The Protestant view of justification largely hinges on their definition of "righteousness." In the Protestant view, to be justified one must be righteous, and to be righteous one must have kept all of God's commandments perfectly. It's akin to needing to score a 100% on the SAT, with anything less than 100% being a complete fail in God's sight. In this post I will go through the Bible and show why the term "righteousness" does not mean "perfect law keeper" or anything similar, which in turn will totally undermine the Protestant understanding of salvation and the Gospel.
The Greek words for "righteous" ("just") and "righteousness" are used a few hundred times in the Bible, so if the Protestant thesis is true, there should be some clear evidence for it. Most of the occurrences uses the terms "righteous" and "righteousness" in passing, so not much can be gleaned from the bulk of the texts. That said, I did not find a single instance where "righteous" or "righteousness" was tied to perfectly keeping the law or commandments. This means that the Protestant definition does not come from the Bible, and rather from traditions of men. Instead, the notion of being righteous, according to Scripture, simply refers to doing good actions (e.g. Mt 6:1; Acts 10:35; Eph 6:1; 1 Th 2:10; 1 Jn 3:7,12) or having an upright quality about your character (e.g. Mt 1:19; Lk 1:6; 1 Tim 1:9; 1 Pt 3:14). Nothing is ever implied about perfect or flawless obedience.
Now I'll look at a few texts that Protestants might point to, and I'll show why they come up short in proving what the Protestant is looking for.
In Matthew 3:15, Jesus says He is going to "fulfill all righteousness," which Protestants have long pointed to as proof that Jesus came to perfectly keep the law in our place. But the fact is, the text doesn't say this is about perfectly keeping the Law, especially since the term "fulfill" does not mean "keep perfectly" as I showed [here] and [here]. This ties into another Protestant error, which is assuming the phrase "righteousness of God" refers to Jesus' perfect obedience to the Law. But the problem with that is this is referring to the "righteousness of God the Father," and we know the Father didn't have to keep the law perfectly to have this righteousness (Jn 17:25). Instead, this "righteousness of God" refers principally to God's faithfulness, which is why Scripture contrasts it to our unfaithfulness (Rom 3:3-8). So that approach is clearly a dead-end.
The only passage I could find that comes close to what the Protestant is looking for is Deuteronomy 6:24-25,
24 And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. 25 And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.’
This is the only place where I've found "righteousness" directly tied to all the commandments. But even this doesn't teach what the Protestant might think it teaches, since this is talking about keeping the Mosaic Law. The Mosaic Law was not something that was based on perfect/flawless obedience, but rather one was evaluated on overall obedience. In other words, keeping all the commandments was understood qualitatively rather than quantitatively. This can be shown in two ways: First of all, the Mosaic Law included in it Sacrifices for when an Israelite sinned, meaning that it was understood that sins will take place and so includes Sacrifices as part of its 'holistic obedience' (e.g. the yearly Day of Atonement ritual); Second, the Bible speaks of people keeping "all the commandments" when we know nobody has kept them with absolute perfection, thus what this means is they kept the commandments overall and from the heart, despite having certain failures along the way. This is why the Bible can say Abraham kept all of God's commands (Gen 26:4-5), David kept all of God's commands (1 Kings 15:5; 3:6; 9:4), Elizabeth and Zechariah kept all of God's commands (Lk 1:5-6), and Paul kept the law flawlessly (Phil 3:6) - despite the fact we all know they had moral failings in their lives. But there's even more evidence to consider, which I'll turn to now.
Paul's battle with the Judaizers, particularly in Romans and Galatians, was based on the realization that the Mosaic Covenant never offered eternal life in the first place, so the "righteousness that comes from the law" didn't save anyone from sin, it only meant you were a 'good Jew':
11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”[Hab 2:4] 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
The big mistake with these kinds of passages is thinking "nobody is justified by the law because the law is impossible to keep perfectly," but that's not what Paul is saying. Paul is saying the righteousness that the law gives is a non-saving righteousness (it only gives one earthly blessings like long life, wealth, big family, etc). The righteousness that does save and bring about forgiveness of sins comes from God through faith. This is why Paul can say: "I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness came through the law, then Christ died for no purpose" and "not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God" (Gal 2:21; Phil 3:9; cf Rom 10:5-6). Paul is saying there are two types of righteousness - a saving righteousness and a non-saving righteousness - where as Protestants mistakenly think there is only one type of righteousness. Thus, the door is slammed again in attempting to identify (saving) "righteousness" with perfect/sinless commandment keeping.
To round out this study of the Biblical teaching on righteousness, notice how substituting "perfect obedience" in various passages simply renders the sentence incoherent:
- You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness [perfect obedience] shall you judge your neighbor. (Lev 19:5)
- You shall restore to him the pledge as the sun sets, that he may sleep in his cloak and bless you. And it shall be righteousness [perfect obedience] for you before the Lord your God. (Dt 24:13)
- Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness [perfect obedience] at all times! (Ps 106:3)
- I tell you, unless your righteousness [perfect obedience] exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Mat 5:20)
As you can see, the meaning is nonsensical when "righteousness" is understood as "perfect obedience," as none of these situations are dealing with perfect obedience. To conclude, I will repeat: Nothing is ever implied about perfect or flawless obedience when it comes to the Biblical teaching on "righteousness," it simply means upright living (Ps 18:20; 2 Sam 22:21). So to think that the problem is 'faith alone' versus 'perfect obedience works' is a serious mistake, and it shows the Protestant approach is totally bankrupt.