by Al Maxey

Issue #509 ------- November 1, 2011
Righteousness cannot be born
until self-righteousness is dead

Bertrand Russell {1872-1970}

Legalistic Righteousness
Making Payments on a Free Gift

A reader from the state of Kentucky recently sent me the following email -- "Brother Al, In Philp. 3:6 the NIV reads, 'as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.' I'm not sure that is an accurate translation of the text. The NASB states, 'as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.' As I am sure you can see, those two different translations take one down radically different paths as to what Paul meant. I'm wondering: Which translation is more accurate, and what are the ramifications for interpreting it as the NIV does versus the interpretation of the NASB?" As this brother has noticed, we are all to some extent at the mercy of the various translations and versions of the holy Scriptures. None of them read exactly the same, and in far too many cases one will find passages that are rendered in such a manner that, in meaning, they are virtually "polar opposites." This is, in part, due to the fact that many translators of the text also seek to be interpreters of the text, and thus personal and party biases find their way into the wording and phrasing.

When one literally renders the Greek of this passage by Paul, it reads: "According to righteousness, the one in/by law, being without blame/fault/censure." Even here, there are some questions raised in the minds of some scholars. For example, there is no definite article before the word "law." So, does Paul have "the Law" (of Moses) in mind, or simply "law" in general (i.e., any system of law)? The immediate context seems to suggest the former, although there are certainly times in his writings where Paul uses the term "law" without the article to refer to any system of law whereby one seeks to be justified. There are some scholars who believe that Paul may well have had both in view. Given the fact that Paul has just listed his Jewish credentials (Philp. 3:5), it seems reasonable to assume he has the Mosaic Law in view in the following verse. However, in principle, we certainly can't deny that the truth of which the apostle speaks could legitimately apply to anyone seeking justification through the meticulous observance of various works or acts under any legal system of religion. As Paul observes just three verses later, righteousness is not "of law," but rather "of faith" (vs. 9). Such a principle would not only be true for those, like him, coming from a background of Judaism, but also for those Gentiles who might also seek right standing before God based upon some form of "legal correctness." If justification is "by faith," then it is not "by law" ... ANY law, whether Mosaic or otherwise. Somewhat similar to the NIV rendering, the New English Bible reads, " legal rectitude, faultless."

In the Philippians 3:6 passage, Paul was speaking of himself, and his former conduct in Judaism. Thus, it seems rather certain he was speaking in that instance of the Mosaic Law. In Romans 10:1-6 Paul contrasts those who seek righteousness through obedience to law, and those who are declared righteous by faith. He bore witness to the zeal of his fellow Israelites, yet stated that they were unaware of the righteousness of God that could not be secured through any human effort under a system of law, but rather only through acceptance of Jesus in faith. Thus, Paul sought "to 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 of Christ - the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith" (Philp. 3:8b-9). Such versions as the NIV and NEB have sought to make the term "law" far more general so that it might include all efforts by all peoples at legalistic justification. In principle, they are correct; in fact, however, the text/context suggests a more limited immediate application. There are other places where Paul applies the principle more broadly; thus, there is no need to force such an application here where Paul is speaking very personally. Therefore, the teaching promoted by these two renderings is certainly very sound and biblical. The wording, however, is probably not the best in light of authorial intent (as most scholars perceive that intent).

So, what was Paul professing to the saints in Philippi in this phrase? Simply put, he was listing all those items that would be considered vital to one's justification and vital to personal righteousness IF such could be acquired by "putting confidence in the flesh" (Philp. 3:3b-4). In 2 Cor. 11-12 Paul pointed out that if others wanted to get into a boasting contest, then he could win hands down. If right standing before God was based on excellence of personal effort, he stood head and shoulders above his fellow religionists! Paul used to think that was the pathway to divine acceptance. He now knew better. God was not interested in how well man kept rules and regulations; God sought relationship ... and genuine relationship is never built on law, but on love! It is a gift of grace, received by faith, visibly evidenced in our daily attitudes and actions as Spirit-filled and Spirit-led sons and daughters of the Father.

Yes, Paul, as he looked back upon his life in Judaism, as a strict "Pharisee of Pharisees," could boast that with respect to the externals of Jewish law and ceremonial ritualism, he was blameless in the eyes of his fellow religionists. They couldn't lay any charge at his feet. "He knew and practiced all the rules of the rabbis ... scoring a hundred in Judaism" [Dr. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the NT]. David Lipscomb, in his commentary of this text, wrote, "The claim to blamelessness from a Pharisaic viewpoint was by no means uncommon" [p. 203]. "Such righteousness as consisted in strict obedience to the legal ordinances he could claim, for he had claimed them all. It is clearly to externals that he is referring, for his words imply that it was to mean he had approved himself; none of his fellows had surpassed or even equaled him in strictness of legal observance" [ibid, p. 202]. This was that form of righteousness "which our Lord called 'the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees' (Matthew 5:20); which is the righteousness according to rules, in which a man, like the rich young ruler, might think himself 'blameless'" [Dr. Charles J. Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 8, p. 81]. It was that form of law-based righteousness (or self-righteousness) depicted in our Lord's Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18), a story He told "to certain ones who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt" (vs. 9).

It is a righteousness that, to state it simply and succinctly, results in a perceived right standing before one's God based solely on one's preciseness and correctness in keeping religious rules, regulations and rituals. "It is that righteousness which lies in legal observances; which consists in and results from conformity to an external law" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 20, part 3, p. 113]. It is "The righteousness of formal precept as contrasted with the righteousness which is by faith" [ibid, p. 123]. In Paul's statement to the brethren in the city of Philippi, "We are left with the fair presumption that, if any man could be saved by his own works, he was that man" [Dr. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Sadly, there are individuals today within the more fundamentalist, ultra-conservative sects of Christendom who also perceive themselves as being that man -- i.e., they believe themselves to be justified before God by their scrupulous submission to sectarian precepts and perceived patterns within the Scriptures. Therefore, the pathway to righteousness is through a maze of rigid religious rules, regulations and rituals. Thus, in the words of the NIV, they stand with swelled chests and boast, "As for legalistic righteousness, faultless" (" legal rectitude, faultless" -- NEB). Like Saul of Tarsus before them, as well as the scribes and the Pharisees, their perception of righteousness was fatally flawed for it was falsely focused upon what they could achieve for God, rather than upon what God had already achieved for them!

It took a confrontation with Jesus Himself, but Saul of Tarsus finally got the message. Like the cartoon character at the top of this article, no matter how many good works we offer up to our God, no matter how precisely we perform perceived patterns, no matter how obsessive we become in the observance of law, we are still, at our very best, covered in foul filth, and thus, in and of ourselves, unfit to be in His holy presence!! "For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment" (Isaiah 64:6a). "There is none righteous, not even one" (Rom. 3:10). Thus, Paul's heart went out to his fellow Israelites, for they were seeking (as he himself once sought) to be righteous by their own efforts at keeping commands and performing good deeds (Rom. 10:1f). In so doing, they had failed to perceive that the righteousness of God could be theirs as a gift of Grace through faith in Christ Jesus. "Because of His grace manifested in Jesus Christ the crucified, and working through Christ's death, God deals mercifully with sinners, treating them as righteous on account of the propitiation made by the Righteous One" [Dr. W. Robertson Nicoll, The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 454]. This "was not a righteousness which one could win by legal observances," but only becomes possible for us "through union with Christ" [ibid]. Therefore, "Paul did not desire to be seen to have any righteousness that would be the result of law-keeping. He was done with that!!" [Dr. Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest's Word Studies from the Greek New Testament, vol. 2, p. 92].

The Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18) both looked very much like the cartoon character at the top of this article. One sought to gain acceptance from God by his good deeds -- i.e., by his own righteousness. The other individual realized he had nothing to offer God, and merely sought to be "covered over" (vs. 13 -- "God, be propitious to me, the sinner"). Only one man was justified (counted as righteous) that day, and it wasn't the one who sought to offer up his good works. Justification (righteousness) does not come from human merit, but from divine mercy! It is a gift, not wages due! "Apart from law a righteousness of God has been manifested ... even a righteousness of God through faith of Jesus Christ for all those who believe ... being justified as a gift by His grace. ... Where then is boasting? It is excluded. ... For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law" (Rom. 3:21-22, 24, 27-28). "For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about; but not before God. For what does Scripture say? 'And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.' Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the person who does not work, but who believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness" (Romans 4:2-5).

Paul was once under the impression that justification and salvation (i.e., acceptance by God) were realities he himself had to achieve, and he believed that pathway to be through good works performed in compliance to LAW. If he could just do enough good deeds and keep enough commands, he could be righteous before his God. Paul was dead wrong ... just as dead wrong as the legalists and patternists today. "This righteousness of God provided in Christ is received by man 'through faith,' and thus man acquires it 'by faith' or 'on the basis of faith.' It is not man's achievement as accomplished by doing the law's requirements, but is God's provision freely offered men in Christ Jesus. 'Faith' is the very opposite of human works; it is the reception of God's work by those who acknowledge the futility of their own efforts to attain righteousness" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 11, p. 141]. May God help us today to perceive this same Truth that Paul finally came to grasp. "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9).

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, I just now found out from your web page that you have a CD available with your teaching on the book of Revelation. I would really like to have a copy. I am enclosing a check for your Study of Revelation CD. Thanks, brother!

From a New Reader in [Unknown]:

Dear Bro. Maxey, I recently found your web site with your Reflections on them. I have found them to be very interesting and extremely thought-provoking. I would like to be added to your mailing list. I have found your insights to be of extreme benefit to me of late. Thank you for that.

From a Reader in Connecticut:

Dear Brother Al, It is absolutely amazing how just one man can have such a lasting and profound impact upon Christendom! Even now, some 30 to 40 years since first hearing some of Albert Edward Brumley's hymns, I can still "readily recollect" (after hearing only a word or two) every verse of those old hymns just like it was yesterday. They have become a part of me! I find it no coincidence, by the way, that as God used a minister of music to bless millions, so now is He using a minister of the Gospel who is also impacting the world, and that BOTH men are named "Al"!! Press on!!

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, At the beginning of our Sunday class, we will quite often sing at least two Brumley songs. I especially love the challenging "Salvation Has Been Brought Down," followed by "I'll Fly Away." His songs make my heart soar.

From a Reader in Iowa:

Dear Bro. Al, I enjoyed reading your article on Albert Brumley. Four or five years ago, at the Kiamichi Men's Clinic, I met one of his sons. He was introduced to the group and sang many of his father's songs. Thanks for this write-up!!

From a Minister in Texas:

Brother Al, Thanks for the biography on Albert Brumley. I have heard many stories of my grandfather (Lon McCullar) and Albert sitting on the former's front porch on Bokoshe Mountain, which was only about 20 miles from Spiro, Oklahoma (where Albert was born). I am told they would sit for hours talking about the Bible. I have always loved Albert Brumley's music, and this relationship he had with my grandfather has made it even more special. Thanks for all your shared research and reasoning. I love you, brother!

From a Reader in Missouri:

Dear Bro. Al, Isn't this an awesome story?! Growing up out this way (in Missouri), and especially being in the Churches of Christ, I have heard the story of Albert Brumley many times in my life. It is a story many country folk take pride in. Thanks for sharing!

From a Reader in Washington:

Brother Al, "I'll Fly Away" is one of my all time favorite hymns! I never looked to see who had written it, however, and I can tell you: I had not heard Mr. Brumley's name before today. Thanks for this article on his life. You never cease to amaze me!!

From a Reader in New Mexico:

Dear Pastor Al, What a wonderful article on Albert Brumley. He truly used his gift from God to bless Christians for generations! "I'll Fly Away" -- "Jesus, Hold My Hand" -- "If We Never Meet Again This Side Of Heaven" -- "This World Is Not My Home" -- these are some of my very favorite hymns and gospel songs! I had no idea that he had written over 800 songs, so this will give me a research challenge for this week. Thank you for your Reflections articles. I look forward to them each week. They always encourage me to think and to grow in the Lord.

From a Physician/Elder in Oregon:

Dear Bro. Al, I am enjoying your work, as always! Just one little pedantic question -- You mentioned in your last article that Bro. Albert Brumley wrote "Turn Your Radio On" for Ray Stevens. I believe that song was written about 1938, which was around the time Ray was born. Was it a baby gift?!

From a Minister in Ukraine:

My Dearest Bro. Al, Greetings from Donetsk, Ukraine. Thank you so much for addressing my question about Acts 22:16 in Reflections #507 ("Wash Away Your Sins"). It most definitely helped me to learn that there's another way of translating that verse. I still have two questions, though: (1) If Paul was already saved before Ananias showed up, why was he told to call on the name of the Lord to have his sins washed away? (2) If one's baptism is a "testimony" of a changed heart, instead of doing it immediately, why not wait until you can get to a location where Christians meet so you can do it in the presence of more witnesses to this act? I hope my questions make sense, and please forgive my bad English! Again, I want to thank you, brother, for helping me to dot all the "i's" in this very important issue of study of God's Word. Blessings to you, brother.

From a Reader in Florida:

Dear Bro. Al, This Reflections ("Wash Away Your Sins") was very challenging, and I really appreciate your study and knowledge on the topic of baptism. I praise God that we are finally searching more deeply for the Truth of His Word, and that we are beginning to see the light ... and a welcome light it is!!

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