On What is Christian Righteousness Based?

My last post looked at the question of whether righteousness requires the law for a properly biblical understanding of it. I concluded that Scripture shows examples of righteousness before the law’s arrival, and outside the ethnic boundaries of its recipients (Israel.) Given this, what then is the basis for God to declare believers in Jesus as righteous? Must there be some foundation that is real, that ties back to the accomplishment of Jesus in his law-keeping. As one interlocutor asked:

What is this righteousness? Where does it come from? Is it just a declaration? Or is it an actual righteousness? If the latter, how is it defined.

This presents the question in a false dichotomy. Either righteousness is actual or it is only a declaration, (not genuine.) But it places conditions on God’s reckoning that are unwarranted. God, uniquely, is the one who creates ex nihilo—out of nothing, if he so chooses. As we read from the start of Genesis, “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.” God spoke the world into existence. When it comes to Abraham and the birth of Isaac, it is a similar thing. “as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” Rom 4:17

In short, had God determined to base our righteousness on his declaration alone—it would be entirely valid for him to do so, it would be every bit a real righteousness. We cannot say that it would not accord with his justice, because who but God himself can define what is just? It is his prerogative to declare something so, to speak it into existence.

But, we can look beyond this to see that the righteousness we have is in fact based on something, and that is the death of Jesus.  As a preliminary, it is important to note that justification is the same as a declaration of righteousness. That is, one who is justified is righteous. In his book Perspectives Old and New: The “Lutheran” Paul and His Critics Stephen Westerholm has engaged in a tongue in cheek exercise to demonstrate this.

Justification = Righteousness applied

“When God says “Let there be,” there is. When we say “Let there be,” we may, for the sake of argument, imagine that there is.

“Let there be an (indeclinable) English adjective ‘dikaios’ whose occurrence corresponds strictly with that of the Greek adjective δικαιος  in the letters of Paul. And let there be an English noun ‘dikaiosness’ and an English verb “dikaiosify” (passive: ‘to be dikaiosified’) whose occurrence corresponds precisely with that of the Greek words δικαιοσύνη and δικαιόω (passive δικαιόομαι), respectively, in Paul’s writings. Greek ἄδικος will then be ‘undikaios’; ἀδικία, ‘undikaiosness.'”[1]

In subsequent pages of the book, Westerholm uses these terms such as “having been dikaiosified by Christ’s blood.” Westerholm’s patois shows the connection between justify and righteous that is apparent in Greek, but hidden in English. This becomes important when we consider the statements Paul makes about the basis of our justification.  Taking Romans texts in order, Paul says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Rom 3:23-24. We are made righteous by his grace, as a gift. It is freely given. A few verses on, he says “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” Here, we are justified—dikaiosified—by faith apart from works of the law. This is one of the many spots where Paul disavows any place for law, works of the law, or keeping of the law as having a part in justification.

I have heard the objection: “Of course, but Paul is speaking of our keeping of the law, of our works, which will always be insufficient.” But where does Paul ever say that it is Christ’s law-keeping that forms the basis of our right standing before God? N.B., that Jesus lived a sinless life and that “he offered himself without blemish to God” is a given. But this is not at all the same as saying that his keeping of the Mosaic law forms the basis of the righteousness God imputes to us. Paul doesn’t say that the reason God is able to gift his righteousness to us is because he can look at the keeping of the law by Jesus as providing the real and substantive basis for righteousness. In fact, in several places he denies that law as a principle, as a category, has any role in justification. Gal 3:21 is a clear reference. “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.”

A bit before this, Paul also said “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” Gal 2:21. As I noted in the last post, Pau; makes no exceptions here, doesn’t say “except, of course, for Christ’s law-keeping. This would revise Paul as saying “I do not nullify the grace of God, for since righteousness comes by his keeping of the law, he died to apply that law-keeping to us.” But that is of course very far afield of what the apostle actually says.

Continuing on in Romans, Paul says “It [righteousness] will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” Rom 4:24-25. Here, again, we have righteousness credited to us by faith, for those who believe, and at the end of the verse, that Jesus was raised for our justification, for our righteousness. It is, I think, uncontroversial that the resurrection of Jesus is a necessity for eternal life. All who I interact with on this topic agree with this.

Nothing is changed if we view faith only as the instrument of our justification, the means by which justification is applied to us. It still does not mean that law forms the basis of the righteousness God credits to us.

Made righteous by His blood

Finally, Romans 5:9 “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.” His blood is the ground of our justification, our righteousness. It is plain that what Paul refers to here is the death of Jesus, for the verse just previous to this says “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Returning to Westerholm, he comments on what he calls “ordinary” dikaiosness and “extraordinary” dikaiosness. Even if you disagree with those designations, what he says about them is borne out by the text.  It would be unsurprising if someone were declared righteous because he kept the law. This would be expected—ordinary. So in Rom 2:13 Paul says “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.” Of course they would be, they’ve performed what the law required.

“Whereas in 2:13 the dikaiosified are those whose dikaiosness is recognized by God on the basis of what they have done (they are ‘doers of the law’), something quite different must be meant in 5:9 where ‘sinners’ (who have just been contrasted with the person who is dikaios, and, indeed, whose very status as sinners depends on the validity of the unmet requirement of ordinary dikaiosness) are said to be dikaiosified on the basis of Christ’s death.”[2]

This highlighting of the death of Christ points out the one sense in which his law-keeping is imputed to us. The law said “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Deut 27:26, cited in Gal 3:10. And, a bit later, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” His death fulfilled the laws demand, in that he died the death of a law-breaker, though he was sinless. This aspect of his substitution is what is credited to us.

Atonement provides the basis for God’s justice

Mark Seifrid notes that part of God’s justice is the punishment of sin. Paul began Romans by speaking of the wrath of God revealed against unrighteousness. And the cross is a revelation of God’s wrath against sin. “The cross is the prolepsis of that day of judgment, when God’s contention with the world comes to its conclusion. In justifying the sinner God does not set aside his contention with humanity. He brings it to completion in his own Son.”[3] When God justifies sinners who put faith in Christ, he remains just because sin has been atoned for in the person of Christ. He is just and the justifier. This justification is no mere declaration, nothing artificial or contrived about it. It is based on the death of Jesus, the sinless One.

Westerholm’s point, too, is that the righteousness believers have is the “extraordinary” kind, it’s not what one would expect because it is not based on law-keeping, full stop. It is because of the death of Christ. His payment for our sin makes it possible for God to be just, in that he has indeed punished sin in the person of his Son, but he is also the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. This righteousness, this dikaiosness, having no reliance on law is all over Romans, as Paul had announced it in 3:21-22.

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Rom 3:21-22. What God imputes to us is true righteousness, not man-made, not the reward of law-keeping, because is God’s righteousness.

My point in all of this is that when God looks at Christians, he does not say, “Ah, here is one who has kept the law, (in the person of my son) who has done its deeds, and therefore is righteous.” Our righteousness is apart from law. Is such a righteousness not really righteousness because law does not play a part in it? On the contrary, how could God’s own declaration of our right standing before him be anything but real?

[1] Stephen Westerholm, Perspectives Old and New: The ‘Lutheran’ Paul and His Critics, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2004), 262.

[2] Westerholm, 274.

[3] Mark Seifrid, Christ, Our Righteousness: Paul’s Theology of Justification. NSBT.
(Downers Grove: Apollos, 2000), 65-66.

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