Guest Column Erroll Hulse
What is righteousness?
In Romans 1:16-17 the apostle proceeds straight to the subject of righteousness: ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.’
‘For in the gospel righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: The righteous will live by faith’.
We can see why Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, because it is good news. It is the power of God, because he is actively at work revealing his righteousness.
But what exactly is the righteousness that the Father imputes to every believer, from Noah (Hebrews 11:7), to Abraham (Galatians 3:6-9), to every soul in union with Christ today?
The answer is that it is the perfect, active and passive obedience of Christ. Righteousness is everything that is right and perfect when measured against the moral law. It is this righteousness that is placed like a robe over every believer (Isaiah 61:10; Revelation 7:9).
‘Righteousness’ is the word which sparked the Reformation. It is the word which lay at the beginning of a movement that changed the whole religious landscape of Europe.
Let me explain. As a monk in an Augustinian monastery Martin Luther exhausted himself in trying to find personal salvation. Then he was appointed to teach theology in the University of Wittenberg.
While expounding the Psalms he came upon the words, ‘Deliver me in your righteousness’ (Psalm 31:1). But what did they mean? The Hebrew for righteousness is tsedqah. Luther turned also to Romans 1:17, where the Greek word for it is dikaiosune. Then he realised that this righteousness is a free gift from God.
He testified that when he believed this truth he felt completely liberated; he felt that he had entered the gates of heaven. Also Luther saw that our Lord was made the victim of anfechtungen — in German that means a horrendous tribulation of soul.
So by his active and passive obedience, even under tribulation, Christ became our righteousness. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Corinthians 5:21).
When we preach the gospel, the Father reveals a righteousness that saves. The verb for ‘reveals’ in the Greek text is apokaluptetai — God’s wrath is being revealed, but so is his righteousness. When we preach the gospel, God is revealing a righteousness which saves.
The righteousness that comes from God can be called an ‘alien’ righteousness, because it comes from outside us. Say I received a garment made in China and I put it around me, it would be alien in that it comes from the outside, from another nation and culture. In its entirety it is not of my making.
Abraham is the Old Testament prototype of justification by faith: ‘Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness’ (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3). Salvation is never attained by works of righteousness that we perform; it is the free gift of God and received by faith alone.
The basis of God’s justification of a sinner is the righteousness of Christ imputed to that sinner. The apostle Paul would have absolutely nothing to do with any man-made righteousness (Philippians 3:7-11). He grieved over the Jews, who were wilfully ignorant of God’s gift of righteousness and went about to establish their own (Romans 10:3).
If this is the righteousness which the Father imputes to us who believe, then it is surely appropriate that we should rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ as ‘the Lord our righteousness’ (Jeremiah 23:6).
There can be no doubt as to the identity of this person called ‘Yahweh our righteousness’. Christ comes in the line of David and is ‘the righteous branch’ (Jeremiah 23:5). It is he who is made to be our ‘righteousness, holiness and redemption’ (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Where do you place your trust today? Is it in your goodness? That is fatal! Repent and believe in God’s Son. He alone can save you.
The author is associate pastor at Leeds Reformed Baptist Church, UK. He is editor of Reformation Today and helps spearhead pastors’ conferences for southern Africa. His latest book is The doctrine and practice of holiness (EP Books).