There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless (Luke 1:5,6 NKJV)
Continuing into Luke, I am highlighting verses and passages of the New Testament that particularly came to my attention during the preparation of “The Little Book of Providence” (often because I used to believe quite the opposite of what I now understand them to be indicating!) Here we have an example of an individual or in this case a couple regarded as “righteous” in God’s sight. On what basis were they righteous? – According to Luke it was simply that they had faithfully observed the commandments and ordinances they had received as practicing Jews. But perfect they were not – a few verses later Zacharias was rebuked and punished by Arch-Angel Gabriel for his reluctance to believe the good news concerning his wife’s pregnancy.
But how does Luke’s description concur with what Paul writes in the opening chapters of Romans, especially 3:10 “As it is written there is none righteous, no not one“, etc? One should observe that he then he goes on to write in reference to the Jews: “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (3:18). Would anyone believe that Paul considered that no Jewish individual had ever feared God? Acts13:16,26 confirms the contrary; likewise, Luke’s account of righteous Cornelius before his conversion to Christianity, confirming that his prayers and alms giving had been noted by God (Acts10:2,4,22). The apostle in his letter to the Roman churches had been utilising a typically Jewish literary technique, linking together OT scriptural references, in this case to adduce universal sinfulness, i.e. that both Jew and Gentile were under the reign of sin and fall short of God’s glorious holiness (Rom3:23). He was not intimating that it is in the nature of all people to be godless and hateful so as to act in the depraved manner described in those concatenated excerpts, which themselves need to be examined in context. Rather it refers back to Rom1:18 and his assertion that individuals (not all humanity as some translators’ insertion of a comma intimates) who wilfully suppress the truth God has revealed to them in creed or conscience will come under condemnation.
This is not to deny that Paul is indeed in the business of affirming that to keep the law of God perfectly is quite impossible for fallen man – rather he is to submit to “the righteousness of God”, provided through the faithfulness of Christ [pisteos Iesou Christou – often translated “faith in Christ” – Rom3:22] for the benefit of all (including Cornelius) who even before he knew Christ “believed”, i.e. feared God and did what he knew to be right (cf. Acts10:35). Such “believers” are justified, not on the basis of their law-keeping or accrual of good works but freely through God’s kindly favour (grace) and the faithfulness of Christ, i.e. by the merits of His atoning death which avails for all the scattered children of God. Such people effectively exercise godly fear when they pay heed to the light of Christ provided through the faculty of conscience, being as Paul himself affirms, the law of God written in the heart (Rom2:15; cf. Jn1:9 Greek). These principles are worked out in a more comprehensive manner in chapter three of the book, a free PDF of which is available HERE.