For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’
Let’s say that these words are Paul’s ‘text’, and then that his sermon is the whole letter to the Romans. In other words, he expounds these 30 words in the entire 16 chapters of this epistle. The immediate context of our text, you can see in the previous verse, is his lack of any shame about the gospel. “Why should I be ashamed of something that is God’s power for the salvation of everyone who believes?” It is this unique message of good news that transformed the lives of ordinary sinful people when they believed it, men who were fishermen and tax collectors and political revolutionaries, filling these men with self-denial and love and the wisdom that is still teaching people today. For example, Peter, a fisherman, wrote two letters that are admired and studied in all the world today – even for their fluency in Greek let alone their total truth. The good news of Christianity concerning the Son of God, Jesus Christ, powerfully delivers men and women who receive it by faith from their selfish and sin-dominated lives. Paul had no reason to be ashamed of it and every reason to pray at the beginning of each day, “Give me stronger faith in the gospel. Lead me today to someone to whom I can speak the gospel. Open their hearts to understand and believe the gospel. Display your power in saving them.” We could all pray like this and should be praying it more earnestly than ever before. Jesus Christ’s gospel alone, of all the religions and philosophies of the world, is the power of God unto salvation.
It is at this point in Paul’s introduction that the famous foundation words of our text occur. The reason that the gospel is God’s saving power is that in this message of good news God’s righteousness is revealed. Now that is a difficult statement to grasp. What is the link between God’s righteousness and saving faith? I would say very simply that this message of the righteousness of God is revealed by God and blessed by God to the salvation of men and women. Let me begin to explain by this illustration. There was a student here fifty years ago who used to love being with Christians, and hearing them talk together. He went to their meetings, and he watched and listened intently, with a growing conviction that he himself was not a Christian. Then one day after some particularly convicting words he returned to his room and knelt down at his bed and prayed this prayer, “O God, make me a righteous man.” He was conscious of his unrighteousness and that his greatest need was divine righteousness. I know him well; he is my age and he preaches the gospel in north Wales today. He is unashamed of the gospel because it was God’s power for his own salvation and in God’s answer he discovered the righteousness of God. Have you known the power of God in your life? Have you discovered the righteousness of God? Have you found out what it is and how it can be yours?
- IN THE GOSPEL A RIGHTEOUSNESS FROM GOD IS REVEALED.
Let us go through this step by step:
i] God’s righteousness is one of his attributes. It means simply that he is true and sinless and just and holy and good in himself and so in everything he does. God has an utterly upright status. I repeat my famous dictum, “You go into him and he is righteous; you go in and in and he is righteous; you go in and in and in and he is righteous; you go in and in and in and in and he is righteous; you go in and in and in and in and in and he is righteous.” There is no unrighteousness in his past. There is no speck of unrighteousness in his character. There is no corner of his personality, a dark spot, hidden away in a corner of his heaven, under the stairs, in the cellar, in some distant part of his creation that he is ashamed of and wants hidden from the angels and not talked about. There is nothing like that in God whatsoever. No rogue unrighteous thought as ever flashed across his mind. The Father has never had to apologise to the Son and the Son has never had to say sorry to the Father for doing something unrighteous. There are spots on the sun but there are no spots on God. He is the Father of lights in whom is no variableness nor shadow of turning. Examine God exhaustively by his own omniscience – in other words by his comprehensive knowledge of himself and you will find in God only, and always righteousness. It is the most marvellous thought, that there is a being with no speck of meanness or sinful ignorance or carelessness or coldness of heart or sins of omission. There is absolutely nothing like that whatsoever. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. This is the God who in the beginning when there was nothing but him, created the heavens and the earth. This is the Lord who moment by moment sustains the heavens and the earth. He has the whole world in his hands. He has you and me, brothers and sisters, in his hands. We all live and move and have our being in him the righteous one. Whatever has happened to us or to our loved ones it does not mean that God was unrighteous in decreeing that to happen. We affirm as passionately as any modernist the responsibility of man. You freely choose to sin, and you answer to God for it, and God giving you that freedom, and not preventing you, does not compromise his righteousness. Let me share with you the words of John Piper concerning the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York September 11, 2001. He says this . . .
Many Christians are speaking this way about it, “God did not cause it, but he can use it for good.” There are two reasons I do not say this.
A) One is that it goes beyond, and is contrary to, what the Bible teaches. For some, all they want to say, in denying that God “caused” the calamity, is that God is not a sinner and that God does not remove human accountability and that God is righteous and compassionate. That is true – and precious beyond words. But for others, and for most people who hear this slogan, something far more is implied. Namely, God, by his very nature, cannot or would not act to bring about such a calamity. This view of God is what contradicts the Bible and undercuts hope.
How the righteous God governs all events in the universe without sinning, and without removing responsibility from man, and with compassionate outcomes is mysterious indeed! But that is what the Bible teaches. God ‘works all things after the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11). This ‘all things’ includes the fall of sparrows (Matthew 10:29), the rolling of dice (Proverbs 16:33), the slaughter of his people (Psalm 44:11), the decisions of kings (Proverbs 21:1), the failing of sight (Exodus 4:11), the sickness of children (2 Samuel 12:15), the loss and gain of money (1 Samuel 2:7), the suffering of saints (1 Peter 4:19), the completion of travel plans (James 4:15), the persecution of Christians (Hebrews 12:4-7), the repentance of souls (2 Timothy 2:25), the gift of faith (Philippians 1:29), the pursuit of holiness (Philippians 3:12-13), the growth of believers (Hebrews 6:3), the giving of life and the taking in death (1 Samuel 2:6), and the crucifixion of his Son (Acts 4:27-28).
From the smallest thing to the greatest thing, good and evil, happy and sad, pagan and Christian, pain and pleasure – the righteous God governs them all for his wise and just and good purposes (Isaiah 46:10). Lest we miss the point, the Bible speaks most clearly to this in the most painful situations. Amos asks, in time of disaster, ‘If a calamity occurs in a city has not the LORD done it?’ (Amos 3:6). After losing all ten of his children in the collapse of his son’s house, Job says, ‘The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD’ (Job 1:21). After being covered with boils he says, ‘Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?’ (Job 2:10).
Oh, yes, Satan is real and active and involved in this world of woe! In fact Job 2:7 says, ‘Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and smote Job with sore boils from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.’ Satan struck him. But Job did not get comfort from looking at secondary causes. He got comfort from looking at the ultimate cause. ‘Shall we not accept adversity from God?’ And the author of the book agrees with Job when he says that Job’s brothers and sisters ‘consoled him and comforted him for all the adversities that the LORD had brought on him’ (Job 42:11).
Then James underlines God’s purposeful righteousness in Job’s misery: ‘You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful’ (James 5:11). He is a righteous God. Job himself concludes in prayer: ‘I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted’ (Job 42:2). Yes, Satan is real, and he is terrible – and he is on a leash. If he gets too close to one of Christ’s little one then Christ yanks the chain.
B) It undercuts the very hope it wants to create. That is the other reason I don’t say, ‘God did not cause the calamity, but he can use it for good.’ If men and women deny that the righteous God could have ‘used’ a million prior events to save 5,000 people from this great evil – in other words, God could have prevented the destruction of the Twin Towers and the two or three planes – if you deny that God could have stopped it, then what hope do you have that God could now ‘use’ this terrible event for good? If he does use it for good it is because he is omnipotent! The Scriptures teach that the righteous God could have restrained any evil (Genesis 20:6). ‘The LORD nullifies the counsel of the nations; He frustrates the plans of the peoples’ (Psalm 33:10), but it was not in God’s plan to do it for the events of ‘9-11.’ Let us beware. If we spare God the burden of his righteous sovereignty then we lose our only hope.
All of us are sinners. We deserve to perish. Every breath we take is an undeserved gift. We have one great hope: that Jesus Christ died to obtain pardon and righteousness for us (Ephesians 1:7; 2 Corinthians 5:21), and that the righteous God will employ his all-conquering, sovereign grace to preserve us for our inheritance (Jeremiah 32:40). We surrender this hope if we sacrifice this sovereignty. God is a God of sovereign righteousness and righteous sovereignty. He does as he pleases among the in habitants of heaven and here on earth. No one can smack down his hand and ask God what does he think he is doing. In all his actions with us and with ours he is only restrained by his own righteous will. He is the Judge of all the earth; he judges us; we do not judge him for he will always do right though he will not always give us an explanation for his actions or non-intervention now, yet he will give us an wholly satisfying explanation one day if we would be interested in such things when we see God! He will confirm us in our trust in his righteousness from day to day and for ever. He loved righteousness before he created one speck of matter, and he hated wickedness then, and so he continues to love righteousness. Righteousness is the sceptre that is held high over his throne and high over his whole kingdom. He rules in righteousness in heaven and earth. God is faithful to his own righteous nature in whatever he does. He is a God of integrity and self-consistency.
This righteousness is seen most of all in the cross of Christ. Golgotha is the righteous God presenting his Son to heaven and earth as the one sufficient propitiation of his wrath against our sins. By his Son’s death the righteous God is at peace with his creation and with his people. The wrath of a righteous God can have nothing to do with those for whom Christ died since in their place he endured every bit of their judgment. The cross demonstrates God’s righteousness; God remains righteous while he forgives those who have gone to him for mercy. So in the good news of God we learn that God is righteous and we bless God that he is. What would we do is there was cosmic unrighteousness? We would be of all men most miserable. We would be believing in a helpless and unrighteous God. What horror! But there is nothing impotent or unrighteous in him, and we dance for joy. So God’s righteousness is one of his attributes.
ii] God’s righteousness is also his divine saving activity. There are some of God’s attributes and they simply declare what God is, for example, that God is invisible, or again that God is present everywhere, or that God is eternal, or that God is immutable. Then there are other attributes of God and they too declare what God is, but they also tell us what God is doing regarding ourselves. God is love and God loves his Son and everything the Son asks of the Father the Father gives him because the Father loves him. God is love and he loves us and saves us from sin and Satan and the pit. God is the God of providence and so he works all things after the counsel of his will and works all things together for our good, moment by moment. God is good and so he opens his hands and feeds every living thing.
Now that is how we are to think of the righteousness of God as a vital, living activity. God sees the people he has loved from all eternity fast bound in sin and nature’s night, heading for hell. That cannot be their destination; he has loved them; he has given them to his Son to seek and to save. Can God be so unrighteous as to let them perish? He will save them in his righteousness. And so in the Scriptures we see God’s righteousness and God’s salvation side by side, like Siamese twins. For example the psalmist declares, “The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations” (Ps. 98:2). There they are; God makes his salvation known by revealing his righteousness to the nations. Again, God declares, “I am bringing my righteousness near . . . and my salvation will not be delayed” (Isa. 46:13). We long for God to come near and save sinners soon and God hears and answers us by bringing his righteousness near – just like my friend prayed, “Oh God, make me a righteous man.” God answered his prayer by saving him. God says again, “I am a righteous God and a Saviour” (Isa. 45:21). How would you think that sentence would end? “I am a righteous God and a . . . Judge” . . . or “ . . . and a sin-hating Lord.” But that is not what we find. Very often God’s righteousness is joined together with his salvation. He refuses to see all those billions he has given to his Son for salvation being lost and condemned. His righteousness demands that he save them. He is loyal to the covenant he has made with his Son and with his people. Saving them is the form his righteousness takes. He overthrows the powers of darkness and he vindicates his people because he is a righteous God.
You think of the old Christian woman who was asked if she thought God could let her slip through his hands at the end so that she perished in hell, and she replied, “If he did that then he would have more to lose than me. I’d lose my soul but he’d lose his righteousness.” God has promised that whosoever believeth in Jesus Christ should not perish but have everlasting life, and his righteousness demands that he keep that promise to all who trust in his Son. So the righteousness of God is a divine saving activity. It is coming to you now in the gospel that I am preaching to you, coming through my voice, through the public address system, advancing irresistibly, jumping over the empty pews at the front and then across the people sitting in front of you, and then on and on right up to you, the gospel of the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ. You are blessed to be hearing it and it is informing your mind and giving you understanding and it is touching your heart and increasing your longings and bringing pressure to bear on your will and making you ready to bow before the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ and take it and embrace it so that this righteousness is just to you very personally and it is clothing you and fitting you perfectly.
iii] God’s righteousness is a divine achievement in our redemption. In other words his righteousness comes from him (v.17); it is the righteousness that is dynamic and alive. It is a message of what God has done in accomplishing your very own righteousness through the life of your substitute the righteous God-man Christ Jesus. Please receive that righteousness. If ever we are to stand before this God, the only God, the God who is light before whom the angels hide their faces, then we will need a righteous status. The Lord has not only bought us, but he has bought the status which we are to have in his sight for ever. He made his own Son to be sin, the one who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. What a remarkable transaction. Think of it! On the one side of the great divine ledger is a list of all our defaults, all our unrighteousnesses, all our sins of imagination and thought and word and deed, all our sins of omission. What a sorry catalogue of shame they reveal. Then on the other side of the ledger there is the righteousness of the man Christ Jesus, his life during those silent years in Nazareth, three decades of growing in wisdom and stature, in favour with God and man, loving his Father with all his being, loving his neighbour as himself. Then there is his three years of public ministry facing the opposition of sinners, the incomprehension of his disciples, the hatred of the Pharisees, the cowardice of the Roman authorities, and all through these years he is like a lamb without blemish or spot. When he was provoked he did not retaliate. When they smote him on the cheek he turned the other cheek. He sought to give a gentle answer to turn wrath away. His aim was to overcome evil with good. He made himself accessible to men and women, to the lowest and the most sinful. He went about doing good. His heart was full of compassion. Then he drank the cup of suffering and anathema that his Father gave him to drink. The cup was full of damnation and he drank it willingly to save us from condemnation. Even on the cross he prayed that his Father would forgive his enemies. Even in his dying he thought of his mother and her loss. This is the righteousness that Christ achieved. It is the righteousness of a man, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, a man tempted, tried, confronted with Satan, knowing hunger and pain and yet the man Christ Jesus never broke. He did not fail to keep the law of God, the moral law, the ceremonial law and the civil law. The world has seen a man as holy as the angels in heaven, as perfect as God and yet he was the incarnate God and so his righteousness is infinite and immeasurable and eternal and unchangeable. It is sufficient to cover all the universe. There is no part of the cosmos that is too remote to be transformed in its status by God’s righteousness. All that our father Adam lost in his rebellion in the Garden that brought death and sin into a groaning world has been compensated by the righteousness of Christ. The wonderful blessed saving righteousness of Christ.
All that is listed on the positive credit side of this great ledger. All that is attributed to God the Son, rightly so, without a jot or tittle of flattery or exaggeration. That is how he was and is and will be for ever, the glorious God-man Christ Jesus. He is there on one side of the ledger, while we with our sorrowful weaknesses and double standards are there plain for God to see on the other side. But now what a change in status takes place as we confess our sins to him and entrust ourselves to the sacrifice and righteousness of the Lord Jesus! What a rearrangement of the books. Christ is made sin. All our wickedness is laid to his account and his glorious righteousness is imputed to us. The status of Christ’s uprightness is laid to our account as God’s gracious gift. It is Jesus Christ who is declared the sinner and dealt with as such while it is we who are declared the holy ones in him and dealt with as such. He does all this because he is a righteous God, and having determined to save us will go to these lengths to accomplish our salvation. He spares not his own Son the righteous Christ, but he does spare unrighteous men and women like ourselves. That is the great message of what the righteous God has done for us though his Son Jesus Christ. That is what Paul is saying to us in this verse, that in the gospel as it is being preached a righteous status which is God’s gift is being revealed as it is offered to men and women.
So I have told you three things in this first point, that the righteousness of God is a divine attribute because God is a righteous God. It is a divine activity as God sends his Son to rescue us from our guilt and condemnation. It is a divine achievement as he bestows on everyone who believes this righteous status.
2. BY FAITH ALONE AND ALWAYS IS THIS RIGHTEOUSNESS RECEIVED
Both once for all in the definitive movement of our putting our trust in Christ and then continually as we keep trusting in him; I am now thinking of this second phrase, “a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (v.17). What does that mean? Literally it is “out of faith into faith” or as the Authorized Version translates it, “from faith to faith.” What do these 3 simple words mean, two prepositions and the noun ‘faith’ repeated twice? Let me spread out the possible interpretations before you. Is Paul saying, “From the righteous faith of God who makes this offer of the righteousness of Christ to us, to the faith of whoever will receive it”? From God’s faithfulness to our faith? Is that what this enigmatic phase means? Or is it referring to evangelism, “from one believer who is preaching it in faith to favoured men and women, boys and girls, who receive this righteousness by faith.” Or is he referring to the way faith grows, first the bud, and then the ear, and then the full growth in the ear. Paul speaks elsewhere of us going “from one degree of faith to another” (Cols 3:18). Or is the phrase just rhetorical emphasizing the exceeding importance of faith for this righteousness to become ours, as the N.I.V translation before us suggests, “by faith from first to last” which John Murray seems to endorse as he paraphrases it, “By faith through and through.” It is interesting and will always be debated kindly.
But here is the greater question that lies behind the one of the precise meaning, what must I do to have this great divine righteousness? We feel that there must be something we’ve got to do, some great input into this. What is the going price? We look at what God did, and our hearts and minds ask, “Are we expected to match this? Am I expected to do something commensurate, so that my input matches God’s input? He gave his only begotten Son, and how can I match that? What must I do to have all my sin and guilt transferred to Jesus Christ? What great mountain must I climb? What great depths must I plumb? What great price have I got to pay? What achievement must I affect? What experience must I have? You see how marvelous it is in John 3:16. He gave his only begotten Son. That is what he did, and before God what is our response? “That whosoever believes should not perish . . .” Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. That is the total biblical answer to the question of my forgiveness and my pardon. And you can see again it is so absurd, so disproportionate and asymmetrical, that God should give his Son, that was his input, and my input is my faith, my little faith, my flawed faith, my incompetent faith, my weak faith. “You mean, that is all? He gave his Son, and I give nothing but my faith?” Yes, that is what the Scripture says, Salvation is without money and without price. All the fitness he requires is to see your need of him.
You know the trouble with you sinners is that you want to go to God as self-made men and women, with your heads held high. And God says, “Look! You take it as I offer it to you. You don’t buy it, you receive it. There is no price for the priceless righteousness of my Son.” We are all so inclined to imagine that there’s some great achievement we must perform to match God’s input while God is saying to you, “Please take it, it’s free, it is totally free, no strings whatsoever. It is a gift.”
We think we have to be a very special kind of person to receive the righteousness of Christ, that we have to be prepared for it, and renewed for it, and convicted to have it, and exercised, and reformed, but we have to give up all that when we know we need the righteousness of Christ, because, you see, the middle and the beginning and the end of a sinner is pride. We want to earn it. We want to qualify to have this righteousness. We want to bow our heads with a sense of false modesty and think we deserved it in some way or other.
Let me ask you again, what kind of person do you need to be today to have the righteousness of Christ? I say to you, a person who has no righteousness of his own. I say to you, “Just as I am . . . but that God bids me come . . . just as I am and waiting not to cleanse my soul from a great unrighteous blot.” Some of you are waiting until you have dealt with the blots, and removed the darkness from your life, and worked up a bit of self-righteousness, and then you will come, and I say to you that if you can make yourself lily-white then you need never come to Jesus Christ.
Just as I am and waiting not to rid my soul of one dark blot,
To Thee whose blood can cleanse each spot, O Lamb of God I come.
Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind; sight, riches healing of the mind,
All that I need in Thee I find, O Lamb of God I come.
You are saying to God, “Lord, I cannot come, I am poor. I am wretched, I am blind, I am wicked. I can’t come to you until I find sight and riches and righteousness.” But the great gospel hymn reminds us that all I need I find in Christ. Everything is in him. Nothing is omitted. “I am coming because you command me to repent and trust in you. I will not compound my sinfulness by disobeying you.” I am asking, “Is God hearing a voice in your heart today? Is it saying, I am coming Lord, coming now to Thee?” I know that one day God will ask me, “Are you a sinner?” God will ask you, “Did anyone ever tell you that my Son was the Saviour of the world and that he offered his righteousness to cover all your sins?” You say, “Yes.” Did he ask you to believe upon him? You say, “Yes.” Did they invite you to come to him and plead with you to come to him? “Well, yes.” Did you come? Let us in the depths of our own hearts and the loneliness of our own souls bow our heads to say to God, “I’ve looked at my past . . . I’ve looked at all that’s been, and I’m appalled by it. It’s indefensible. I want it covered in the name of Jesus.” Go to God and say something like this as you look forward to all the possibilities of the future, “How will I ever cope with parenthood, and teenage children, and sickness, and nursing those I love, and their eventual loss, and growing old and dying, all by myself? I need the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.” You express your faith in prayer to God in the name of Jesus because prayer is simply the articulation of our faith.
So there is this righteousness of God revealed to me in the gospel and it is received by faith, by entrusting myself just as I am to God just as he is, in the name of Jesus. It is by faith in him through and through.
- THE JUST SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.
Life with a capital ‘L’, more abundant and more ‘real’ life comes by trusting in God day by day, trusting that what he has inspired men to write is in fact absolutely true, and who Jesus is is the Son of God, and I live my life, day by day, trusting in him my Lord. Some days are not very good. Some days I am really low, but God never changes and I live trusting in him. I trust him to keep his word, to meet all my needs richly, to make me more than a conqueror, to work all things together for my good, to make all his grace always abound, to never leave me nor forsake me, and that when I walk through the valley of shadow of death I trust that he will be with me. I trust that he has gone to prepare a place for me and that where he is I am also going to be one day, and when I see him I will be like him, that in his presence is fulness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures for evermore. I trust that when I tell him that all my hopes of being in his presence in heaven are because of Jesus Christ’s blood and righteousness that he will welcome me to that place.
So in and by that faith I live. I look away from my own achievements and worthiness to Jesus Christ and his salvation. That is how I began my life as a young Christian, and that is how I live today, and when I breathe my latest breath I want to do so trusting in the Lord. The just shall live by faith. Only the justified ones will live, for the Son of God came that men might have life and have it more abundantly and by entrusting ourselves to him and being joined to him by faith can that life be ours.
24th November 2013 GEOFF THOMAS