Every follower of Jesus has a certain hunger in his heart. It is a passionate zeal to be holy before God—free from sin, victorious over flesh, pure and spotless before the Lord.
The Holy Spirit actually plants this desire—an innate longing to live uprightly—in the heart of every human being. People of every religion, and even no religion, are moved to live well, do right, love others, be the best person they can be. Some obviously flee that desire and do the opposite, but they are still conscious of a deep desire to do right.
Of course, we all fall short of this desire because of our sinful nature. For nonbelievers, the spirit of this world can darken the mind to any sense of rightness. For believers, failure to live in a way that honors God can crush the spirit.
This desire to live right is behind the meaning of the word righteousness. It means to be in right standing with God—to live with right motives, emotions and behavior—and establish right alignment with His purposes.
To truly be righteous, we have to know what it is and is not. Is righteousness right behavior? No, you can do the right thing while having wrong motives. Some Christians do right things but are motivated by a pharisaical spirit. Their outward behavior is right, but inwardly they are “dead man’s bones.” So, is righteousness the desire or will to be right? No, a lot of people seek righteousness with great passion but fail to attain it.
The Bible describes our righteousness in two words: justification and sanctification. As Christians, we need both in our lives. The first term indicates our position, or right standing, with God. The second refers to our walk with God, our ongoing relation to Him.
If we are not justified, we can never be righteous. We can do good works and spend hours in prayer, but these things will not make us righteous. That is because justification is associated with making things just. For that to happen, God’s wrath against sin has to be addressed. A penalty has to be paid for our sins so that God will pardon them.
We all know Jesus makes this payment (or propitiation) for our sin. His sacrifice on the cross quenched God’s holy wrath toward our sin. Our Savior has met every requirement for us to be accepted fully by the Lord and in right standing with Him once and for all.