Righteousness for the Unrighteous
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
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"
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
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;
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.