A newly-appointed pastor friend of mine had a dilemma. She had befriended a young woman in the rural community she was serving. Over time she extended an invitation for this new friend to join her congregation for a Sunday morning worship service. Much to my pastor friend’s surprise and delight, the other woman agreed to come.
News travels amazingly fast in small towns, and before the week finished and Sunday morning rolled around, a long-time member of the church she served approached my pastor friend. He came into her office, looking concerned. He had heard a rumor that the woman my friend invited was planning on joining them for church, and he was unhappy about the development.
“Have you seen the clothes she wears?” he asked my friend. “We can’t have that here.” Yes, her clothing choices revealed too much skin. But what the church member saw as scandalous, my friend saw as a symptom of brokenness. And my friend, who was formerly a broken woman with less than desirable behavior, knew that Jesus was the only One able to mend the shattered heart beneath the skimpy clothes.
My friend was troubled because the conversation pointed to a much larger problem than clothing choices. What stood before her was masked as friendly advice on giving more careful consideration about to whom the pastor extended a welcoming hand. But in reality, it revealed judgment about someone else’s worthiness and acceptability. At least with this one person in her congregation, there was an understanding of who was and who was not right enough with God to be among them.
In Romans 3, Paul writes that we are righteous when we have faith in Jesus Christ. The Greek word used for righteousness means a condition that is acceptable to God. Faith in Christ makes us acceptable. God’s grace brings us into right relationship with God. We don’t do it on our own, friend. We cannot follow enough rules about dress, church attendance, language, recreational activities, or acts of charity to make us acceptable to God. Only faith makes us righteous—only faith.
Why are we tempted to look at another’s choices and compare our righteousness with theirs? Is it maybe – just maybe – because we are desperately aware of our unworthiness? Instead of running to Jesus with thanksgiving and praise for His mercy, we calm our fears of insufficiency by pointing out that at least we are not as deficient in pleasing God as so-and-so? We’ve all done it. But let’s decide to recognize it, turn from it, and grow in our commitment to loving others as Christ loves them.
Over time, our choices or habits may need adjusting. God will deal with that as we mature in our devotion to Him. Give Him time to work it out in yourself and others. But remember this – and I’m speaking to myself as much as I am to you – changes in our behavior may be about sanctification (growing more like Jesus), but they will not be about righteousness (being right with God). Righteousness can and will only ever come through faith alone.