October 31, 2014

Reformation Day and the Righteousness of God

by Mike Riccardi

Reformation Day - Nerds497 years ago today, 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.
  • Ethelbert

    Thanks, Mike, a most helpful and encouraging article for Reformation Day.

  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    AMEN! Thank you, Mike, and all those at Cripplegate for contending for the faith and boldly declaring the grace of God. So grateful for all of you.

  • Curt

    “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.” MAN, that’s good!!!! Praise the Lord!!!

  • Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Marcus

    Incredible.

  • Zachary

    “. 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” Do you mean to say there was period after the resurrection that it was not?

    • Thanks for your question, Zachary. I appreciate the opportunity to clarify.

      No, I do not mean to say that there was ever a time in which the Gospel wasn’t doing its saving work at all. I think Nathan’s post on Tuesday demonstrated pretty clearly that the Word of God was always doing its work. There was always a faithful remnant of true believers in Christ, even during the time when the Catholic Church was laboring to snuff out the true Gospel. Peter Waldo and the Waldensians, John Wycliffe and the Lollards, John Huss, William Tyndale, and others all were among those who preached justification by grace through faith in Christ alone, that Christ and not the Pope was the head of the Church, and that Scripture was the Christian’s sole infallible authority. And these commitments to the true Gospel even before the Reformation all coincided with the availability of the Word of God in a language the people could understand, and the diligent study of that Word to understand what the Lord of the Church was speaking to His Church.

      What I was referring to in the comment you excerpted was the concept of Post Tenebras Lux that became a motto of the Reformation. That, because the Word of God was not allowed to be disseminated to the people except through ecclesiastical authority, there resulted a widespread misunderstanding of the true Gospel of Christ (i.e., that sinners are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone), even among those who called themselves Christians and exalted themselves as ecclesiastical authorities. Compared to the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, there was, during that time, tenebras, widespread darkness even among those who claimed to be enlightened. And by the grace of God, that darkness was truly illumined by the light of the Word of God through the efforts of Martin Luther and others, on a comparatively wider scale than history had seen in a while.

      Thanks again for the opportunity to clarify. I hope that helps.

  • Nicola

    Thank-you for this well-explained article. I love this … “if my righteousness depends on my doing anything, it becomes my own righteousness. ” Amen! I’m confused about this part, though. You say that a sinner is born again when he “turns from his sin and puts his faith in Christ for righteousness”. If this understanding of repentance is required for salvation, then we’re all DEAD MEN and are disqualified from any hope of being saved! Why? Because who can say he has turned from ALL his sins? You correctly stated that “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”. Have you stopped sinning yet? Have I? No. So then we haven’t yet met the requirement to be saved. Yikes! There must be another way!

    Without a doubt, turning from our sins is the desire and goal of every born again believer, but grace isn’t grace if the onus is on us to perform this work to BE saved (Rom. 11:6). I understand repentance (Greek: metanoeó) in the context of salvation to mean a “change of mind” regarding our sin and purpose towards God (we are sinners in desperate need of a Savior). Until we’re born again and have the new nature of Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit, how can anyone have the power to turn from their sins? I’m sure you’ll agree that a dead man is incapable of raising himself to life! Salvation must be by grace through FAITH alone (Eph. 2:8-9).

    • Hi Nicola. Thanks for your thoughts. I’ll try to respond to your concerns in a helpful way.

      First, I do not believe that the repentance that is the condition of justification means that we must become sinless before God will justify us. I agree that if that was the standard, there would be no hope for anyone, and that would basically be to preach a Pelagian gospel, which is no gospel at all (cf. Gal 1:6-9).

      My understanding of the repentance that is the condition of justification is probably close to what you describe as “a change of mind.” But it’s an overly simplistic treatment of metanoéō to reduce it to a mere change of mind, as if it’s simply a change in thinking. True, biblical repentance involves not only an intellectual change, but also an emotional and volitional change. In other words, it’s not simply a change in thinking; it is also a change in affections and in will. If you’re interested in understanding further, I’ve done a fairly in-depth examination of the biblical doctrine of repentance that you can read here.

      So, I think that simplistic understanding of repentance is what’s causing much of your confusion to start out with.

      You say that a sinner is born again when he “turns from his sin and puts his faith in Christ for righteousness.”

      Second, it will be helpful to point out that I did not say that this is when a sinner is born again. I said, “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.”

      It would be more accurate to say that this is when a sinner is justified. A sinner is born again when the Spirit sovereignly regenerates the sinner’s heart, opens his eyes, and grants to him repentance and faith (cf. John 3:8; 2 Cor 4:4-6). I think your misunderstanding that one believes in order to be born again, rather than that he is born again unto believing (cf. 1 John 5:1), is what drives the rest of your confusion.

      When you say, “Until we’re born again and have the new nature of Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit, how can anyone have the power to turn from their sins?” I agree wholeheartedly. You correctly note that repentance is the result of regeneration, but you erroneously believe that faith is the cause of regeneration. It’s not. Faith, like repentance, is also a result of regeneration. I do agree, as you say, “that a dead man is incapable of raising himself to life.” But faith is the baseline sign of new life (again, cf. 1 John 5:1). That means that that same dead man is incapable of even having faith apart from the work of God’s Spirit in him, opening his eyes to the ugliness of sin and the loveliness of Christ.

      That work of God’s Spirit that I’m describing is the new birth, the shining of the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ into the eyes of the sinner’s heart (cf. 2 Cor 4:4-6), which awakens the sinner to spiritual life. When the new birth is thus understood properly, its relationship to repentance and faith is understood properly. That is, when the Spirit sovereignly grants the sinner new eyes to finally see things as they actually are — as I said, the ugliness of sin which I had always loved and the loveliness of Christ which I had always spurned — the sinner now turns from the ugliness of sin (repentance) and embraces with everything in his being the loveliness of Christ (faith). The very act of turning to Christ in faith implies a turning away from sin in repentance. Paul speaks this way in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, where he describes the Thessalonian believers as those who turned to God (faith) from idols (repentance) to serve a living and true God.

      Now again, I agree that this repentance is not an extinguishing of all sin before coming to Christ. Rather, it is the intellectual acknowledgement that sin is sinful, evil, and unacceptable in God’s sight, and that I am wrong for committing it; it is the affectional experience of sorrow over having dishonored the God that gave me life; and it is the purposing of the will to turn away from sin — the repudiation of pursuing sin. Intellectual, emotional, and volitional.

      This is why Scripture repeatedly characterizes the preaching of the Gospel as the call to repentance:

      John the Baptist: Luke 3:3–18 – …preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. … So with many other exhortations he preached the gospel to the people.

      Jesus: Matthew 4:17–23 – From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” … And Jesus was going about in all Galilee… proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom…

      Jesus: Mark 1:14–15 – Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Note that repentance is even listed first.)

      Peter: Acts 2:36–38 – In response to the question, “What must I do to be saved?” Peter says, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

      Peter: Acts 3:19 – “Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”

      Paul: Acts 17:30 – “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent…”

      Scripture is very clear that there is an initial repentance from sin that is just the other side of the same coin as saving faith. You can’t have one without the other. (And remember, both are results of the new birth, not only one of them.) And as the links I’ve provided above demonstrate, this metanoia is more than a mere change of mind.

      I could be wrong, but much of what you say sounds very similar to the “no-Lordship” position of salvation famously espoused by Zane Hodges and others. If so, I’d suggest that you pick up a copy of John MacArthur’s The Gospel According to Jesus. It will prove very helpful to you as you continue to study these things from God’s Word.

      • Nicola

        Thank-you for your reply, Mike. You said, “I think your misunderstanding that one believes in order to be born again, rather than that he is born again unto believing (cf. 1 John 5:1), is what drives the rest of your confusion.” Yet when I compare 1 Jn. 5:1 and Eph. 1:13, it seems clear that believing on (adhering to, trusting, relying on) Christ precedes the new spiritual birth, not the other way around. How do you reconcile Eph. 1:13? “In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise.” Thanks. 🙂

        • So, 1 John 5:1 says, Pas ho pisteuwn hoti Iesous estin ho Christos, ek tou Theou gegennetai. Ho pisteuwn is a present active participle and is properly translated: “all who (presently) believe.” Gegennetai is a perfect indicative passive, and is properly translated, “has been (in the past) born of God.” So John says that all who presently believe now have, at some time in the past, been born of God.

          Ephesians 1:13 says absolutely nothing about the new birth. No words or metaphors associated with regeneration appear in that verse. I think you are confusing the Spirit’s ministry of sealing with the Spirit’s ministry of regenerating here.

          In regards to the Spirit’s sealing the believer, there is some ambiguity in the text as to whether believers receive the seal at the moment of believing or in some time subsequent to believing. The grammar of the text — “having also believed, you were sealed” — allows for (a) faith chronologically preceding the seal of the Spirit, or (b) simply that one is sealed when he believes. The best commentators and interpreters take the participles (believed and sealed) as contemporaneous; i.e., as occurring at the same time (cf. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 624–25 (especially note 43 on 625); O’Brien, Epheians, PNTC, 119; Thielman, Ephesians, BECNT, 79; Bruce, Ephesians, NICNT, 265). So, the moment one hears and believes the gospel, he is sealed. They are contemporaneous actions, but faith logically precedes the sealing.

          But again, sealing is not to be conflated with regeneration. Regeneration logically precedes faith, as the grammar of 1 John 5:1 bears out. For more on this, you can see a brief post I’ve written, this excellent video by James White, and this masterful work on regeneration by Matthew Barrett.

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