The Righteousness of Christ
Robert D. Brinsmead
There are two elements blended together in God's redemptive act in Christ. These elements are righteousness and blood. Paul not only ascribes salvation to the blood of Christ but also to the righteousness of Christ. In Romans 3:22 he tells us that righteousness is "unto all and upon all them that believe. " " . . . David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works . . ." (Rom. 4:6). In Romans 5:18-19 Paul says that this is "the righteousness of One" or "the obedience of One." The apostle Peter calls it "the righteousness of . . . Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:1).
The gospel is about Jesus Christ (Rom 1:3) — His righteousness and blood. If Christ is our Sun, then half of this Sun's luster is dimmed when we fail to rivet our attention on the grand theme of the righteousness of Jesus.
The Covenant and Christ's Righteousness
Like many of the great words in the Bible, righteousness is a covenantal word. God and man are related by a covenantal union. When one acts as a true covenant partner, he is said to be righteous.
God is said to be righteous because all His acts are true to His covenant oath. Whether He punishes or forgives, He is always true to His covenant. As a covenant partner, He is absolutely dependable.
As a covenant partner, man is required to image God. Righteousness is the most fundamental covenant demand. The Ten Commandments are the stipulations which rest upon the human partner (Ex. 34:27-28; Deut. 4:13). When man is true to his covenant obligations, he is said to be righteous. "And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as He hath commanded us" (Deut. 6:25).
From the human standpoint righteousness is obedience to the law of God (the covenant stipulations), just as sin is transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). Says Calvin:
The law of God contains perfect righteousness . . . We therefore willingly confess that perfect obedience to the law is righteousness, and that the keeping of each commandment is a part of righteousness; provided that in the remaining parts the whole sum of righteousness is contained. —John Calvin, Institutes, Bk. 3, chap. 17, sec. 7.
In the New Testament, righteousness or perfect obedience to the law remains the valid demand of God. When the young ruler asked Jesus, "What good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?" Jesus replied, "Keep the commandments" — and He quoted the very words (stipulations) of the covenant (Matt. 19:16-19).
. . . righteousness consists in the observance of the law. —Ibid., Bk. 2, chap. 17, sec. 5.
Paul does not launch into his message of God's grace in his epistle to the Romans by declaring that God has relented on His demand for righteousness. Indeed, the apostle arraigns both Jew and Gentile before the judgment bar of God and shows that God is absolutely uncompromising in His demand for a righteous life:
But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things. And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? Or despisest thou the riches of His goodness and forbearance and longsuffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; who will render to every man according to his deeds: to them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: but unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil, of the Jew first, and also of the Gentile; but glory, honour, and peace, to every man that worketh good, to the Jew first, and also to the Gentile: for there is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law; (for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel (Rom. 2:2-16).
These words of Paul remind us of what is said in the fifteenth Psalm:
Lord, who shall abide in Thy tabernacle? who shall dwell in Thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart. He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour. In whose eyes a vile person is contemned; but he honoureth them that fear the Lord. He that sweareth to his own hurt, and changeth not. He that putteth not out his money to usury, nor taketh reward against the innocent. He that doeth these things shall never be moved.
We may summarize the point by saying that God requires of man a holy life. The justice of God's judgment seat requires exact and perfect obedience to the divine law. Man cannot be saved unless that law be fulfilled — every jot and tittle of it.
Says Calvin, "The Lord promises nothing except to perfect keepers of His law," and then, to underline the human predicament, he adds, "and no one of that kind is to be found." —Calvin, op. cit., Bk. 3, chap. 17, sec. 1. This is where God stepped in by providing for us a Surety (Heb. 7:22) in Jesus Christ. His righteousness consists in His perfect obedience to His Father's law in our room and on our behalf. Not only by His blood (which atones for our offenses) but by His righteousness He reconciles us to God and presents us in the sight of divine justice as if we had kept the law.
The Old Testament and Christ's Righteousness
Through Isaiah, God speaks to His Messiah, saying:
I the Lord have called Thee in righteousness, and will hold Thine hand, and will keep Thee, and give Thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles . . . " (Isa. 42:6; see also Isa. 49:8).
What does this scripture mean when it says that Christ is given "for a covenant of the people?" God had entered into covenant with His people, but they failed Him. They broke the stipulations. Although God kept renewing His covenant, the partnership always broke down because "it was weak through the flesh." God looked for a faithful covenant partner and found Him in Jesus Christ. God accepts Him on behalf of His people. Christ's righteousness is accepted in the place of their failure. In this faithful Servant the people can be treated as those who have fulfilled all their covenant stipulations.
The Old Testament bears pointed testimony to the righteousness of Christ. In Isaiah 40 to 66 He is presented to us as a Servant of Yahweh. He is so closely identified with His people that He is Israel personified. He suffers for Israel's sins as if they were His own (Isa. 53), and Israel is rewarded for His righteous life as if it were her own (Isa. 49:8; 45:24-25).
Says the prophet, ". . . He had done no violence, neither was any deceit in His mouth" (Isa. 53:9; cf. Rom. 3:10-18). God calls Him "My righteous Servant" (Isa. 53:11).
Behold My Servant, whom I uphold; Mine Elect, in whom My soul delighteth; I have put My Spirit upon Him: He shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not cry, nor lift up, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street. A bruised reed shall He not break, and the smoking flax shall He not quench: He shall bring forth judgment unto truth. He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till He have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for His law (Isa. 42:1-4).
This righteous Servant is pleasing to God in all things. He loves righteousness and hates iniquity. Therefore He receives God's Spirit without measure (Heb. 1:9). In Him is blended the meekness of perfect lowliness and humility and the strength of indomitable courage and fortitude.
His righteousness is further described in the words of the prophet:
The Lord God hath given Me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: He wakeneth morning by morning, He wakeneth Mine ear to hear as the learned.
In Isaiah 11 Christ is depicted as the righteous Branch "out of the stem of Jesse."
The Lord God hath opened Mine ear, and I was not rebellious, neither turned away back. I gave My back to the smiters, and My cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not My face from shame and spitting.
For the Lord God will help Me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set My face like a flint; and I know that I shall not be ashamed (Isa. 50:4-7).
Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently, He shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high (Isa. 52:13).
. . . and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord; and shall make Him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and He shall not judge after the sight of His eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of His ears: but with righteousness shall He judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and He shall smite the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips shall He slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of His loins, and faithfulness the girdle of His reins (Isa. 11:2-5).
Here are "the seven spirits of God" — the fullness and perfection of the Godhead which were manifested in Jesus Christ (see Col. 2:9).
Jeremiah also prophesies of Christ as "a righteous Branch." In context the Lord complains about the shepherds of Israel who scatter and destroy the flock. But the Lord says that He will raise up a faithful Shepherd and by Him save His people:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In His days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is His name whereby He shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS (Jer. 23: 5-6).
A parallel passage in Jeremiah 33:16 says:
In those days shall Judah be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell safely: and this is the name wherewith she shall be called, The Lord our righteousness.
Israel is saved because she takes His name, "The Lord our righteousness." It is because of God's covenant faithfulness in giving Christ to be Israel's righteousness that Isaiah declares:
Surely, shall one say, in the Lord have I righteousness and strength: even to Him shall men come; and all that are incensed against Him shall be ashamed. In the Lord shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory (Isa. 45:24-25).
To summarize: the servant life of Christ constitutes His righteousness. Here was a life without guile, without violence, without rebelliousness; but it was a life full of God's Spirit, a life of humility, patient trust in God, zeal for God's glory, perfect submission to God's will, and unflinching courage to finish the work which God gave Him to do.
The New Testament and Christ's Righteousness
The apostles present Jesus as the fulfillment of the Isaianic servant who goes about "doing good." Jesus comes to be baptized in order "to fulfil all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15). At His baptism a voice from heaven declares, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased" (Matt. 3:17; this obviously refers us back to Isa. 42:1).
As Israel was called out of Egypt and tested in the wilderness, so Christ also is called out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15) and tested in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11). Whereas Israel murmured against God and broke her covenant vow, Christ passes over the same ground as God's new Israel. He is the righteous Servant who keeps covenant with God.
When Christ dies on the cross, Luke records that the centurion cries, "Certainly this was a righteous Man" (Luke 23:47). Even the dying thief is constrained to declare," . . . this man hath done nothing amiss" (Luke 23:4i). Before His death the demons were often forced to confess, "I know Thee who Thou art; the Holy One of God" (Luke 4:34).
John presents Jesus as the One whose meat it is to do the Father's will. Christ declares, "I seek not Mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent Me" (John 5:30). Even in the face of going into that place of outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (tasting death for every man), He still submits: ". . . not My will, but Thine be done" (Luke 22:42). As God's faithful Servant, He continues until He can say, "I have glorified Thee on the earth: I have finished the work which Thou gavest Me to do" (John 17:4).
The writer to the Hebrews says:
For we have not an High Priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin . . . Who in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and was heard in that He feared; though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered; and being made perfect, He became the Author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey Him . . . (Heb. 4:15; 5:7-9).
One of the most glorious New Testament testimonies to the righteousness of Christ is found in Philippians 2:5-9:
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name. . . .
The expression "obedient unto death" literally reads "obedient until death." The whole course of Christ's condescension and humble obedience is here portrayed. It takes in the total span of Christ's life from the manger to the cross. He went lower and lower in the path of humiliation until there was no lower place for Him to go.
The life of this obedient, suffering Servant is what Paul calls "the righteousness of One" and "the obedience of One" (Rom. 5:18-19). Because Romans 5:18 is sometimes translated "one act of righteousness," some contend that Paul is referring only to Christ's act of dying on the cross. But we should remember that God's redemptive act in Christ was more than a few hours in duration. It took thirty-three years. Cranfield is no doubt right when he compares this passage with Philippians 2:8 and says, "The term covers His whole life, not just His passion and death." —The International Critical Commentary, Romans (Edinburgh: T & T Clark), p.289. Obedience is a living thing, a quality of life. Christ's life of obedience to the perfect will of God is "the righteousness of Christ." As the second or last Adam and as the new Israel or King of Israel, His righteousness consisted in fulfilling the stipulations of the covenant in the most trying circumstances.
The Saving Properties of Christ's Righteousness
". . . a Man shall be as an hiding place from the wind, and a covert from the tempest . . . " (Isa. 32:2). This is because in Jesus Christ the sinner may find what the law of God demands — a life of perfect righteousness. But it is proper to inquire, "Why does the righteousness of Jesus Christ have saving properties?" There are two reasons:
1. It was a vicarious righteousness. Christ's life of obedience was not lived for Himself. As Lawgiver, He owed no obedience to the law. Obedience is the obligation of the creature, not the Creator. But Christ voluntarily assumed our obligation so that in our stead He could do for us that which we could not do for ourselves.
. . . but when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons (Gal. 4:4-5).
As Bunyan so beautifully put it, for thirty-three years Christ wove a garment of perfect righteousness to be given away. He needed no such righteousness for Himself, for from eternity He was the righteous One.
2. Christ's righteousness was not only vicarious (lived for us), but it was of infinite value. No mere creature sinlessness could suffice to save a multitude of sinners. If there are righteous men like Noah, Job and Daniel in the land, their righteousness will not suffice to save anyone else (see Ezek. 14:20).
As we have seen, the righteousness of Christ was lived out in the flesh-and-blood reality of His earthly life. But He was the God-man. The Person who rendered this obedience for us was a divine and infinite Person. His Person gave value to His work. He was filled with "all the fulness of the Godhead bodily" (Col. 2:9). In Philippians 2:5-8 the apostle clearly shows us that His was an infinite humility. His obedience was so glorious that it merited all honor and eternal blessedness (see Phil. 2:9-10; Ps. 24).
When God gave us Jesus to be our righteousness, He gave us an infinite treasure. The life which we have in God's Son is much greater than the sinless life which was forfeited by Adam's transgression. The righteousness of Jesus has infinite value with God.
In order that Christ could bequeath this life of infinite righteousness to us (a righteousness that would merit us all blessedness and eternal glory), He had to lay it down. Perhaps God's act of clothing the nakedness of Adam and Eve was an illustration of this. Before these sinners could be covered, a beast had to yield its life so that they could wear its skin. Death made the skins available, but it was the life of the animal which produced the coat.
Christ's life was so great that it was able to swallow up death and triumph over it. "For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (Rom. 5:10). Our righteousness is the life of Christ, and this righteousness is where we need it most-at the right hand of God.
The Communication of Christ's Righteousness
It was God's grace which provided this righteousness for us. Hence it is called "the righteousness of God" (Rom. 1:17; 3:21; 10:3; Phil. 3:9). Christ lived it. So it is called "the righteousness of . . . Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:1). The gospel declares its saving properties. So it is what we might appropriately call "gospel righteousness." In the preaching of the gospel the Holy Spirit is present to create faith in this righteousness. Hence it is called "the righteousness of faith" (Rom. 1: 17; 3:22; 4:11; 9:30; Phil. 3:9).
The righteousness of faith is not a quality seen by us or felt by us. It is not to be confused with the Spirit's work of regeneration and sanctification in our hearts. The righteousness which is of faith is nothing but the righteous deeds of incarnate God. It is called "the righteousness of faith" because faith embraces it, saying, "Mine are Christ's living, doing, and speaking, His suffering and dying; mine as much as if I had lived, done, spoken, and suffered, and died as He did. . . . Therefore, everything that Christ has is ours, graciously bestowed on us unworthy men out of God's sheer mercy, although we have rather deserved wrath and condemnation, and hell also. . . . This is an infinite righteousness and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as He." — Martin Luther, Luther's Works, Vol.31, pp.349-358.
This righteousness of Christ which justifies and saves the believing sinner unto life eternal always remains with and in the Person of Christ.
. . . the righteousness is still "in Him"; not "in us," even then when we are made partakers of the benefit of it, even as the wing and feathers still abide in the hen when the chickens are covered, kept, and warmed thereby. —John Bunyan, Justification by an Imputed Righteousness (Swengel, Penn.: Reiner Publications).
Again Bunyan says:
The righteousness by which we stand just before God from the curse was performed by the person of Christ. . . . This righteousness is inherent only in Him. —Ibid.
Once we grasp that the saving righteousness of Jesus consists in the works and deeds of Jesus which were performed for us 2,000 years ago, it becomes plain why Paul teaches that the righteousness which is of faith is imputed (see Rom. 4). Says Buchanan:
Indeed this is one of the greatest mysteries in the world—namely, that a righteousness that resides with a person in heaven should justify me, a sinner, on earth. —Ibid.
This righteousness, — being the merit of a work, and not a mere quality of character, — may become ours by being imputed to us, but cannot be communicated by being infused; and must ever continue to belong primarily and, in one important respect, exclusively to Him by Whom alone that work was accomplished . . . The merit of one may be reckoned, or put down to the account of another; but how can the merit of any work be infused, as a personal property, as holiness may unquestionably be? —James Buchanan, The Doctrine of Justification, pp.334-335.
There is, through the work of the Holy Spirit, an impartation of "essential righteousness" — that is, the attributes of God's character. The believer thereby becomes progressively more and more like Christ in character. Yet this inwrought holiness must not be confused with "the righteousness of faith." Paul can exhort believers to perfect holiness in the fear of God (2 Cor. 7:1), but nowhere does he exhort them to perfect the righteousness which is theirs by faith. This righteousness is already infinitely perfect. It is a garment already woven and ready to be worn by all who will submit to it.
The Benefits of Christ's Righteousness
Since Christ lived for His people a life of positive righteousness as well as died to atone for their sins, this means that God's justification of the believer includes more than pardon for past offenses. While the blood of Christ washes away the stain of all guilt, the righteousness of Christ clothes the believer with the righteousness which the law demands. Justification is not clearing away the past so that the believer can go on and provide his own life for acceptance with God. The holy life of the believer never becomes the central preoccupation where Christ's righteousness is given its proper place. The believer sees that just as his old life has been buried with Christ, so his real life is now in Christ at God's right hand (Col. 3:1 4). This is the abundant life (John 10:10), the infinite treasure of the Christian. Where his treasure is, there is his heart also.
The holy life which the believer lives on earth is but the first fruits and the down payment of his inheritance (Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:13-14). This is not that abundant life of which the Christian can lawfully boast. In his earthly life, even in its best state, he will never find fulfillment and satisfaction but will rather confess with Paul, "O wretched man that I am!" (Rom. 7:24). The Christian's real life, therefore, is outside of himself, and his consolation is always what Another is on his behalf in the presence of God.
Yet this righteousness which is by faith alone determines the nature of the holy life of the believer in the here and now. We have seen that Christ's righteousness consists in His perfect obedience to the commandments of God (covenant stipulations) on behalf of those who believe on Him. The Son of God was not sent to put the law aside. He did not die so that its holy requirement could be cast aside as nothing. The righteousness of Christ was the highest honor that could be paid to the divine law. In the life of Jesus Christ the law received much more honor than if Adam and all his posterity had kept it. The law (the covenant stipulations) had to be fulfilled, every jot and tittle of it; otherwise there would be no hope of justification for any sinner.
When the believing sinner sees that Christ put His own life on the line to honor and uphold God's law, he will not think that it is a light matter to sin and trample on God's holy commandments. While the law points him to Christ as His only righteousness to meet its claims, Christ's righteousness points him back to the law as the expression of Christian duty. In the light of the gospel, God's commandments are not grievous (1 John 5:3).
The good news that Christ kept the law for us is not an encouragement to antinomianism. Rightly understood, it is the end of antinomianism.
For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit (Rom. 8:3-4).