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Christ Our Righteousness

May 12, 2016

One of the great truths of the gospel is that what we could not do for ourselves as sinners, Christ did for us. A holy and righteous God is separated from fallen and sinful mankind. How can sinners change? As we read in Jeremiah 13:23, ‘How can a leopard change its spots?’

It is really the age-old question which was asked three times in the Book of Job (4:17; 9:2; 25:4): ‘How can a person be right with God?’ Sinful man is alienated from a holy and righteous God. The gulf is insurmountable. Unless God makes a way, we are all lost.

I have already looked at Christ our mediator and Christ our redeemer in this miniseries. Now I turn to another wonderful truth about the divine transaction that takes place when we come to Christ in faith and repentance: Christ our righteousness.

righteousnessA lot of confusion is found on this topic. The various biblical terms have different meanings. Simply put, in the New Testament we read about the great exchange: Christ takes our sins upon himself and bears our punishment for us, and we in turn, when we come to Christ, receive an imputed righteousness.

We are declared to be fully righteous by God. Because of what Christ did for us, we have a standing of perfect righteousness. Of course our actual state then must come into conformity with that standing. We are to become what we have been declared to be. I speak to that more fully elsewhere, eg.:

Standing and State

The Indicative/Imperative and the Christian Life

Thus we are justified by grace through faith, but our lifelong walk of sanctification involves obedience, making right choices, saying no to sin and self, and so on. Here I want to look at some of the key Greek terms being used in the New Testament.

This is a very important word group, and getting a handle on how the terms are used, along with some of the biblical context, can be of real help. And in the Bible, especially the NT, there is a strong legal dimension to the terms. So let me offer five of these terms.

The first one is dikaioutai = justified (verb)
Galatians 3:11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”

This is a legal or forensic term, meaning to be declared righteous (the opposite being, to condemn or declare guilty). It is used as a verdict given in a court of law: as an acquittal in fact. Here Paul is referring back to Habakkuk 2:4.

Comments Douglas Moo, in his application of the OT text, Paul “exhibits that ‘deepening’ of the original sense that is the hallmark of the NT use of the OT. In both Habakkuk and Paul, ‘righteous’ refers to the person who is in good standing with God, but in Paul the word takes on the specific case of the forensic status of being ‘justified’.”

Or as John Stott summarises:

It would be hard to find a more forceful statement of the doctrine of justification than this. It is insisted upon by the two leading apostles (‘we know’), confirmed from their own experience (‘we have believed’), and endorsed by the sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament (‘by works of the law shall no one be justified’). With this threefold guarantee we should accept the biblical doctrine of justification and not let our natural self-righteousness keep us from faith in Christ.

Secondly we have dikaioo = justification, justify, pronounce or treat as righteous (verb).
Galatians 2:16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
Galatians 3:8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”

Again, we have a clear forensic understanding of the term in such passages. As to 2:16, F. F. Bruce states, “The verb dikaioo means ‘make dikaios’, ‘put in the right’ or ‘in the clear’ (to use a modernism). In this kind of context those are dikaioi who have been set right with God, pardoned and accepted by him.”

Or as Stott writes,

Negatively, Paul asserts that no human being is justified by doing what the law demands. To be justified means to be declared righteous before God, that is, to enjoy a status or standing of being in a right relationship with God, or being accepted by him….
Positively, Paul states that it is “only through faith in Christ Jesus” that a person is justified.

Thirdly, we have dike = right, justice, punishment (justice paid) (adjective) and diken = justice paid out (noun)
Acts 28:4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.”
2 Thessalonians 1:9 They will be punished [pay the penalty] with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power

The root dik- is a quite broad one, from which a whole range of English terms derive, including just, justly, justice, justified, right, righteous, righteousness, and so on. Here Paul speaks of a just penalty or punishment for sin. It is used quite a bit in 2 Thess. 1:5-10.

As Jeffrey Weima comments, Paul is “preoccupied with the just character of God’s judgment” and this is the fourth time in this brief section that he employs this key root (vv. 5, 6, 8, 9). Or as Leon Morris points out, the “verb has a legal background. The word ‘punishment’ is another word from the same root as ‘righteous’ and ‘vengeance’ in the earlier verses.”

Fourthly there is dikaios = righteous, just (adjective)
Galatians 3:11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”
dikaios = justly, righteously (adverb)
1 Peter 2:23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

Commenting on the Galatians text (3:11-12), Gordon Fee says:

These two verses must be kept together precisely because Paul now spells out on the basis of Scripture that these two ways of living – by faith or by doing law – are mutually exclusive options. First (v. 11), he repeats the point already made in the preceding paragraph, that “justification/righteousness” has nothing to do with the law. Rather, it not only comes about on the basis of faith (as it did with Abraham, vv. 7-9) – now of course meaning “by faith in Christ Jesus” – but all of life must also be lived on the same basis.

Sanctification is also lived out by faith, and by the grace of God, but that does not mean we have no role to play in it. Sanctification is a cooperative effort with God, as I discuss in detail elsewhere: billmuehlenberg.com/2015/03/22/sanctification-cooperating-with-god/

Finally there is the word dikaiosune = righteousness (noun)
Galatians 3:21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.
Genesis 15:6 Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

Scot McKnight says this about the Galatians passage:

Righteousness did not come via the law, because the promise was given to those who, like Abraham, believed. In effect, Paul’s argument is that the law is not intended to bring life, therefore, the Judaizers cannot be demanding the Galatians to follow the law of Moses in order to be accepted by God.

In sum, while the term “righteousness” has a strong ethical component (our actual state), the term, as used in both Testaments, is mainly used in a legal, forensic sense (our standing). Righteousness is seen as being imputed, or credited to our account. God confers upon us a right standing, a verdict of acquittal. The righteous man is one who is justified by God, who is accepted before God (Gen. 15:6, Rom. 3:21,22; 5:19, etc.).

As Leon Morris puts it in The Cross in the New Testament: “Justification is essentially a legal term. It means a verdict of acquittal. To justify means to declare ‘not guilty’. When Paul speaks of men as ‘justified’, then, he means that they have God’s verdict of acquittal. When they stand before the bar of God’s justice they need have no fear, for the Judge has already given His verdict in their favour.”

Or as Donald Guthrie puts it, “The frequent use of the verb ‘to justify’ (dikaioo) leads us to believe that for Paul it is generally used in a forensic sense. . . . In other words it has to do with acquittal from the just condemnation on sin. As in a court of law a man may be declared acquitted, which means he cannot be touched by law, so Paul conceives that a man may be declared righteous and his sins no longer held against him.”

George Eldon Ladd concurs: “The idea expressed by dikaioo is ‘to declare righteous,’ not ‘to make righteous.’ As we shall see, the root idea in justification is the declaration of, the righteous judge, that those who believe in Christ, sinful though they may be, are righteous – are viewed as being righteous, because in Christ they have come into a righteous relationship with God.”

Again, the initial act of salvation (justification) is solely by grace through faith, and we cannot earn our salvation. Once we become believers however, there is the lifelong walk of obedience and growth in holiness – what we call sanctification.

Sure, this too is in a sense by grace through faith, but we have a real role to play in making right choices, saying no to the flesh, crucifying self, and so on. Thus because of Christ and his work at Calvary, the believer is justified, or declared to be righteous before God. But then in our daily experience we live this out and grow in personal righteousness and holiness.

Let me conclude with the words of David Pawson from his brief volume, The God and the Gospel of Righteousness:

We need to be aware that unrighteousness is no problem to God. If a man will repent of his unrighteousness, God can do wonders. He will treat him as a saint from then on, and he will make him into a saint. Do you realize that the cross was a double substitution? … It is a double exchange: give him your sins and take his righteousness. It is not a fair exchange, but it is a good one.

[1844 words]

One Response to Christ Our Righteousness

  • On that first day, the day of Pentecost, a fisherman stood before thousands and proclaimed the crucified Messiah to His murderers confirming “The righteous is bold as a lion…” May God endue His ministers with righteousness again, glorify His holy name, and make His chosen people joyful. Thanks for showing the riches of His Word in kindness to us the heirs of His faithfulness.

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