The Pauline Interpretation of the Christ Event: “The Righteousness of God”
Paul had only one message — "Jesus Christ, and Him crucified." 1 Cor. 2:2. He gloried in nothing save the awesome, infinite Christ event (Gal. 6:14). Like all the other New Testament writers, he was so preoccupied with explicating the cross of Christ that he had little time to dwell on subjective religious feelings. He was so thoroughly caught up in the vastness and awesome wonder of God's redemptive act that the man and any egocentric concern about his own subjective experiences were swallowed up. The impressions of a man as he stands in Glacier National Park are but a feeble illustration of what Paul felt like as he looked up to the mountain of God's righteousness.
Paul does not spend any time describing the Christ event. There is scarcely anything said about the details of Christ's life, His teachings, or the incidents of His passion. Paul is concerned with the theological significance of the cross. His gospel is interpretation rather than description.
What is Paul's distinctive interpretation of the Christ event? Unquestionably, it is "the righteousness of God."
Of course, "the righteousness of God" is not the only way in which Paul interprets the doing and dying of Christ. He also calls it a "redemption" (four times), a "propitiation" (one time) and a "reconciliation" (four times). But he uses the word "righteousness" (of God) and related nouns, verbs and adjectives (justification, justify, justified) numerous times.
. . . I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. . . . For therein is the righteousness of God revealed. — Rom. 1:16, 17 (see also Rom. 3:21, 22, 25, 26).
Let us turn our full attention to this expression, "the righteousness of God." What does it mean? The interpretation of this key Pauline phrase has a rich history. It was in 1515 that Professor Martin Luther began a series of lectures on Romans in the University of Wittenberg. Recalling the occasion some years later, he wrote:
I greatly longed to understand Paul's Epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, "the righteousness of God," because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and deals righteously in punishing the unrighteous. . . . Night and day I pondered until . . . I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before "the righteousness of God" had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway to heaven. — Luthers Works, Weimar ed. (1928), Vol.54, pp. 179f.
That insight into "the righteousness of God" launched a world-shaking movement which changed the course of history. F. F. Bruce aptly comments, "There is no telling what may happen when people begin to study the Epistle to the Romans. " — Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. R. V. G. Tasker (Eerdmans), F. F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, p.60.
Luther's insight into "the righteousness of God" being God's saving mercy is an interpretation which Luther needed at that moment of his crucial experience. His interpretation is certainly true, but it does not exhaust all that the expression means. According to Romans 3:25 (which we will discuss later), the righteousness of God can just as appropriately be taken to mean the righteousness whereby God punishes sin. Indeed, if we take the whole sweep of Romans 1:17 and 3:21, 25, 26 with its context into consideration, we will see that:
1. The righteousness of God is a righteousness which reveals wrath against all ungodliness.
2. It is a righteousness which arraigns Gentile and Jew before God's holy law and condemns them all alike.
3. Then, proceeding to Romans 3:21, it is a righteousness which intervenes in man's terrible predicament and graciously provides him a justification.
4. It is a righteousness which does not dispense with God's law, but punishes man's sin in the Person of Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:25).
5. Finally, it is a righteousness which justifies God and upholds the honor of His law (Rom. 3:26, 31).
So a whole spectrum of meanings is involved in the term, "the righteousness of God." This may be seen not only by looking at the context, but by considering the Old Testament background of the expression. Paul did not invent the expression. He did not borrow it from contemporary Hellenistic religions, nor even from the Roman law court. He drew it from the Old Testament. That is clear from Romans 3:21. He said that "this righteousness of God" is "witnessed by the law and the prophets." That is to say, it is the righteousness which the law and prophets tell us all about. Just as the Synoptic expression "kingdom of God" drives us back into the Old Testament, so the Pauline term "righteousness of God" drives us back into the Old Testament.1
The Judicial and Eschatological Meaning of the Righteousness of God
"Righteousness is for the Hebrews the fundamental character of God." Alan Richardson, An Introduction to the Theology of the New Testament, p.79. In the true character of Hebrew thinking, the concept is essentially dynamic. "The Lord is righteous in all His ways . . . " Ps. 145:17. " . . . our God is righteous in all His works. . . . " Dan. 9:14. ". . . the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." Ps. 19:9. ". . . all Thy commandments are righteousness." PS. 119:172. Scholars are quite well agreed that the Hebrew word for righteousness (sedeq) has a judicial meaning in an overwhelming number of its occurrences in the Old Testament. (This is even more true of the verb form, to justify.) It is a word that finds its setting in the law court. God's righteousness is related to His law, His divine tribunal, His office of Judge and Arbiter of human destinies.
Applied to God, the word righteousness causes us to think of Him as the God of law. The vast number of times law and its related words are connected with Jehovah proves that the Hebrews thought of Him as "One who has a deep interest in law . . . it is the way He administers His universe. He can be relied to act according to law. . . . Yahweh and law went well together. . . . The Old Testament consistently thinks of a God who works by the method of law. . . . Thus, as we approach the question of the use of justification in the Old Testament, we are dealing not with an isolated conception which appears briefly now and then, but with an idea of law which runs through and through the ancient Scriptures." — Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans), pp.255-258.
Applied to man, righteousness means conformity to the will of God as expressed in His law. God expects and demands that His people conform to His righteous rule. "The law of Yahweh is an order of life which cannot be challenged or changed." — Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. G. Kittel, Vol. 2, p.176.
In His character of Lawgiver and Judge, God will surely call all men to account before His tribunal. He will condemn and punish wrongdoers, and vindicate and deliver those who are judged to be righteous in His eyes. He is the Judge of all the earth, who will do right (Gen. 18:25). "He shall judge thy people with . . . righteousness . . . " Ps. 72:2. He is addressed as the "Lord of hosts, that judgest righteously." Jer. 11:20. Says the Psalmist, " ... He shall judge the world in righteousness . . . . " Ps. 9:8 (see also Ps. 50:6; 96:13; Isa. 5:16; Judg. 5:11).
Not only is the concept of the righteousness of God judicial,2 it is also eschatological. The hope of the Hebrews was that one day God would arise as Judge, deal with sin and wrongdoing, and set matters right. Especially did they think of this judgment as punishing Israel's enemies and bringing deliverance and salvation to the covenant people. God's covenant faithfulness (chesed)3 demanded this. Thus the Psalmist prays, ". . . .O God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew Thyself. Lift up Thyself, Thou Judge of the earth; render a reward to the proud." Ps. 94:1, 2. As the Psalmist views God rising up to judgment, he breaks forth in unrestrained joy (see Ps. 96:11-13; 67:4).
In Psalms and especially in Isaiah "the righteousness of God" means God's saving action on behalf of His people. God's gracious interposition to save the Psalmist from his enemies and Israel from Babylon is seen as a gracious act of deliverance by God's righteous judgment (see PS. 98:2; 71:15; 24:5; isa. 56:1,5; 46:13). In these passages the saving righteousness of God takes on an eschatological character.4
By the end of the Old Testament era, the Jews had lost sight of God's saving righteousness as presented so clearly in Isaiah. They even thought to bring the eschatological day of deliverance by perfect lawkeeping. "It was felt that if Israel could only keep it perfectly for a single Sabbath, Messiah would come."5
In radical opposition to Judaism, Paul revived the Old Testament doctrine of salvation through the operation of the righteousness of God. In Isaiah this is a righteousness which saves Israel in spite of her sinfulness and utter unworthiness. The Old Testament prophets speak of a redemption that depends not on Israel's works, but on the faithfulness of God alone. St. Paul revives and develops Isaiah's concept of the divine righteousness which works salvation.
To summarize: The revelation of the righteousness of God is the hope of the Old Testament. Its "Behold, the days come . . ." anticipates a day when God will arise and judge the world in righteousness. He will deal with sin, punish Israel's enemies, and bring the long-looked-for deliverance and salvation to God's people. This hope of God's righteousness judgment is given its most specific expression in the book of Daniel (ch. 7).
Paul Announces the Arrival of the Hoped-for Event
Paul does not bring a new message, but in keeping with the whole New Testament, he changes the tense. It is no longer "Behold, the days come . . .," but he announces the revelation of the righteousness of God in the now. In Romans 3:21 he declares that the fulfillment and realization of what had been promised and foretold by "the law and the prophets" is now manifested in the Christ event. Paul's announcement of the revelation of the righteousness of God is thoroughly eschatological. In his gospel he proclaims that the great eschatological event of the ages, the day of judgment, has dawned. Paul catches the significance of what Jesus meant when he said, "Now is the judgment of this world . . . . " John 12:31.
That "the righteousness of God" means the righteous judgment of God is not only seen from the Old Testament background, but from the first three chapters of Romans. This section in Romans is clearly an arraignment of Gentiles and Jews before the judgment bar of God.
. . . . the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.—Rom. 1:18.
It is therefore transparently clear that Paul's gospel is presented in the context of the righteous judgment of God. It brings us face to face with the Creator (Rom. 1:19, 20), with His tribunal, and with His law — that expression of His holy character which can never be modified or relaxed. It is only in this context that we can understand Paul's gospel.
But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things. And thinkest thou this, 0 man, that judgest them which do such things, and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? . . . 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. . . . 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. . . .) in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel. — Rom. 2:2, 3, 5, 12, 13, 16.
The reason why the Pauline doctrine of justification is not generally understood or appreciated in the contemporary church is because the church generally ignores the setting in which this gospel is proclaimed. If the gospel is cut off from its roots in the law of the Creator and the awful reality of the end-time judgment, it verily becomes "another gospel." If there is to be a restoration of New Testament gospel preaching in these last days, this "Judgment — Creator — Law" context must be recovered. John the Revelator does see such a message being sounded in these final days of the Christian era:
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment is come: and worship Him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters [the Creator]. . . here are they that keep the commandments of God [law], and the faith of Jesus. — Rev. 14:6, 7, 12.
This apocalyptic passage is a remarkable parallel to what Paul presents in Romans 1 through 3.
The Revelation of God's Righteous Judgment
We have seen how the Synoptics record Jesus' announcement of the coming of "the kingdom of God." This kingdom is somehow established by His death and resurrection, although this is not fully explained in the Synoptics. This is where Paul's "righteousness [righteous judgment] of God" complements the Synoptical "kingdom of God." Daniel 7 clearly portrays that it is only by the action of the day of judgment that the kingdom of God can be established.
In Paul's gospel God's righteous judgment of this world is shown to have taken place in the death and resurrection of Christ. The announcement of this stupendous event is made at Rome! Let us look now at this event of all events—the revelation of God's great judgment day in the Christ event.
God's Great Arraignment
With inconceivable patience God has put up with evil and the wretched impudence of men. The deception of sin has reached its height. Transgression has come to the full. The time has come for Jehovah to arise, to punish rebellion, and to vindicate the authority of His downtrodden law (Rom. 1:18-32). Even the chosen people have utterly misrepresented God by their perverted religion and by their insufferable pride and self-righteousness (Rom. 2). God rises up in flaming anger to deal with sin, to see to it that men reap what they have sown. In the great arraignment of both Gentile and Jew before the bar of eternal justice, the Gentiles are first to hear the verdict. In their insolent intellectual pride they have refused to acknowledge the Creator. The things which God has made have given clear testimony to "His eternal power and Godhead." These unthankful fools are "without excuse" (Rom. 1:18-22). Their refusal to acknowledge God has led them into social sins, to sexual sins, to uncleanness, to rottenness, and to all manner of unrighteousness (Rom. 1:23-31). They are weighed in court. They deserve to die. There is one penalty: "The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God." Ps. 9:17. Their case is hopeless indeed!
Now let us imagine the Jews watching these proceedings. This comes as no surprise to them. They have confidently affirmed that this would happen to the Gentiles on the day of judgment. In fact, they have longed, even prayed, for this to happen. So when the court declares that the Gentiles are worthy of death, they give a hearty "Amen" and applaud the verdict. They feel that if they heartily condemn these sinners, they will demonstrate their abhorrence of evil and thereby show that they are surely on God's side. Thus they hope to "escape the judgment of God" (Rom. 2:1-3). After all, do not they have circumcision and the law as tokens of the fact that they are God's favorites?
But in this judgment there are no favorites. ". . . there is no respect of persons with God." Rom. 2:11. Had not Amos the prophet warned that the day of judgment would condemn Israel too? (Amos 5:18). So it now becomes clear that not even the chosen people can escape the righteous anger of God. They are found boasting in the law, but when weighed in its just balance, they also are shown to be guilty of breaking it and blaspheming God's name (Rom. 2:17-24).
The Judge sees to it that His holy law and the moral order of the universe are upheld. There is to be no compromise with evil. The law is the standard by which all are judged. (". . . . the doers of the law shall be justified." Rom. 2:13.) Everyone who has failed to do it must be condemned.
Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in His sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. — Rom. 3:19, 20.
There is now a fearful silence in the court. It is the silence of guilt. It is transparently clear that there is "none righteous, no, not one." Rom. 3:10. There is one verdict: ". . . tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that doeth evil. . . . " Rom. 2:9. This condemnation of all men at God's tribunal is part of the revelation of the righteousness of God.
God's Great Intervention
At this juncture in the proceedings, a new dimension of "the righteousness of God" is introduced. "But now the righteousness of God . . . is manifested . . . " Rom. 3:21. These sinners are silenced, they deserve to die, but —. They are in a hopeless predicament, but —. There is none to help, but —. Since there is none to stand up for these hapless sinners, God Himself will stand up for them. His mercy is so unpredictably great that He surprises all by stepping down from the bench and standing at the side of the accused. Such a thing is undreamed of, but who can protest when all the ways of God are righteous? It is now to be seen, as taught in Isaiah, that God's righteousness is manifested in saving sinful and undeserving people.
The One who stands at the side of the accused is called an Advocate, Mediator, Pleader, Propitiator, Intercessor, a Speaker for us. This is what the Judge becomes for us in the Person of Jesus Christ. He is not only "God . . . for us" (Rom. 8:31), but "God with us. Matt. 1:23. Redemption must be accomplished by a blood brother, a next of kin. The Father gives His best and dearest to become such a One and to stand as the Representative of sinners at the bar of justice. Thus does God graciously set about to freely justify sinners by the redemption which is in Christ Jesus (Rom. 3:24).
Now this Pleader-for-us does not stand up in the court and make excuses for these sinners. He is a truthful Witness. He alone fully knows how terrible and inexcusable is their guilt. He knows that God will not, cannot change His law by a hair's breadth, even to save a universe of sinners. He knows that, to plead for sinners, He must put His own life on the line. Did not Moses put his own life on the line when he pled for sinful Israel? (Ex. 32:31, 32). Did not the high priest put his own life on the line when He went into the holy of holies to make an atonement for sinners? But what Moses and the high priest could only do in type, Jesus steps forward to do in reality. He pleads by putting His own life on the line.
In assuming the headship of the race, Christ Himself assumes the responsibility of the sins of all men. In His Person the whole sinful, rebellious world stands before the outraged law, and in His Person that guilty world must make reparations for the damage done.
Or to change the idea from representation to substitution, Christ becomes our Substitute — the Just to stand in the place of the unjust — "that He might bring us to God." 1 Pet. 3:18. Christ pleads not with mere words, but with the agony of tears and sweat and great drops of blood. "Forgive," He cries, knowing that this is only possible if He stands in the place of guilty sinners and takes the full consequences of their sins.
God's Great Wrath
For centuries God has passed over human sin without meeting it with the full punishment justice demands. But the time has fully come for God to show on what basis He has passed over former sins (Rom. 3:25). It is as if God's holy wrath against sin has been treasured up for ages, but now bursts forth upon the One who stands before justice as all the world's sin. Christ is set forth to be a propitiation for the sins of the whole world (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2). In the cross "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men." Rom. 1:18. The cross of Christ is the visible, historical manifestation of the wrath of God. In Him the punishment of the age to come (kolasin aionion — Matt. 25:46)6 is fully revealed. "This is the horror of the judgment. God is silent. A hell, deeper and hotter than anything one might imagine from myths and fairy stories about places of torment, has opened its maw, devoured God's Son, and become all victorious." — Marcus Barth, Justification (Eerdmans), p.48. Justice bends from its exalted throne and before this expiring Victim declares, "It is enough. Justice is satisfied."
In this awesome display of God's hatred of evil, the righteousness of God is revealed — a righteousness which upholds the law and punishes all sin with an exactness and impartiality which is absolutely terrifying. The righteousness of God sees to it that this is a universe wherein all debts are paid and where the rule of law is upheld.
God's Great Verdict of Acquittal
When the lips of this Pleader-for-us are sealed in death, His blood yet pleads. When the blood of righteous Abel cried for vengeance from the ground, God heard it and took swift action. When the blood of His holy Son cries from the ground, God takes action. Christ's blood speaks louder than the blood of Abel — and better (Heb. 12:24). Whereas Abel's blood cried for vengeance, Christ's pleads for mercy and acquittal.
The court adjourns on Friday afternoon for a brief Sabbath's silence to honor the finished work, the perfect atonement, of the One who poured out His soul unto death. Then it reconvenes first thing Sunday morning. Christ's death was a prayer — "Father, forgive . . . " The resurrection is God's answer to that prayer. He "was... raised to life because we are now justified." Rom. 4:25, NEB (margin).
Just as Christ's death was a demonstration of God's righteous judgment on the sin of the world, visited on Him as a means of propitiation, so His resurrection was the demonstration and proof of the acquitting righteousness of God. — Ridderbos, op. cit., p.167.
In Christ's death God has sat in judgment, judged sin, and in this way He has caused His eschatological judgment to be revealed in the present time. Christ's death was the demonstration of the judging and justifying judgment of God in the eschatological sense of the word because the old aeon and the old man were judged in Him, a justification unto life and the new creation came to light in Him as the second Adam. — Ibid., pp. 168, 169.
The Meaning of Justification
The righteousness of God in the Christ event justifies the believing sinner (Rom. 3:26, 28). Paul uses the words justify, justified and justification numerous times. It is his primary way of describing what God's righteous judgment does for believers.
There are two things we need to emphasize about the meaning of the word justify.
1. "Justify" Is a Legal, Judicial, or Forensic, Word. Three things need to be said about this:
a. To justify means to declare righteous, not to make righteous (see Luke 7:29; Rom. 3:4). It is the opposite of condemnation (Rom. 8:33, 34).
b. It is a word used in reference to trial and judgment — a word that belongs to the law court (see Deut. 25:1; Ps. 51:4; Matt. 12:37; Rom. 2:13; Isa. 5:23; Prov. 17:15). It is in every sense a verdict of the Judge. It means to be declared "righteous by divine sentence" (Shrenk), "acquitted in the judgment of God" (Ridderbos), "judged righteous at God's tribunal" (Morris).
c. Being a legal word, it is related to the law. To justify means to be "set right before the law" (Strong).
We need to be reminded that the God of biblical revelation is the God of law. Paul has often been outrageously misrepresented as an enemy of the law. Some have thought that the more they kick and despise the law, the more they imitate Paul. Thus have these "blind guides" caused antinomianism to follow Paul around "like a dark shadow" (Koberle). But when we rightly consider Paul, especially in the light of the Old Testament background, we are brought face to face with the God of law. When Morris reflects on this, he says: "Law is thus not simply a demand God makes on His people, it is the very way in which He administers His universe. He can be relied upon to act according to law." — Morris, op. cit, p.225.
Paul's doctrine of justification brings us face to face with the end-time judgment. The law is presented as the standard of that judgment (Rom. 2:13-16). Whether we look at the end-time judgment that will yet take place or the one which has taken place in the Christ event, ft is a process which honors the law. Is not the Judge's first concern to administer and to uphold the law? Isaiah prophesied that Messiah would "magnify the law, and make it honourable." Isa. 42:21. "Never was the law more highly honored than when He stood before the bar of justice to make reparations for the damage done" (Flavell). Apart from the righteous demands of God's law, the death of Christ becomes a senseless tragedy. If the law of God has no legal claims to make and if Christ was not meeting these legal (righteous) claims on Calvary, then the cross ceases to be the means whereby sin is dealt with. It becomes merely the means whereby man may be inspired to deal with sin!
Morris well says: "Today we are inclined to be suspicious of legalism. Indeed, if we can convict an opponent of too great an interest in law we are half-way to confuting him." Then he adds: "Justification . . . witnesses to the importance of law in the divine economy. That law was honored in the process whereby forgiveness was wrought." — Ibid., pp.256, 257, 293, 296. So also Denney declares, "It cannot be too often repeated that if the universal element of law be eliminated from personal relations, there is nothing left; no reason, no morality, no religion, no sin or righteousness or forgiveness, nothing to appeal to mind or conscience." — James Denney, The Death of Christ (London: Tyndale Press, 1973), p.277.
So we say that the righteous judgment of God seen in the Christ event honors the law from start to finish. "Do we then make void the law through faith?" asks Paul. "God forbid; yea, we establish the law." Rom. 3:31. We have seen that the righteousness of God condemns all sin, intervenes in man's predicament by appointing an Advocate, punishes sin with a great display of terrible justice, and justifies the believer. One more dimension is added, and it is the most glorious of all. This whole procedure shows that God is righteous (Rom. 3:26). It honors and upholds His law (Rom. 3:31). The judgment of God establishes "the kingdom [rule] of God."
Those who would presume to partake of the holy delicacies of the gospel, yet continue to despise the authority of God's law, must surely arouse God's vengeance. Justification is God's gracious verdict that sets the believing sinner right in the eyes of the law on the grounds that Christ honored it in precept and penalty on the sinner's behalf. If Christ put His life on the line to honor it so that sinners could be saved, then saved sinners will gladly put their life on the line to honor it by a life of new obedience (see Ps. 119). Salvation is not by the keeping of the law, but it is salvation to the keeping of the law.
It is the strangest anomaly that antinomians think they are pals of Paul, when the truth of the matter is that nothing establishes the law so much as the apostle's revelation of the righteousness of God (Rom. 3:31). It is certain that we today cannot revive this powerful doctrine of justification unless it be in the setting of God's judgment and God's law (see Rev. 14:6-12).
2. "Justify" Is an Eschatological Word. This is not only evident from its use in the Old Testament, but from its use in the New Testament! Because it is a word which belongs to judgment, it belongs to the verdict of the endtime judgment. This is very clear in two New Testament scriptures:
. . . for not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. . . . in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel. — Rom. 2:13, 16.
But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned. — Matt. 12:36, 37.
The Jews believed in an end-time judgment in which those approved of God would be justified. Their whole life was regarded essentially as a preparation for judgment. On God's last day, according to them, those whose good deeds outweighed their bad deeds would be justified. If the balance was equal, God, being merciful, would put His weight on the side of good deeds. The means of attaining this favorable verdict on the day of judgment was obedience to the law.
Paul's message makes a radical break from Judaism on two major points.
(1) The ground of justification at God's judgment seat is not our obedience (nor our faith, repentance, humility, or anything which is ours, for that matter), but the obedience of God's suffering Servant (Rom. 3:24, 25; 5:1, 19; Phil. 3:5-9; etc.).
(2) Paul proclaims the astounding fact that the judicial verdict has already been settled for the man of faith. The resurrection is the seal and proof of this (Rom. 4:25). Thus the future eschatological verdict has become a present possession to the man of faith. He is therefore sure of deliverance from the wrath of God (Rom. 5:9) and rejoices in the certain prospect of glorification at the consummation of the age (Rom. 8:11, 30).
The sole ground of justification is God's righteous judgment which took place in the Christ event. This justifying action took place in Jesus Christ, outside of us and independent of us. It was an event completely objective to us. Like the other great Pauline expressions describing the Christ event — redemption, propitiation, reconciliation — justification does not mean something done in us, but that which is done for us and in our interest. "Man is justified because Christ died. . . . something took place exterior to man in the process whereby his salvation was effected."—Morris, op. cit, p.301.
Yet this is not presented by Paul as a one-sided objectivity which is divorced from experience. The most objective expressions of Paul (righteousness of God, redemption, propitiation, justification) are always connected with the subjective experience of faith (see Rom. 1:16,17; Rom. 3:21-26). The achievement and declaration of salvation are never separated from the appropriation of salvation by faith. It is impossible to separate God's justifying action which took place at the cross from personal justification through faith. Therefore it is true to say, "Christ did all this for us that we might believe," and, "Christ did all this for those who believe." Without faith we have no interest in the benefits of the Saviour's work.
In no sense is God's gift of justification something done in man. We may correctly say that the righteousness of God in the Christ event is communicated to the believer by imputation (Rom. 4), but it is scandalous to say that it can be communicated to us by impartation (infusion).7 The righteousness of God is a once-for-all event which took place 2,000 years ago. Even God Himself cannot reenact it outside of us, to say nothing of doing it in us. But what Christ did He did as our Substitute. Therefore His life was really my life, and His death my death. God counts them as mine. That is what justifies. Or to put it another way, what He did He did as my Representative, so that I lived and died and rose again in Him.
Substitution means that when Christ lived, He lived for me, and when He died, He died for me. Representation means that I lived in Him and died in Him. Since all this was done for me (substitution) and since I did it in Him (representation), I can rightly claim it as mine. God reckons it mine. This is no legal fiction, but a legal reality, for we are dealing in the category of legal rights from beginning to end. The gospel proclaims these rights which have been won by Christ and which may be accepted by "faith without the deeds of the Law".
Whereas in Romans 3 through 5 Paul sets forth the substitutionary and representative work of Christ which is imputed to all who believe, in Romans 6, 7 and 8 he explains what it means to have faith in God's righteousness.
First, faith means being baptized (incorporated) into Christ's death and resurrection (Rom. 6).
Second, it means being married (united in spiritual union) to Jesus Christ (Rom. 7).
Third, it means having the Spirit of Christ within us (Rom. 8).
The first delivers us from the dominion of sin. The second delivers us from the bondage of legalism. The third sustains us in suffering through the warfare against the old sinful nature. This is sanctification (faith working by love), and it is the fruit of justification. The Christian life and experience are not the gospel, but the fruit of the gospel. They cannot be put in the room of the gospel, and they must not be confused with what Paul calls "the righteousness of faith."
1 "The background for the Pauline doctrine is the Old Testament." George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Eerdmans), p.43. "Terminologically the whole expression 'the revelation of the righteousness of God' is derived from Judaism." Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Introduction to His Theology, p.164.
2 "Terminologically the whole expression 'revelation of the righteousness of God' is derived from Judaism, inasmuch as here, too, the concept 'just' or 'justice' was understood in close connection with the judicial pronouncement in the divine judgment." — Ridderbos, op cit., p.164.
3 Chesed is the Hebrew word which has the idea of faithfulness, loyalty, steadfast love. It is related to the covenant whereby the Lord became "married" to His people.
4 For a fuller discussion of the eschatological nature of God's righteousness in the Old Testament, see George Eldon Ladd, The Pattern of New Testament Truth, pp.93, 94; Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, pp. 441f.; Ridderbos, op. cit., pp. 161-166; Kittel, op. cit., vol.2, pp. 174f.; Richardson, op cit., pp.79-83.
5 John Bright, The Kingdom of God, p.175.
6 Aionios means age to come (see Richardson, op. cit., pp.73, 74). Christ's death was the revelation of God's "everlasting punishment," or punishment of the age to come. In Matthew 25:46 kolasin aionion is translated as "everlasting punishment" in the A.V. aionios really means age to come (see ibid.). Christ's death was the revelation of the punishment of the age to come. compare also "wrath to come" in Matthew 3:7.
7 James Buchanan (The Doctrine of Justification) is certainly right when he argues that God's righteousness provided for us in the doing and dying of Christ can only be imputed, for it is a historical event, both infinite and unrepeatable. This is not to deny the necessity of the impartation of the communicable attributes of the divine nature through the gift of the Holy Spirit. But this impartation of God's righteous character must not be confused with the Pauline artIcle of "the righteousness of faith."