The Epistles of Paul on the Righteousness of God
by George Smeaton
AS Peter is called the apostle of hope, and John of love, Paul may be called the apostle of faith, or more strictly, of the righteousness of faith. Paul develops and applies the doctrine the doctrine of the atonement in a full, comprehensive manner. Even though he was not a disciple of Christ when Jesus taught in the days of His flesh, Paul was still taught by the revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. i. 12), and even caught up into paradise to hear unspeakable words (2 Cor. xii. 4). Apart from this, he was led by the Spirit into the import of the law and the prophets, and there found the truth which his nature needed, and which was all verified in the Lord’s atoning death. He reproduces the doctrine in many new lights, from the objective truth opened up to him in the Old Testament, and from his own deep experimental acquaintance with Christ as the end of the law.
As to the order of conducting the inquiry, we purpose to take the epistles in the order in which they stand in the common editions of the Bible. The advantage obtained by following the chronological order in which the epistles are supposed to have been written—for there is by no means a complete uniformity of opinion on their exact order—will not compensate for the inconvenience of departing from the well known arrangement. Rather we abide by it because we can discover no trace of any development of Paul’s views from one stage to another: he was like himself from the moment when he died to the law by the reception of Christ (Rom. vii. 4,9). Not that his epistles are all alike; but they take their color from the circumstances and prevalent sentiments in the various churches.
While the apostle makes use of all the terms employed by the other writers, such as redemption, propitiation, peace, and the like, descriptive of Christ’s sacrificial death, there is one peculiar to him, THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD, which very frequently occurs. Though announced in the prophets, and indirectly alluded to by Peter and John in their use of the designation “the Righteous One,” it is specially found in Paul, who uses this abstract expression to describe the atonement in relation to divine law.
I purpose in this section to consider somewhat fully the righteousness of God, and to group together the Pauline doctrine on the subject. Amid the manifold negations of the times, it cannot be without its use to give a new grounding to this important expression. That a great change has entered in the mode of viewing the righteousness of God, compared with the general recognition which it received in all the Protestant churches, cannot be doubtful to any one who has watched the changes of opinion on the subject of the atonement. This was long the descriptive name for the material cause of a sinner’s acceptance with God. The task we impose on ourselves is to ascertain the import of the phrase, “the righteousness of God,” and to define the place which it occupies in the Pauline epistles; and we aim at an objective statement, embodying the results of exegetical inquiry, more than a formal discussion of the opinions which have appeared on the ecclesiastical field, though we cannot omit all notice of recent views fundamentally opposed to the proper meaning of the terms. We wish to go direct to the apostles, except where it is indispensably necessary to refer to recent obscuring theories. The task of reproducing apostolic doctrine in its true significance and organic connections, is becoming an urgent duty; and the part assigned to exegetical theology is to recall, as far as may be, not only single phrases, but the general outline of those truths by which the apostles, as the chosen organs of Christ’s revelation, exhibited in the church the riches of divine grace as seen in the incarnate Word, and unfolded to them after His ascension.
An occasion for a full inquiry into the righteousness of God will be found also in the fact that a large class of minds betray a hesitancy which contrasts painfully with the liberty and boldness which marked the days of the apostles. This attaches to not a few who are truly occupied with the personal Redeemer and the contemplation of the divine Life, but stop short of defining the mode in which THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD stands related to LIFE in the Pauline scheme of doctrine. They evince little interest indeed as to the relation of these points to each other, seeking the fellowship of life with Christ without distinct ideas as to the indispensable conditions of this communion. Under the influence of what can only be called a mystic element, limiting the regard to Christ IN US, and failing to give prominence to Christ FOR US, they never breathe freely the liberty of the gospel. They have fallen under a scheme of doctrine which makes no distinction between the person and the nature, the standing of the man and the renovation of the heart, the objective and the subjective; and though correctly regarding the person of Christ as the center point of Christianity and the fountain of life, they do not know how Life stands related to Righteousness—a thought pervading the whole Pauline doctrine.
Our first inquiry must be to ascertain the precise import of the righteousness of God in the Pauline epistles, and the place it holds in them. A comparison of these epistles with one another shows that there are two divisions or classes, with their own marked peculiarity, according as the apostle has occasion to counteract a Jewish Legalism, or a tendency to an incipient Gnosticism, invading the Christian churches while he yet lived. To the pharisaic cast of thought, with its attachment to the works of the law, and the enforcement of legal ceremonies as necessary, allusion is made in the Epistles to the Galatians, Romans, and Philippians; and there the righteousness of God is the central thought. To the oriental theosophy, with its claim to a higher wisdom, which put notions in the place of the personal Redeemer, allusion is made in the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians (Col. ii. 8). There the personal Christ, and the life found in Him, are the central thoughts. But even there LIFE is viewed as subsequent to, and dependent on, the atonement. To the former class of the Pauline epistles we direct our attention in this section. And our purpose is to notice the place which THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD holds in them; for this phrase, as we shall find, is descriptive of the finished work of Christ, as approved at the divine tribunal, and the meritorious cause of our acceptance.
Throughout the doctrinal part of the Epistle to the Romans, the righteousness of God, as a descriptive name for the atonement, is the grand theme. The Epistle to the Galatians, again, is nothing else than an enforcement of the great truth, that to the close of the Christian’s career, the righteousness of faith is the one plea valid before God; and no second recommendation or condition, in the form of works, is of any avail (Gal. ii. 21, iii. 21, vi. 5). In the Epistles to the Corinthians we find the same theme in the same antithesis, with this difference only, that other points required attention in this church (1 Cor. i. 30; 2 Cor. iii. 9). But when the apostle contrasts the two economies, the law is called the ministry of condemnation, and the gospel the ministry of righteousness. In the Epistle to the Philippians we find Paul, when very near the close of his career, still counting all things but loss for this righteousness, and far from having outlived this thought, which coloured his ideas in prospect of approaching martyrdom (Phil. iii. 9). We find allusion to the righteousness of God also in the pastoral epistles (Tit. iii. 5–7).
Having seen how prevalent is the reference to the righteousness of God in the Pauline epistles, we have next to consider in what it consists. And here it will be necessary to clear up some misconceptions.
1. The phrase cannot be held to refer to the divine attribute of righteousness. Divine justice, reflected in the law, is indeed the rule or standard on which, in a definite sense, the righteousness of God is measured; but this righteousness is not the divine attribute itself. The expression is uniformly introduced in Scripture as descriptive of what is due from man, or as the ethical response on man’s side to a divine claim. It is a name for that which Adam should have rendered, and not a divine perfection. Some faint color seems to be lent to the idea that it may be the divine attribute by the apparent connection—though it is but apparent—between the two statements in two successive verses: “The righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel;” and, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness” (Rom. i. 17,18). But the two statements, though placed in close juxtaposition, and apparently connected by a causal particle (gar), belong to two wholly different economies, and have nothing in common. The tacit thought is: All alike need the provision of the gospel, and must repair to it; FOR they have nothing to expect but a revelation of wrath on their own account. The mode of expounding this phrase by allusion to the divine attribute was in reality overcome at the Reformation. Luther tells us that, having long had a desire to understand the Epistle to the Romans, he was always stopped by the expression “the righteousness of God,” which he understood as the divine attribute; but after long meditations, and spending days and nights in these thoughts, the nature of that righteousness which justifies us was discovered to him; upon which he felt himself born anew, and the whole Scriptures become quite a different thing. It is evident, indeed, that there can be no allusion to the divine attribute of justice, because this would furnish the idea of an incensed God, which is the purport of the law; whereas the provision is one of grace, displaying a reconciling and justifying God, which is the essence of the gospel. Besides, such an acceptation as that which we oppose would not adapt itself to the general phraseology of Scripture. Thus, in the memorable passage which represents Christ as made sin that we might be made the righteousness of God, it is evident that in no sense of the terms, and with no propriety of language, could it be said of the Christian that he is made the attribute of righteousness (2 Cor. v. 21). The fact, too, that it is commonly put in antithesis to our own righteousness (Phil. iii. 9), determines the significance of the expression to be something different from the divine attribute. The only part which the divine justice acts in this matter is, that it furnishes the rule or standard by which it is tried. When this righteousness is called a gift (Rom. v. 17), and said to be of God, or divinely provided, in contrast with that which is of the law and our own (Phil. iii. 9), the idea is, that for those who have no righteousness of their own this is the gracious provision of God.
Attempts have been made, however, to explain the phrase in a mystic way, by referring it to Christ’s essential righteousness as a divine person. This notion, propounded by Osiander, and restored by some men of mystic tendencies, separates the one indivisible work of Christ into two parts, allowing pardon to be procured by Christ’s atoning blood, but maintaining that righteousness is the communication of Christ’s essential attribute. That argues a complete misconception of Christ’s mediatorial work, which was meant to bring in what was due from man as a creature, and has everything in common with what the first man should have produced. The essential righteousness belongs to God as God, and to the Son of God as a divine person. But the righteousness of which the apostle speaks is that which was required from man as man, and which a Mediator, as our substitute, brought in to meet our wants; and though this could be brought in only by a God–man, uniting the two natures in one person, the whole is properly a created, not an uncreated, a human, not a divine righteousness. The supreme Lawgiver did not demand the essential righteousness of God, but what was proper to a creature made in the likeness and image of God. And it consists in action, not in the mere possession of a perfect nature. Adam had the pure nature, but failed in rendering the righteousness. But neither is it mere outward action or outward deed, but a perfect nature acting itself out, or approving itself to the Lawgiver by a compliance with the law in the sphere of tried obedience.*
* See Thomasius' able discussion on the views of Osiander in his two University Lectures, de obedientia Christi activa, Erlangen 1846.
We have only to examine the language of Scripture to see that the righteousness of God of which Paul so often speaks is not His essential righteousness: for God does not demand from man His own essential righteousness, but that which is competent to a creature; and the righteousness of created beings corresponds to the thought of God and the will of God, from whom they derive their origin. The creature’s destiny is to bear the impress of the divine perfections in its sphere. Such would have been Adam’s righteousness had it been verified (v. 12), that which the creature owes to the Creator, not that which the Creator Himself possesses. This will appear from the general phraseology of Scripture (Rom. x. 3).
2. Another opinion, much more common than the former, is that the righteousness of God denotes an inward righteousness, on the ground of which, whether it is already perfect or not, God pronounces men righteous by a judicial sentence. This is the interpretation given by Meander, Olshausen, and others; and it is still accepted by not a few believing men in various churches, though not to the same extent as formerly Lipsius,* in his treatise on the Pauline view of justification, contends that the word never refers merely to an objective relation, but always to an inward condition as well, sometimes delineated in its principle, and sometimes in its future perfection. We must do these writers the justice to state, that by this they do not mean a justification by works. While they interpret it as the inner righteousness which God works, and represent it as so pleasing to God, that on account of it He pronounces men righteous, though not yet completely perfect, they avoid the abyss of legalism, and lay stress on the faith which unites us to the person of Christ as the Life. This view has everything in common with the doctrine of Augustine and the Jansenists on the same subject; drawing a distinction between a man’s own righteousness (Phil. iii. 9), as undertaken in the exercise of his unaided powers, and that which is “of God,” interpreted as meaning produced by divine grace. This, they think, is the import of the expression “the righteousness of God.”
* Die Paulinische Rechtfertigungslehre, von Dr. Lipsius, Leipzig 1853.
But the antithesis between our own righteousness and that which is called the righteousness of God is different. It is between that which is subjective (our own) and that which is objective (God’s.) The opinion we are controverting, though different from legalism, and speaking of salvation by faith, is at variance with the Pauline doctrine, as will appear by two considerations. (1.) The objective relation expressed by the term stands out in bold relief when we consider the peculiar antithesis between Christ made sin for us, and believers made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. v. 21). These words intimate that, in the same sense in which Christ was made sin—that is, objectively and by imputation—in that sense are His people made the righteousness of God. Nor is the sense different in another passage, where the apostle contrasts the going about to establish a personal righteousness, and submitting to the righteousness of God (Rom. x. 3); or when he declares that he wishes to be found in Christ, not having his own righteousness, but the righteousness which is of God (Phil. iii. 9). It cannot be alleged that the antithesis in the latter passage is between works of nature and works of grace, works of law and works of faith. (2.) It obliterates the distinction between the person and the nature and the standing in the first or second Adam, with which the whole Scripture is replete. It confounds righteousness and life, which are ever carefully, the one being the way to the other. This is conclusive against the interpretation, if we would abide by the apostle’s use of language, and not efface his express distinctions.
3. Another opinion is, that faith itself is counted as the Righteousness. There are various modifications of this opinion; but none of them supposes an objective righteousness of God that has been wrought out, and then revealed in the gospel; and in almost every case it throws the mind back on itself in a neonomian tendency. (Neonomianism is the theory that the gospel is a law that takes the place of Mosaic law.)
a. To begin with that phase of it which is simply Arminian, or that has everything in common with Arminianism, the act of faith is made this righteousness. The answer is obvious: Faith, in that case, is transformed into a new law, whereas we are accepted without works of law. Besides, this theory assumes that God accepts an imperfect title for a perfect, by accommodating His right to man’s inability; an interpretation which, if carried out to the full, is derogatory to the divine law, and fitted to explode the whole redemption work of Christ. If the divine law can be relaxed by God’s receding from His rights, why may He not recede to a yet larger degree, and wholly supersede the necessity of the incarnation and atonement? The inflexible strictness and immutable claims of the divine law are taken for granted by the atonement. This view was advocated by Tittmann,* who remarks that Scripture does not teach that the righteousness of Christ is imputed to men, but that faith is counted for righteousness. Though this has some color from expression, the expression, “Faith is counted for righteousness,” it loses this when the phrase is properly rendered. It should be rendered, “Faith is counted unto righteousness,” expressing the result, and lends no countenance to the notion that a substitute is accepted for a perfect righteousness. The righteousness of God is made ours through faith as the means of reception (Rom. iii. 22). But, on the other theory, how can the sentence of the Judge have a sufficient ground? A method of acceptance, without a real righteousness which can be measured on the divine claims, neither meets the requirements of God’s justice nor satisfies an awakened conscience.
* See his treatise, de obedientia Christi ex apostoli Pauli sententia, appended to his Synonyms (p. 311). Nitzsch, in his protestantische Beantwortung der Symbolik Dr. Möhler, p. 139, adopts the same conclusion, and commends Tittmann's Essay.
b. A modification of the same view, decidedly in a neonomian tendency, though of a subtle nature, is proposed by an ingenious opponent of the vicarious sacrifice. It is alleged that Christianity makes known the absolute forgiveness of sin without atonement as its procuring cause, and that the belief of this offer is considered as righteousness. Faith is thus supposed to be God–pleasing conduct, and accepted as righteousness. When a man renders this obedience, his conduct is pleasing in God’s sight, and reckoned for righteousness.* Apart from other considerations, this theory supposes not a real, but a merely putative righteousness; and thus the foundation of acceptance is completely undermined.
* See Hofmann's Schriftbeweis, i. p. 649. This perverts the idea of faith. Instead of making faith simply receptive, he makes it conduct, or verhalten, getting a reward!
4. Another opinion prevalent, is to the effect that the righteousness of God denotes the state of being justified. Not to mention names in the last age, this view was held by Stuart of Andover, and Wieseler* on Galatians. The latter makes it the state into which the Justified are brought, or the condition of possessing Justification. This view, though certainly nearer the truth the others already mentioned, is faulty: first, because it is not the precise interpretation of the term righteousness; and next, because it transposes the order of biblical doctrines. Righteousness is represented in the Pauline scheme of doctrine as the basis, or material cause, of the sentence of justification, not conversely. So far, indeed, is this view correct, that it makes allusion to our relation Godward, not to moral conduct; but it fails to bring out the substantive character of the righteousness, as consisting in tried obedience. The term righteousness, as we shall see, does not in any passage mean the state of justification. If the state of justification does not proceed on an underlying righteousness as its basis, we are lost in the mists of uncertainty. The divine rectitude insists, and cannot but insist, on a true fulfillment of the divine law, and acquits on no other ground than on the presentation of an actual obedience. But, on this theory, what is assumed as the material cause of justification? No one can be justified, in the government of a righteous God, by a connivance at defects, or by being accounted what he is not by a mere make–believe. Scripture everywhere shows that God demands a real, substantive righteousness.
* Commentar uber den Brief an die Galater, von Dr. Karl Wieseler, 1859. He says, p. 177: "The act by which God dikaioi the sinner Paul calls dikaiwsiV (Rom. iv. 25, v. 18), and the state of possessing this dikaiwsiV of God he calls dikaiosunh qeou, which therefore, like the dikaiousqai, comes from faith (Rom. i. 17)," etc. This is a complete confusion of ideas.
These are all baseless theories, and lead to the notion of an acceptilation, that is, to the reputing of one to be what he is not. A complete righteousness, objectively brought in, on these theories, exists no longer. If so, faith wants its security, and rests on no corresponding reality. We must now ascertain the precise meaning of the phrase against these modern comments, which to a large extent declare that faith is taken for the righteousness, without any underlying reality. They may be in keeping with modern notions as to Christ’s atonement; but our aim is to investigate the biblical import of the expression. Having canvassed the subject negatively, it remains that we investigate it positively from the apostle’s words.
1. An analysis of the apostle’s language suffices to show that this righteousness is an actually accomplished fact; not less a historical reality than sin, and as productive of results, but in an opposite direction. These two terms throw light on each other. That this righteousness is the finished work of Christ, considered from the view–point of the divine approval, may be proved from the fact that it is presented to us as the great subject–matter of the gospel. It is said to he revealed (Rom. i. 17), and the righteousness must exist if it is revealed. The same thing may be argued from the title given to the gospel as the ministry of righteousness (2 Cor. iii. 19): for how could an economy be instituted to proclaim what did not exist? When it is called the gift of righteousness (Rom. v. 17), and described as a provision unto all and upon all them that believe (Rom. iii. 22), we must conclude that it exists.
That the righteousness of God is an actual reality, is proved by the twofold parallel which the apostle draws between sin and righteousness, and between the death which is the result of the one, and the life which is the equally certain result of the other (Rom. i. 18– iii. 18, and Rom. v. 12–18). If we consider these counterparts, we shall find that the apostle places sin and righteousness in marked antithesis. In entering on the description of the prevalence of sin, he not only displays the wants of mankind, but exhibits the two great counterparts of sin and righteousness as equal realities,—the one as the world’s ruin, the other as its restoration. The one is a completed fact as well as the other. They are the only two great events or facts in the world’s history, and they confront each other.
At this point we may consider the peculiar shade of meaning which the phrase acquires when put in connection with God. Why is it designated GOD’S righteousness, or the righteousness of God? Modern interpreters generally understand that it is so called because God was its author, as Christ is also called the Lamb of God because God was the provider of the Lamb. We regard it as only a briefer expression of what is more fully described as the righteousness which is of God (Phil. iii. 9). The fact that the phrase is contrasted with our own righteousness leads us to conclude that it means the righteousness of which God is the author. The interpretation long given by the Lutheran divines, that it denotes a righteousness valid before God, is more a paraphrase* than a translation, though a legitimate inference: for the righteousness will be valid at God's tribunal, if He was its author. But that is rather a secondary idea involved in the other.
* Luther's rendering of dikaiosunh qeou is, Gerechtigkeit die vor Gott gilt, or in the Latin form, justitia qua valet apud Deum; and Calvin goes in the same direction, though admitting the force of the rendering, justitia qua a Deo nobis donatur. Recent expositors pretty unanimously concur in viewing the phrase as an instance of the genitivus auctoris, and regard this as the strict grammatical construction. Fritzsche, in his exact philological commentary, tries to vindicate Luther's rendering, but without success. The appeal to Jas. i. 20 is not in point.
2. The manifestation of this righteousness as a historic fact is next noticed: “Now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested” (Rom. iii. 21). This refers to its manifestation as a historic fact in the incarnation and finished work of Christ. The allusion is not so much to its revelation in the gospel, as to the bringing in of the righteousness once for all by Christ’s manifestation in the flesh The language used by the apostle shows that it is coincident with the person of Christ, and found in Him. It is one of those terms—and they are various—descriptive of the obedience of Christ in the manifoldness of its aspects and ejects. The personal Redeemer crucified is Himself the manifestation of the righteousness of God; and though it was completed with His finished work when He expired, and is not capable of addition, it is not to be denied that His living through death was necessary to the perpetuity of this righteousness of God. It was valid at death, but it is found in the person of the Lord (1 John ii. 2). It is no transitory, past, or putative righteousness, but one actually in the world, and the only great reality in it; a righteousness for man, because the Lord Jesus, as very man, brought it into Humanity. And when the Judge beholds His Son clothed with our humanity, and presenting the righteousness of God, then follows the re–adjustment of man’s relation to his Maker, the reunion of God and man.
But the apostle is careful notice that this righteousness was witnessed by the law and the prophets (Rom. iii. 21). First, as to the law, the sacrifices had special reference to it; and whether we look at the temple or at its services, at its priesthood, or the sacrificial blood that flowed in streams from age to age, we find a testimony to this righteousness. The law, too, in its moral aspect held up a lofty standard, which found no corresponding reality in any human heart, but pointed forward to Him who should one day come, saying, “Thy law is within my heart” (Ps. xl.). It testified in both its elements foreshadowing good things to come, and pointing out, at least when Israel was in their normal condition, the readjusted relation of man to his Maker. As to the prophets, moreover, their expressions as to this righteousness are often as precise as Paul’s own words (Isa. xlv. 24, liv. 17, xlvi. 13). The apostle alludes to the testimony of the law and the prophets, to make it evident that this righteousness. of God was no new, unheard–of doctrine, with which the church had no acquaintance in past ages; and in receiving it, men did not depart from Moses and the prophets, but embraced what had before been announced. It was no abrupt phenomenon, for which there had not been a preparation; for the Old Testament, in all its parts, bore testimony to the righteousness of God.
3. The standard of this righteousness is divine justice and the law of God. Righteousness in a creature is measured by the standard of justice. There is a manifestation of justice in demanding the satisfaction, and then in preparing and accepting this righteousness of God: “That He might be just, and the justifier” (Rom. iii. 26).
But specially, the law is the standard of the righteousness; that is, the law considered as a definite expression of the justice of God. The idea of righteousness in a creature implies conformity to law: law is the sphere of righteousness, the element in which it moves. These two terms, law and righteousness, are correlative, and suppose each other. To unfold the principle of law to which this righteousness of God goes back, we find the apostle delineating both sides,—the law considered in its violation, and then in its positive demand with its promise of life. The transgressor of the law was under its curse, and the Surety came under it (Gal. iii. 10). Again, it enforced its unalterable claim to do and live (Rom. x. 5), and Christ was made under it (Gal. iv. 4), and so became its end (Rom. x. 4). Thus He obtained its reward of debt, not only for Himself, but for all whom He represented. A comparison of numerous passages where the work of Christ is mentioned, leads us to the conclusion that the phrase “righteousness of God”, wherever it occurs, involves a subjection to law as the rule of ethical rectitude. The law, as the transcript of God’s nature, and the mould in which man’s nature was formed, is immutable; and far from losing its authority by human inability, it ceased not to claim all that it ever claimed. The law to which the Lord subjected Himself, moreover, was THE LAW AS VIOLATED. The two aspects in which the apostle presents the law, not only to the Jews, who were dispensationally under it, but to the Gentiles, who were not, are these:
(1) That it urges its inflexible claims to sinless obedience as the only way to life (Gal. iii. 12); and
(2) that it comes armed with the curse incurred by its violation (Gal. iii. 10–13). That is the twofold demand of the law made upon every man. That is apostolic doctrine, however much at variance with modern theories, which all too superficially limit it to Israel; as if the law, in its true character, were not a republication of the primeval and eternal law, binding on man as man. The Lord was made under it in both respects for the production of this everlasting righteousness; and accordingly the work of Christ is described in its relation to the law. Thus, it is said that He was made under the law, and that the righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us (Rom. viii. 4); that Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to every one that believeth (Rom. x. 4),—an expression presupposing the fulfillment which the law demanded, and could not but demand, till its end was reached. The additional words, “the end of the law unto righteousness,” leave us in no doubt that the realization of the law and its end are found in Christ.
4. As another constituent element of this righteousness, it must be added that it owed its origin to a God–man. It was a work to the production of which the twofold nature of the Redeemer was necessary. We have to trace the influence of Christ’s deity in the bringing in of the everlasting righteousness (Dan. ix.:24). Though purely human in its essential character, it is the result of the concurrent action of both natures, and therefore of infinite value and eternal validity; and as He was under no obligation on His own account to obey, or to be under the law, or to be incarnate, His obedience is capable of being given away. Hence the constant reference to the divine Sonship when the fulfillment of the law is described (Gal. iv. 4; Rom. viii. 3). Without personal obligation of any kind, the Son of God, in assuming humanity, entered into all those duties which man was bound to discharge,—into the burdensome duties of an Israelite, and into manifold temptations and trials which His position as the sin–bearing substitute entailed. In short, He united a sinless humanity to Himself, that, by entering into every part of our obligation as creatures and sinners, He might bring in an everlasting righteousness. Till the law received its satisfaction in the twofold respect already mentioned—that is, by obedience to precept and penalty—the Supreme Judge could take none into favor.
But this obedience of the God–man was ONE indivisible. Though possessing a twofold aspect, it was one finished work. As man is under precept and penalty because he is the creature of God under the eternal law of obedience, and a sinner under condemnation, the surety obedience of the Lord must satisfy the law in both respects. Many expositors incorrectly sunder the two, or fix attention on the one to the exclusion of the other. Others acknowledge both, but unhappily make the two elements separately meritorious, losing sight of the link that binds Christ’s deeds and sufferings together as one vicarious obedience. The latter class of divines ascribe forgiveness to the sufferings, and the right to everlasting life to the active obedience,—an unhappy separation, though countenanced by eminent names. As it is the work of one Christ, it is one atoning obedience; and though we may, and must, distinguish the elements of which it consists, we may not disjoin them, for the two elements concur to form one obedience. That they cannot be separated appears from many considerations, and especially from this, that in every action there was a humiliation, and in every suffering an exercise of obedience. Both obedience to precept and suffering for penalty are part of every event in Christ’s life.
This atoning obedience extended over the entire life of the Lord, and was not limited to the few hours on the cross. It was but the verification of His sinless nature in various scenes of action and agony allotted to Him, but formed one obedience from first to last. That the element of obedience went into all His sufferings, sufficiently appears from numerous texts, which I shall not expound in this place (Rom. v. 19; Phil. ii. 8; Heb. v. 8). If we call up before our minds the usual division of human duty, according to the different relations which man occupies to God, him, and his fellows, He learned obedience in them all; and with the augmented trials, as they thickened and deepened, His obedience was also augmented,—that is, was capable of increase, though always perfect. The humanity He wore was made by Him an instrument which He used for the great purpose of bringing in the righteousness of God; or, to put the matter in a personal, concrete form, Christ Himself is the righteousness of God. The Son of God made flesh, and obedient in life and death, is our righteousness before God. Scripture knows of only ONE righteousness uniting God and men, and the world has never seen another.
5. It remains to be added, that the righteousness of God was IN OUR STEAD as well as for our benefit. It is the more necessary to establish the vicarious nature of this righteousness, because not a few in every community are ready to admit the vicarious suffering who are not willing to allow the vicarious obedience in the whole extent of human obligation; that is, they divide the two parts of the law, the penalty and precept, into two portions, regarding the vicarious suffering as alone capable of imputation. But the vicarious character attaching to the one obedience of the Lord is as plainly taught as the fact that it is a substantive reality; and when the apostle says "We are made the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. v. 21), he intimates that believers in Christ come to a realization of the fact that it was rendered in their room, and that they are one with Him in the whole transaction. The obedience of Christ realizes the lofty ideal or goal set before the human race; and on this account it is the greatest event in the world's history. He was acting for His people, and they were representatively in Him. The entrance of Christ's sinless humanity, with the law in His heart, became the central point of all time, to which previous ages looked forward, and after ages look back. He was the living law, the personal law,—an event with a far more important bearing than any other that ever occurred. It was the world's new creation. It is made ours not less truly than if we ourselves had rendered it, IN CONSEQUENCE OF THE LEGAL ONENESS FORMED BETWEEN US AND HIM. Not that in the Lord's experience the personal was merged in the official, for He had not, and could not have, any of those feelings which stand connected with personal guilty. He was always fully conscious of inward sinlessness when the sin-bearer and curse-bearer in our stead; and in like manner the redeemed, amid all the security of imputed righteousness, never cease to cherish personally the feelings of conscious unworthiness and deep abasement. That the vicarious character of the whole may appear, it is only necessary to recall the words, "By the obedience of one shall many be made righteous" (Rom. v. 19).
As an objection to this mode of interpreting the righteousness of faith, it is commonly urged that the apostle nowhere uses the theological expression "the righteousness of Christ." But when we examine the terms in which it is expressed, the vicarious character of the righteousness is made the more evident. CHRIST HIMSELF IS OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. The incarnate Son, dying in our room, the realized ideal of what man was made to be, is made of God unto us righteousness (1 Cor. i. 30), in such a sense that we are said to be made the righteousness of God in Him. This is more remarkable: we are made all that Christ was; He is the Lord our righteousness (Jer. xxiii. 6), and we are made the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. v. 21).
Having noticed what are the elements of this righteousness, and proved that it is but another name for the Lord's atoning obedience, it remains for us to add, with all brevity, the way by which it is appropriated, and its immediate as well as ulterior consequences.
6. The relation of faith to the righteousness of God is, that faith is the hand by which it is received. The righteousness is in another person, in such a sense that it is merely received as a gift, irrespective of moral worth on the part of the receiver. Why is such a gift given to faith, and to no other mental act? Partly because faith is the only way by which the soul goes out to rely on an object beyond itself, partly because faith is the most self-emptying act of the mind. By its very nature, it negatives everything but that righteousness which it receives. Faith is the receptive organ by which we lay hold of the righteousness; while the gospel, or word of God, is the medium of revealing it (Rom. i. 17). It is unto all and upon ALL THEM THAT BELIEVE (Rom. iii. 22).
7. The immediate effect of receiving the righteousness of God is the sentence of absolution, called the justification of our persons; for it must be kept in mind that the man is justified, and not his works,—the person, not the nature. This sentence is complete at once, and capable of no addition; and it has a twofold side,—the ABSOLVING of the man from any charge of guilt, and the pronouncing of him ABSOLUTELY RIGHTEOUS, because in the possession of this righteousness of God.
8. A further point demanding notice, is the relation in which the righteousness of God stand to LIFE. This all-important point is very much the theological question of the age; for the relation between these two things is much misapprehended. The relation of this righteousness to the divine life which Christ came down from heaven to restore in a dead world, is the leading thought with all the apostles, as well as with the Lord Himself, and it is brought out with great prominence in the Pauline epistles (Gal. ii. 20; Rom. viii. 10). The relation between the two is simply this: RIGHTEOUSNESS IS THE PRICE, AND LIFE IS THE REWARD. It is a relation intimated in the law, which was ordained to life, but was found to be unto death (Rom. vii. 10). The man who should do what is enjoined was to receive life in return (Rom. x. 5). Modern theology, at least of the German type, and as far as it is modified from that quarter, evinces little interest about the relation in which the two points, righteousness and life, stand to each other. But a misapprehension here disorganizes the whole gospel. And the mystic theology which merely seeks communion with God, and life in Him, through the incarnation, has no adequate idea of the conditions on which life is conferred. They seek to delineate the life as an absolute donation apart from righteousness, or an atoning sacrifice as its ground. They speak of Christ IN US, not of Christ FOR US. There is no life, however, but through a vicarious death. The important question of the age, and of all ages, is, How does life reach us? and the answer is, By a vicarious fulfilment of the law in precept and penalty; in others words, by an atonement.