If “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), then our own personal “righteousness” will never be more than “filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6). But in connection with God’s grace, the basis of which is the atoning death of Jesus of Nazareth, God’s only begotten Son, He has offered to clothe us with the specially prepared “garment of salvation,” which is none other than “the robe of righteousness” (Isa. 61:10).
What a beautiful picture this is, and it no doubt led Paul to say that he wanted to “be 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” (Php. 3:9).
This “righteousness which is from God by faith” is not the divine attribute of righteousness or justice, particularly if it is understood as God’s own holy character and perfect legal justice that demand sin be punished. Rather, it is a gift given to sinners by God, like a robe woven (i.e., lovingly prepared) by Him and graciously given to sinners who in turn wear it as if it were their own. As such, it is a righteousness that stands outside of God, but yet “comes from God” (Php. 3:9) as it is applied to us. It is in this way, according to Romans 4:5, and this way only, that we, “the ungodly,” have been justified (Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:24; Gal. 2:16; Tit. 3:4-7). Thus, if God has so justified us, who is it who can bring a charge against God’s elect and make it stick (Rom. 8:33)?
Now, there must be no mistake about the source of the “righteousness of God” that is ours through faith in His Son, in that such righteousness is undoubtedly the imputed righteousness of the Son of God in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. (Please, do not jump to any conclusions here. Remember, I am in the process of explaining the difference between Jesus’ active righteousness versus His passive righteousness.)
There is practically universal agreement among Protestants that the righteousness of God that is imputed to believers is Jesus’ own perfect doing (i.e., His satisfaction of, or obedience to, the law He was under, which was the law of Moses). With His perfect doing put to our account, they claim, God then looks at us and declares us “not guilty,” treating us just as if we had never sinned.
This, however, is not what the Bible teaches. Yes, Jesus did obey the law perfectly, and it was certainly His responsibility, as one born under the law, to do so (viz., it was His own obligation and personal duty to keep the law of Moses). When He did so, there was none of His personal (or active) righteousness (or merit) left over to put to (or impute to) anyone else. This does not mean His active obedience had no bearing on our salvation. In fact, it was a prerequisite to His perfect [spotless] sacrifice. What, then, is imputed to our account on Jesus’ behalf? As we’ve seen, it could not have been His active righteousness (i.e., His perfect doing). Instead, it was His passive righteousness (His dying). In dying, Jesus of Nazareth, the divine Logos made flesh, not only “humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Php. 2:8), but He took upon Himself our sins on that cross, paying the penalty we rightly deserved. This is what Romans 5:18—that difficult, but very important, passage we looked at earlier—is talking about: “[E]ven so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life.” Accordingly, the “righteousness of God” revealed in the Scriptures and imputed to (or reckoned to) our account is Jesus Christ’s satisfaction of the penalty of God’s law on our behalf.
Therefore, it is a mistake, and Calvinists aren’t the only ones who make it, to say that when we are justified, or declared to be righteous, we are treated just as if we’d never sinned, or “not guilty!,” if you will. Truth is, we are, and will remain, sinners (1 Jn. 1:8,9). The good news in connection with Christ is that we are treated just as if we’d already paid the penalty for sin, and are, therefore, “forgiven!”
Is Christ the propitiation (hilastērion) whom God set forth through faith in His blood (Rom. 3:25)? Yes.
Is He the basis upon which our sins are forgiven or expiated? Yes.
Is there any reason for a Christian to deny either one? No.
What’s more, in a misinformed, misguided attempt to squash the ungodly influence of Calvinism, is there any reason for brethren to engage in various forms of semantical gymnastics in an attempt to nullify the clear and plain teaching of Scripture that says Jesus, by His sacrifice on the cross, averted God’s judicial wrath and became the basis for the remission or expiation of our sins? No, none whatsoever!
With this said, we’ll spend some time in the posts that follow looking at some of the objections that are made in opposition to Jesus’ vicarious death.