For the believing child of God who clings to Christ by faith, the truth that he is accounted righteous before God is of the greatest significance. The principle that he whom God declares to be righteous is righteous, is a matter of pure grace to him. The believer knows himself to be a guilty sinner as he is in himself. The truth that God justifies the ungodly in Christ affords him a rich comfort and an unshakeable confidence. It is a confidence which he has, not of himself, but of grace.
What does it mean to be righteous? It means that one stands according to the judgment of God, in perfect conformity with God’s own righteousness and perfection. Of that righteousness and righteous will of God, the law of God is the revelation and the standard. To be righteous means that according to God’s own verdict and judgment, one measures up to that standard and stands in perfect conformity with it. God renders a verdict. He justifies or condemns, declaring innocence or guilt. He whom God justifies, whom God declares righteous, stands before the Lord in a state of perfect innocence. He stands without condemnation before the law of God. To be righteous, then, is principally the fruit of a legal act of justification on the part of God as Judge.
In such a state of innocence and righteousness Adam stood in Paradise. His was a created righteousness by nature, for he was created in God’s image, in righteousness and true holiness. He stood before the bar of God’s judgment as perfect, free from guilt. He did so, moreover, as the representative head of mankind. But Adam fell into sin by eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He thereby entered the state of guilt and came under the sentence of death. In him, we died, for by Adam’s offence “judgment came upon all men to condemnation” (Romans 5:18).
This was according to the purpose of God. God purposed to magnify His own grace by justifying His people in Christ, that our righteousness might not be by creation, or through our own works, but by His grace alone. Thus God ordained Christ to be the head and fountain of all righteousness and chose unto Himself a people in Christ. Them He justified in His counsel, as the apostle Paul says in Romans 8:30, “Moreover whom He did predestinate, them He also called: and whom He called, them He also justified: . . .” that thus He might establish in Christ, a righteousness which is of God, out of pure grace.
Moreover, God in His love and grace sent His only begotten Son into the world in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin that He might condemn sin in the flesh. Christ was born, made of a woman, made under the law. He took upon Himself our state of guilt in Adam, and though being Himself perfectly innocent and righteous, He suffered in our place the condemnation and punishment due unto us. That righteousness of grace which God purposed for us in Christ, He established on Calvary’s cross in the way of strictest justice. There Christ bore the penalty of our sin and guilt, taking our condemnation upon Himself, suffering the deepest reproach and pains of hell, as a penal sacrifice. In this way, in perfect obedience unto the Father, He has, by His death, fulfilled all righteousness. The result is that God imputes, puts to the account of His people, the perfect righteousness and satisfaction of Christ. He justifies them, accounts them righteous before Him. The Lord our God, in the cross of Calvary, established a righteousness which is of free and unmerited grace, in the perfect satisfaction and merits of Christ. In the resurrection of Christ, He declared His verdict, pronouncing His people righteous, for Christ’s sake. Objectively and historically, then, the elect of God were justified when God raised Christ from the dead, Christ, Who “. . .was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
That which God purposed in Christ and accomplished in the cross, He also sovereignly bestows upon His people, by the power of an irresistible grace. God justifies the believer through faith, by the power of His grace. By nature, sinful man does not want the righteousness of God in Christ. He goes about, instead, seeking to establish his own righteousness. Sinful and fallen man seeks of himself to expiate his own guilt and to propitiate God by his own works. The natural man seeks a righteousness, not of grace, but of his own making—by good works, by obedience to law, by prayers and fastings, by animal sacrifices and self-torturing. Over the whole world, natural man is busy seeking his own way of righteousness by his own works. Man is by nature a Pharisee, a self-righteous hypocrite, who out of the principle of enmity against God in his heart, seeks not the righteousness of God in Christ, but a man-made righteousness of outward obedience. A righteousness that is of free grace, he does not want. Rather he accounts it an unholy thing, a thing to make men careless and profane, for a doctrine of free grace destroys all man’s sinful pride.
But God, Who justifies the ungodly, not only declares His people righteous in the cross of Christ, but by the power of His grace He sovereignly bestows upon them a justifying faith. When God kindles in the heart of a dead sinner a living faith, uniting him to Christ, He strips away all that sinner’s pride, shows him to be what he truly is in himself, a guilty and totally depraved sinner. By the power of His grace, He reveals to the child of God that all his own righteousnesses are as so many filthy rags. He works in him a heartfelt sorrow for sin, and repentance, and He takes him to the cross of Christ, there revealing to him the righteousness which He has wrought for Him in Christ. By the power of that same grace He justifies that sinner in his own conscience. That faith by which the believer clings to Christ and which is wrought in him by the irresistible power of grace is the means by which God justifies the sinner before the bar of God’s own justice in the believer’s conscience.
That work of grace is a powerful work of God in which the Lord speaks His Word into the consciousness of the believing sinner and declares unto him that, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus. . .” (Romans 8:1), that the perfect righteousness of Christ is freely given unto him, imputed unto him, put to his account, so that he stands before God as if he had never sinned. God declares that He accounts faith unto righteousness, without works, and that, “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). By that work of grace God assures the believer that he is righteous before Him in Christ. That is the confession which the child of God makes in our Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 59, when after considering all that is contained in the Apostles’ Creed, the questioner asks, “But what doth it profit thee now that thou believest all this?” And the child of God, by the grace of God given unto him, responds, “That I am righteous in Christ, before God, and an heir of eternal life.” That confession he makes through the power of a true faith which God kindles in his heart by the power of an irresistible grace through the working of the Spirit. God works that confession in him, assures him of it by His grace, and seals it upon his consciousness by His Word.
That gracious work of God is powerful and efficacious. For it is not possible that he for whom Christ died, who has been justified in the death and resurrection of Christ, should not also receive this blessing of the cross. But even as Christ died only for His people, so also God bestows upon them and them alone the blessing of a justifying faith. It is a particular work of grace. Nor may we regard faith as a new kind of work, a work of man, as a basis of our righteousness. This the Arminian tries to do in His denial of sovereign and particular grace. Christ’s righteousness alone is our righteousness before God, and faith is the instrument of an irresistible grace of God to apply that righteousness to the consciousness of the elect.
The fruit of that grace of God is that it breaks down all pride, all self-righteousness of the natural heart, and writes upon the believer’s consciousness the reality of his free justification in Christ. He sees before him the accounting sheet of his debt of sin upon which God has written, “paid in full in the blood of Christ.”
By the power of grace, the Lord also assures the believer of his righteousness in Christ day by day. Though he sins daily, though it is borne in upon him that he has kept none of God’s commandments aright, but daily transgresses them all, nevertheless God, by the power of His grace, works repentance and faith, causing him daily to flee to the cross of Christ, there assuring him of his righteousness in Christ. This affords the child of God great consolation and comfort. It gives him peace in his soul. As the apostle Paul also says in Romans 5:1, ‘Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Through the sovereign power of grace, God daily gives unto His people this unshakeable confidence. For though our conscience condemn us and accuse us of guilt and sin, yet the word of God’s grace testifies to us that we are righteous in Christ. “It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?” (Romans 8:33-34). He whom God declares righteous is righteous. This was the confidence of Job, for God testified of him that he was righteous. In that confidence he also walked in uprightness before the Lord, a walk of thankfulness, in sanctification by grace. For the Lord testified to him in his heart that he was righteous. All the power of Satan could not shake that confidence, nor could the accusations of Job’s friends. For the Lord upheld him in His grace, and though his faith was tried by many afflictions, though he struggled in his heart with God’s way with him, yet in all these things he had the testimony of God that he was righteous, and that these things had not come upon him in judgment for his guilt.
That confidence and blessed assurance is the gift of God’s grace unto His people in Christ, wrought in them by His Spirit. In the way of repentance and faith, .God renews that assurance day by day, speaking His Word of peace to our hearts, so that we say with the psalmist David, “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity. . .” (Psalm 32:1, 2a).