The simple answer is, when God considers us righteous. When does God consider us righteous?
To answer this question, I’d like to briefly look at a few examples of righteous people. Firstly, Abraham, the friend of God, is an excellent example. God made a seemingly impossible promise to Abraham and Abraham believed God. We read in Genesis 15:6:
And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
This shows us that believing God, or having faith in God, is critical to being considered righteous. (Belief and faith mean the same thing in Scripture.)
Noah is another example of a righteous man. Genesis 6:8-9 tells us:
But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. … Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.
At the end of the Old Testament, Malachi 3:16-18:
Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. “They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.
The above righteous people from the Old Testament, demonstrated the following characteristics:
- Belief in God
- Walking with God
- Being blameless
- Fearing God
- Esteeming God
- Serving God
- Associating with other believers
Considering the New Testament, Luke 1:5-6:
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.
Luke makes the point that both Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous and walked blamelessly in the commandments and statutes. We know that a legalistic adherence to the law doesn’t justify people before God, so obviously Elizabeth and Zechariah had faith. Galatians 3:11-12:
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
These righteous people who lived before the sacrifice of Christ, were considered so because of their faith. Subsequent to Christ’s sacrifice, people are also considered righteous because of their faith. We cannot be considered righteous of ourselves, because we are all sinners. No matter how many righteous deeds we do, we will fall time and time again. God knows our frame – he knows we are dust. In his love, he graciously counts those righteous who have faith in Jesus Christ.
The bronze serpent in the wilderness illustrates the principle. Numbers 21:8-9
And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.
This bronze serpent on the pole, was a figure of salvation through Jesus. If the Israelites who had been bitten by the serpents (a figure of sin), looked to the harmless serpent on the pole, they would be saved from death.
If we sinners look to Jesus who died on the cross – a man like us yet separate from sinners as he never gave into to sin – we will be saved from the sting of death. Although we will die, Jesus will raise us from death at his return to earth, and give us immortality.
Although we are saved by faith in Jesus, this doesn’t mean we keep on living a life of sin and assume that God will save us no matter what. If we believe God, we do what he says. If we believe Jesus, we do what he says. Faith has to translate into actions. We have to repent from our former life and live our lives for God. This will result in faithful people living righteous lives. 1 John 3:6-10:
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.
When we live a new life in Christ, we walk in the way of righteousness. We do not walk in the way of sin. Unfortunately, we will still sin as 1 John 1:8-9 points out:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
In summary – we are considered righteous on the basis of our faith. If we love God, we will practice righteousness. When we sin we are forgiven because of our love of God, and our faith in Jesus. This forgiveness is intended to lead us to a higher standard, and not to be an excuse to continue sinning.