October 30, 2015

Reformation Day and the Righteousness of God

by Mike Riccardi

Reformation Day - Nerds498 years ago tomorrow, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, kick-starting the Protestant Reformation. Nearly 500 years later, God’s people reserve this day to celebrate the rescue of His Word from the shackles of Roman Catholic tyranny, corruption, and heresy. The glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in the sufficient Scriptures had been recovered, and it’s been doing its saving work ever since.

Romans 1:16–17 stands at the heart of the Reformation, especially because of how central it was in Luther’s conversion. Luther speaks of how he had hated the phrase, “the righteousness of God,” because he understood it to be speaking only of God’s standard of righteousness by which He would judge unrighteous sinners. But eventually, he says, “I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”

Today, as we reflect upon and remember the grace of God that fell upon the world in the Protestant Reformation, I want to reflect upon the Gospel that made it happen—and particularly the concept of righteousness which was so central to the regeneration of the great reformer. And to do that I want to focus on another text that Paul penned, which gives us wonderful insight into the saving righteousness of God. In Philippians 3:9, Paul explains what it means to be found in Christ—namely, “not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (NKJV).

In this verse, Paul contrasts two different kinds of righteousness. And really he is contrasting two systems of salvation, because the only way one can be saved is to be found righteous before God. And though Paul is contrasting Christianity with Judaism in particular, what he says about Judaism can be applied to every other religious system in the world. As John MacArthur has often said, there are only two categories of religion in the world: (a) the religion of human achievement, where man works to achieve his own righteousness; and (b) the religion of divine accomplishment, where God accomplishes righteousness on man’s behalf and then freely gives that righteousness as a gift. The religion of divine accomplishment is Christianity. The religion of human achievement is every other religious system in the history of mankind. These two religions are delineated very carefully in Philippians 3:9.

The Source of Righteousness

Note first the source of saving righteousness. Paul says, “…not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”

In the religion of human achievement, the source of righteousness is law-keeping. There is some moral and/or ritualistic standard by which man is to order his life, and if he does that successfully, he may achieve a righteousness that is acceptable to his god. He earns his righteousness by keeping a law—by doing good works—whether that’s the Law of Moses or Roman sacramental system, his hope is that obedience to that standard is able to provide righteousness.

But in the religion of divine accomplishment, the source of righteousness is God Himself. In Galatians 3:21, Paul says that no law has been given which is able to impart life. Because of humanity’s total depravity—because the depth of our sinfulness runs to the very core of our being—the only thing that law could do was to arouse our sinful passions and demonstrate our inability to obey as we ought. That’s why Paul says in Romans 3:20: “…by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in [God’s] sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” Because we are sinful to the core, the standards of God’s righteousness can never free us from sin; they can only point out where we have continued to fall short of God’s standard.

And so Paul doesn’t want a righteousness that is sourced in the law; no such thing could exist! Rather, he says, “But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested…even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom 3:21). Paul says, “My old way of life in Judaism could only have provided me a righteousness sourced in the Law. But that kind of righteousness could never save. I count that kind of righteousness as refuse, for the sake of gaining Christ. Because in Him, I have the righteousness which comes from God.”

The Basis of Righteousness

Secondly, notice the basis of saving righteousness. In the religion of human achievement, the basis of righteousness is man’s own obedience. Paul says at the beginning of verse 9, “…not having my own righteousness….” He says, “I don’t want my own righteousness. I don’t want a righteousness that is intrinsic to me, based upon my own obedience. The righteousness that saves must be outside of me. It must be,” as the Reformers called it, “an alien righteousness.”

And the religion of divine accomplishment provides an alien righteousness. Paul says he wants to be found having the righteousness “which is through faith in Christ.” Now, whatever you put your faith in for righteousness is the basis of your righteousness. Paul says the true Christian trusts Christ for righteousness. He puts his faith in the alien righteousness of Christ to earn his acceptance before God.

All of us have broken God’s law. Romans 3:23 says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But the Lord Jesus Christ paid the penalty that the law required when He died on the cross for the sins of His people. And He not only paid the law’s penalty, but also obeyed all the positive demands of the law as well. And the good news is that when a sinner turns from his sin and puts his faith in Christ for righteousness, God treats Christ as if He lived your life and punishes Him on the cross, and then God treats you as if you lived Christ’s life and gives you eternal life. That’s 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

And so Paul says the basis of justification isn’t our own intrinsic righteousness that we’ve obtained by our own good works. No, the basis of our righteousness is the alien righteousness of Christ that He achieved by dying in our place to pay sin’s penalty, and by living in our place to accomplish righteousness. Judaism could only ever get Paul his own righteousness. And so he counts that righteousness as refuse so that he may be found in Christ. Because united to Him, he gains the righteousness of Christ Himself.

The Means of Righteousness

Third, we need to understand the means by which Christ’s righteousness can be counted to be ours. And it’s very clear in this text. Paul repeats it. He says, “…not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”

This is the foundational doctrine of the New Testament—the very heart of the Gospel. Sinners cannot be made right with God by earning their own intrinsic righteousness by keeping commandments—whether the Law of Moses or any other law. No, Paul says, Romans 3:28, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.”

Why is faith so key to all of this? Well, in Romans 4:16, Paul makes a comment that exposes the logic of salvation. He says in that text, “For this reason, it [i.e., salvation] is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace.” Salvation is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace. Paul is teaching us that there is something inherent in the nature of faith that uniquely corresponds with the free gift of God’s sovereign grace. Paul says elsewhere that if works have any part of salvation, “grace is no longer grace” (Romans 11:6). Rather than being the ground upon which we boast, faith is “something which looks out of self, and receives the free gifts of Heaven as being what they are—pure undeserved favor. … Faith justifies, not in a way of merit, not on account of anything in itself, … but as uniting us to Christ” (Andrew Fuller).

Now that is so important, because if my righteousness depends on my doing anything, it becomes my own righteousness. It is no longer an alien righteousness, and it is not the righteousness of God. Faith is then made into a work, and then grace is no longer grace. If any part of justification is our doing—if we contribute to the basis of our righteousness in any way—then there is no Gospel, and we are all damned in our sins. God’s holiness is so magnificently perfect, His standard is so high, and our depravity is so pervasive, that all of our righteousness must be a free gift of His sovereign grace, because we could never earn it.

The Hope of Righteousness

And if it wasn’t that way, friends, we could never taste the sufficiency of Christ in justification. We could never know Jesus in the way that we do now, as He is all the ground of our righteousness. If there was something we could do that could contribute to our justification, there would be something we could do that could disqualify us from it.

But because your righteousness is an alien righteousness—because your salvation depends on the righteousness of another: the perfect righteousness of the Son of God Himself—you never have to fear that your justification is in jeopardy. If you have truly been born again, if you have been granted the gifts of repentance and faith, and if you presently abandon all hope in a righteousness of your own derived from commandment-keeping, you are justified! You can never be lost! You are as secure in your salvation as Christ is righteous. You can cry with the hymn writer: “Upward I look and see Him there who made an end to all my sin!” and “Behold Him, there, the Risen Lamb! My perfect, spotless righteousness!” and “Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free. For God the Just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.”

There is Jesus, our perfect, spotless, righteousness, who ever lives to make intercession for His people (Heb 7:25)—ever pleading our case before the Father: that He lived, died, and rose again on our behalf—that He has accomplished the righteousness that we could not, and that we have been united to Him by faith. And because of the righteousness of Christ, God graciously counts us to be righteous before Him.

This is the Gospel that is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. This is the Gospel in which the righteousness of God is revealed. And this is the Gospel that Luther recovered in the 16th century. Take time today to thank God for the work that He accomplished in the Reformation.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Chuck Haddon

    Great article, Mike.

  • Jane Hildebrand

    “If there was something we could do that could contribute to our justification, there would be something we could do that could disqualify us from it.” Amen and all glory to Christ!

    “And this is the will of Him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day.” (John 6:38)

    Yes, praising God today and every day for this incredible gift. Thank you.

  • Rachel

    Amen, great post! It is truly a mercy in itself that God has made salvation, justification and righteousness completely apart from our capabilities, or lack thereof, that is grace, that He in His wisdom has taken that option or say completely out of our hands. We Don’t want the opposite to be the case because we would be all damned. The presupposition is that man CAN do something, CAN give something, CAN add something, The Gospel itself (which begins with radical depravity) crushes that assumption, But oh do we love the “Can do” spirit and attitude, which is in opposition to the kind of humility and bankruptcy of spirit Christ requires for salvation.

    What Rome does is actually say Christ’s death makes us “Savable” His death now makes our works on behalf of our-self and for others–acceptable, in other words “Isn’t God so “Gracious” He’s allowed us to work for our salvation”…Which is a complete twisting and redefining of terms that the BIble itself defines.

  • tovlogos

    Great nuance, Mike.
    Your references the Galatians 3, and Romans 3 are so explicit, leaving no room for doubt in the theme of faith in Christ over and above all else.
    I remember having conversations where people, theoretically, proposed that if one could be perfect in the Law, he would be acceptable to God having achieved only what the Messiah achieved; though that were impossible — it was a statement about the Law.
    Yet, even if a person were perfect in all 613 laws it wouldn’t do any good. Yes, Jesus was perfect in the Law, but He is also divine, the component that changes everything.

  • John Byde

    In these days of universal cowardice among our “elite” leaders, it’s truly humbling to see the incredible acts of courage that Luther showed during the Reformation. What a man! What a Christian!

  • Pastor Mike, what does “righteousness of Christ” mean in your article? Do you mean righteousness that comes from Christ. Or righteousness that belongs to Christ?

    • “The righteousness of Christ” refers to the righteousness that the Man Christ Jesus achieved as He perfectly obeyed the Father during His time on earth — that righteous record of obedience that is then counted to be ours through faith alone.

      All have sinned; we have all broken the law of God and have thus incurred a penalty. Christ came to pay the penalty that the law demanded, but He also came to obey the positive demands of God’s law as well. Matthew 3:15 speaks of it as “fulfill[ing] all righteousness.” Now, Jesus had no need to undergo the rite of a proselyte baptism for repentance. It wasn’t commanded in the law of Moses, so He wouldn’t have been any less fit to be the blemishless sacrificial Lamb had He not been baptized. And He certainly had no sins to repent of. So why did He do it? He underwent that rite “in order to fulfill all righteousness” — i.e., to accomplish a true, lived-out, record of human righteousness that would be counted/reckoned/imputed (Gk. logizomai) to His people — to the one who does not work, but, like Abraham, who simply believes in Him for that righteousness (see Romans 4, especially Rom 4:3-5).

      The imputation of righteousness is that which is so clearly spoken about in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” In what sense did the Father “make” the Son “sin” on our behalf? In only one sense: the Father counted Jesus to have committed all the sins of all those who would ever repent and believe in Him. He did not actually make Jesus a sinner; it would be blasphemous to suggest that the God-man was actually made a sinner, for God cannot sin. No, the Father judicially reckoned Christ to have committed the sins of those for whom He was giving Himself as a substitute. Therefore, in order for the strict parallel of this verse to be maintained, we must understand that we “become the righteousness of God in Him” in the same manner in which He became sin on our behalf: namely, by imputation. God did not actually make us holy by virtue of the cross; that happens slowly and progressively throughout our lives (cf. 2 Cor 3:18). No, He counted — judicially reckoned — us to have lived the perfectly righteous life that Christ lived, which is the only righteousness that is fit for fellowship with God.

      On the cross, the Father treated Jesus as if He lived my life and punished Him as if He were a sinner, by exercising the fullness of His own righteous wrath on His Son (Isa 53:10-11). And because He did, He can now treat me as if I lived Jesus’ life, and reward me as if I were perfectly righteous. And the Scriptures teach that that transaction — that crediting of righteousness — happens “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom 4:3).

      • Thank you Mike. I wasn’t clear in my question. I meant how does it apply to us when we are justified. Are you saying we get righteousness from Christ or we get Christ’s own righteousness.

        • I believe I answered that: the Father counts (or, as I said, judicially reckons) us to have lived the perfectly righteous life that Christ lived.

          • So everyone has the same righteousness namely that of Christ in the eyes of God? As opposed to everyone has righteousness from Christ?

            Please forgive me but Protestant talk sounds like lawyer speak to me which makes understanding a problem. English is not my first tongue.

          • Judicially or positionally (speaking of justification), everyone who is justified is credited the perfect righteousness of Christ. Anything less than perfect righteousness is insufficient to put us in right standing before God.

            Practically, however (speaking of sanctification), everyone is at different “degrees of glory” (again, cf. 2 Cor 3:18) with respect to their lived-out, practical Christlikeness.

            Our positional righteousness is the perfect righteousness of Christ given as a gift. It is this alone that is the ground of our justification. Our practical righteousness (i.e., the actual bringing of our practice in line with our position) is variable and progressive. This may be evidence of our justification, but it is no part of the ground of our justification. While justification and sanctification are intimately related, they are distinct, and it’s important not to conflate the two.

          • I don’t find that Paul makes such a rigit destinction between justification and sanctification. Do you not get sanctified at the moment of justification? Are you not freed from sin when you die in Christ? Rom 6:7

          • I don’t find that Paul makes such a rigit [sic] destinction [sic] between justification and sanctification.

            I know. This is a major source of your interpretive and theological errors.

            Do you not get sanctified at the moment of justification?

            Only in a positional sense. The NT speaks of sanctification as a past event that occurred at justification (e.g., 1 Cor 6:11; Heb 10:10, 14), in the sense that from the moment of his new birth a Christian is “set apart” by God, and regarded as holy because he is clothed in the imputed righteousness of Christ (Gal 3:27).

            But the NT also speaks of sanctification as an ongoing, progressive reality that will not be finished until the believer goes to be with the Lord forever. That’s why Paul prays in 1 Thess 5:23 that God would complete His work of sanctification in them. The great goal of Paul’s ministry was to “present every man complete in Christ,” a reality that had not yet come to pass, evidenced by the need for serious effort on Paul’s part (Col 1:28-29). It’s why 2 Corinthians 3:18 says we are transformed into the image of the glory of Christ “from glory to glory,” or “from one degree of glory to the next.” We will not be perfectly like Him — not fully sanctified — until we see Him (1 John 3:2).

            Sanctification is spoken of in a positional and a practical sense, and if you conflate these two, you breed all manner of theological mischief.

            Are you not freed from sin when you die in Christ? Rom 6:7

            Understanding that Romans 6 is speaking of the very beginning of the Christian life — i.e., that “dying in Christ” is speaking of the forensic death to sin and self that happens when we are immersed into Christ’s body through faith alone (cf. Rom 6:3-4) — the new believer is freed from the penalty and power of sin. We are freed from the penalty of sin because Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to us and our guilt has been imputed to Him, and therefore the justice of God has been satisfied with respect to our sin; we no longer fear its death sentence. We are freed from the power of sin in the sense that, where sin ruled our affections and kept us enslaved, the regeneration of the Holy Spirit has renewed our affections, and given us a new heart that is no longer enslaved to sin (cf. Rom 6:16-18).

            But we are not yet freed from the presence of sin in our flesh, and so we must daily strive to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit (cf. Rom 8:12-13). This mortification of sin, this pursuit of the sanctification without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14), is precisely that: the process of sanctification. It is not to be confused with the forensic declaration of justification. Justification is forensic; sanctification is transformative. Diakaio means to declare righteous, not to make righteous.

            And while the forensic declaration of justification always, by necessity leads to the transformation of sanctification, the two are not the same. Conflating them results in “a righteousness of my own derived from the law” (Phil 3:9), which, as the original post demonstrated, is not the saving righteousness of God.

          • Archepoimen follower

            This is not lawyer speak at all. Simply put, we are unable to be totally faithful, therefore God in His mercy and Grace, transfers to us, those who believe, the faithfulness of the only one who ever was truly faithful, Jesus.

  • Jane Hildebrand

    I just wanted to say that it has been so helpful for me to learn so much about the Reformation these last weeks. There was so much I didn’t know, and now that I do, I am more grateful for the Bible than I have ever been.

    So thank you to all those at the C-gate for taking the time to deliver these truths of history with us, for defending sola scriptura and equipping us to better share the gospel with others. I am grateful.

    • It truly is our pleasure, Jane. Thanks so much for your encouragement. You are a blessing to us!

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