Different Focus

In the letters to Ephesians and Colossians, there is hardly any mention of righteousness. The focus is on Jesus' victory over the powers of evil by his death, resurrection and ascension, and the grace and deliverance we received through being united with him. This focus is not surprising, because I suspect it is Paul's core message.

Paul begins his letter to the Galatians with a similar message.

Jesus the Messiah, our Lord, gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father (Gal 1:3-4).
Prior to his coming the world was enslaved under the powers of the world (Gal 4:3). God sent Jesus to rescue and redeem us.

Righteousness is a major theme in Paul's letters to the Galatians and to Romans (mostly in chapters 2-4). The reason for the different focus it that these letters were written to churches that were being led astray by Jewish Christians who wanted to impose some of the cultural requirements of the law on Gentile believers.

The Jewish Christians who came to Galatia seemed to be obsessed with righteousness. For some reason, they wanted to be declared righteous before God. This does not seem to have been a natural concern for Paul. Rather, he had to deal with the issue of righteousness, because believers were confused about it. In Romans 5 and 6, Paul explains that we are delivered from sin to become servants of righteousness (Rom 6:16-19). That deliverance is important for Paul.

Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians in response to teachers from Jerusalem, who were telling Gentile Christians that they needed to submit to some of the requirements of the Jewish law, such as circumcision. The followers of Jesus in Ephesus and Colossae were not being badgered by Jewish Christians to demonstrate their righteousness, so the letters Paul wrote to them focussed on the victory and deliverance provided by Jesus.


Paul begins his letter to the Galatians by describing an event at Antioch where Peter was happy to eat food with Gentile Christians, but when James came to visit, Peter drew back and refused to eat with them (Gal 2:11-13). Paul challenged Peter in front of the church for not acting in accordance with the gospel and said he was forcing Gentile Christians to follow Jewish customs (Gal 2:14). The remainder of Galatians 2 is Paul's recollection of his response to Peter.

Previously in his ministry, Paul had checked his understanding of the gospel with the so-called pillars of the church, Peter, James and John (Gal 2:1-9). They did not add anything to the gospel of Jesus that he was preaching. The circumcision group that pressured Peter when he came to Antioch was adding something to the gospel. They were saying that Gentiles needed to be circumcised and eat separately to be "right with God" (Gal 2:12).

Being justified before God was the concern of the Judaizers, not Paul's. Paul was more concerned about being set apart and called by grace (Gal 1:15). He had no need to be justified before God. Paul's other goal was freedom from the power of sin and the spiritual powers of evil (Gal 5:1). The circumcision group wanted to make a good impression outwardly (Gal 6:12). They want to boast about their noble birth (Gal 6:13). The only thing that Paul will boast about is the cross of Jesus, through which has been crucified to the world (Gal 6:14).

The other thing that Paul worried about was receiving the fullness of the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 3:2,14, he explains that the major benefit of the gospel is not being made righteous, but receiving the promise of the Holy Spirit. Being made righteous is of no value to us. Receiving the Holy Spirit can transform our lives, so this is the goal of Paul's gospel.


I presume that a desire to be justified before God is driven by human pride. Paul suggests in Galatians 2:17 that seeking to be declared righteous is sinful, even if it is by the Messiah.

If, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn't that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!
This verse is odd, because if we are justified by faith, then we are no longer counted as sinners. I suspect that Paul might be suggesting that it is sinful to worry about being justified. If we are forgiven then we do not need to be concerned about being justified to God.

Paul then asks if our seeking to be justified by Jesus makes him an agent of sin. The answer is an emphatic "No!". Paul goes on to suggest that if he builds up his own justification, which he tore down to follow Jesus, he proves that he is a transgressor (Gal 2:18). If I am worried about my justification, the problem is mine, not Jesus'.

Paul declared that he had been crucified with Jesus. He no longer lives, but Jesus lives in him (Gal 2:20). Paul's life does not count, so his justification does not matter. The only thing that matters is Jesus the Messiah, and being united with him.

Paul explained to the Corinthians that he is not interested in his own justification.

For I am not conscious of anything against myself, but I am not justified by this. It is the Lord who judges me (1 Cor 4:4).
Paul explained to the Romans that the Gentiles were not seeking righteousness, but they gained it freely. In contrast, the Jews pursued righteousness, but they failed to achieve it. Pursuing righteousness is pointless (Rom 9:30-31).


People who worry about being right with God have missed the point. Those who rely on the works of the law to be right with God are totally wrong. Paul explained that the Torah cannot make people with right with God (Gal 2:16,21). That was not its purpose.

The Torah provided spiritual protection for the people chosen and called by God. The Torah also provided a way for them to live close together in relative peace in the promised land. The Israelites needed spiritual protection and guidance for living together because they were not righteous. If they were truly righteous, the spiritual powers of evil would not be able to attack them, and they would not need spiritual protection. They would be able to live in unity without needing laws to resolve disputes and deal with crime. They needed the Torah because they were not righteous.

The law put people under a curse because it gave the spiritual powers of evil authority to attack anyone who disobeyed God (Gen 3:10-11). It does not make people righteous but exposes their unrighteousness. Fortunately, it also puts in place protection for those who are sinful, so the spiritual powers of evil could not destroy them.

Paul explained the law cannot make people righteous, because that was not its purpose. People who are worried about being righteous should rely on Jesus' death and resurrection (Gal 2:21). The only way to be righteous in God's eyes us to be united to the Messiah through faith, so that when God looks at us, he sees him. His righteousness becomes our righteousness, but it is his, not ours.

Abraham did not worry about trying to be right with God (Gal 3:6-9). I presume that he knew he had faults. Instead, when he heard God telling him to move to a new land, he obeyed that call, even though he did not know where he would end up. He trusted the God who spoke to him. That faith is what was counted to him as righteousness.

The law was provided for sinful people living before the time of Jesus to keep them safe from evil. It was not intended to make them righteous. Those who are looking for a demonstration of their righteousness, either in the law, or the gospel, are on a wild goose chase.

Human Problem

Humans have two main problems.

Humans do not have a problem with God. He is loving and kind and full of mercy. He is sad that humans have rejected him and allowed the spiritual powers of evil to control their lives, but he is not mad with us. His wrath does not need to be appeased.

The Jewish Christians who were worrying the Gentile Christians in Galatia were worried about God. They believed they need to prove their righteousness to him. Paul responded to their need by explaining that we are made righteous in God's eyes by faith in Jesus. If we trust in Jesus, we are united with him in his death and resurrection. When God looks on us, he sees Jesus' righteousness and attributes it to us too. We are righteous before him.

This obsession with righteousness is the focus of Jewish Christians. Paul dealt with their concerns because they were a threat to his gospel, but demonstrating righteousness was not his primary concern. The was far more concerned about deliverance from spiritual powers of evil that sin has allowed into the world. Jesus defeated them, so Paul wants us to share in his victory of the powers that he has delivered us from.

Works of Torah

In Galatians 2:15-16, Paul explains that no one can be justified by works of the Law.

A person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Messiah Jesus: even we ourselves have believed in Christ the Messiah, so that we might be justified by faith in the Messiah and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no human will be declared righteous.
This raises an important question. What are the works of the law (Torah) that the Jewish believers were relying on for their righteousness?

The works of the law cannot be the entire Torah, because it was a document for a community of people, so much of it cannot be practised by an individual, especially an individual Gentile Christian.

These cannot be the works of the law that Paul was referring to.

The works of the law have to be positive commands that tell people under the Torah things that they must do.

Many of the guidelines for economic life were expressed positively. They were the kind of things that loving people could do to strengthen their community. They do not seem to be what Paul was talking about as works of law to be avoided, because he seemed to continue fulfilling most of the guidelines for economic life.

The other group of positive commands are the cultural markers designed to keep the Jews separate from the nations for their spiritual protection. There were three main cultural markers.

Note: Eating separately was not a requirement of the Torah, but the food laws were used to justify this common Jewish practice that marked them off from Gentiles.

Under the Old Covenant, being in the right came through birth into the chosen people. The people who entered the promised land had been born in the wilderness after their parents escaped from Egypt. Moses' covenant applied to everyone born as an Israelite. Paul understood this well. He was born into the tribe of Benjamin as a Hebrew of the Hebrews (Phil 3:5). This gave him a "legalistic righteousness" (Phil 3:6).

In this context, demonstrating that you were part of the chosen people was really important. Circumcision and Sabbath were the key cultural markers that Jews relied on to show that they were part of God's elect.

The Jewish Christians challenging the Galatians were concerned about proving their righteousness. Naturally, they focussed on the aspects of the law that would mark them out as being born in the right nation, ie circumcision, food laws and sabbath. These were the works of the law that they required the gentile Christians to do, as marks of the righteousness that came through having born again into God's people.

The Jewish Christians thought that the Gentile Christians needed these external markers to show they were no longer part of the world. Paul explained that there was a far better way for followers of Jesus to show that they no longer belonged to the world. The first was the gift of the Spirit. They should be full of the fruit of the Spirit, so people would know that they were different (Gal 5:22-26). The other sign that demonstrates that followers of Jesus are not part of the world is their love for each other (Gal 6:2).

Paul explained that external symbols that mark out believers are a waste of time. The things that should mark of followers of Jesus are their love for each other and the presence of the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:2,14). Christians only need external identifiers like different haircuts or clothing, if they have forgotten how to love one another and lost the gift of the Spirit.

Old Testament Righteousness

The theme of righteousness is common throughout the Old Testament. There are three main uses of the concept.

  1. The Old Testament has a strong emphasis on the righteousness of God. He is different from all other gods, because everything that he does is righteous.

    Your righteousness, God, reaches to the heavens,
    you who have done great things.
    Who is like you, God (Psalm 71:9)?

  2. The kings of Israel were expected to implement justice and righteousness for their people.

  3. The mighty King loves justice. You have established fairness; you have administered justice and righteousness in Jacob.
    A good king makes decisions that are righteous. He provides justice for everyone who has suffered from injustice.

  4. Righteousness was fulfilling the law to receive blessing.

    If only you had paid attention to my commands. Then your peace would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea (Is 48:18).
    The Torah provided spiritual protection for the children of Israel. God had rescued them from physical and spiritual slavery. To remain safe, they had to continue obey the law. If they rejected God by forgetting to obey the law, the spiritual powers of evil would be able to attack them. These are the curses described in Deuteronomy 28.

    This righteousness was not a better standard of goodness. Rather it was a way for sinful people being kept safe from evil by remaining under God's spiritual protection.