The word “righteous” is a religious term that is sometimes hard to understand in a practical sense. When the Bible talks about being made “righteous” through faith, people often get the idea that God accepts them even though they are sinners. Although that view is true, I have come to think that it doesn’t fully describe what being “righteous” means.
The root word of “righteous” is “right.” If you are made “right,” then you are not “wrong,” or “bad.” This gives righteousness a new, fresh meaning. I believe that, knowing you are made right is an integral part of adhering to the following Scripture.
Romans 8:13: “We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
If this verse is read in isolation, the natural response is to say, “Better shape up!” However, that interpretation does not take into account the previous chapter of Romans which shows how the “Better Shape Up!” mentality breaks down.
The key point in Romans 8:13 is that we do not owe anything to the flesh. I’m going to start personifying Flesh by typing it with a capital “F.” Flesh includes your physical attributes as well as your feelings, including how you feel about yourself. Flesh might say to someone, “Look what I just made you do! God is mad at you now. Are you sure that you’re still saved? How can you claim to be a real believer?”
Now, Flesh knows that some Christians will not be fooled by these arguments. However, for such folks, Flesh has a Plan B, which says, “Okay, you’re still a child of God (that is, you are righteous), but you’re a disobedient child. God loves you but you’re hands are dirty. You ought to feel bad about your lifestyle and think about how much you’re offending your Father.”
This “Plan B” argument of Flesh is especially sly because it purports itself to be the proper balance between grace and responsibility, a condition sought by many believers. Furthermore, the religious concept of “righteousness” sometimes leaves a door open to that argument. But here’s the point, if you entertain that argument, you are acting as if you “owe something” to Flesh and are paying your debt by listening to its arguments.
However, if you know that you have been made RIGHT, then you don’t have to listen to the claim that you ought to be ashamed.
Now, because we have a conscience, it is impossible to live without ever feeling guilty of anything. It is in response to our conscience that Flesh makes its argument. We cannot “choose” to avoid feeling any guilt whatsoever. Feelings of guilt may influence us to do what is right as the Spirit leads us (that is one reason why we have a conscience), but we do not owe anything to guilt. When feelings of guilt arise, we are not obligated to let Flesh take control of the situation by entertaining its arguments. Thus, we can avoid being “paralyzed” by guilt to the point where it keeps us from living our lives as a psychologically healthy person would. We do not have to live and act like someone who is struggling with guilt and dreaming of being free someday.
Lastly, I want to consider what it means for Paul to write “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
As believers in Christ, we have the Spirit of God in us (Rom. 8:17). I have come to believe that, the reason many of us do not “feel” the Spirit of God is that some part of our mind is still listening to the argument of Flesh described above. That argument cuts very deep into one’s mind. Even if, in the more conscious parts of our mind, the argument has been refuted, it may still carry an undercurrent effect behind the scenes for a long time. You see, if we let Flesh tell us that our hands are dirty and that we’re disobedient children, we cannot also see ourselves as being filled with the Spirit.
However, whether we see it or not, the Spirit is always doing something inside of us that influences the direction of our lives. After all, God “accomplishes all things according to his council and will” (Eph. 1:11), and it is through believers that He works in the world. However, if our attention to Flesh diminishes, the prominence of the Spirit should increase.