In the run-up to Christmas, Marks and Spencer were selling a children’s jumper on which was the slogan, ‘Dear Santa, define good’.
The children who wore it probably wouldn’t like God’s definition, or they would never receive any presents. God’s definition not only reveals what is right, but that we are wrong.
Christ our righteousness
It was awareness of his unrighteousness before God that so troubled Martin Luther 500 years ago. His eventual understanding of how he could be made righteous was to trigger a spiritual reformation across our continent.
Without properly understanding ‘righteousness’, reading Matthew 25:31-46, for example, leads to a sense of condemnation. The life and teaching of Jesus, who so completely kept God’s law, leaves us with an awareness of our failure.
What Jesus taught, he lived out; his words and his works were consistent. He practised what he preached, and preached what he practised. He fulfilled all righteousness. He is called ‘the Sun of Righteousness’ (Malachi 4:2).
But we are not like him! So how can we ever be righteous? The book of Romans teaches that righteousness is not found in the world (1:20), nor in oneself (2:15), nor in religion (2:17, 21), nor in the moral law (3:20).
Martin Luther discovered this, as, for 20 years as a monk, he tortured himself with praying, fasting, keeping vigils, living in freezing conditions and inflicting pain on himself, but was unable to find peace or achieve righteousness. He wrote, ‘If any monk got to heaven by monkery, I would have gotten there!’
So how can we sinners become righteous? The answer is only found in Jesus and his cross.
Because of what Jesus would accomplish on the cross, when Abraham ‘believed God, it was accounted to him for righteousness’ (Galatians 3:6). And, because of what Jesus has accomplished on the cross, we too can be given a new standing before God.
All the sins of the world were laid on Jesus and, when we come to him, all his righteousness is laid on us. We exchange our filthy rags to be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Righteousness is not earned or worked for and cannot be bought, but is given as a gift from God; it is received.
Righteousness is imputed to us when we trust in Christ (Romans 4:5, 11, 24). And, when we are born again, the Spirit of God gives us a new desire and power to live in a righteous way. This righteousness is imparted to us (Romans 6:18; 1 John 2:9; 3:7). The love of God implants the life of God within us (Romans 8:9), as we receive the One who has both fulfilled the law of God for us, and carried on himself our sin and condemnation.
Sidlow Baxter, in his inimitable way, wrote: ‘The God-Man Saviour … voluntarily becomes chief partner in the bankrupt, condemned firm; contracts upon himself all its liabilities, debts and penalties; and then transforms shameful bankruptcy into riches, by pouring through his own inexhaustible credits!’
Or, to illustrate this differently, it is like a child travelling with his mother or father. The parent carries the means to buy the tickets, and probably the tickets themselves. Similarly, every stage of our journey to heaven has been provided and paid for entirely by our Lord.
Alec Motyer summarised this doctrine, writing, ‘Righteous people are those who have received the gift of righteousness and are pursuing it’.
The Bible makes it clear that receiving the gift of righteousness inevitably leads to a desire to be obedient, and, if obedience does not result, then one has to question whether righteousness has been received at all.
These two aspects of righteousness are found in Titus 2:11ff: ‘For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age’.
Righteousness is first received from God and then increasingly reflected in our lives. When our dependence is upon God, then our duty to obey is the natural response to his love.
It is presumptuous to receive from God and not to want to please him. I have noticed that those who say they have received Christ, but in a carefree manner, often continue in ungodly living and later turn their back not only on the Christian way of life, but on the source of that life.
Our good works contribute nothing to our salvation, but when the Spirit of Christ lives in us through faith, we are stirred to do good works and live righteously. Or, as the Reformers used to teach, ‘We are saved by faith alone, but the faith that saves is never alone’.
What was triggered 500 years ago, when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, concerned the very heart of the Christian message. The gospel is about us being made righteous in the sight of God.
Being clothed with the righteousness of Jesus enables us to stand justified before God. Our acceptability before him, both now and on the day of judgment, is the central purpose of the gospel. Only when we have been made righteous through the finished work of Jesus, can we say that he is our Lord.
Roger Carswell is an itinerant evangelist and a member of the Association of Evangelists.