I John is heavy on obedience. Frequently John tells us that if we claim to know God and believe in Christ then we must obey God’s commandments (I John 2:4, 3:22, 5:3). When we read these verses we often think of being moral. We think of not getting drunk, refusing to cuss, not fornicating, or being generally a nice person.
But John has a different idea in mind. For him righteousness, obeying the commandments of God, means conformity to Jesus Christ. We see this specifically in two places, but it is woven throughout the epistle. In I John 2:6 John says that anyone who says he abides in God must walk as he walked. Anyone who claims to be a Christian must walk as Jesus walked. In John 3:7 he says that he who practices righteousness is righteous just as he is righteous. Righteousness is defined by Jesus. This is important for us because there are many good people in the world. There are Muslims, Mormons, and atheists who all live clean, moral lives. They are faithful to their wives. They do good in the community. They are hard workers. So if we define “righteousness” as good clean living then there are a lot of pagans who fit. The Bible however defines righteousness as Jesus. There will be some overlap of course. There are many things good people will do or not do that correspond with righteous living. But there is a world of difference between being moral and being righteous.
A Righteous Man Worships God
Perhaps most important is that righteousness is about worshiping God. Being righteous means we obey the first four commandments. We have no other gods, except Yahweh. We do not worship idols. We do not take his name in vain. We rest so that we might worship him. It is impossible to be righteous without worshiping God. Perhaps this is why I John ends the way it does (I John 5:21).
A Righteous Man Believes in Jesus Christ
In I John 3:23 John commands us to believe on the name of Jesus Christ. A man can be good in some sense without trusting in Jesus, but he cannot be righteous. He cannot be obedient to God if he does not believe in Jesus Christ. Belief in Jesus Christ is the foundation of a righteous life. Without faith in Christ a man is not righteous. By the way, this also means that a righteous man calls upon others to believe in Christ.
A Righteous Man Confesses His Sins
John begins his letter, which is so heavy on obeying, with a reminder that we are sinners and we need to confess our sins (I John 1:8-2:3). Confession of sin is essential to righteous living. A righteous man wants to be more like Christ. When he isn’t he repents of his sins and flees to the Advocate (I John 2:1). Here again is a great dividing line between good, moral living and being righteous. Moral men do not confess their sins. They may admit they made mistakes and did something wrong, but they do not confess that they have sinned. Righteous men do.
A Righteous Man is Concerned about His Heart, Not Just His Actions
Morality is concerned primarily about outward behavior. We must be careful here, a righteous man will be concerned about outward behavior. Learning to be more like Christ and confessing our sins when we aren’t will result in concrete action. We cannot just be righteous in our hearts. This is clear throughout the whole Bible. Even if we only look at Ephesians 4:25-5:7 we see that we shouldn’t lie, steal, fornicate, sin in our anger, etc. Anyone who defines righteousness as primarily internal is going against God’s Word. But when we define righteousness as primarily external then we sin the other direction. We are equating morality with righteousness. A righteous man knows that failing to love is like murder (I John 3:14-15). Murder is murder, but so is hate, which is internal. A righteous man knows that lust is adultery (Matthew 5:28). Adultery is adultery, but so is lust. A righteous man knows that coveting is idolatry (Ephesians 5:5). Idolatry is idolatry, but so is coveting. The righteous man understands that who he is on the inside matters as much as what he does on the outside. A moral man does not understand this.
Taking all of these together we can see that righteousness, as defined by the Bible, cannot be equated with good, clean living or being moral. There will be some overlap between the two, especially in certain outward actions. But righteousness is vertical. It requires worship and belief in God and His Son Jesus Christ. Righteousness is conformity to Christ. It requires confession when conformity is lacking. Righteousness is internal. It requires an inner spiritual life that focuses on movement of the heart and mind toward God, as well as what we do with our hands, feet, eyes, and mouth.
Morality is not righteousness. When John tells us that we need to obey the commandments of God we need to see a picture of Jesus, not a picture of a good, upstanding, moral citizen.