When Righteousness Doesn’t Matter

My experience of salvation goes like this: I thought I was good and deserved Heaven. Then I found out I wasn’t and deserved Hell. My good works and good heritage didn’t matter.

I spent a good deal of time living my life under the expectation that I had been given something great because of who I was. I was born into a Christian family. I said the sinner’s prayer at an early age. And I always went to church and participated in all the good activities. I thought my goal in life was to “not screw it up.”

I thought my righteousness mattered.


No One is Righteous

I can’t say why I thought this way. It wasn’t explicitly preached or taught as I grew up (not that I can remember anyway). It wasn’t what my parents taught me. But somehow I developed an understanding of salvation that depended on my righteousness, my goodness, and my good works.

As I grew up I dragged myself through a lot of sinful behavior and it stayed with me into adulthood. Though God didn’t want me to sin, he used it to teach me something. He wanted me to understand I wasn’t what I thought I was. He wanted me to understand I wasn’t righteous.

In hindsight, it seemed like many Christians around me were under the same impression I was, though no one ever talked about it like that. It seemed many thought they had to look good on the outside. They thought their righteousness mattered. It’s a lot like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day who were like white-washed tombs, pretty on the outside but full of the bones of the dead on the inside (Matthew 23:27).

There’s a great scene from C. S. Lewis’ book The Pilgrim’s Regress in which he describes this kind of life:

One dark, cold, wet morning John was made to put on new clothes. They were the ugliest clothes that had ever been put upon him, which John did not mind at all, but they also caught him under the chin, and were tight under the arms, which he minded a great deal, and they made him itch all over. And his father and mother took him out along the road, one holding him by each hand (which was uncomfortable, too, and very unnecessary), and told him they were taking him to see the Steward.

The Steward lived in a big dark house of stone on the side of the road. The father and mother went in to talk to the Steward first, and John was left sitting in the hall on a chair so high that his feet did not reach the floor. There were other chairs in the hall where he could have sat in comfort, but his father had told him that the Steward would be very angry if he did not sit absolutely still and be very good: and John was beginning to be afraid, so he sat still in the high chair with his feet dangling, and his clothes itching all over him, and his eyes starting out of his head.

After a very long time his parents came back again, looking as if they had been with the doctor, very grave. Then they said that John must go in and see the Steward too. And when John came into the room, there was an old man with a red, round face, who was very kind and full of jokes, so that John quite got over his fears, and they had a good talk about fishing tackle and bicycles.

But just when the talk was at its best, the Steward got up and cleared his throat. He then took down a mask from the wall with a long white beard attached to it and suddenly clapped it on his face, so that his appearance was awful. And he said, ‘Now I am going to talk to you about the Landlord. The Landlord owns all the country, and it is very, very kind of him to allow us to live on it at all—very, very kind.’

He went on repeating ‘very kind’ in a queer sing-song voice so long that John would have laughed, but that now he was beginning to be frightened again. The Steward then took down from a peg a big card with small print all over it, and said, ‘Here is a list of all the things the Landlord says you must not do. You’d better look at it.’

So John took the card: but half the rules seemed to forbid things he had never heard of, and the other half forbade things he was doing every day and could not imagine not doing: and the number of the rules was so enormous that he felt he could never remember them all.

‘I hope,’said the Steward, ‘that you have not already broken any of the rules?’ John’s heart began to thump, and his eyes bulged more and more, and he was at his wit’s end when the Steward took the mask off and looked at John with his real face and said, ‘Better tell a lie, old chap, better tell a lie. Easiest for all concerned,’ and popped the mask on his face all in a flash.

John gulped and said quickly, ‘Oh, no, sir.’ ‘That is just as well,’ said the Steward through the mask. ‘Because, you know, if you did break any of them and the Landlord got to know of it, do you know what he’d do to you?’ ‘No, sir,’said John: and the Steward’s eyes seemed to be twinkling dreadfully through the holes of the mask. ‘He’d take you and shut you up for ever and ever in a black hole full of snakes and scorpions as large as lobsters—for ever and ever. And besides that, he is such a kind, good man, so very, very kind, that I am sure you would never want to displease him.’ ‘No, sir,’ said John.

‘But, please, sir . . .’ ‘Well,’ said the Steward. ‘Please, sir, supposing I did break one, one little one, just by accident, you know. Could nothing stop the snakes and lobsters?’ ‘Ah!…’ said the Steward; and then he sat down and talked for a long time, but John could not understand a single syllable. However, it all ended with pointing out that the Landlord was quite extraordinarily kind and good to his tenants, and would certainly torture most of them to death the moment he had the slightest pretext.

‘And you can’t blame him,’ said the Steward. ‘For after all, it is his land, and it is so very good of him to let us live here at all—people like us, you know.’ Then the Steward took off the mask and had a nice, sensible chat with John again, and gave him a cake and brought him out to his father and mother. But just as they were going he bent down and whispered in John’s ear, ‘I shouldn’t bother about it all too much if I were you.’ At the same time he slipped the card of the rules into John’s hand and told him he could keep it for his own use.

For me, the most important part of God’s work in my life was my realization that I was evil, not a good boy who did bad things, but evil at my core. It’s exactly what Paul argued in Romans 3:9-20 when he declared no one is righteous. This was a realization that I wasn’t who I thought I was. It was a realization that my righteousness didn’t matter.


Pardoning a Guilty Person

I appreciate a good plot twist. My experience with God’s salvation was and is the biggest plot twist I’ve ever experienced. I still can’t fully wrap my head around it.

It took me over 20 years of life to realize the truth about who I was. This only happened through the Holy Spirit’s work in my life. Yet it may take the rest of my life to understand what God did for me. While I was evil, God took the first step toward my redemption (Romans 5:9-10).

If my experience were a novel, it would be like the hero of the story suddenly giving his life to save the villain who wanted to destroy the world. It would be like Bilbo sacrificing himself, not to save the good people in Middle Earth, but to save the orcs from destruction. To put it bluntly, that’s a special kind of stupid. But that’s exactly what God did for me.

It’s this kind of foolishness that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 1:18-25. In the eyes of everyone else, it’s ridiculous, idiotic, and unexpected. In the eyes of God, it’s wise beyond all other wisdom.

I was evil to the core, even though I did all the right things, went to church, and read my Bible. Then God hit me with the biggest plot twist in history. He pardoned my evil nature.

I’ve spent the last few years coming to terms with exactly what happened when I realized what I truly was and what God did. Like I said, I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to fully wrap my head around it. It doesn’t make sense. It was like all of my good works were pointless; I was using them to cover my evil nature (though I didn’t know that’s what I was doing). My righteousness didn’t matter.


Becoming Who I Am

To add to the senseless of the whole thing, I also realized this was more than just a slate-wiping. I initially thought my experience with forgiveness was a new opportunity, a new day, and a fresh start. And it was. But I also found out my righteousness and my own goodness still didn’t matter.

No matter how clean the slate was, no matter how fresh the start, I still found some way to mess it up. There was still a problem. I imagine it feels a lot like re-learning how to walk, with a lot of self-conscious, self-demeaning thoughts saying, “This shouldn’t be this hard.”

God was teaching me something else about this crazy plot twist. He was teaching me my righteousness and effort still didn’t matter. My thoughts from my time before realizing I was evil had carried over into my experience afterward. I thought somehow God was wiping my slate clean so I could try my best to keep it clean this time. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I thought I somehow had the responsibility to be good on my own after God forgave all my evil. It was as though I let God wipe the slate clean and then thought my own effort could keep it clean. But God was teaching me I was now in the process of learning he was the one who kept my slate clean, no matter how dirty it got. God was using this (and still is using this) to teach me I have the freedom to become a good person.

Paul made this same point when he wrote the Galatian church who believed they needed to be circumcised to keep their salvation:

I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3)

God wanted me to learn that what started with faith in Jesus will also end with faith in Jesus. It still wasn’t about my good works.

God gave me the freedom to become who he wanted me to be. But if he kept my slate clean I could do anything I wanted, right? I think I might have thought that if I hadn’t realized how evil I really was and how much God did for me.

The realization of my own nature and what God did left me speechless. It left me depressed, with feelings of self-hatred and self-loathing. God’s work in my life makes me want to find a way to live up to the person he wants me to be. It doesn’t mean I have to be that person right away for him to keep the slate clean. Instead, when he keeps my slate clean, it gives me the chance to learn to walk and keep my balance without worrying about falling. I get to learn to live the way he wants me to as he guides and changes me.


My Righteousness Doesn’t Matter

This experience with salvation taught me a great lesson about my own efforts: my righteousness doesn’t matter. Yes, I want to become a righteous person, but my own attempts to be good mean nothing. It’s all about God’s work in my life, recognizing I was evil, accepting the giant plot twist, and realizing I now had the chance to be the person he wants me to be.

In the end, my own righteousness just doesn’t matter, ever. God’s work of grace in my life is the only thing that matters. That’s how I become righteous. That’s how you become righteous. That’s how I become the person I thought I was on my own growing up. That’s how you and I become a person who keeps the Steward’s rules and avoids the pit with snakes and scorpions.

“But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:21-24)


What’s been your experience with salvation and forgiveness? If you haven’t experienced God’s forgiveness and righteousness, we want to help. If you have, tell your story so others can hear about what God did for you.


Josh Havens is a founding member of Theology in Progress. He and his wife and son live in Springfield, MO, and love to walk with people as they become fully devoted followers of Jesus. He's also addicted to Rubik's cubes and enjoys trying to figure out any puzzle or problem put in front of him. Josh has an M.Div. with a concentration in Expository Preaching from the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary.

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