Four Aspects of Divine Righteousness, Part 3 (Fred Zaspel)
But all this presents a very real problem. God reveals Himself as a righteous God Who demands the same of us all and condemns all who do not conform. He will “by no means clear the guilty” (Ex. 34:7). The problem is obvious: how can any of us ever escape God’s wrath? How may any of us ever enjoy any blessing from God at all? There is that aspect of God’s righteousness which causes Him to faithfully reward all righteousness on the part of His creatures, and we will see that in a moment. But how can that be a realistically happy thought to any of us? Even if we could turn over a new leaf and from here on live in perfect conformity to God’s law, we still stand condemned for our past sins. If God must condemn sinners, there is, it would seem, no hope at all.
In this sense our justification is (if we can use such language) a kind of moral dilemma for God also. We cannot imagine that God will in the end somehow merely overlook our sins. This is the idea most seem to have about God, that He will eventually let bygones be bygones and all will be well. But God is righteous, and if salvation is to come at all we may be sure that it will only be in such a way that this righteousness is satisfied. This is His very nature, and He cannot deny Himself.
So here is our predicament. God demands righteousness and will surely punish all unrighteousness. He cannot do less. We have neither produced righteousness nor could we by doing so pay the penalty for past sins. By ourselves we stand hopelessly condemned before a just God.
It is here that we come to learn of God’s “redemptive” righteousness – that aspect of His righteousness by which He provides righteousness for His offending creatures.
It is a curious thing that in the OT God’s righteousness began to be spoken of as the source and ground of salvation. “Deliver me in your righteousness” (Ps. 71:2). “With righteousness He shall judge the poor” (Is. 11:4). “There is no other God besides me, a righteous God and a savior” (Is. 45:21). “My salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will not be abolished” (Is. 51:6). “Every tongue that rises against you in judgment you shall condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their righteousness is from Me, says the Lord” (Is. 54:17). “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Is. 61:10). David’s forgiveness resulted in his singing aloud of God’s righteousness (Ps. 51:14).
Perhaps more surprising, the inspired apostle describes the Christian gospel as the “revelation of the righteousness of God” (Rom. 1:17). We might expect that a message of salvation should be a message of leniency or of mercy or a waiving of the sentence. Never would we expect a message of Divine righteousness to be “good news”! How can God be “faithful and just to forgive us our sin” (1Jn. 1:9)?
This is precisely the beauty of the gospel. God will not and cannot relax His justice. Nor can He abolish it. His righteousness will not allow that. But He can, if He would so choose, provide a substitute. And herein lies the whole necessity and design of Christ’s death. God must punish sin – every sin. He cannot let one evil go without retribution. But freely choosing to save, He “spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32), and in Him the punishment of sin for all His people is fully meted out. Those for whom He died receive all its attending benefits (Rom. 8:32) and so cannot be condemned (Rom. 8:34). We go free not by a sidestepping of justice but on the ground of a full satisfaction of justice. Our sin is punished and we go free! “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). “He bore our sins in His body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:24) and thereby satisfied the demands of justice against us. God has “made Him Who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1Pet.3:18). “The Lord has laid our iniquity on Him” (Is. 53:6).
We cannot speak of God’s redemptive righteousness, then, unless we also speak of His retributive righteousness. Indeed, the nature and redemptive value of Christ’s death on the cross cannot be rightly understood apart from an appreciation of God’s retributive justice. “In the whole matter of salvation by the Mediator, God-man, there is no excellence of God, no essential property, no attribute of his nature, the glory of which is the chief end of all his works, that he hath more clearly and eminently displayed than this punitory justice.”1 God must punish all sin, and in saving His people He makes no exception. He will not compromise Himself. But instead, He Himself becomes responsible for us and bears the judgment of His own wrath. God the Son, forsaken of God the Father, suffering as a sinner under His condemnation. Jesus Christ, the sinner’s substitute, bearing the sin of many.
Still there is more. There is an exchange. He not only takes our sin, but in exchange He gives us His righteousness. In dying for us He satisfies God’s righteous demand for punishment. But He goes still further. He was not only “made sin for us” (2 Cor. 5:21); He “is made unto us righteousness” (1 Cor.1:30). Christ is “Jehovah our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6). He pays the penalty of our sin and provides us with His very own perfections. Our record becomes His, and so He dies. But His record becomes ours, and so we live.
This is what has often been referred to as Christ’s “active and passive” obedience. “Born under the law” (Gal. 4:4) He actively performed for us all that was our responsibility to perform, and in our place He suffered the full penalty due us for our sin. He is “the end of the law for righteousness” (Rom. 10:4). We are “found in Him, not having my own righteousness which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (Phil. 3:9). Christ, the substitute sinner, providing a substitute righteousness.
It is in this way that God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel. God has not sidestepped His justice. He has not saved us by overlooking our sin. He has saved us by doing for us all that was required of us. His righteousness is perfectly upheld. So righteous is God that He would not spare even His own Son as He took the sinner’s place; the punishment was administered fully. And righteousness is freely provided. God, then, is “both just and the justifier of him that believes in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26).
It is this that makes the notion of salvation by human merit so blasphemous. It is to say that Christ’s righteousness is not enough. It is to say that His death was not sufficient payment for sin. It is to say that “Christ died in vain” (Gal.2:21). And this is why the Scriptures make so much of justification “by faith” (e.g., Rom. 5:1). God cannot pronounce us righteous on the basis of our own merit, for we have not merited enough. “All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags” (Is. 64:6). To approach God on the basis of what we have done is to sidestep Jesus Christ Who alone has done enough. We can only approach God on the basis of faith in His Son, acknowledging and trusting Him as the only Savior. “The righteousness of God in the gospel is revealed by faith and nothing but faith; as it is written, ‘he who through faith is righteous shall live’” (Rom. 1:17). It is the revelation of a righteous God who demands perfection and punishes all sin. But it is also the revelation of the righteous God Who in mercy saves sinners by doing for them what He requires of them.
Ironically, this is where Paul’s opponents who were so zealous for the law fell so short of it. How could a man be righteous apart from the law? they wondered. It is the law that defines righteousness! How can a man be righteous without conformity to it? But in arguing so, they missed the obvious fact that no one has ever kept the law sufficiently for justification. To claim to be right before God on the basis of one’s own merit is to alter the standard of God’s righteousness and make it something less. But in this message of justification by faith in Jesus Christ, Who kept the law perfectly and satisfied its every demand, Paul says, “we establish the law!” (Rom. 3:31). Yes, we admit our failure to keep the law, but still we claim to be acquitted by it, for we have as our own the perfect record of our righteous substitute Who bore in our place the punishment of our sin.
It is only in “being justified by faith,” therefore, that “we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1). Peace judicially and peace of conscience. If we were to attempt to be justified by our works, we would always wonder if we had worked enough. We could never be sure. Our every sin would cause such anxiety as to make us doubt that we could ever be saved. But if God comes to us beforehand and gives us His Son and tells us ahead of time that if we will but trust Him to be for us all that God requires of us, and if we do believe on Him so, then our conscience may be at rest. We feel safe, not for what righteousness we have of our own but for Christ’s very righteousness which has been made ours. We will rest in His righteousness and not in our own, and this we do “not for curiosity, nor contention sake; but for conscience sake; that it might be quiet.”2
We must say, then, that the gospel reveals much more than God’s righteousness. It also reveals His grace. God is righteous, uncompromisingly righteous. But He is not only righteous. He is also gracious. Through the merits and works of Jesus Christ received by faith, His righteousness becomes ours.
(Originally published in Reformation & Revival Journal Volume 6, Number 4, Winter 1997)
1. Owen, vol. X, p.547.
2. Augustus Toplady, The Works of Augustus Toplady (1794; reprint, Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1987), p.164.
Fred Zaspel (Ph.D., Free University of Amsterdam) is pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel.