Six Aspects of Righteousness
“For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
The Scribes and the Pharisees were regarded by the ancient Jews as the most devoted, most spiritual, and most holy of all men. Had anyone at that time thought of calling any man “his holiness,” they would have been called “most holy, holiness.” They were men of such high esteem and reputation that the Jews had a saying about them. It went like this, “If be two of all the world were to go to heaven the one would be a scribe and the other a Pharisee.”
In so far as outward, religious righteousness was concerned no one excelled these two groups of men. In works of piety they made long public prayers on the corners of streets, so that all could see and hear their devotion. In works of charity they gave alms, blowing the trumpet, so that all would be impressed by their generosity. In works of equity they paid their tithes, counting out ten percent on their gross income. In works of courtesy and hospitality they often held banquets, even for Christ and his disciples (Luke7).
Yet, the Lord Jesus declares that our righteousness must exceed, not match but exceed, the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. If it does not, we cannot be saved. The text clearly teaches us these three things:
All the sons and daughters of Adam are all sinners. We lost all righteousness before God in the garden. We are all totally depraved. We have all gone astray from the womb speaking lies. We all drink iniquity like water. So thorough and complete is the depravity of man that even our works of righteousness are filthy rags before the holy Lord God; and we are all at our best estate altogether vanity! But these things were not always so.
God created man in righteousness and true holiness. We were all created in the image and likeness of God himself. One aspect of that created image of God was an uprightness of nature (Eccl. 7:29). How Adam lived in this state, we do not know. But it appears to have been a relatively short period of time. Then something happened. Our father Adam sinned against God and plunged the entire human race into sin, death, and condemnation (Rom. 5:12; Ps. 14:2-3). Because Adam was our divinely appointed representative and federal head, his sin was imputed to us in divine judgment. And his sin nature was imparted to us by natural generation (Ps. 51:5; Jer. 17:9; Matt. 15:19).
By the sin and fall of our father Adam we all suffered a threefold loss of righteousness. This is a loss that simply cannot be denied. First, when Adam sinned in the garden, he lost his righteous nature, and we did too. Before the fall man was righteous. After the fall, he had no righteousness (Matt. 15:19). We are all, by nature, sinful, guilty, condemned, and lost.
Second, Adam lost all legal righteousness, and we did too. Because man is sinful, he cannot approach God. Adam was expelled from the garden and separated from God. Because our sins have separated us from God, we cannot approach him (1 Tim. 6:15-16).
Third, once he sinned, fallen man lost all knowledge and understanding of righteousness. As soon as he lost righteousness he went about to establish righteousness for himself, sewing fig leaves together to make himself presentable to the holy Lord God; and man has been doing the same ever since (Rom. 9:31-10:1-3).
The natural man has absolutely no idea what righteousness is, where it is to be found, or how it can be obtained. But he thinks he does (Luke 16:15). This is the first thing to be established. We have no righteousness, and no ability to produce righteousness.
Yet, our Lord said, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven.” In making that statement our Lord declared that there has never been one son or daughter of Adam on this earth good enough, righteous enough, or holy enough to inherit and inhabit the kingdom of heaven. There is not now and never will be one person in heaven who is there because he was good, righteous, and holy in this world. — “Man at his best estate is altogether vanity.” — “Our righteousnesses are as filthy rags in God’s sight.”
We must get the idea of “righteousness” out of our minds and get the word “righteousness” out of our vocabulary, insofar as any human works are concerned in God’s sight. Our righteousness is filthy rags before the holy Lord God! (Isa. 64:6; Isa. 1:16-20). Every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil continually (Gen. 6:5). Read the Book of God and you will discover that every man in the Book who knew God, who knew the righteous character of God and had been made righteous in Christ, lamented his own utter wickedness.
God is holy. Being perfectly holy, he demands perfect holiness. He requires perfect righteousness. Anything and anyone that is not perfectly holy will be consumed by the fire of his glorious holiness. He declares, “I am Almighty God; walk before me and be thou perfect” (Gen. 17:1). — “It shall be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no blemish therein” (Lev. 22:21). — “Be ye holy; for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). There is a holiness to be pursued, without which no man shall see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).
God demands character holiness. We are required to be holy on the inside, in heart, at the very core of our being. – “The Lord looketh on the heart” (I Sam. 16:7). He demands conduct holiness. We must be holy on the outside, in behavior. – “Be ye holy in all manner of conversation” (1 Pet. 1:15). In a word, God demands complete holiness. We must be entirely without sin – “The soul that sinneth, it shall die” (Ezek. 18:20).
God demands holiness; but we cannot produce holiness. Not one of us can do one good thing before God. It is written, “There is none that doeth good, no not one” (Rom. 3:12). Purity cannot come from our corrupt nature. We cannot even seek the Lord on our own, much less correct our past record, change our present wretchedness (Ps. 51:1-5), or control our future thoughts and deeds (Gal. 3:10).
The whole purpose of God’s law is to show us our utter inability to keep it and to convince us of our need of a Substitute (Gal. 3:24). And the first work of God the Holy Spirit in a sinner’s heart is to convince him of sin, of his need of a Substitute. (John 16:9).
A man’s definition of righteousness depends entirely upon his understanding of who God is. The problem with this religious generation is that they have never seen the holy, righteous, just character of God almighty. They have never seen the absolute holiness of God. And no one will ever see the holy character of God until he sees what happened at Calvary (Isa. 6:1-6).
How good does a person have to be to get to heaven? He must be as good as God. — “It must be perfect to be accepted.” God cannot and will not accept anything short of perfection. “Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in his holy place? He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted upon his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully” (Ps. 24:3-4), and no one else. Yet, it is written, “They that are in the flesh cannot please God.” — “Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them” (Gal. 3:10).
Still, the fact that we cannot produce righteousness does not mean that righteousness cannot be produced. God can do it. Man cannot please God; but God can please God. Man cannot produce righteousness; but God can produce righteousness.
The Lord Jesus Christ came into this world to fulfil all righteousness, not for himself, but for us (Matt. 3:15; 5:17). — “The LORD is well pleased for his righteousness' sake; he will magnify the law, and make it honourable” (Isaiah 42:21). Our Savior did for us exactly what Daniel 9:24 said he would do. He finished the transgression and made an end of sin for us, putting away our sins by the sacrifice of himself. He made reconciliation for iniquity by satisfying the justice of God as our Substitute. And he brought in everlasting righteousness by his obedience to the will of God in all things as our Representative and Federal Head. By his obedience to the will of God as our Representative and Substitute, the Lord Jesus Christ brought in an everlasting righteousness of infinite worth and merit for God’s elect (Heb. 10:5-14).
According to the Book of God, it is the life obedience of Christ that constitutes that righteousness, with which we are clothed, that righteousness we are made to become before God. His death washed away our sins, and his life covers us from head to foot. His death was the sacrifice to God, and his life is the gift to man, by which all God’s elect have satisfied the demands of the law.
Only in this way is it possible for the law to be honored and our souls accepted by God. Many who appear to be perfectly clear about the merits of Christ’s death, do not seem to understand the merits of his life. Remember, from the moment that our blessed Savior broke his mother’s womb, until the hour that he ascended up on high, he was at work for his people. From the moment that he was seen in Mary’s arms, until the moment that he was in the arms of death, when “he bowed his head and gave up the ghost,” he was performing the work of our salvation.
The Lord Jesus Christ completed the work of his obedience in his life, and said to his Father, “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do” (John 17:4). Then, he finished the work of his atonement in his death. And, knowing that all things were accomplished, he cried, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Throughout his earthly life, the Savior was spinning the fabric of that royal, priestly garment in which we are robed, and in his death he dipped that garment in his blood. In his life he was gathering precious gold, and in his death he hammered it out to make for us a garment of wrought gold. We have as much to be thankful for in the life of Christ as we do in his death. In his life Christ Jesus rendered perfect obedience to the law as our Substitute. And in his death he satisfied the claims of the law as our Substitute. Therefore, the prophet of God declares of Christ, “This is the name whereby he shall be called, the Lord our Righteousness,” and of us, “This is the name whereby she shall be called, the Lord our Righteousness.”
That is the message that is set before us in 2nd Corinthians 5:21. The Lord Jesus Christ is our only righteousness, and it is our joy to confess that he is. — “Of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:30-31).
The only way a sinner can be made righteous is by the holy Lord God imputing righteousness to him. In justification God imputes the righteousness of Christ to his people in exactly the same way as he imputed the sins of his people to Christ (Rom. 5:18-19; 2 Cor. 5:21). How are sinners made to become the righteousness of God in Christ? I appeal to the Word of God alone for the answer to that question. The opinions of men are totally irrelevant. What does the Book say? Nothing else matters.
When Christ was made sin, that was a one time, once and for all act accomplished in the past, a work in which he was personally involved. But when the Holy Spirit speaks of us being “made the righteousness of God in him,” the word he uses for “made” is another word altogether. It is a present tense, passive verb, implying total passiveness on our part, and means “continually cause to become.” He is telling us that those for whom Christ was made sin God continually causes to become the righteousness of God in him without doing a thing. Let me show you how he has done it and is doing it.
Eternally — Our great, all-wise, eternally gracious God made us righteous before the world was made, in his sovereign, eternal purpose of grace in Christ, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, (Rom. 8:28-30; Eph. 1:3-6; 2 Tim. 1:9-10; Jude 1). If we were blessed of God with all spiritual blessings before the world began and accepted in the Beloved, it was not as unrighteous but as the righteousness of God in Christ.
Judicially — We were made to become the righteousness of God judicially, in a legal sense, when the Lord Jesus died as our Substitute under the wrath of God, satisfying divine justice for us. When he had put away sin by the sacrifice of himself, he obtained eternal redemption for us, and we were made to become the righteousness of God in him by divine imputation in justification (Rom. 4:25; 5:12, 17-21).
Experimentally — But this matter of being made the righteousness of God in Christ, while it is something with which we have no involvement, is not just a matter of law, any more than Christ’s being made sin was just a matter of law. It is not something that takes place altogether outside our experience, any more than Christ being made sin was outside his experience.
Sinners are made the righteousness of God in Christ experimentally in the new birth, when we are made “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). That holy thing in us that is born of God, that John tells us cannot sin, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). We experience this blessed thing (being made the righteousness of God) in the inmost depths of our souls, in the constant assurance of our access to, acceptance with, and forgiveness of our sins by our God (1 John 1:7-2:2).
We are in Christ, in whom alone God is well pleased. That means he is well pleased with us (Matt. 17:5). Our sacrifices are accepted of God as a sweet-smelling savor in Christ (1 Pet. 2:5). Our sins are never imputed to us, but perpetually forgiven because we are one with him who was once made sin for us, in whom we are perpetually made to become the righteousness of God.
Absolutely — Believing on the Lord Jesus Christ, every sinner who trusts him is made to become the righteousness of God in him absolutely (2 Cor. 5:17; Col. 1:12). Discerning the Lord’s body, that is to say, knowing our need of a Substitute and knowing the Substitute himself, trusting his finished work and trusting him, sinners like you and me are worthy to enter his church, worthy to call upon his name, worthy to receive the Lord’s Table, and worthy to enter into and possess forever his glory! Tobias Crisp wrote…
“Mark it well, Christ himself is not so completely righteous, but we are as righteous as he was. Nor are we so completely sinful, but he became (being made sin) as completely sinful as we. Nay more, the righteousness that Christ hath with the Father, we are the same, for we are ‘made the righteousness of God.’ And that very sinfulness that we were, Christ is made before God. So that here is a direct change. — Christ takes our persons and condition, and stands in our stead. We take his person and condition, and stand in his stead. What the Lord beheld Christ to be, that he beholds his members to be. What he beholds them to be in themselves, that he beheld Christ himself to be.
So that if you would speak of a sinner, supposing him to be a member of Christ, you must not speak of what he manifests, but of what Christ was.
If you would speak of one completely righteous, you must speak and know that Christ himself is not more righteous than he is. And that that person is not more sinful than Christ was when he took his sins on him. So that if you will reckon well, beloved, you must always reckon yourself in another’s person, and that other in yours. And until the Lord find out transgressions of Christ’s own acting, he will never find one to charge upon you.”
Everlastingly — We shall be made to become the righteousness of God everlastingly in the last day in resurrection glory. We shall be raised in righteousness. We shall be declared righteous according to the record book of heaven at the Day of Judgment (Rev. 20:11-15; Jer. 50:20). We shall be declared righteous to wondering worlds to the glory of our God forever (Eph. 2:7). Then, we shall forever begin to enjoy, in such experimental reality, as words cannot describe, the blessedness of being made to become the righteousness of God in Christ (Rev. 21:2-5; 22:1-6).
I am lost in wonder. All this, all that Christ has as the God-man my Mediator, we have in him. All that he is, we are in him. All that he enjoys, soon, I shall enjoy forever in him, because…
“If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God. For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:17-21).
“He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).
In regeneration we are sanctified, made holy, by righteousness being imparted to us by the Spirit of God (Gal. 5:23-24; 2 Pet. 1:4; Col. 1:27; 1 John 3:5-9). Believers are people with two natures (Rom. 7:14-24), that holy seed which is born of God and cannot sin (1 John 3:9), and the flesh which is nothing but sin (Rom. 7:18). These two natures, the flesh and the spirit, are constantly at war with one another so long as we live in this world.
When God saves a sinner, he does not renovate, repair, and renew the old nature. He creates a new nature in his elect. Our old, Adamic, fallen, sinful nature is not changed. The flesh is subdued by the spirit; but it will never surrender to the spirit. The spirit wars against the flesh; but it will never conquer or improve the flesh. The flesh is sinful. The flesh is cursed. Thank God, the flesh must die! But it will never be improved.
This dual nature of the believer is plainly taught in the Word of God. It is utterly impossible to honestly interpret this portion of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, the 7th chapter of Romans, and 1 John 3 without concluding that both Paul and John teach that there is within every believer, so long as he lives in this world, both an old Adamic nature, that can do nothing but sin, and a new righteous nature, that which is born of God, that cannot sin, that can only do righteousness. The Holy Spirit’s work in sanctification is not the improvement of our old nature, but the maturing of the new, steadily causing the believer to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ and bring forth fruit unto God.
Every believer knows the duality of his nature by painful, bitterly painful experience. Ask any child of God what he desires above all things and he will quickly reply, “That I may live without sin in perfect conformity to Christ, perfectly obeying the will of God in all things.” But that which he most greatly desires is an utter impossibility in this life. Is it not so with you? Though you delight in the law of God after the inward man, there is another law of evil in your members, warring against you. You would do good; but evil is always present with you, so that you cannot do the things that you would. Even your best, noblest, most sincere acts of good, when honestly evaluated, are so marred by sin in motive and in execution that you must confess, “All my righteousnesses are filthy rags!”
It is this warfare between the flesh and the spirit more than anything else that keeps the believer from being satisfied with life in this world. Blessed be God, we shall soon be free! When we have dropped this robe of flesh, we shall be perfectly conformed to the image of him who loved us and gave himself for us!
This conflict is caused by and begins in regeneration because the righteousness of Christ is imparted to us in the new birth. C. H. Spurgeon said, “The reigning power of sin falls dead the moment a man is converted, but the struggling power of sin does not die until the man dies.” A new nature has been planted within us; but the old nature is not eradicated.
Do not think for a moment that the old nature dies in regeneration, or even that it gets better. Flesh is flesh, and will never be anything but flesh. Noah, Lot, Moses, David, and Peter, like all other believers, had to struggle with this fact. We need no proof of the fact that God’s people in this world have two warring natures within beyond an honest examination of our own hearts and lives. Our best thoughts are corrupted with sin. Our most fervent prayers are defiled by lusts of the flesh. Our reading of Holy Scripture is corrupted by carnal passions. Our most spiritual worship is marred by the blackness within. Our most holy aspirations are vile. Our purest love for our Savior is so corrupted by our love of self and love for this world that we can hardly call our love for Christ love. From time to time we have all found, by bitter experience, the truthfulness of the hymn…
“Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it!
Prone to leave the God I love:
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.”
In the last day, every believer shall enter into heaven and obtain the inheritance of everlasting glory; and that will be righteousness rewarded. Immediately after the resurrection we must all be judged by God, according to the record of our works (Rev 20:12-13). "It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Heb 9:27). The Judge before whom we must stand is the God-man, whom we have crucified (John 5:22; Acts 17:31; 2 Cor 5:10). We will be judged out of the books, according to the record of God's strict justice.
In the Scriptures God is often represented as writing and keeping books. And, according to these books, we all shall be judged. I realize that this is figurative language. God does not need books to remember man's sins. However, as John Gill wrote, “This judgment out of the books, and according to works, is designed to show with what accuracy and exactness, with what justice and equity, it will be executed, in allusion to statute-books in courts of judicature.”
What are the books? -- The Book of Divine Omniscience (Mal. 3:5) -- The Book of Divine Remembrance (Mal. 3:16) -- The Book of Creation (Rom. 1:18-20) -- The Book of God's Providence (Rom. 2:4-5) -- The Book of Conscience (Rom. 2:15) -- The Book of God's Holy Law (Rom. 2:12) -- And the Book of the Gospel (Rom. 2:16).
But there are some against whom no crimes, no sins, no offenses can be found, not even by the omniscient eye of God himself! "In those days, and in that time, saith the LORD, the iniquity of Israel shall be sought for, and there shall be none; and the sins of Judah, and they shall not be found: for I will pardon them whom I reserve" (Jer 50:20). Their names are found in another book, a book which God himself wrote and sealed before the worlds were made. It is called, "The Book of Life.” In this book there is a record of divine election, the name of Christ our divine Surety, a record of perfect righteousness (Jer. 23:6, Cf. 33:16), a record of complete satisfaction, and the promise of eternal life.
The question is often raised, “Will God judge his elect for their sins and failures committed after they were saved, and expose them in the Day of Judgment?” The only reason that question is ever raised is because many retain a remnant of the Roman doctrine of purgatory, by which they hope to hold over God's saints the whip and terror of the law. There is absolutely no sense in which those who trust Christ shall ever be made to pay for their sins! Our sins were imputed to Christ and shall never be imputed to us again (Rom. 4:8). Christ paid our debt to God's law and justice; and God will never require us to pay. God, who has blotted out our transgressions, will never write them again. He who covered our sins will never uncover them!
The perfect righteousness of Christ has been imputed to us. On the Day of Judgment, God's elect are never represented as having done any evil, but only good (Matt. 25:31-40). The Day of Judgment will be a day of glory and bliss for Christ and his people, not a day of mourning and sorrow. It will be a marriage supper. Christ will glory in his Church. God will display the glory of his grace in us. And we will glory in our God.
Those who are found perfectly righteous, righteous according to the records of God himself, shall enter into eternal life and inherit everlasting glory with Christ. They that have done good, nothing but good, perfect good, without any spot of sin, wrinkle of iniquity, or trace of transgression, shall enter into everlasting life (Rev 22:11).
Who are these perfectly righteous ones? They are all who are saved by God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ (1 Cor. 6:9-11; Rom. 8:1, 32-34). Though there shall be degrees of punishment for the wicked in hell, because there are degrees of wickedness, there shall be no degrees of reward and glory among the saints in heaven, because there are no degrees of redemption and righteousness.
Heaven was earned and purchased for all God's elect by Christ. We were predestined to obtain our inheritance from eternity (Eph. 1:11). Christ has taken possession of heaven's glory as our forerunner (Heb. 6:20). We are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:17). Our Savior gave all the glory he earned as our Mediator to all his elect (John 17:5, 20). And in Christ every believer is worthy of heaven's glory (Col. 1:12).
Glorification shall be but the consummation of salvation; and salvation is by grace alone! That means no part of heaven's bliss and glory is the reward of our works, but all the reward of God's free grace in Christ! All spiritual blessings are ours from eternity in Christ (Eph. 1:3).
Read Jeremiah 23:5-6 and Jeremiah 33:15-16. In both places Jeremiah is describing for us this blessed gospel day in which the Branch of Righteousness has grown up unto David and his seed. That Branch is Christ. And that David is Christ our King. Our David is now seated on his throne in glory, having grown up righteousness, by bringing in everlasting righteousness. He now executes judgment and justice throughout the earth in the salvation of his people by the gospel. That is what the Lord our God declares in these two passages.
(Jeremiah 23:5) “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth.”
(Jeremiah 33:15) “In those days, and at that time, will I cause the Branch of righteousness to grow up unto David; and he shall execute judgment and righteousness in the land.”
(Jeremiah 23:6) “In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.”
(Jeremiah 33:16) “In those days shall Judah be saved, and Jerusalem shall dwell safely: and this is the name wherewith she shall be called, The LORD our righteousness.”
That is not a mistranslation. Every word is translated with exact accuracy. This is what the Lord God tells us about the work of Christ in this day of grace in which we live. — Judah, the tribe of God’s choice, shall be saved. — Israel, God’s holy nation, his chosen generation, his royal priesthood, shall dwell safely. — And this is the name whereby that Righteous Branch our King shall be called, Jehovah-tsidkenu, “The Lord Our Righteousness.” — And this is the name wherewith every saved sinner shall be called — Jehovah-tsidkenu! “The Lord Our Righteousness.”
Christ is our Righteousness. He is that righteousness that exceeds the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. And, if we trust him, he is ours! Because his righteousness is ours, we shall enter into the kingdom of heaven. He is that Holiness without which no man shall see the Lord. If we believe on the Son of God, that Holiness is ours and we shall see the Lord our God face to face in Christ. Then, (O blessed day!) he shall wipe all tears from our eyes!