Before we can pursue righteousness, we need to define it. The word most often translated “righteousness” can also mean “justice, justness, or divine holiness.” In the broadest sense, righteousness can be defined as “the condition of being acceptable to God as made possible by God.” God’s standard is what defines true righteousness; His power is what enables it. Unless God is its author, we will never possess righteousness. No amount of man-made effort will result in righteousness. To be righteous is to be right with God. A heart that is right with God results in a life that bears “fruit” (John 15:1–2; Mark 4:20). Galatians 5:22-23 lists some of that fruit.
A common substitute for true righteousness is self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the opposite of what God desires. Self-righteousness makes a list of rules and checks them off, congratulating itself on how well it is doing compared to others. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were masters of self-righteousness, but Jesus had harsh words for them: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27–28).
To pursue righteousness means we must recognize that we cannot please God in our sinful state (Romans 8:8). We turn from trying to justify ourselves by our good deeds and instead seek the mercy of God. We desire that He transform our minds (Romans 12:2) and conform us “to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29). In the Old Testament, men were declared righteous when they believed God and acted on it (Genesis 15:6; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). Before Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4), people pursued righteousness by keeping God’s Law, seeking holiness, and “walking humbly with God” (Micah 6:8). No one was justified by rule-keeping but by the faith that enabled them to obey God (Romans 3:20; Galatians 2:16).
Likewise, today we are justified by the faith that leads us to Jesus (Romans 3:28; 5:1; 10:10). Those who are in Christ continue seeking God in order to please Him (Colossians 3:1). When we come to faith in Christ, He gives us the Holy Spirit who empowers us to pursue righteousness for its own sake (Acts 2:38). He commands us to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16, 25). Walking in the Spirit means we live a lifestyle of total surrender to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. We cultivate the ability to hear God and the habit of obeying His voice in everything.
We pursue righteousness when we pursue the character of Christ and desire holiness more than fleshly indulgence. We avoid the temptation to become self-righteous when we understand that true righteousness begins with godly humility (Psalm 25:9). We remember that Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). When we spend time in the presence of God, we become more aware of our own sin and shortcomings. A dingy shirt looks white beside a dark wall. But, when compared with snow, the same shirt looks dirty. Pride and self-righteousness cannot remain in the presence of a holy God. Pursuing righteousness begins when a humble heart seeks the continual presence of God (James 4:10; 1 Peter 5:6). The humble, believing heart leads to a lifestyle of righteous action acceptable to God (Psalm 51:10).