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Rejoicing in Christ our Righteousness

April 1, 2023 | by: Tony Sanelli | 0 comments

Easter 2023 is just around the corner, and we will rightly reflect upon the sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice on Good Friday and celebrate His resurrection with great joy on Sunday. The doctrines of sacrifice and resurrection will take center stage just as they should. Downplayed at times, however, is a third component given by the saving grace of God in a believer’s salvation—the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.

Tony-NewYou see, to embrace Christ-crucified as our Savior is to embrace Him not only as our payment for sin but also as our perfect righteousness; that which makes us acceptable to a holy God. Understanding this is essential if we are to grasp our free and full justification in Christ alone as well experience the joy of our salvation.

To be clear, to place our trust in Christ is to embrace him as both our sacrifice (the payment for our sin and guilt) AND our righteousness (our necessary perfection).

The traditional doctrine is clearly stated in the Westminster Confession’s definition of justification. The confession affirms that God freely justifies believers by “imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness, by faith…”  (Chapter 11).

The Testimony of Scripture

To “impute” is to credit something to someone’s account. The gospel’s good news is that God regards sinners as righteous through their faith in Christ by imputing Christ’s righteousness to the sinner and imputing the sinner’s guilt to Christ. The righteousness that is imputed to the sinner is the righteousness accomplished by Christ’s perfect obedience in life and death.

In one sense, one can say that His suffering and death (Galatians 3:13; Romans 8:3) was the climactic conclusion of His perfect substitionary submission to the Father’s will on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 4:6, 11 with 3:21-22; 5:18-19).

Biblical Christianity understands this work of Christ as the only basis or grounds of the believer’s justification. It is in this manner that God justifies the unjust. As Paul states in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” That the words “we might become the righteousness of God” refers to the imputation of God’s righteousness to us follows from the parallel with Christ’s being “made sin” for us.

The Lord Jesus was not “made sin” in that He sinned or became a sinner but only in the sense that our sins were credited or imputed to Him. This follows because Paul states in verse 19 that God was reconciling the world by “not counting their trespasses against them.” That is, not “imputing” or “crediting” them to them. In other words, in the immediate context Paul is thinking of imputation. Just as Christ was “made sin” on our behalf (by imputation) we “become the righteousness of God in Him” (by imputation).

This same doctrine of imputation is clearly stated in Philippians 3:8-9.
“I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I might gain Christ, and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”  

The contrast here is between a righteousness that is Paul’s by virtue of being “in Christ” and is his “through faith” and is “based on faith.” Faith is not the righteousness Paul possesses. Nor is the righteousness he possesses the result of obedience to the law. His righteousness is in Christ and comes to him based on faith and by faith. It is an external righteousness of which faith takes hold.

The Criticism

“But this will lead people to sinning because they see no need for their own righteousness.” This category of criticism made popular in our time by the “new perspective” is the same charge leveled by Paul’s opponents as recorded in Romans when he preached that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone and not by the works of the law (Romans 6:1, 15).

But the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by faith does not mean that the believer’s works are unimportant or unnecessary. Paul makes clear that they are the inevitable fruit of a justified person.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10).

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:11-14)

The believer’s works are the inevitable fruit of being justified because a justified person has also been born again through this faith union with Christ. However, they do not contribute in any way to the grounds of our being justified since our justification is a legal verdict rendered by God immediately on the basis of His gracious gift of righteousness. Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1, cf. 5:17).

This verdict is the same verdict to be announced on the last day. The good news of the gospel is that the verdict can be offered and assured NOW because the basis of it is the already completed work of Christ! This, of course, is what makes the gospel such glorious, good news. It is the only safe harbor for the soul and the only absolute source of assurance. That’s why Paul assures the believer struggling with remaining sin that “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

Soli Deo Gloria

This Easter let us remember to magnify the glory of God through Jesus Christ in the fullness of His redeeming work. To embrace Jesus as our Savior is to embrace Him as both our atoning sacrifice for sin and our perfect righteousness.

As pastor John Piper has written,
My concern is that… he is robbed of a great part of his glory in becoming for us not only our pardon but our perfection; not only our redemption but our righteousness; not only the punishment for our disobedience but also the performer and provider of our perfect obedience [1].

Tony Sanelli is Pastor/Teacher at Grace Bible Church

1. John Piper, Counted Righteous in Christ: Should we Abandon the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness?, Crossway, pg. 34-35. By John Piper. © Desiring God Foundation. Source: desiringGod.org

This book from John Piper can be downloaded for free in an electronic form under a limited license from the publisher. EPUB, MOBI, or PDF formats are available and the book can also be purchased in paperback or for Kindle.

John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For more than thirty years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis. He is author of more than fifty books, and his sermons, articles, books, and more are available free of charge at desiringGod.org.