Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. – Romans 10:1-4 ESV
Paul had a deep love for his Hebrew brothers and sisters. He longed for them to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus as their Messiah, just as he had. He prayed for them regularly and shared with them the good news of Jesus Christ at every opportunity – sometimes subjecting himself to their wrath for doing so. Paul knew they had a zeal for the things of God, but were operating out of ignorance. They were still functioning under the well-intended, but misguided idea that they could somehow be justified or made right with God through keeping His law. As Paul wrote, being ignorant of God’s “brand” of righteousness, made available through faith in Christ alone, they sought to establish their own. And Paul knew exactly what it was they were doing from personal experience.
In his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul shared his personal testimony. At one time, he too had been a well-intentioned zealot for God.
I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without fault. – Philippians 3:5-6 NLT
There had been a point in Paul’s life when he believed that his righteousness before God was based on his own human effort. Even his persecution of Christians was done out of his deep desire to please God. He had seen followers of Christ as a threat to Judaism and did everything in his power to eliminate them, chasing them down and throwing them in prison. He was a fervent law-keeper and God-pleaser. But he operated out of ignorance. It was after he came to know Christ that his eyes were opened, both literally and spiritually, to the kind of righteousness God was looking for, a righteousness provided by Christ’s death and not through man’s self-effort. Which is what led Paul to write:
I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ and become one with him. I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection from the dead! – Philippians 3:7-11 NLT
The key to the change in Paul’s perspective is found in his statement: “I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ.” That has been the thesis of Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV).
Paul wants his fellow Jews to learn what he learned, that the death of Jesus brought an end to the law. There are two basic reasons that God gave the Mosaic law. The first was to make known the righteous standards and holy character of God. It was to provide the people of Israel with an objective, non-debatable code of conduct that would be acceptable to a holy God. As a result, the people were to realize that their best efforts would never measure up to God’s perfect standard. “Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins” (Galatians 3:19 NLT). God had never expected or intended anyone to be made righteous through keeping the law.
The second purpose for the law was to provide the people of Israel with a standard for living that would set them apart from the rest of nations around them. It contained moral, religious, and civil codes that reflected the wisdom of God and would bless their lives if and when they obeyed them. Moses told the people of Israel, “Look, I now teach you these decrees and regulations just as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may obey them in the land you are about to enter and occupy. Obey them completely, and you will display your wisdom and intelligence among the surrounding nations. When they hear all these decrees, they will exclaim, ‘How wise and prudent are the people of this great nation!’ For what great nation has a god as near to them as the Lord our God is near to us whenever we call on him? And what great nation has decrees and regulations as righteous and fair as this body of instructions that I am giving you today?” (Deuteronomy 4:5-8 NLT).
But when Christ came, He did what no other man had ever done, He kept God’s law perfectly and completely. It was His perfect obedience that made Him the unblemished and acceptable sacrifice. But with His death, the role of the law changed dramatically. Paul told the Galatian believers, “Before the way of faith in Christ was available to us, we were placed under guard by the law. We were kept in protective custody, so to speak, until the way of faith was revealed. Let me put it another way. The law was our guardian until Christ came; it protected us until we could be made right with God through faith. And now that the way of faith has come, we no longer need the law as our guardian” (Galatians 3:23-25 NLT).
The kind of righteousness that justifies and makes one right with God is based on faith in Christ as Savior. It has nothing to do with self-effort. It is a gift – totally unearned and undeserved. It is based on God’s mercy, not our merit. It was provided for us by Christ. Like Abraham, all we bring to the table is our belief. “Abraham believed God, and it was counted as righteousness” (Romans 4:3 ESV). When we believe in Christ as God’s sole source of man’s salvation, that belief results in our righteousness and a right relationship with God.