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Christ our righteousness

February 1998 | by Jim Cromarty

‘Christ Jesus, who became for us … righteousness’ (1 Corinthians 1:30)

A real Christian, says the Bible, is one who has been declared righteous, or ‘justified’ in the sight of God, through faith in Christ alone. That Christ has ‘become our righteousness’ means exactly what it says, namely that his perfect righteousness has been imputed to believing sinners as an act of pure grace on the part of God and for no merit of their own. In this article, therefore, we shall approach the subject of ‘Christ our righteousness’ from the viewpoint of the great biblical and historical doctrine of ‘justification by faith’. This fundamental biblical truth became the keynote of the Reformation. It has been a central tenet of God’s true church up to the present day, and will continue to be so ’till he comes’.

Justification by faith alone

In his book Redemption accomplished and applied, John Murray wrote: ‘Justification is still the article of a standing or falling church.’ This truth is fundamental to salvation and should be treasured by all who confess Christ as their Lord and Saviour. Sadly however, a great number of professing Christians have little real understanding of what is taught by this doctrine. In Romans (a primary source of teaching on the subject), Paul taught that man can be justified only ‘through the redemption that is the Christ Jesus whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood, through faith … that he [God] might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus’ (Romans 3:24-26).

Martin Luther, writing of the doctrine of justification as taught in Romans, said, ‘This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul. It can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes, and the better it tastes.’

Justification in the Old Testament

Although it is most fully revealed in the New Testament, the doctrine of justification is also revealed throughout the Old. The grace of God in forgiving the sins of his people is clearly taught in such passages as Isaiah 43:25, 44:22; Jeremiah 31:34 and Psalm 32:5. Again, imputed righteousness is revealed as being necessary for salvation in Zechariah 3:4 and Jeremiah 23:6. Forgiveness and justification are tied together by Daniel (9:24) when he writes: ‘Seventy weeks are determined for your people and for your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sins, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness…’

Justification by faith is nowhere expressed more clearly than in the story of Abraham. So fundamental is this story to our understanding of this doctrine, that it links Old and New Testaments together. Thus Paul wrote of Abraham’s faith, ‘Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness”‘ (Galatians 3:6; compare Romans 4:22 and James 2:23-24). This comforting doctrine bears testimony to the grace, mercy and justice of our God in relation to lost and guilty sinners.

Understanding justification

The Shorter Catechism defines justification as: ‘an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us and received by faith alone’ (Question 33). The doctrine of justification answers the great question faced by sinful mankind: ‘How can a guilty sinner be righteous before God? How may one who has offended the eternal, holy God by breaking his perfect law, be freed from guilt and condemnation?’

To understand this doctrine we need to visualize the guilty sinner standing before the just Judge. We read in Deuteronomy 25:1: ‘If there is a dispute between men and they come to court that the judges may judge them, and they justify the righteous and condemn the wicked…’ From this passage of Scripture it can be seen that when a judge ‘justifies’ a man, he simply declares the man to be righteous. Justification is a declaration made about a person. It is a legal (or forensic) act of God in which a believing, guilty sinner is pronounced guiltless in his sight. Not only is the sinner declared righteous, but is treated thus, so that he is not liable to any penalty for sin.

The question immediately arises: ‘On what basis can God be just and yet declare a sinner righteous in his sight?’ The answer is found in the atoning work of Christ upon the cross. Romans 5:8 declares: ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ Again in Psalm 32:1-2 we read: ‘Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity.’

That the sins of God’s people were ‘imputed’ to the Lord Jesus Christ is clearly taught in Scripture: ‘For he made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). Bearing the sins of his people, Christ suffered the wrath of God in their place. Our sins were put to his account and Christ, our substitute, was punished by God as if he were the sinner.

Christ was not only our substitute in death, however. He also lived a substitutionary life for his people. He lived the life that the sinner should have lived, a life of complete obedience to God, so that ‘by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous’ (Romans 5:19). The perfect righteousness of Christ is put to the account of the repentant, believing sinner, so that God looks upon, and treats, such a person as if he had never sinned.

Thus, God justifies his elect on the basis of the work of his only begotten Son (Romans 8:33). In the court of heaven a transaction takes place when a sinner believes. The transaction is this: ‘My sins are imputed to Christ and his righteousness is imputed to me.’ Justification, then, is a once-for-all-time declaration by God, in the court of heaven, that he has forgiven the believer’s sins and for evermore will see the sinner through the righteousness of Christ.

Where does faith come in?

What part does faith play in justification? Faith is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8) and is the ‘instrument’ by which we receive the righteousness of Christ. The rôle of faith can be illustrated as follows. A girl needs a drink of water, but the tap is far away and she cannot reach it. Someone, using a cup, brings the precious water to her. The cup itself cannot quench her thirst, but without it the water cannot reach her. Faith is like that cup, a means provided by God through which the ‘water’ of Christ’s righteousness is supplied to us, so that we may be justified. We are not justified by the act of believing, as if faith were a work of man. We do not justify ourselves by our faith, for ‘it is God who justifies’ (Romans 8:33).

Faith and works

What, finally, is the relationship between faith and works in the life of the believer? Well, we are justified ‘by faith alone’, for ‘a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 2:16). The sinner’s works play no part in justification, for we read that our works are like ‘filthy rags’ (Isaiah 64:6).

Does this mean that the believer, having exercised faith in Christ, can now live like a demon? Not at all! Saving faith is always followed by works of righteousness. John Calvin put it like this: ‘We are justified by faith alone, but the faith which justifies is never alone.’ James wrote, ‘Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead … Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works’ (2:17-18). Good works are the fruit of saving faith: ‘For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’ (Ephesians 2:10).

What we are clearly taught is this: if you have saving faith in Christ, and are thus justified by God, then good works will follow. If the good works do not flow from your confession of faith, such a faith is no better than the ‘faith’ of the demons who ‘believe and tremble’ (James 2:19).

Eternally accepted

Now the saved sinner can rejoice with Paul who wrote, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus…’ (Romans 8:1). Now, since God is at peace with his believing people, spiritual peace floods the Christian’s heart (Romans 5:1-2). By the grace of God we look to the cross of Christ and hear his shout of triumph: ‘It is finished!’ There we see a Saviour, who became sin for his people, satisfying the demands of the law on their behalf. Now we are able to look beyond our sins to the grace of God, who has accepted us eternally in his beloved Son.

Let us, therefore, live daily the life of faith with joy in our hearts, knowing that we are justified by faith alone and that in spite of our sins our destiny is heaven, for Christ our Saviour is ‘the Lord our righteousness’ (Jeremiah 23:6).