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Righteousness for the Unrighteous

Lee Irons

The central message of the Bible is the gospel, the good news that God has accomplished salvation from sin through the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ. The gospel is not first and foremost about the inner spiritual growth that is taking place by God's grace in my life. It is rather about the objective, historical achievement of Jesus Christ in fulfilling the Law and satisfying divine wrath so that I might be right with God. The doctrine of justification, therefore, stands at the heart of the Bible's message of salvation.

Calvin wrote that justification is no minor doctrinal point, no mere debating topic for theologians. "Wherever the knowledge of it is taken away, the glory of Christ is extinguished, religion abolished, the Church destroyed, and the hope of salvation utterly overthrown" (Reply to Sadoleto). If our hearts yearn like Calvin's to see Christ glorified, true religion established, and the church built up, it is imperative that we reflect deeply on this doctrine.

The revelation of the righteousness of God

The Scriptures make clear that all mankind is born dead in trespasses and sins, being children of wrath by nature (Eph. 2:1-3). Through the one transgression of Adam sin entered the world, and through sin, death, the wages of sin (Rom. 5:12; 6:23). Adam stood before God as our federal head or representative. When he sinned, his guilt was imputed to all of us who are his descendants, Christ alone excepted. Therefore "through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men" (Rom. 5:18). Caught in this predicament of inherited sin and condemnation we may well ask, "How can a man be righteous before God?" (Job 9:2).

Yet God has not left all mankind to perish in this helpless condition of unrighteousness. In Romans 3:21 Paul makes a most significant pronouncement: "But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets." The phrase "but now" is not a logical transition but a redemptive historical one. The Law and the Prophets testified to the coming of this righteousness: "My salvation is about to come, and My righteousness to be revealed" (Isa. 56:1; cp. 46:13; 51:4-8; 59:15-21; Psalm 98:1-2). But now God has sovereignly intervened to inaugurate a new creation. And He has done so "apart from the Law," because the Law could only demand but never provide the righteousness that God requires.

What is this new work of God that reveals His righteousness? It is nothing less than the "setting forth" of His own Son, whose obedience, death, and resurrection demonstrates God's righteousness, "so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:25-26). For this reason Paul repeatedly emphasizes that it is "the righteousness of God" (Rom. 1:17; 3:21-26; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9). It is a God-provided and hence a God-approved righteousness.

The coming of Jesus Christ was the inauguration of a new creation, under the covenant headship of a new and obedient Adam. Just as the first Adam stood before God as our federal head or representative, so the Last Adam (Rom. 5:12-19). When He obeys, His righteousness is imputed to all who are united to Him by faith. Therefore "through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men" (Rom. 5:18).

We see this covenant headship of Christ played out in the gospel narratives. When Jesus came to be baptized with the baptism of repentance by John, He was identifying Himself with the sin of His people. Although John was perplexed by this, Jesus had to be baptized in order "to fulfill all righteousness." As soon as He came up out of the water, the Spirit of God descended upon Him in the form of a dove, and a voice came from heaven and said, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased" (Matt. 3:15-17).

Jesus had to made like His brethren in every way, sin excepted, in order to enter into the human side of the covenant and live the perfect life of obedience before God that was demanded of us. The theme continues in the gospel narrative, for Jesus is immediately sent into the desert to be tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1-11). Unlike Adam, Jesus obeyed His Father and resisted the seductions of the serpent, thus proving Himself to be the one righteous Man since the world began.

The meritorious obedience of Christ

But the baptism and temptation of Christ were only the beginning. These events foreshadowed the ultimate crisis that awaited Him at the end of His earthly life: the severe spiritual conflict that led to His obediently suffering death on the cross for us, the just for the unjust. As a result of the toilsome labor of His soul, Jesus proved to be the Father's righteous Servant who is able to make many righteous (Isa. 53:11).

Theologically we speak of the obedience and death of Christ as the active and passive obedience of Christ. But we must not view these terms as referring to separate phases in the life of Jesus. The active obedience of Christ has a passive (suffering) dimension. At the very beginning of Christ's obedience stands the incarnation, when He who was co-equal with God emptied Himself to be found as a servant, thus becoming a man of sorrows, despised and rejected of men (Phil. 2:6-7; Isa. 53:3). By the same token the passive obedience, Christ's atoning death, was an active work of obedience. He learned obedience through the things that He suffered (John 12:27-28; Heb. 5:8), and He actively defeated Satan by means of the cross (Gen. 3:15; John 12:31; Col. 2:15). The righteousness of God consists of the totality of Christ's obedience in both its active and passive aspects (Rom. 5:17-19).

Why does the obedience of Christ demonstrate the righteousness of God (Rom. 3:25)? Because it fulfills the demands of God's Law and thus merits the reward of eternal life for us. The eternal Son of God was sent into the world by the Father in order to accomplish the work which the Father had assigned to Him (John 4:34; 5:36; 6:38-39; 17:4; 19:28). He was born of a woman, born under the Law in order to redeem those who were under the Law (Gal. 4:4). By fulfilling all that the Father had entrusted to His Son according to the terms of the eternal "counsel of peace" (Zech. 6:13), Jesus Christ has merited the promised rewards. He was raised from the dead and highly exalted at God's right hand, now crowned with glory and honor, on the meritorious ground of His obedient suffering to the point of death (Phil. 2:5-11; Heb. 2:9).

Merit is a covenantal concept. Because Christ fulfilled the stipulated obedience assigned to Him according to the terms of the eternal covenant, Jesus has earned the promised reward. Jesus Himself pointed to His obedient fulfillment of the work His Father gave Him to do as the legal ground for His receiving the reward. He appealed to His Father's justice when He prayed, "I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do. Now, Father, glorify me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world began" (John 17:4-5). Jesus obtained the right and title to eternal life (glorification) by His obedient fulfillment of the covenant.

The covenant context of Christ's work sheds light on the redemptive significance of His resurrection. Christ's resurrection was His justification or vindication (1 Tim. 3:16). It was not only an event that demonstrated His deity, but a legal or forensic act in which the Father acknowledged His Son as the obedient covenant keeper (Rom. 1:4; 1 Cor. 15:45). The resurrection was the divine stamp of approval upon Christ's completion of the Law.

But Jesus was glorified not for Himself, but for us, that we might inherit eternal life in union with Him. This is why Paul says that Jesus was raised again for our justification (Rom. 4:25), and speaks of believers as those who have been raised up together with Christ (Rom. 6:5; Eph. 2:6; Col. 2:12; 3:1). Christ's meritorious obedience was accepted as satisfying the full demands of God's Law, not merely for Christ's sake but for ours. We are therefore accepted as righteous in Christ, regarded in God's eyes as if we had fulfilled the Law ourselves (Rom. 10:4). And our future bodily resurrection, which is secured on the basis of the resurrection of Christ, the firstfruits (1 Cor. 15:20-23), will be nothing less than the unveiling of the sons of God as the heirs of eternal life, made worthy to inherit only in Christ (Rom. 8:17-19; Gal. 3:29; Eph. 1:5; Col. 3:3-4; Titus 3:7).

By faith alone, apart from works

It necessarily follows from the above considerations that justification allows no room for any human contribution. Just as the Israelites played no role in their own deliverance from Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea, so the revelation of the righteousness of God in these last days for us is a sovereign act of God - the ultimate stretching forth of His mighty arm to redeem His people. This glorious new exodus was accomplished totally outside of us, without reference to our merit, our good works, or our sanctification, which even at its best can not make us right in the sight of God. "We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law" (Rom. 3:28; cp. 11:6; Gal. 2:16).

Such is the rejection of human participation that the only means by which the sinner can receive and enjoy this righteousness is by faith alone. If it was accomplished by Christ, it can only become ours by resting in Christ and receiving His righteousness. Repentance, love, evangelical obedience, the fruits of the Spirit - none of these things are the instrument by which we receive Christ and His righteousness. Although they are the necessary evidence and fruit of that righteousness, they are utterly excluded with respect to our being declared righteous in God's sight.

In Philippians 3:6-9 Paul states that as to the righteousness which is in the Law, he was blameless. Yet whatever things were gain to him, he counts as loss for the sake of Christ. He desires to be "found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness of God on the basis of faith." Any inherent righteousness is a righteousness that is "of my own." Paul abominates such righteousness if it stands in the place of justification. He wants nothing to do with it. He wants to be found only in Christ, clothed in the righteousness of Another.

At once righteous and sinful

Since the righteousness of Christ is not within us but outside of us, Luther was right to speak of the Christian as one who is at once righteous and sinful (simul justus et peccator). In this Luther was merely restating the teaching of Paul: "God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). "To the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness" (Rom. 4:4-5).

It is not that Luther wanted to give the Christian a ready-made excuse for his or her shortcomings in the realm of sanctification. Indeed we must lament an easy believism which gives the impression that following Christ is unnecessary, that as long as you "prayed the sinner's prayer" you are eternally secure no matter how you live.

But let us be careful here. In our godly zeal to combat antinomianism let us not downplay the wonder of God's grace. God justifies the ungodly. If justification is conditional on achieving a certain degree of sanctification, then grace is no longer grace. Luther's slogan is intended to remind us that no matter how godly we may become through progressive sanctification, we are still sinful in the blazing light of God's holy Law, and yet in Christ we are the very righteousness of God (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:9).

The revolutionary truth of justification by faith alone apart from works has been attacked from the very beginning on the ground that it undercuts any motivation for obedience and gives men a license for sin. Paul faced such criticisms from the Judaizers in his own day. And Paul's response is still valid: only when the glorious gospel of free grace has full sway in our hearts, overthrowing our self-righteousness and causing us to hunger and thirst after righteousness, will we ever begin to grow in Christ-like sanctification and evangelical obedience.

Justification by faith alone means that righteousness is obtained for us, not by us. Since there is no righteousness in us, we must go outside ourselves to find a righteousness that will be acceptable in the sight of God. Thanks be to God for His free gift of grace, an overabundant supply of righteousness for the unrighteous.