The Righteousness that Comes by Faith

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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Most of the letters of the New Testament were authored by the apostle Paul (13 of 21 if you don't believe Paul wrote Hebrews, otherwise 14). Paul's ministry also became a major focus of the book of Acts. It would be fair to say that other than Jesus, no one individual commands more attention in the New Testament than Paul. This should alert us to the importance of the apostle Paul for Christians today. As with the other apostles, especially Peter and John, Paul's teachings reflect the special revelations he received from God, and his life illustrates them.

Paul discusses this dual emphasis of his teaching (instruction and example) in the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians. Here, Paul wishes to make a clear distinction between the Judaism he left behind and the Christianity he committed himself to. He explains to the Philippians that his goal is "that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith" (Philippians 3:8-9).

Before his conversion, Paul tried to earn his own righteousness by fulfilling the Law of Moses on his own. However, Paul later saw the inadequacy of his efforts. Although we cannot be certain, Paul may have begun to realize his need, at least to some degree, at the stoning of Stephen -- when Paul listened to Stephen's words and watched how Stephen died (Acts 7:54ff.). Certainly this experience was fresh in Paul's mind when he met Christ on the road to Damascus. In any case, it was after he met the risen Christ and was ministered the truth by Ananias that Paul's eyes were fully opened (both physically and spiritually) and he saw just how inadequate his efforts at righteousness really were. He then saw that the only ground for his righteousness was the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

The words translated "justification" and "righteousness" in the New Testament stem from the same Greek word (dikaiosune) - so it is context that determines which English word is the correct translation. "Justification" is a legal (forensic) term, indicating pardon for sin. "Righteousness" indicates a moral and spiritual state in which one's thoughts and actions are consistent with the holiness of God; so they are "just." The adjective form (dikaios) may also indicate either "just" or "righteous," although in the New Testament there is good reason to translate the verb form (dikaioo) "justify" but not "make righteous." While both meanings derive from the same words and are closely related, it is also true that there is an important distinction to be made between justification and righteousness in the New Testament.

Jesus never sinned. He is "the Righteous One" (or "the Just One") according to Peter (Acts 3:14), Stephen (Acts 7:52), and Paul (Acts 22:14). Jesus requires no pardon because He is justified by His own life and deeds (John 8:46, Hebrews 4:15, I John 2;1). In this, Jesus is fully unique. Because every other person, as a member of a sinful race (the human race) chooses sin, each person is guilty before God, and can only become righteous if justified - in other words, if God, the Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18:25, Acts 17:30-31), extends a legal pardon.

However, this pardon is more than simple forgiveness for sin. God extends justification to sinners based upon the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The righteousness of Jesus Christ may be attributed not just to the righteous nature of Jesus as God Himself (the second Person of the Trinity, Romans 3:21-26), but the righteousness Jesus displayed as a human being, as the chosen Christ of God (in His earthly ministry), and ultimately at Calvary (I Timothy 2:5). To stand in the righteousness of Christ, then, is to base one's relationship with God solely upon Christ's work as Messiah, as Savior; the One through whom God brings us redemption (II Corinthians 5:17-21). In this manner God is said to impute the righteousness of Christ to us; not in the sense in which we can claim that we did the righteous works He did on our behalf, but in the sense that His righteous nature and works become the reason for our salvation.

"But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared," Paul wrote to Titus, "He saved us, not on the basis of deed which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that being justified by His grace we might be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:4-7).

We are justified, pardoned from our sins, when we look to the righteousness of Christ by faith; in other words, when we see Him as God's chosen Messiah for us and believe that, because of Him and His work, our sins are forgiven. This involves a willful rejection of all that hinders our relationship with God and a willful turn to faith (called repentance - Acts 26:20, Hebrews 9:13-14), but this does not mean that we make ourselves better in order to be acceptable to God; rather, it means that we turn to God in order for Him to make us acceptable to Him. Salvation is the gracious gift of God!

However, the Scriptures, as represented by the quote from Titus above, also teach us that the righteousness of Christ is more than just pardon. God does not simply wish to impute the righteousness of Christ to us, He wishes to impart the righteousness of Christ to us. This is the sanctifying work of Christ; the righteous nature of Christ brought to us by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and imparted to our own character. This involves a cleansing from anything that is unworthy of God, that is "unrighteous" (as indicated in I John 1:9). But this also represents an imprinting of the nature of God upon our own character and spiritual nature, as indicated in the quote from Titus above (cf. Galatians 5:22-25, I John 2:29).

Paul told the Philippians that he stood in the righteousness of Christ instead of his own. But things did not end there. His new stature in Christ brought him to a pursuit that would last Paul the rest of his life (Philippians 3:12-4:1). Paul mentioned this before when he wrote that the Philippians should "work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (2:12). However, while in the second chapter of Philippians Paul is clearer about the kind of character he exhorts Christians to manifest, it is in the third chapter that he is clearest about his ultimate goal: "in order that I might attain to the resurrection from the dead" (3:11). This is the same goal Paul stated in his defense before the Roman governor Felix (Acts 24:14-15). Then Paul went on to tell Felix, "In view of this, I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men" (24:16).

The righteousness of Christ thus provides Paul with two anchors for his life. The first is the work of Christ as Messiah, a work done in the past which Paul can stand upon to be in fellowship with God. The second is in the future, the work Christ will do when He raises Paul from the dead and gives Paul a place in the new heaven and new earth; a place determined by Paul's faithfulness on earth. In other words, Paul looks ahead to the judgment seat of Christ (Acts 17:30-31). Both motivate Paul to live for Christ. Paul told the Corinthians, ". . . and He (Christ) died for all that they who live should no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf" (II Corinthians 5:15, cf. Titus 2:11-12); a thought Peter strongly affirms in his first epistle (I Peter 2:24-25, 4:1-3). On the other hand, the sure knowledge of coming judgment is also motivation to live righteously in this world. The coming of Christ means resurrection, and resurrection means judgment. "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (II Corinthians 5:11, I Corinthians 3:10-15, Matthew 25, Philippians 1:6, 2:16, 3:20-21).

To be a Christian is to be righteous. Paul told Timothy, "the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, "The Lord knows those who are His," and "Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness" (II Timothy 2:19, cf. Romans 6:12-13). The Greek word translated "wickedness" here by the NASB (adikias), while not wrongly translated, is better translated "unrighteousness" (especially in our study here); which in Christian usage is to act in a manner that is not consistent with the holy nature of God. In Philippians Paul points sadly to the unrighteousness of those who are governed by their own desires rather than by the will of God. These are those of whom Paul says, "their god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things" (3:19).

But the righteousness Paul has in mind for the Philippians is far greater than simply abstaining from indulging wrongful passions and not engaging in activities that are wrongful. "For our citizenship is in heaven from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (3:20). Paul holds before the Philippians the example of Christ in His service as Messiah (2:5-11, cf. Hebrews 12:1-2). Reverent Christians who have received the grace of their Lord go into the world with the same commitment to sacrifice and service as their Lord (Ephesians 2:8-11, John 13:1-17, Hebrews 13:12-14, I John 2:1-6, 4:10-12), resulting in deeds of righteousness.

However, this then leads to the question, if we do these righteous deeds, do we become righteous in ourselves? The answer comes from Jesus. "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for apart from Me you can do nothing" (John 15:5, italics mine). It is God who calls us to Himself, who cleanses us, who instructs us, and who enables us to do whatever we do that is righteous and pleasing to Him. Imparted, like imputed righteousness, comes not from ourselves but by God's provision, and thus by faith. Anything of merit in us brings honor to the Christ from whom it flowed (Revelation 4:9-11, 5:8-10).

First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VI, Part 2, February 1998.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.