Do we become Righteous in the eyes of God by doing good, or can we become Righteous just by saying that we're Righteous? That later short-cut has been the teaching of most Christian pastors in recent years, and it's a very dangerous subversion of what Jesus and the Bible has always taught.
The teaching of modern Fundamentalist Christendom (of very recent origin) is that God can merely "pretend" that we've become Righteous, and will simply ignore our ongoing sinful acts, when we just accept His Son's sacrifice for our guilt.
Some even go on to say that Jesus' Righteousness is "imputed," or handed over, to us by God the moment we simply say that we accept Jesus as our Savior. All that's required for this transaction to take place is for us to mouth a "salvation prayer." That means we can keep sinning, but God will only "see" Jesus' goodness, "covering" our ongoing evil deeds.
As one preacher, Charles Stanley, put it once, "his righteousness becomes our righteousness the moment we, by faith, accept the work of his son of the cross and receive Jesus Christ as our savior, then we are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ." (“We Are Justified,” Oct. 21, 2017 InTouch Ministries.)
Joseph Prince, another popular TV preacher, says, "Christ took our sins and gave us His righteousness the moment we believe in Him. ("Righteousness is Not Right Doing, It's Right Being." josephprince.org)
Here's why this teaching is so wrong: Jesus, our Master, never said any of this. And Jesus is our God-appointed Master, not TV preachers, theologians or any other men.
Jesus never tells us we can ever pretend to be righteous on the basis of another’s deeds. Nor did he teach that God will pretend that we haven't been sinning (or let us continue to do evil deeds) if we simply say we accept Jesus' death as a substitute, on the basis of our faith, alone.
In Jesus' preaching, there is clearly no substitute for DOING righteousness. Righteousness is always stated by Jesus as something we must DO, just as it was in all the other books of the Hebrew Bible.
"To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice." (Proverbs 21:3)
"Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times!" (Psalm 106:3)
"Thus says Yahweh: “Keep justice, and do righteousness." (Isaiah 56:1)
And if God were to see the righteousness of JESUS, and not our own UNrighteous behavior, he wouldn’t be accepting US, but Jesus' righteousness on our behalf. But if God is pretending that we are righteous, and we are actually not, how does He remain Just, if he knows we are doing evil and unrighteous deeds, while hiding under Jesus' Righteousness?
And further, if we accept Jesus' Righteousness as our own, without repenting, without changing our behavior, without performing the GOOD WORKS Jesus calls us to do, then are we not stealing his righteousness? How can any of our actions truly be OUR OWN? How can God see it as our own, if we did not earn it? And how can He hold us accountable for acts that are not our own?
The short answer is that we cannot be "clothed" in a borrowed, second-hand version of Righteousness. God through the Prophet Isaiah tells us (1:16) "Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good." These are deliberate actions. They are acts we ourselves will be responsible for performing.
This isn't as easy as taking on another's Righteousness. But it's the challenge of the Gospel Jesus taught.
In fact, Jesus says we are judged not by our words, not by our intentions (and certainly not by another's) but by our own ACTS and DEEDS, and them alone. Period.
And the life that Jesus calls on us to pursue in his Gospel is a life of works, action, radical love and service to others.
No one can be our "substitute" for us before God. Our repentance, our obedience, and our good works are all required of us, according to Jesus' express and clear teachings. Jesus is our Guide, who calls us to act Righteously before God and on behalf of our fellow human beings.
There's no substitute for personal repentance and devoting oneself to serving others alone, rather than living selfishly and wickedly for oneself alone.
So, we must reject the modern preachers' teachings. In truth, our acts, our repentance, and our Good Works must only be our own.
Jesus says merely mouthing words, like, "Lord, Lord," or reciting man-made creeds cannot substitute for our actions, our deeds, which develop our righteous characters. We are, says Jesus, to lay up good treasure in our hearts and in the storehouse of heaven, and we do this by our own actions alone.
We cannot, says Jesus, demand eternal salvation from God and certainly cannot take Jesus' Righteousness from him and claim it for ourselves by vain words. The teaching of the Hebrew Prophets, along with Jesus, is that we will be judged by our own deeds, and by our deeds alone, and that we will be judged by God alone.
Jesus never taught that there is a substitute for God's judgment, nor for God's mercy on those who sincerely repent and ask for mercy. God doesn't say we get to judge our own actions as sufficient for eternal salvation, He tells us through his chosen Son, Jesus, that we must strive to make our actions more closely conform to the pattern Jesus sets for us.
In this way, Jesus calls us to a vigorous GOSPEL OF GOOD WORKS to actively build a Kingdom of God on earth, as it is in Heaven. Jesus calls us to deny ourselves, to NOT selfishly seek to save ourselves, but to give up our selfishness on behalf of God's Kingdom.
And we are to begin this work of the Kingdom RIGHT NOW. We cannot wait until our deaths to begin it, nor is anyone coming in the clouds to do the work for us. This Kingdom was proclaimed as being "in the midst" of those Jesus spoke to during his ministry. He proclaimed it at the behest of his Father - his God and our God, Yahweh.
(And Jesus told his disciples ALL that the Father taught him. Nothing was hidden. Nothing remained to be taught by a future teacher, theologian, or preacher.)
And to be clear, No, we don't "save ourselves" by doing good works without God. We do the works by which God alone will save us, if it is His Will. Christendom has warped and ignored Jesus' words and plain teachings that make this clear. They have substituted man's doctrines of Substitution, imputed righteousness and works-free easy-Believism in its place.
All of these doctrines were created by theologians, preachers and other men. We can easily ignore these doctrines, since they do not come from our one Master, Jesus.
Nineteenth Century minister Noah Worcester said, "Moral character is formed by a succession of moral acts; and this each moral agent forms for himself. Hence, every man must give account of himself unto God, and be rewarded according to his own deeds."
He was far closer to the teachings of Jesus than the preachers are today. What went wrong?