Christ and His Righteousness—
9. The Lord Our Righteousness
And He spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others; Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee and the other a publican. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
This was given to show how we may not, and how we may, attain to righteousness. The Pharisees are not extinct; there are many in these days who expect to gain righteousness by their own good deeds. They trust in themselves that they are righteous. They do not always so openly boast of their goodness, but they show in other ways that they are trusting to their own righteousness. Perhaps the spirit of the Pharisee—the spirit which would recount to God one’s own good deeds as a reason for favor—is found as frequently as anywhere else among those professed Christians who feel the most bowed down on account of their sins. They know that they have sinned, and they feel condemned. They mourn over their sinful state and deplore their weakness. Their testimonies never rise above this level. Often they refrain for very shame from speaking in the social meeting, and often they do not dare approach God in prayer. After having sinned to a greater degree than usual, they refrain from prayer for some time, until the vivid sense of their failure has passed away or until they imagine that they have made up for it by special good behavior. Of what is this a manifestation? Of that Pharisaic spirit that would flaunt its own righteousness in the face of God; that will not come before Him unless it can lean on the false prop of its own fancied goodness. They want to be able to say to the Lord, “See how good I have been for the past few days; you surely will accept me now.”
But what is the result? The man who trusted in his own righteousness had none, while the man who prayed, in heart-felt contrition, “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” went down to his house a righteous man. Christ says that he went justified; that is, made righteous.
Notice that the publican did something more than bewail his sinfulness; he asked for mercy. What is mercy? It is unmerited favor. It is the disposition to treat a man better than he deserves. Now the Word of Inspiration says of God, “as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward them that fear Him.” Ps. 103:11. That is, the measure by which God treats us better than we deserve when we humbly come to Him, is the distance between earth and the highest heaven. And in what respect does He treat us better than we deserve? In taking our sins away from us, for the next verse says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us.” With this agree the words of the beloved disciple, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1John 1:9.
For a further statement of the mercy of God, and of how it is manifested, read Micah 7:18,19, “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He retaineth not his anger forever, because he delighteth in mercy. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast their sins into the depths of the sea. Let us now read the direct Scripture statement of how righteousness is bestowed.
The apostle Paul, having proved that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God, so that by the deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified in His sight, proceeds to say that we are “justified [made righteous] freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness; that he might be just, and the justifier of him that believeth in Jesus.” Rom. 3:24-26.
“Being made righteous freely.” How else could it be? Since the best efforts of a sinful man have not the least effect toward producing righteousness, it is evident that the only way it can come to him is as a gift. That righteousness is a gift is plainly stated by Paul in Rom. 5:17: “For if by one man’s offense death reigned by one; much more they which receive abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness shall reign in life by One, Jesus Christ.” It is because righteousness is a gift that eternal life, which is the reward of righteousness, is the gift of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Christ has been set forth by God as the One through whom forgiveness of sins is to be obtained; and this forgiveness consists simply in the declaration of His righteousness (which is the righteousness of God) for their remission. God, “who is rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4) and who delights in it, puts His own righteousness on the sinner who believes in Jesus, as a substitute for his sins. Surely, this is a profitable exchange for the sinner, and it is no loss to God, for He is infinite in holiness and the supply can never be diminished.
The scripture that we have just been considering (Rom. 3:24-26) is but another statement of verses 21, 22, following the declaration that by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be made righteous. The apostle adds, “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe.” God puts His righteousness upon the believer. He covers him with it, so that his sin no more appears. Then the forgiven one can exclaim with the prophet:
“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with ornaments and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels. Isa. 61:10.
But what about “the righteousness of God without the law?” How does that accord with the statement that the law is the righteousness of God, and that outside of its requirements there is no righteousness? There is no contradiction here. The law is not ignored by this process. Note carefully: Who gave the law? Christ. How did He speak it? “As one having authority,” even as God. The law sprang from Him the same as from the Father, and is simply a declaration of the righteousness of His character. Therefore the righteousness which comes by the faith of Jesus Christ is the same righteousness that is epitomized in the law, and this is further proved by the fact that it is “witnessed by the law.”
Let the reader try to picture the scene. Here stands the law as the swift witness against the sinner. It cannot change, and it will not call a sinner a righteous man. The convicted sinner tries again and again to obtain righteousness from the law, but it resists all his advances. It cannot be bribed by any amount of penance or professedly good deeds. But here stands Christ, “full of grace” as well as of truth, calling the sinner to Him. At last the sinner, weary of the vain struggle to get righteousness from the law, listens to the voice of Christ and flees to His outstretched arms. Hiding in Christ, he is covered with His righteousness, and now behold! he has obtained, through faith in Christ, that for which he has been vainly striving. He has the righteousness which the law requires, and it is the genuine article, because he obtained it from the Source of Righteousness, from the very place whence the law came. And the law witnesses to the genuineness of this righteousness. It says that so long as the man retains that, it will go into court and defend him against all accusers. It will witness to the fact that he is a righteous man. With the righteousness which is “through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith” (Phil. 3:9), Paul was sure that he would stand secure in the day of Christ.
There is in the transaction no ground for finding fault. God is just and at the same time the Justifier of him that believeth in Jesus. In Jesus dwells all the fullness of the Godhead. He is equal with the Father in every attribute. Consequently the redemption that is in Him—the ability to buy back lost man—is infinite. Man’s rebellion is against the Son as much as against the Father, since both are one. Therefore, when Christ “gave Himself for our sins,” it was the King suffering for the rebellious subjects—the One injured passing by, overlooking, the offense of the offender. No skeptic will deny that any man has the right and privilege of pardoning any offense committed against himself; then why cavil when God exercises the same right? Surely if He wishes to pardon the injury done Himself, He has the right, and more because He vindicates the integrity of His law by submitting in His own Person to the penalty which was due the sinner. “But the innocent suffered for the guilty.” True, but the innocent Sufferer “gave himself” voluntarily, in order that He might in justice to His government do what His love prompted, namely, pass by the injury done to Himself as the Ruler of the universe.
Now read God’s own statement of His own Name—a statement given in the face of one of the worst cases of contempt ever shown Him:
“And the Lord descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed by before him, and proclaimed, The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty.” Ex. 34:5-7.
This is God’s name. It is the character in which He reveals Himself to man, the light in which He wishes men to regard Him. But what of the declaration that He “will by no means clear the guilty?” That is perfectly in keeping with His longsuffering, abundant goodness and His passing by the transgression of His people. It is true that God will by no means clear the guilty. He could not do that and still be a just God. But He does something which is far better. He removes the guilt, so that the one formerly guilty does not need to be cleared—he is justified and counted as though he never had sinned.
Let no one cavil over the expression, “putting on righteousness,” as though such a thing were hypocrisy. Some, with a singular lack of appreciation of the value of the gift of righteousness, have said that they did not want righteousness that was “put on,” but that they wanted only that righteousness which comes from the life, thus depreciating the righteousness of God, which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all that believe. We agree with their idea insofar as it is a protest against hypocrisy, a form of godliness without the power; but we would have the reader bear this thought in mind: It makes a vast deal of difference who puts the righteousness on. If we attempt to put it on ourselves, then we really get on nothing but a filthy garment, no matter how beautiful it may look to us, but when Christ clothes us with it, it is not to be despised nor rejected. Mark the expression in Isaiah: “He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness.” [Isa. 61:10.] The righteousness with which Christ covers us is righteousness that meets the approval of God, and if God is satisfied with it, surely men ought not to try to find anything better.
But we will carry the figure a step further and that will relieve the matter of all difficulty. Zech. 3:1-5 furnishes the solution. It reads thus:
“And he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the Angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him. And the Lord said unto Satan, The Lord rebuke thee, O Satan; even the Lord that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee; is not this a brand plucked out of the fire? Now Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and stood before the Angel. And he answered and spake unto those that stood before him, saying, Take away the filthy garments from him. And unto him he said, Behold I have caused thine iniquity to pass from thee, and I will clothe thee with change of raiment. And I said, Let them set a fair miter upon his head. So they set a fair miter upon his head, and clothed him with garments. And the Angel of the Lord stood by.”
Notice in the above account that the taking away of the filthy garments is the same as causing the iniquity to pass from the person. And so we find that when Christ covers us with the robe of His own righteousness, He does not furnish a cloak for sin but takes the sin away. And this shows that the forgiveness of sins is something more than a mere form, something more than a mere entry in the books of record in heaven, to the effect that the sin has been canceled. The forgiveness of sins is a reality; it is something tangible, something that vitally affects the individual. It actually clears him from guilt, and if he is cleared from guilt, is justified, made righteous, he has certainly undergone a radical change. He is, indeed, another person, for he obtained this righteousness for the remission of sins, in Christ. It was obtained only by putting on Christ. But “if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature.” 2Cor. 5:17. And so the full and free forgiveness of sins carries with it that wonderful and miraculous change known as the new birth, for a man cannot become a new creature except by a new birth. This is the same as having a new, or a clean, heart.
The new heart is a heart that loves righteousness and hates sin. It is a heart of willingness to be led into the paths of righteousness. It is such a heart as the Lord wished Israel to have when he said, “O that there were such a heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them, and with their children forever!” Deut. 5:29. In short, it is a heart free from the love of sin as well as from the guilt of sin. But what makes a man sincerely desire the forgiveness of his sins? It is simply his hatred of them and his desire for righteousness, which hatred and desire have been enkindled by the Holy Spirit.
The Spirit strives with all men. It comes as a reprover. When its voice of reproof is regarded, then it at once assumes the office of comforter. The same submissive, yielding disposition that leads the person to accept the reproof of the Spirit, will also lead him to follow the teachings of the Spirit, and Paul says that “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.” Rom. 8:14.
Again, what brings justification or the forgiveness of sins? It is faith, for Paul says, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Rom. 5:1. The righteousness of God is given unto and put upon everyone that believeth. Rom. 3:22. But this same exercise of faith makes the person a child of God; for, says the apostle Paul again, “Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” Gal. 3:26.
The fact that everyone whose sins are forgiven is at once a child of God is shown in Paul’s letter to Titus. He first brings to view the wicked condition in which we once were and then says (Titus 3:4-7):
“But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward men appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; that being justified by his grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
Note that it is by being justified by His grace that we are made heirs. We have already learned from Rom. 3:24, 25 that this justification by His grace is through our faith in Christ, but Gal. 3:26 tells us that faith in Christ Jesus makes us children of God; therefore, we know that whoever has been justified by God’s grace—has been forgiven—is a child and an heir of God.
This shows that there is no ground for the idea that a person must go through a sort of probation and attain to a certain degree of holiness before God will accept him as His child. He receives us just as we are. It is not for our goodness that He loves us but because of our need. He receives us, not for the sake of anything that He sees in us but for His own sake and for what He knows that His Divine power can make of us. It is only when we realize the wonderful exaltation and holiness of God and the fact that He comes to us in our sinful and degraded condition to adopt us into His family that we can appreciate the force of the apostle’s exclamation, “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God.” 1John 3:1. Everyone upon whom this honor has been bestowed will purify himself, even as He is pure.
God does not adopt us as His children because we are good but in order that He may make us good. Says Paul, “God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loves us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us [made us alive] together with Christ (by grace ye are saved), and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus; that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.” Eph. 2:4-7. And then he adds, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Verses 8-10. This passage shows that God loved us while we were yet dead in sins. He gives us His Spirit to make us alive in Christ, and the same Spirit marks our adoption into the Divine family, and He thus adopts us that, as new creatures in Christ, we may do the good works which God has ordained.