In today’s world, the concept of righteousness is less popular than ever. Increasingly, the emphasis is shifting from right and wrong to what is felt to be socially acceptable. The result is that crime is excused, sin winked at, and guilt trivialised. Indeed, what we are seeing is the collapse of the moral fabric of society. Nor are Christian circles immune. Even in the Gospel the role of righteousness is increasingly down–played and devalued, with the corresponding result that sin, repentance and Hell are rapidly becoming redundant terms. Since the Glad–tidings are essentially the answer to Job’s question, How can man be just with God? (See Job 9: 2), it becomes imperative that each of us should be clear as to this matter of righteousness.
In Rom. 1: 16, 17 Paul writes “For I am not ashamed of the glad tidings; for it is God’s power to salvation, to every one that believes, both to Jew first and to Greek”, and then he gives the ground for his confidence: “for righteousness of God is revealed therein, on the principle of faith, to faith: according as it is written, But the just shall live by faith”. Now our salvation necessitates the exercise of God’s power. When, for example, Israel were saved out of Egypt, Pharaoh and the hosts of Egypt were too great for Israel and God had to intervene to save them. How much more so must God’s power be exercised against Satan and all who would stand to accuse the believer! In what way then is the Gospel God’s power to salvation?
Now it is of the utmost importance to note the reason that Paul gives for the Gospel to be the power of God to salvation—the stability of my soul in the presence of God depends upon it. The reason is that the righteousness of God is revealed therein. It is not that the grace of God, or that the love of God is revealed therein, but that the righteousness of God is revealed therein. Again in Rom. 3: 21 I read “But now without law righteousness of God is manifested”, and in Rom. 3: 25 “for [the] shewing forth of his righteousness”. It is that God’s righteousness (not His love, nor His grace, nor anything else, but His righteousness) is revealed, manifested, and shewn forth that is His power to salvation. It is that which gives the Gospel the power to save.
Now if the righteousness of God is the means of God exercising His power to save me, it becomes a vital necessity for me to know just what it is and how I stand before Him. To understand what the expression the righteousness of God means, however, I must first be clear as to the meaning of righteousness.
The essential idea in the word righteousness is what is right. Whatever additional shades of meaning may be involved, the root idea in every passage where the word occurs is that of a state of rightness in relation to God or man. Righteousness is thus a relative term always involving dealings or relationships with others. It describes the conduct towards another that is entirely consistent with some standard. In a word, the prime thought in righteousness is not what a person is, but what he does. When, for example, God demanded righteousness under the Law He did not say “be this and thou shalt live” but “do this and thou shalt live”, (see for example Luke 10: 28). Seeing this preserves one from the mistake of speaking of righteousness as inherent, that is, as an attribute permanently in residence in the person.
Inherent righteousness is actually a contradiction in terms because righteousness always refers to a person’s actions and not exactly to what he is. Hence, it has reference always to what is done. In contradistinction holiness refers to what a person is. I may say of a man He did the right thing. I could not exactly say of him He did the holy thing. If I speak of a righteous judge, I am basing that assessment on past actions. I can no more speak of inherent righteousness than I can speak of inherent conduct towards another. Holiness, referring to what a person is, may be inherent; righteousness never.
Now whose righteousness is Rom. 1: 16, 17 speaking about? It is not man's but God’s. In the O.T. we have man’s righteousness, or, as more often the case, the lack of it. There God demanded righteousness from man in the various relationships in which he had been set; but now in the Gospel, God no longer demands righteousness from man but reveals His own righteousness to man.
What then is God’s righteousness? In order to clarify what God’s righteousness is, it helps to firstly see what it is not, and indeed what it cannot be. It is not man's righteousness. The Lord Jesus, in Matt. 6: 33 gave this exhortation to the Jews who heard Him: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”. That advice went largely unheeded because Paul speaking of Israel says in Rom. 10: 3, 4 that “they, being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own [righteousness], have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is [the] end of law for righteousness to every one that believes”. Their own righteousness, would of course have been man's righteousness, and v3 clearly contrasts that with God’s righteousness.
This verse also brings out another important point, namely that God’s righteousness is not, as many affirm, just that which is right in God’s estimation. Those “seeking to establish their own [righteousness]” were trying to do so on the basis of meeting the standard of the Law. Now who gave the Law? Why God of course. Hence legal righteousness, if it existed, would be valid before God because He Himself gave the Law. However such righteousness would still be only man's righteousness and not God’s, whereas the whole point in Paul’s use of the expression the righteousness of God is that it is God’s and not man’s.
Again, as the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel, it must involve that which was not seen previously, or words have no meaning. Well don't we find in the Law, and in the OT in general, that which was right in God’s estimation? Of course we do! Yet Paul says that the righteousness of God was revealed, shewn forth, and manifested in the Gospel. Not in the OT, nor even in the ministry of the Lord Jesus on earth, but in the Gospel. What is revealed now, must then have previously been hidden. It was not revealed in the Law; it is revealed in the Gospel. If it had been seen before, how could it now be revealed? Hence the righteousness of God is not just what is right in God’s sight, it must involve something more.
Even in the OT where God’s righteousness is spoken of in a general way (see for example Ps. 5: 8, 35: 24) there was that which was spoken of more specifically as future: “They shall come, and shall declare his righteousness unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done [it]”, (Ps. 22: 31); “I bring near my righteousness; it shall not be far off”, (Is. 46: 13); “Thus saith Jehovah: Keep ye judgment and do righteousness; for my salvation is near to come, and my righteousness to be revealed”, (Is. 56: 1).
Now not only is it God’s righteousness and not man’s, but it is also God’s righteousness and not Christ’s, for the two are certainly not equivalent. Indeed the expression the righteousness of Christ is never found in the Bible—a striking omission by the Holy Spirit, and not without reason. You see while no lover of the Lord Jesus would think for a moment of questioning the righteousness of Christ, yet that righteousness was righteousness seen in a man. Of course everything He did met with divine approval, and every action He took was absolutely right in the sight of God. Yet it was not the righteousness of God if for no other reason than that the Gospel had not been proclaimed, and hence the righteousness of God could not have been revealed. The Lord Jesus also kept the Law in all its perfection, meeting all that God required in man, but again that was man’s righteousness and not God’s.
So what then is the righteousness of God? In Rom. 3: 21, 22 I read that “But now without law righteousness of God is manifested, borne witness to by the Law and the prophets; righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ towards all, and upon all those who believe”. In these verses I learn that entirely apart from the principle of law, which always expected something of man, something that man could do, God’s righteousness is manifested. Again, while not seen in the Law, nor in the prophets, its need is testified by them—witness again such Scriptures as Is. 46: 13 and Is. 56: 1. When righteousness was proven entirely lacking in man, then God reveals His: “for [the ] shewing forth of his righteousness, in respect of the passing by the sins that had taken place before, through the forbearance of God; for [the] shewing forth of his righteousness in the present time, so that he should be just, and justify him that is of [the] faith of Jesus”, (Rom. 3: 25, 26).
The righteousness of God is thus the revelation in the Gospel of the righteous ground on which God justifies the sinner who is of the faith of Jesus. In justifying the sinner, God acts in perfect consistency with Himself, and with His own nature—without compromise. Now it is relatively easy to see that without the Gospel, God would be perfectly righteous in damning every sinner to Hell. Yet where would be His love and His grace? The wonder of the Gospel is that God is just as right in justifying a sinner as He would be in damning him to Hell. God has sacrificed none of His righteousness in exercising His grace and satisfying His love. There has been no compromise—God has remained perfectly consistent with Himself.
Hence also, God has demonstrated His righteousness in not bringing into judgement, but rather in passing by, the sins of those of OT times, because every one of those OT sacrifices looked forward to the one great sacrifice of Christ.
Furthermore God is not only righteous, perfectly just in forgiving a sinner, but in justifying him as well—for justification is more than forgiveness. In forgiveness I am pardoned and nothing more, but in justification I am declared to be right, accounted righteous, and God is righteous, consistent with Himself, in so doing.
This now brings me at last to the title of this article: Imputed righteousness. Can God’s righteousness be imputed? Is that how the believer is accounted or reckoned righteous? Or am I accounted righteous because the Lord Jesus kept the Law for me and His righteousness in so doing is imputed to me? Let us examine God’s Word again.
We have been looking at verses from Rom. 3 which speak of the righteousness of God. Read on into the next chapter and you will continue to read of righteousness and, moreover, of it being reckoned. Now many assume that Paul is still talking about the righteousness of God. Read Rom. 4, and count how many times Paul uses the expression the righteousness of God. Not once! In Rom. 4 righteousness is reckoned or imputed, but not once is that righteousness said to be the righteousness of God. Indeed nowhere in the Bible is God's righteousness said to be imputed, (nor by the way is it anywhere said to be received by faith). God’s righteousness is never said to be imputed because it cannot be imputed. God’s righteousness is simply that God is righteous in declaring right whoever is of the faith of Jesus. It is nonsense to speak of it being possible to reckon that to the believer!
What then is imputed or reckoned righteousness? It is not that a man who is already truly righteous is reckoned to be so, for then there would be no point in righteousness being reckoned at all. Nor is it transferring from God or Christ a quantity of righteousness as some think, like the transfer of funds from one bank account to another, since what would be credit to the one, would clearly be debit to the other. It is simply holding a person right, one who is not so either in nature or practice. Righteousness imputed supposes that one is destitute of it—or else why reckon it? It is simply how God views that person. He is righteous in God’s reckoning, though not intrinsically or inherently so.
An analogous passage to Rom. 4 will make it clear. In Rom. 2: 26 I read “If therefore the uncircumcision keep the requirements of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be reckoned for circumcision?” The Gentile was uncircumcised. Yet the argument here is that if he were to keep the requirements of the Law, his uncircumcision would be reckoned for circumcision. That is, the man is accounted as circumcised when he is actually not circumcised. He is still physically uncircumcised but he is now treated as if he were circumcised. Now this is exactly the meaning of Rom. 4. The man there is viewed as being in a state in which he is not actually in. It is not that a quantity of righteousness outside himself is reckoned to him. There is not the slightest thought in Rom. 4 of conferred inward righteousness either from God or from Christ—it is simply a man who is in himself wrong being counted right in virtue of his faith.
Yet does not Paul claim to have the righteousness of God in Phil. 3: 9? Isn’t there a similar thought in 2 Cor. 5: 21? Let’s take the passages in turn.
The phrase used in Phil. 3: 9 is not the righteousness of God but the righteousness which [is] of God and that extra little word which is vital to Paul’s argument in the passage. Here he is contrasting two different kinds of righteousness—each having a different source. One would have been “on the principle of law” with its source in that; the other, which he desired to possess, would have its source in God—“which is [of] God”. It is not the righteousness of God but the righteousness which is of God. As we have seen, the righteousness of God is simply that God is just in justifying the believer. The righteousness which is of God, however, is that righteousness which is reckoned to the believer in virtue of his faith in Christ.
In 2 Cor. 5: 21, Paul does not say that we might have God’s righteousness in Christ, but that we might become God’s righteousness in Christ. The word used is quite different. As previously shown God’s righteousness is that God is righteous in justifying the believer. To become the righteousness of God is to become the display of it, and we become that as being in Christ. When we are said to be in Him, it is always where He is on the throne in glory, never on the cross. On the cross Christ was made sin with this grand objective that on the throne we might become the righteousness of God in Him. To be in Christ is to be the testimony to that righteousness in placing us there. There is no thought in this Scripture of obtaining God's righteousness, or having it imputed or imparted to us. That is simply the theological nonsense of man.