Manmade Righteousnous: An Illusory Coat
by James Lincoln on January 16, 2005
"Look! The Emperor Has No Clothes!"
Do you remember Hans Christian Andersen's story, The Emperor's New Clothes? A couple of clever tailors (con men) persuade the Emperor that they could weave him an extraordinary coat. Not only was this coat beautiful, it was so special that only the wise and the pure of heart were able to see it. When they presented the king the coat, although he couldn't see it, he praised their workmanship and paid them an enormous fee. The news about this special coat spread far and wide throughout the kingdom. So on the day of the grand parade the king donned the beautiful coat. The designers suddenly skipped town. As the king walked through the streets everyone cheered and applauded him and his glorious coat. They pretended to see it because none of them wanted to appear to be fools or knaves. All of this pomp and celebration went on for a good while until a little child pointed his finger and said, "Look! The Emperor has no clothes." At once everyone knew the truth including the Emperor. One innocent but honest remark by a small child, who didn't know enough to keep his mouth shut, stripped away the hypocritical pretense of the entire nation.1
The apostle Paul could have been the inspiration for Andersen's story because Paul also strips away the pretense of a nation and the whole world. Of course the charge of universal human sinfulness is as controversial today as ever. Nobody likes the humiliation of recognizing their sinful condition (or if they do, we may raise questions about their mental balance.) Just as much as today's psychologists avoid the category of evil many Christians eager for acceptance of the gospel also lessen the diagnosis. But if humans are not deeply sinful then the gospel is no longer astonishing.
Like the little boy in Andersen's story, Paul is out to show us that we all need a new coat; one that can actually cover us up. Paul says that we all need to be clothed in righteousness. By righteousness he doesn't mean a relative morality that makes us a little or even a lot better than the "bad" people of the world. He means a righteousness that is absolute, flawless without spot, stain or wrinkle. We all need a righteousness fit for heaven and the presence of God. Paul has argued that man made religion and our moral systems- conservative and otherwise- are insufficient; God can see through them as easily as the child could see through the king's imaginary coat. They don't have the power to change the human heart because our need runs deeper than our need for moral or psychological reform.
God is so holy righteous and pure that He can't even look on sin. So, unless we get clothed in righteousness the gaze of his favor turns away. And of course, this is exactly what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.
Now in verse 9ff Paul continues to address Israel specifically. However, the things he says about Israel could also be said about all of us. He tells Israel that she must see herself alongside the pagans and Gentiles. This was a hard message because Israel saw herself as morally superior and of course in some ways she was. But even if you adopt a rigorous moral and religious ritual you will still fall short of what God's law demands. He says that "Your privileges, rituals (circumcision), moral resolutions, and gene pool are insufficient." And now he appeals to the Scriptures to prove this. When our lives are judged by the perfect standard of God's law we all will be found to be lawbreakers.
Now, someone might ask, "Why can't he just be merciful and not so just? Look, if a drunk driver totals your car and he's paralyzed in the process and then he sues you for everything you have, do you want the judge to be merciful to the driver's condition and make you pay him your life savings to make his life better? Or, would you want the judge to be just? I'm guessing 99 out of 100 will want the judge to be just. What we really want is both. The farmer wants rain the man putting a roof on his house wants sunshine. We yearn for God to be both just and merciful. And of course in Jesus Christ that is exactly what He is. The just punishment for our sin fell voluntarily and even joyfully on Jesus. And as a result, those who trust in His life and sacrifice discover His mercy. In Christ, justice and mercy meet. An old hymn says, "When through grace in Christ our trust is, Justice smiles and asks no more." In reality Jesus represents everything our hearts yearn for here.
Law - as law - is Insufficient to Save
In v.20 Paul tells us why the standard of the law or any moral code can't make us right with God. The Torah or Law (as law)2, doesn't have any power to make you love God, to love His word, to prize, honor or obey him. "Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." Yes, laws do have a restraining influence. In Sweden for example if you get caught driving drunk one time you loose your license. The speed limits can restrain speeding to some degree. Major League baseball just added some new rules to lessen the use of steroids. However law as law, doesn't have any power to make anyone love, cherish or prize its principles nor to make us love, honor, respect, cherish and prize the One who made the law. Instead of reconciling us to God and making our hearts right, His law has the negative effect of making our sin more apparent. In Rom 7:7 Paul says this was true in his own experience. "I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, "Do not covet."
Before Pharisaical legalism Paul was found faultless. However, before the standard of God's perfect law he couldn't escape the fact that he was familiar with coveting first hand. Laws are designed to remove the ambiguity. They make our transgressions explicit and clear.
The law serves like a straightedge or a plumb line that reveals what is crooked. The standard is so perfect that when we actually compare our lives to it we all fall short. You may be a better swimmer than me but neither one of us can swim across the ocean. The disparity is so great it doesn't matter if you are Jew, Gentile, Baptist, Methodist, religious, non-religious, moral conservative or neo-pagan. We all need a covering of righteousness. This is the coat Jesus offers to those who trust in the gift of His righteousness. He takes our sin and punishment and in exchange He gives us His perfect flawless righteousness as a gift. Can you think of any thing better?
In verse 9 Paul introduces us to a new idea. Not only have we all failed to honor God as God by nature we all are "under sin". Instead of saying that we all sin (which is of course true), he says that by nature we are all under sin. It's really a strange phrase because we normally think of sin as something we do or don't do; not as something that has any independent power. To be under something is language borrowed from the slave market. By nature we are culpable offenders before God, but we are also (outside of Christ) enslaved under sin's mastery or power. A note of compassion is introduced. We're not only offenders; in a real sense we are also victims. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that we aren't responsible for our own sin. However, in addition to this there is more going on. We not only need to be forgiven but we also need to be liberated. The captor's hold on us needs to be broken and the captives need to be set free. In Rom. 6:17 he says that outside of Christ we are slaves to sin. He describes becoming a Christian as being set free from slavery to sin. He teaches that being a Christian is about no longer having sin as your lord. (cf. Acts 8:3 & Gal. 4:3;). In fact in Rom. 7:14 he describes humankind as "sold into bondage to sin", which is a strong argument that Rm. 7 may be pre-conversion stuff.
So, without Christ our problem is deeper than our moral offence it's also that we are held captive under sin's mastery. In Gal. 4:7 Paul says, "Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son then an heir" (Gal. 4:7). In Col. "For He Jesus delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of His beloved Son." Just as Israel needed to be forgiveness and liberating from Egypt so all mankind needs to be both forgiven and rescued from the enslaving power of sin.
This was one of the means God used to open my heart to the gospel. For many years I thought that the reason I sinned was because I just wasn't serious enough. But after making the most serious resolution of my life at fifteen and then failing to keep that commitment within the next few hours, I came to realize that I needed more than serious resolutions. What I needed was the gospel. I needed something far greater than my own resolve. I needed God to fund his commandments with power and grace. Two years later I heard about the gospel and the grace that does just that.
The Scriptures Bear Witness to the Depth of Sin and Our Slavery to it (10-18)
Paul argues (10) that the Scriptures all along have said just what he has been saying about the depth of our sin and our slavery to it. And he strings together six passages that give the same assessment. He's saying, "Look I didn't make this up. My theology here is consistent David with the prophets. And as the oracles of God and the embodiment of truth they represent God's verdict in the matter. So, don't shoot the messenger."
As you would expect they all confirm depth of sin in all of us. But I notice some things. The charge they make is more severe than most of us would like to hear. As such it challenges a basic assumption of secular America and that is the assumption that we are born pretty good people. Also, if read the context of each quotation you'll see that they teach not only that God will judge the world in righteousness but that He will also rescue the helpless with a righteousness from heaven and then establish a new covenant. Although severe in their assessment they also contain in their contexts the very hope of the gospel. So although the diagnosis is more serious than we might naturally imagine the cure is sweeter than we could imagine. Let's look at the verses.
"There is no one righteous, not even one;
11 there is no one who understands,
no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned away,
they have together become useless;
there is no one who does good,
not even one."
David says that by nature our lives are so utterly and completely influenced by sin that it taints or spoils everything about us. He's not saying that we are as wicked as we could be. He's saying that everything about us is tainted by our sin. Someone said that if the color of sin were blue there would be some shade of blue in every part of our being. Both our character (10-12) and our conduct (13-18) have been spoiled by sin. And then in verse 18 he gives the fundamental cause of all of this.
Outside of the gospel, our character is morally and spiritually bankrupt. (10-12)
Paul's first quote is from is Ps. 14 (53) which says that no one is righteous. The fact that he repeats the phrase "no one" three times gives you the impression he means no one without exception. He's not saying that there is no proximate righteousness or relative goodness. At any given time you might behave more righteously than me. But what David is saying is that when we compare our lives to the righteousness of God and His standard, unless we bend the standard, no one will be able to live up to it. Jesus said the same thing. He said, "No one is good except God." He also said that, "You being evil know how to give good gifts to your children how much more will God do the same?" We all do proximate good compared to each other but not in comparison with God. So by nature we have a moral problem before God.
Goodness: Relative or Absolute?
A popular strategy today is to say that there are no such things as moral absolutes. Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft at Boston College likes to ask his first year student if they believe in moral absolutes. The overwhelming majority usually says, "No". They usually say that morals are subjective and personal things. They usually add that no one can impose his morality on anyone else. And every year he says,
"Very well then, since you believe that all morality is personal and subjective I want to share with you my personal and subjective standard to grading in this class. First, if you are a woman the best grade you can make is an "F" in this class. If you are African American the best you can get is a "D".
"Wait a minute, that's not right! That's not fair!" they protest. He continues,
"But you just said if your personal subjective concept of fairness differed from my concept of justice that you have no right to say that I am wrong. Where do you get the right to impose your ethics on me? Didn't you say that there are no absolutes and that ethics are subjective and personal? The truth is that you know in your deepest of deeps that there is a universal objective absolute value called justice and that it stands judgment over you and me and that you can invoke it against me when I say that the women in this class will not pass. However, your philosophy leaves you with no basis for invoking it. You don't want there to be an objective moral standard that holds you accountable but you can't live without it. If you are consistent you can't say that I should pass the women or give African Americans a better grade. In other words if you don't believe in the law of the Lord you have no soul."
David says, there is an absolute objective standard and none of us live consistently by it. If you eliminate the standard and run from the problem that will be convenient but you can't live like that.
Second, David says that no one understands (11). I wonder if he means no one understands this reality or the reality of the depth of our moral debt without His grace.
But then he says that no one seeks God (11). Notice that our problem is not just ethical it's also religious. Do you believe David? You say, "Look Jim, surely doesn't the history of religions tell us that by nature humankind seeks God?" Yes, religion is in our souls. However David doesn't mean that we don't seek "a god" or "gods". He means that without the grace of God we don't seek Jehovah God or God or as He is revealed in Scriptures or as He really is. Yes, we seek a god or gods. And we usually seek a god that conforms to ideas we want God to be like. Typically that is a god that never challenges any of your assumptions, behaviors or ambitions. However, by nature we don't seek a God who says that you don't get to decide what is right and wrong; a God who says that unless you are morally perfect you cannot enter His presence; one who says that your good works or your religion per se is insufficient to get you to heaven; Or a God who says, there is only one way to heaven and that is through the one man Jesus Christ; Or a God who says that if you reject Him you will spend eternity cut off from His presence in hell. By nature we just don't seek out a God like that. By nature we don't seek God for the same reason a kid who just shop lifted some candy doesn't seek out the owner of the store. If he does he will expose him for who he really is.
Then David says: All have turned away, they have together become useless; there is no one who does good, not even one (12).
Because of our sin and captivity to sin, outside of Christ, we can't live life according to the purpose for which we have been made. We become like fish that can't swim or birds that can't fly. We all know this. We all know that we were made for better and nobler things. But outside of the gospel we are cut off from bearing the image for which we have been made. Augustine,
"O Lord you have made us for Thyself and we can never find rest until we find our rest in Thee."
Notice the connection David and Paul make between ethics and religion. Before sin is a moral issue it is a religious one. Sin is not only breaking law - it's first and foremost breaking a relationship with God, betraying His beauty, authority, holiness, love, generosity, purposes in the world. It's grieving and betraying God. All sin is first and finally a God-ward act. Secularism would have us believe that the whole of life is only the product of blind mechanisms such as random genetic mutation and natural selection. It is a convenient theory because it eliminates any ultimate accountability for our actions.
But when the Bible talks about sin it's not speaking foremost about moral failure. It's talking first of all about the breaking or smearing the relationship, disrespecting and dishonoring the Creator. That's why David said, "Against Thee and against Thee only have I sinned." Of course he knew he had sinned against Bathsheba and her husband. But ultimately, foremost and finally his sin was religious not just moral. It was an act of rebellion against God. The goal of secularism is to eliminate this reality.
The Real Failure of Secularism
In 1989 when the communist revolution fell apart most in the west saw it as a fall of a flawed political/economic system. However, inside the countries it wasn't so much that politics had failed as much as it was that secularism failed. In 1917 you had the beginning of the first civilization that decided to build its culture on a secular basis. Up to this point every significant civilization believed that there was a divine or metaphysical straightedge by which to measure things. Yes, they were all different. You had Buddhist cultures, Confusion cultures, and Islamic, Catholic and Protestant cultures. But although they differed on many things they agreed that outside of a divine standard there would be no basis for morality. No way to build a society. Then along came the 20 c. that said. "You don't have to believe in religion to know what is right and wrong." In 1991 The Prime Minister of Bulgaria gave a speech about his country in Washington DC. He said,
"What we need is a return to normalcy in our country, meaning not just to consensual politics or economics but rather to a civil society functioning on the basis of moral values. Moral confusion under communism was accompanied by utter confusion of values and their meaning at all levels of societal activity. People thought nothing of cheating and stealing. There was no faith to lean on because religion and belief in God were considered outdated and unscientific. This state of mind is reminiscent of Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov who explained, 'If God does not exist everything is permitted." The whole history of mankind has proven that without God or a higher moral authority the things most precious to us as humans are often denied us. Because it's our nature that for true achievement and emotional fulfillment we need a higher intensity of purpose than everyday concerns can provide. Despite all of this I look to the future of our people with great optimism. Why? There is a new and intense striving among many Bulgarians especially younger generation to find the moral foundation for their existence and to rediscover age-old values and ideals. There is a renewed interest in religion, the church and spirituality in general. This was much more than a political revolt. This was a revolt of the soul against soulless-ness. It may be followed by spiritual enlightment and a new higher moral imperative."3
We need the gospel because in it there is the forgiveness of our sins and by its power it promises to set us free from the tyranny of sin. And it does so by making us fall in love, cherish, prize and trust God through faith in His Son Jesus. No moral code or religious ritual can do that for you. Only the risen Christ can. So, believe on Him and be forgiven and begin to learn how to be set free.
The clothes covering your soul may be illusory and insufficient. But there can be nothing more sufficient, pure, glorious and radiant as the garments of Christ's righteousness, which he gives to those who believe. Don't be like the foolish king. Believe in Jesus today and cloth yourselves with the righteousness of Christ.
1 Cf. Kent Hughes, Romans.
2 By "law as law" I mean that part of the Torah that is commandment oriented. There is much in the Torah that is historic and poetic and not "law" per se. Paul quotes from the Torah here as containing the gospel of the new covenant.
3 I'm still looking for the exact location of this quote. I think it comes from the WSJ. I transcribed it from an old audiotape, a sermon given by Rev. Tim Keller in NYC.