Fulton County Gospel News

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The Righteousness of God

By Guy N. Woods


What is “the righteousness of God” (dikaiosunen Theou)?  Thayer, in an unusually fine statement, says that righteousness, “denotes the state acceptable to God which becomes a sinner’s possession through that faith by which he embraces the grace of God offered him in the expiatory death of Jesus Christ.” By faith, this lexicographer means “a conviction, full of joyful trust, that Jesus is the Messiah-the divinely appointed author of eternal salvation in the kingdom of God, conjoined with obedience to Christ.” The same authority says that righteousness (dikaiosune) in “the broad sense” is the state of one “who is such as he ought to be,…the condition acceptable to God.” It is, then, simply and solely a state of justification established on the basis of the sacrifice of Christ and man’s acceptance thereof through the conditions required.

This lexical definition is completely and fully confirmed by affirmations of inspired writers. “Then Peter opened his mouth and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35). Righteousness is thus that state or condition wherein one is in a right relationship with God. Our English word “righteousness” derives from the word “right,” which, in turn, literally suggests that which is straight (as, for example, a straight line), and so designates a relationship with God which he approves. A “righteous man” is, therefore, one who is straight, lined up properly with God! (Psalm 119:172; 1 John 2:29).

A simple and brief definition of righteousness is, therefore, right-doing; to be righteous one must do right. “He that doeth righteousness in righteous, even as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7). Of a certain type of character it is affirmed that he is righteous.  Who is he?  He that doeth righteousness. No other is. He who does righteousness is righteous; but he who is righteous is one who does right; therefore, he who does right possesses righteousness. Conversely, an unrighteous person is a perverse one; a perverse one is an individual in a twisted (as opposed to a straight) relationship with God. It is hence clear that righteousness is that state or condition wherein one is approved of God; but God approves of those only who do right (keep his commandments); therefore, to possess the approval of God and the righteousness which he requires one must do right, by keeping his commandments.

Here is unmistakable evidence of the falsity of the denominational doctrine of transferred righteousness. It is by some alleged that in the process of conversion Christ transfers to the sinner the righteousness which he possesses, and thenceforth the sinner is clothed in the righteousness which Christ himself exhibits! One can only sadly wonder what the future holds for us as more and more writers among us, following the lead of denominational theologians, adopt the view of an imputation of righteousness on this basis, an idea repugnant to both reason and Scripture. It is absurd to assume that one person is good because another is. True, through the merits of Christ’s blood shed in our behalf, our guilt is cancelled and through obedience to his will we are privileged to go free; but this is far from declaring that we thereupon become positively good in the absence of good works. There is a vast difference between (a) not imputing guilt (this, the Lord does for us) and (b) in conferring merit (this, the Lord does not) in the process of salvation. The primary import of the word translated righteousness indicates a change in position and in relationship to God, and not, on that basis alone, a life of personal purity. A pardoned criminal is no longer regarded as guilty of the crimes which led to his arrest and conviction, but he is thence by no means a valuable citizen with a long record of civic goodness back of him simply because he has been pardoned. Righteousness is right-doing. To be righteous, one must do right.

But, was not Abraham’s faith reckoned (imputed, counted) to him for righteousness? Yes. In the absence of further duties at the moment God accepted Abraham’s faith as an act of righteousness itself. Thus faith itself became the act of obedience, on the basis of which God accepted Abraham as in I right relationship with him (James 2:20-22). Did not David speak of “the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works?” (Romans 4:6.) The works contemplated here (as the context clearly shows) were the works of the law. The man to whom the Lord imputes righteousness is the one whose “iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” (Psalm 32:1-2; Romans 4:8). Such a one actively complies with God’s plan for his forgiveness, and is thus declared righteous (justified). We must distinguish between a righteousness imputed to (credited to) man because he has a right relationship with God through obedience to his will, and a righteousness which Christ (through his own submission to the will of the Father) is alleged to transfer to the sinner. The former the New Testament teaches; the latter is Calvinism.

But was not Christ made “righteousness” for us? (1 Corinthians 1:30). The Lord became the means of righteousness for us; i.e., it is through him that we are privileged to receive “the gift of righteousness” (Romans 5:17); but this is accomplished through compliance with his will, and in obedience to his commandments, and not through some mysterious bestowal of merit. We should ever remember that justification does not eliminate the fact of sin; it simply releases the sinner from the guilt thereof. The history of the act must forevermore remain. Paul, through mindful of the great grace which he had experienced, was never without the consciousness of the fact that he had persecuted the church of God and wasted it. Pardoned, saved, justified, acquitted, no longer under guilt, it now remained for him, through faithful adherence to the Lord’s will to exhibit personal righteousness, “right standing” with God. And so with us all. The marvelous blessing of salvation is available through Christ. He is the means of righteousness, through him we receive the gift of righteousness, and in him we partake of God’s righteousness; i.e., the righteousness which God makes available to us, through unswerving allegiance to his will. The law of Moses was powerless to provide justification. It provided a perfect standard to which man, in sin, could never measure. A measuring cup will indicate the amount of the substance it contains, but it will not increase it; a tapeline will reveal the length of a string, but it cannot make it longer. It was, therefore, necessary that justification “apart from the law” be provided for man. This, we rejoice to say, was accomplished in Christ. 

From A Commentary on the Epistle of James (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1982), pp. 76-79.




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