Right and Wrong Some scholars deny righteousness through Christ — They err
In the accepted teaching of reformed Christianity believers are justified in relation to God once for all because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ that is credited to them when they first truly believe in Christ. This teaching is now being challenged and recast in a number of movements both inside and out of the Reformed churches around the world. What should we say to these revisionist schools?
First, the doctrine of the reckoning of Christ’s righteousness is the belief basically that Jesus Christ justifies us by keeping the moral law for us. We can understand this two ways, positively and negatively — positively, that Jesus perfectly obeyed the moral commandments epitomised in the Ten Words of Sinai, both in spirit and letter; negatively, that He underwent the penal sufferings due to those who break God’s law, the sentence of death, both physical and eternal.
The positive aspect of Christ’s righteousness we see throughout His life of faithfulness, love and obedience; the negative aspect we see in His personal sufferings, especially at the end of His life in connection with the crucifixion. The righteousness of Jesus Christ means that Jesus both lived and died for us. He lived the life of loving obedience and service that we were meant to live in Adam; He suffered and died the penal death that we deserve because of our lawlessness, both temporally and eternally.
Second, the righteousness of Christ is a biblical teaching. It is so at a number of points.
- This teaching explains the human condition, that we are all under God’s just law that condemns us because we fail to keep it (Rom. 3:19).
- The reason for this condition is the original failure of the first man Adam to keep God’s law (Rom. 5:12, 19).
- This teaching explains justification as God’s declaration that someone has fulfilled His law and so is righteous before Him (Rom. 2:13).
- By His obedience in living and dying, Jesus Christ has secured that verdict of righteousness for us (Rom. 5:19).
- The only way we can access the verdict of being righteous before God is by trusting in the obedience of Christ alone (Gal. 2:16).
- God credits Christ’s righteousness to us in exchange for Christ having lived and died for us (2 Cor. 5:21). Many other key texts could be offered, not exclusively from Paul, as the source of these theses.
Third, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ is a historically received doctrine that belongs to our theological legacy starting already in the second century with the early Church Fathers (The Letter to Diognetus, 9). But Calvin is the one who describes it most clearly (Institutes II.xvi.5):
Now someone asks, How has Christ ... acquired righteousness to render God favourable and kindly towards us? To this we can in general reply that He has achieved this for us by the whole course of His obedience ... Paul extends the basis of the pardon that frees us from the curse of the law to the whole life of Christ: ‘But when the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, subject to the law, to redeem those who were under the law.’ Galatians 4:4-5 Thus in His very baptism, also, He asserted that He fulfilled a part of righteousness in obediently carrying out His Father’s commandment (Mt 3:15). In short, from the time when He took the form of a servant, He began to pay the price of liberation in order to redeem us.
In the same way the Westminster Confession, in its chapter on Justification (11), no fewer than three times explains this blessing as the imputation of the obedience/law — fulfilment of Jesus Christ along with His sacrificial death (paragraphs 1 and 3). In popular vein, Augustus Toplady has enshrined this teaching in the first two verses of his hymn,
A debtor to mercy alone
of covenant mercy I sing
nor fear, with His righteousness on,
my person as offering to bring.
The terrors of law and of God
with me can have nothing to do;
my Saviour’s obedience and blood
hide all my transgressions from view.”
Fourth, the doctrine of the reckoning of the righteousness of Christ glorifies Jesus Christ like no other explanation of justification. Other versions of justification conceal or compromise the centrality, sufficiency and finality of Jesus Christ in salvation. They do this, for example, by excluding the active obedience of Christ in the verdict of justification and so reducing justification to mere forgiveness (Robert Gundry), they include the work of the Holy Spirit with the work of Christ as the basis of justification (Tom Wright), they add the believer’s own obedience to the obedience of Christ as the way we work out our justification (Norman Shepherd) or they add the works of the faithful to the sufferings of Christ in a synthesis of human works and divine grace (Roman Catholicism).
As one commentator of one of these authors remarks: “How lovely it would be if Norman Shepherd would hold constantly before our eyes Christ our great faithful covenant keeper who met the requirement of obedience for us completely. Then he could tell us we do not need to present any of our own, and that to attempt to do so is a sin that denies the adequacy of Christ’s obedience” (David Linden).
By including the positive obedience of Christ along with His sufferings and death, the doctrine of Christ’s imputed righteousness does not detract from the cross, rather it helps to explain its moral quality and effectiveness. What explains the success of the death of Christ in justifying us before God (Rom. 5:9)? This was because Jesus was a righteous man (Mt. 27:19), who had no consciousness of sin (2 Cor. 5:21), whom even His human judge declared was innocent (Luke 18:38; 19:4, 6), and who offered Himself without spot to God through the eternal Spirit when He suffered and died (Heb. 9:14). He learned obedience through what He suffered (Heb. 5:7-9) and offered Himself to God as the obedient servant, the true Man (Rom. 5:18–19) and the ideal Israel (Gal. 4:4-5).
The qualities of Jesus’ personal character of virtue empowered the atoning sacrifice that He offered in His death. His obedience for us extends from His pre-temporal existence in the form of God, by way of the self-emptying love of the incarnation, through the humble life of His servant form, up to death, even the death of a criminal’s cross (Phil. 2:5-8).
Fifth, this view of Christ’s righteousness alone does justice to the true nature of faith. When writers like Gundry omit the obedience of Christ from the equation of justification they have to make up for it by substituting the faith of the believer which they reckon to be the new obedience that God requires. When Abraham believed in the LORD and it was reckoned to him for righteousness (Gen. 15:6) Gundry takes this to mean that “faith is the origin, the means, and the basis of righteousness in that God counts it as righteousness”.
But for Paul faith is not the righteousness that God reckons to believers but the medium that leads to righteousness (Rom. 10:10). This is what he means when he says that Abraham’s faith was reckoned for righteousness, it was the occasion and the instrument by which he was regarded as a righteous man by God (Rom. 4:4-5). Jesus Christ alone in His divine-human obedience is the sole source of the gift of righteousness itself (Rom. 5:17). This is because Jesus Christ was the substance of the promise made to Abraham (Gal. 3:16), the goal of the law as a means to righteousness (Rom. 10:4), and the centre of the gospel of the righteousness of God (Rom. 3:21-26).
In Paul’s reasoning faith is always opposed to works so far as our acceptance by God is concerned. Either our right relationship with God is from God’s grace through the medium of faith (which as trust in Another is alone compatible with the principle of grace), or it is a work and is a cause for human pride and boasting (Rom. 3:17). Writers like Gundry and Shepherd want to have it both ways by claiming that our faith in Christ is not meritorious and yet is part of the ground on which God reckons us right with himself. But this is a breach of the ordinary laws of logic which tell us that something cannot be A and not-A at the same time. When it comes to living (sanctification), as distinct from entering (justification), the life of faith, then good works play an increasing role in the lives of Christians since love is the fruit of faith (Gal. 5:6).
Sixth, the doctrine of the reckoning of the righteousness of Christ to believers is true to human experience universally. Tom Wright has argued that evangelical Protestants have got it wrong because we have accepted uncritically Luther’s spin on Paul’s Gospel in Galatians and Romans. But Luther’s experience of God’s wrath against his sin and of God’s righteousness in the Gospel of His Son has been typological for millions.
Salvation always comes down to the anxious individual who wants to know, not whether he is a member of the new covenant people of God, the idealised Israel, but whether he is right or can be right with God and how. As James Buchanan remarks in his classic study of Justification (1867), “the best preparation for the study of this doctrine is – neither great intellectual ability, nor much scholastic learning — but a conscience impressed with a sense of our actual condition as sinners in the sight of God ... To study the subject with advantage, we must have a heart-felt interest in it.”
And finally, there is the New Testament apologist Gresham Machen, dying from overwork in the defence of the evangelical faith in 1937, who sent a last message to his colleague professor John Murray: “I’m so thankful for the active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” That is the ultimate proof of any doctrine.