine you have earned God’s approval, rush to this Scripture:

    Luke 17:10 So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ (NKJV)

The same Greek expression applied to the obedient Christians mentioned above is used to describe the unfaithful servant mentioned below:

    Matthew 25:30 And cast the unprofitable servant into the outer darkness. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (NKJV)

If measured solely from a practical perspective, even the best of us are unworthy, unprofitable servants for God.

God loves and delights in us so much that he longs to lavish upon us all sorts of “rewards” but this is never because any of us have served him so well that we have earned the slightest reward. The God who gave us life and every good thing we have ever enjoyed deserves total obedience for all eternity from the moment of our birth. None of us have given him that and even when we eventually decide to try, we keep messing up. We are like two-year-olds thinking we are going a great job “helping” Daddy. Our service to God is always God doing us a favor; never the other way around. To serve God is an undeserved privilege.

Over and over Scripture affirms that all ministry to God is a gift from God; not something we have earned but an undeserved manifestation of God’s grace:

    Ephesians 3:7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power.

    1 Peter 4:10 Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. (Other Scriptures)

And from this springs the obvious conclusion:

    1 Corinthians 4:7 For who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?

All service that is acceptable to the Holy One is God granting us the unmerited joy and satisfaction of engaging in things of eternal significance. It comes at the horrendous cost to our Lord of him having to let us blacken his name by marring his perfection. There is nothing we could ever do in our service to God that he could not have done better had he bypassed us and done it himself.

Coming from another angle, Jesus hits us with this truth in these few words: “. . . apart from me you can do nothing,” (John 15:5). Without God helping us every step of the way, the sum total of all our most noble, determined efforts ends up a big fat zero. When viewed in the clear light of eternity, it will turn out that the only thing of value we have ever achieved is when we let God do it for us. In the immensity of God’s love, he longs for our “help,” as a proud father delights in his three-year-old “helping” him paint the house, even though for the most gifted and saintly of us our only contribution is to spoil what would otherwise have been divine perfection.

Correctly understood, this truth does not rob us of joy. On the contrary, it not only eliminates a false hope that would have eventually sent us crashing down, it frees us from a slave mentality so that we can revel in the ecstasy of real joy. We are loved and valued not for what we do but for who we are. If bedridden or elderly or whatever, we are just as much a delight to God as when ferociously doing things for him. Endless joy is founded not on the illusion that God needs us but on the reality that he wants us.

As I wrote many years ago:

    Would you attempt pushing a jumbo jet to help it fly across the Atlantic? That would be wiser than trying to do your bit to help Christ secure your salvation or breach the infinite gulf between who you are and what a person would have to be to merit God's smile. Anyone foolish enough to keep trying will be left on the runway when departure time arrives. In love, the Lord will not take us far in ministry until this issue is sorted out (Romans 3:19-24; 9:30-33; Galatians 3:1-14; Philippians 3:3-10).

    We often get the salvation part fairly right, yet still imagine we must earn God’s smile by serving him. It’s hard to believe the King of glory would treasure our friendship. Though we keep pushing it down, bobbing close to the surface of our consciousness is the thought, “The Lord saved me because of the things I can do for him.”

    The false notion that service could buy God’s approval might heighten motivation, but heaven will not exploit it. Nothing is more important to God than our spiritual well-being.

    They had just brought in the washing when there was a knock on the door. “Oh no! The house is in a mess! And just look at me . . .!” exclaimed Martha.

    “I’ll get it,” called Mary. She opened the door and her heart skipped a beat. There was Jesus and all his disciples.

    “Come in!” she gushed excitedly. “Martha! It’s Jesus!”

    Martha was in a panic. How was she going to feed them all? If only she’d had more warning. She had wanted everything to be so nice for Jesus. “Where’s Mary? She’s taking her time!”

    She ran next door to borrow some food. Still no Mary. She stoked the oven and got out the plates. Still no Mary. She peered out and there was Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet with not a care in the world! Martha exploded. Yet it was Mary that the Savior defended.

    I don’t question Martha’s love, but her sister was more perceptive. Mary had discerned that Jesus’ yearning was not primarily to be served. He craved intimacy. Cakes could never taste so good that Jesus considered it worth being robbed of Martha’s presence.

    Basking in the love of Jesus seems self-indulgent. We feel compelled to slip out of his embrace and whip ourselves into running errands for him. To sit with the King in the drawing room might be acceptable for royalty, but not for the class of people we see ourselves as. Slaving in the kitchen seems more appropriate.

    God, however, is a giver not a taker. If the Lord of hosts wanted slaves he could compel the entire human race to serve him. He yearns for love, not labor. An hour spent luxuriating in the King’s presence means more to him than a life-time of fear-motivated service. If it’s a genuine expression of love, sweat is beautiful. But service as an expression of a slave-mentality grieves him. God longs to lift us from viewing ourselves as heaven’s second-class citizens. He has made us royalty and he wants us to know it.

As usual, the truth that we shrink from ends up being the truth that sets us free.

Elsewhere I have written:

    Nothing stirs divine compassion more than people overwhelmed by their own depravity. As air rushes to fill a vacuum, God rushes to cleanse and exalt such people. Conversely, nothing saddens, disgusts and maddens God more than the arrogant self-righteousness of anyone who thinks himself morally superior to the most despised sinner.

For immense assurance of the purity that can be yours by exchanging your “righteousness” for Jesus “righteousness,” see Feeling Condemned? There’s Hope!

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How to be Righteous

How to Win God’s Approval

True Righteousness