The problem with man is that he invariably thinks he can be righteous or good before God. He thinks that if he just improves himself, acts a little better, is a little nicer to people he doesn't like (the list goes on) that he will thereby become a better person and thus pleasing to God. All self improvement programs that cram our society today are based on this principle. They teach that if we improve ourselves and be more “good” that all our problems will be solved. Psychotherapy is based on this principle. They teach how to cope with impossible situations in our lives and that by coping we are going to change, instead of teaching us how to get rid of the problem. Alcoholics Anonymous teaches you to change your actions by requiring an unrelenting adhering to a set of regulations that is supposed to change the way you act. Once you can control your actions they call that change. None deal with the inner you which is the part that needs to change. Only Christ offers real change, not a change in the way you act, but a change in what you are.
Christ (God) is the only one who is righteous. Christ made this clear in the parable of the young ruler. “And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good;” (Matthew 19:16-22). The young man went on to recount all the good things he had done in his life and the Lord rejected him because there was nothing he could do to be “good” before the Lord, except leave all and follow Him. The Lord knew that a religious adherence to a set of laws does not make one righteous. He knew that the young man had to utterly and completely change his way of thinking.
The disciples had the same question: “Then Peter said, Lo, we have left all, and followed thee. And he said unto them, Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, Who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting” (Luke 18:28-30). Leaving all means leaving all your possessions, all you hold dear in this life including yourself, which is the thing we hold most dear.
Christ said: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. “For whoever wishes to save his life [soul] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. “For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23-25). Notice that Christ didn’t say he who “improves himself” or makes himself “more spiritual or more self-righteous”. He said the whole thing has to go, everything, your entire self. Just as Christ lost His life for us. so we too must lose our lives for His sake.
We must realize that Christ initiated a New Covenant with His coming. The Old Covenant, under the Laws of Moses, had an elaborate system of animal sacrifice that temporarily removed sin in God’s eyes. Hebrews says: “Now the main point in what has been said is this: we have such a high priest, who has taken His seat at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister in the sanctuary and in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man” (Hebrews 8:1-2). The Old Covenant was not sufficient. It is described here: “Now …the first covenant had regulations of divine worship and the earthly sanctuary. For there was a tabernacle prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the sacred bread; this is called the holy place. Behind the second veil there was a tabernacle which is called the Holy of Holies” (Hebrews 9:1-3). And the writer goes on to explain the Old Temple (Tabernacle) and its legalistic ways of worship and sacrifice (Heb. 9:4-10).
The reason the Old Covenant was inadequate was: “For the Law [Mosaic Law, Old Covenant] since it has only a shadow of the good things to come [Christ, The New Covenant] and not the very form of things, can never, by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year, make perfect those who draw near...But in those sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year by year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb. 10:1-4). What the writer was saying is that before Christ, man was bound to an imperfect state and his sin had to be taken away over and over again by animal sacrifice, since there was no eternal sacrifice (Christ) to take away the sin permanently.
But the New Covenant says: “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion sought for a second. For finding fault with them, He says,
“BEHOLD, DAYS ARE COMING, SAYS THE LORD,
WHEN I WILL EFFECT A NEW COVENANT
WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL AND WITH THE HOUSE OF JUDAH;
NOT LIKE THE COVENANT WHICH I MADE WITH THEIR FATHERS
ON THE DAY WHEN I TOOK THEM BY THE HAND
TO LEAD THEM OUT OF THE LAND OF EGYPT;
FOR THEY DID NOT CONTINUE IN MY COVENANT,
AND I DID NOT CARE FOR THEM, SAYS THE LORD.
“FOR THIS IS THE COVENANT THAT I WILL MAKE WITH THE HOUSE OF ISRAEL
AFTER THOSE DAYS, SAYS THE LORD:
I WILL PUT MY LAWS INTO THEIR MINDS,
AND I WILL WRITE THEM ON THEIR HEARTS.
AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD,
AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.
“AND THEY SHALL NOT TEACH EVERYONE HIS FELLOW CITIZEN,
AND EVERYONE HIS BROTHER, SAYING, ‘KNOW THE LORD,’
FOR ALL WILL KNOW ME,
FROM THE LEAST TO THE GREATEST OF THEM.
“FOR I WILL BE MERCIFUL TO THEIR INIQUITIES,
AND I WILL REMEMBER THEIR SINS NO MORE.” (Hebrews 8:7-12; Jeremiah 31:33).
What he is saying is that man is by nature sinful. There is no way he can be made righteous by his own efforts. The Old Covenant, before Christ, made man righteous by continual sacrifices but only for a short period of time. He had to continually “renew” his forgiveness. Under the New Covenant Christ became a permanent sacrifice. By the New Covenant man need only go to Christ to be righteous. When he went to Christ, under the New Covenant, Christ would “write His Laws on their hearts”. That is, he would transfer His very nature to man so that man would become sinless, producing a nature like Christ. Remember what Jesus said to the young ruler: “there is only one good (righteous) and that one is God”. The only righteousness God recognizes is that of His Son. Man can never be righteous in himself.
When Christ died on the cross scripture says: “And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed His last. And the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37-38; Luke 23:45; Matthew 27:51). The veil was the curtain that separated the Holiest place in the in the old temple from the rest of the temple. It was where the Ark of the Covenant was kept, with the tablets containing the 10 Commandments and the showbread and the manna (Hebrews 9:1-28). Under the Old Covenant only Moses and the high priest (once a year) were allowed behind the curtain into the holiest place, the presence of God. When Christ died the veil was torn in two symbolizing the fact that through His death all now had access to the holiest place, the presence of God.
“Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh” (Hebrews 10:19-20). Man’s conscience, despite all this, would still say he had to do something to deserve this great gift. Man’s defiled conscience says he has to make himself good in order to be approved by God. It is actually more of an arrogance in the nature of man than an innocent mistake in that man still wants to sit on the throne and feels he does not need God; he can do it himself.
That is why the writer of Hebrews said: “and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; (Hebrews 10:21-23). The evil conscience is the nature that says “I can do it, I don’t need God”. The nature refuses the free gift of grace in favor “doing the right thing” and “appearing to be something that they are not”. This was what Christ accused the Pharisees of and is the basis of most of religion today.
The writer of Hebrews (Paul or whoever) takes this cleansing of conscience very seriously. By receiving Christ, and his promise by grace, we enter into His rest. We cease from our own efforts to be righteousness and simply accept His righteousness. The Israelite nation of the Old Testament was an obstinate and disobedient people most of the time. God was displeased with them many times because of their (putting it mildly) falling away. Yet, through all of that, He provided Christ the Lamb of God who had the potential to take away all the sin and disobedience of man, including the Israelite nation. God, in His infinite wisdom, realized that the man of flesh could never, on his own, inherit righteousness. Hebrews warns us of falling into that same trap.
He says: “Therefore, let us fear if, while a promise remains of entering His rest, any one of you may seem to have come short of it. For indeed we have had good news preached to us, just as they [the Jews] also; but the word they heard did not profit them, because it was not united by faith in those who heard. For we who have believed enter that rest, just as He has said, “AS I SWORE IN MY WRATH, THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST,” although His works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has said concerning the seventh day “AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY FROM ALL HIS WORKS”; (Genesis 2:2) and again in this passage, “THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST.” (Psalm 95:11) Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, (the disobedience is the failing to accept God’s rest) He again fixes a certain day, “Today,” saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, “TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS.” (Psalm 95:7). For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience” (Hebrews 4:1-11).
In other words God’s gift of grace allows us to rest from all our labors including the all consuming labor to be righteous and good before Him. Remember there is only one who is good, that is God. We rest in His righteousness and not strive in ours.