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6 minutes

Righteousness and The Law

Those who have followed me for a while should recognize that most of my teachings deal with topics that are misunderstood by many Christians. Today’s topic, Righteousness and the Law, is in many ways the epitome of this.

In Christianity, when we hear people speak of “The Law”, they are referring to the Old Testament laws that God gave Moses. Most scholars will say there are 613 laws in the Old Testament and they say these laws are summed up by the Ten Commandments.

Yet, it is rare for me to speak to a Christian who actually understands our relationship to the Law. Most Christians I meet usually fall into one of these categories: antinomian or legalistic.

Antinomian Defined

“Antinomian” is a word attributed to Martin Luther. It comes from two Greek words: Anti = against; Nomos = law. Hence, antinomians are “against the law.” They believe the Law doesn’t matter anymore so we do not need to follow it.

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:56-57

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. – Matthew 5:17

The idea is that we are saved by Grace, Jesus fulfilled the Law, and therefore the Law has no power over us. Antinomians do not feel that the Law is something we need to think about or follow.

Legalism Defined

Directly opposed to this is “Legalism.” Someone who is a Legalist believes that the Law must be followed if we are to be pleasing to God. Without pleasing God, there is no salvation and therefore, the Law is of utmost importance.

You are My friends if you do what I command you. – John 15:14

If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. – John 14:15

And this is love, that we walk according to His commandments. – 2 John 1:6

If salvation is about relationship with God, then the greatest relationship is one of love and friendship. Jesus is clear that those who are his friends and who love God will follow His commandments.

So Which is Right?

Both positions have scriptures that seem to back up their beliefs. Neither has come up with their beliefs out of thin air. They have studied the Bible to come to their conclusions. Yet they both cannot be right. They oppose each other.

The problem is that both camps have misunderstood one of the most basic tenets of the faith. They confuse Justification and Sanctification.

In other words, neither is right.


Justification means that we are made right with God. When we are justified, we are saved. The only way we can be justified is by faith in Jesus.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. – John 3:16

And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved. – Acts 4:12

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. – John 14:6

Therefore, according to scripture, the only way we can be justified is by trusting in Jesus. There is no other way. We are sinners and our sins can only be paid by someone with enough credit to pay them off.

He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. – 2 Corinthians 5:21

 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. – Colossians 1:15

For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus – 1 Timothy 2:5

Only Jesus is sinless. Only Jesus is God and Man. Therefore, only Jesus can pay the cost for our sins. We cannot pay them ourselves because the cost of sin against the Infinite God is infinite.


While Justification means being made right with God, it does not mean we are perfect. In the Bible, the word translated “perfect” means “holy” and “complete.” Hence, we can be saved but not be perfect. We can be justified but not be sanctified.

“Sanctification” is the process all Christians go through after they are justified. It means to become holy, set apart. It means to become more perfect, more complete, as life goes on. Another way to think of sanctification is “to become more like Jesus.”

Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17

but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” – 1 Peter 1:15-16

Once we are “in Christ,” meaning justified, we are no longer the same. We are a new creation. The old self has died. We are made new. What does that new creature look like? Like someone who is becoming more like Christ daily. This is what sanctification is.

The Confusion

We’ve now defined our terms. This should help us to understand the problem so many Christians have: we have confused Justification and Sanctification.

Therefore, the antinomians say, “We don’t have to follow the law because we are saved by the sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus paid it all.”

They have confused sanctification with justification. When others say, “We must follow the Law,” antinomians think they are talking about Justification. They are right to say that nothing we can do will bring us salvation. They are wrong to say that following the law doesn’t matter.

The legalists say, “The only way into the Kingdom is by following the law. God can only be near holy objects and as long as we continue to sin, we can never be in His presence.”

They have confused justification with sanctification. They think that salvation comes from being good, doing good, following the commands. They are right to say that it is important that we obey God’s commands; otherwise, we prove we do not love God and are no friend of His. They are wrong to say that salvation is by works.

Righteousness Defined

A final term needs to be defined before we can conclude. We often misunderstand what “Righteousness” means. This is due to the way the word is used, especially in the New Testament.

The Hebrew understanding of righteousness is based on God’s relationship with His people. God is always righteous. Israel, not so much.

Yet God saw them as righteous. The nations of the world were unrighteous. Israel, because of their relationship with God, was righteous. This righteousness is not based on what they have done. This righteousness is not based on who they are. It is based on God’s grace towards them.

Then there is also the Greek understanding of righteousness. In this sense, it means to obey the law, to do right: To live a life of submission (to the law) and integrity.

Hence, we see why there is some confusion: in the first case, righteousness speaks to justification (grace) while in the second case, it speaks to sanctification (obedience).

A Proper View of Righteousness and the Law

So now, if we were to try again to determine the relationship between righteousness and the law, we will see that both the antinomian and the legalist miss the mark.

We must not confuse Justification and Sanctification. At the same time, we must properly define Righteousness. Hence, we can only be righteous because of the Grace of God, giving us His Son as a sacrifice for sin in order that we might be saved (justified). Yet, we must be righteous in our lives after we are saved in order to be set apart (sanctified).

Paul teaches us that works cannot save us.

For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin – Romans 8:3

Because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. – Romans 3:20

James teaches that works is required.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? – James 2:14

Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. – James 2:17

For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. – James 2:26

They are not contradicting each other. They are speaking of two different things: Justification and Sanctification.

Salvation is not just one or the other. It is both.

Salvation = Justification + Sanctification (+ adoption + glorification, but we’ll save these last two for another day)

There is no salvation without both Justification and Sanctification. If Christians can understand this, we will go a long way to becoming the Body of Christ God intended us to be.