Since 1888, the phrase righteousness by faith has been central to the Adventist understanding of salvation. For three centuries before that, it was the core of Reformation theology. Today, as the biblical emphasis generated by the Reformation comes under increasing threat, it is crucial that we fully understand this essential doctrine and see it in relation to Paul’s teaching concerning righteousness as a whole.
The essence of Paul’s teaching emphasizes that there is a righteousness that saves. But Paul’s doctrine includes more than “imputed” and “imparted” righteousness, important as these two concepts are. As we attempt to analyze Paul’s teaching concerning righteousness, we will see that his understanding can be summarized briefly in seven propositions.
1. Saving righteousness is rooted in God. In fact, saving righteousness is God’s own righteousness, as stated in Romans 1:16, 17.1 The righteousness Paul speaks of throughout Romans and, indeed in all his epistles, must be understood in the light of this seminal truth. The gospel reveals the righteousness of God. In every instance in the first three chapters of Romans where Paul speaks of righteousness, he always defines it, specifically, as God’s righteousness (Rom. 1:17; 3:5, 21–26). There is not one exception. The righteousness that saves is always God’s righteousness—a righteousness which, in Luther’s words, “does not originate on earth, but comes down from heaven.”2
This righteousness has a twofold character. First, it has a legal dimension. Scripture reveals that God is just and fair, and that the demands of divine law are fully met by the gospel. This represents the essence of Paul’s argument in Romans 3:21–26. As Luther discovered, God is just, or righteous, not because He condemns or punishes sinners but because He saves them. He, who created mankind with freedom of choice and the possibility of sinning, has provided a way of escape from the consequences of that choice and the resultant sin. The very word righteous has the inherent meaning of justice—the justice, or righteousness, of God. The gospel reveals this divine justice for by it, the gospel, the demands of God’s broken law are fully satisfied.
The second characteristic of God’s righteousness is moral. The righteousness of God is that God Himself is not only just, but good, pure, holy, and perfect. The righteousness of God is all that God Himself is—His very own character encompassing the holiness, goodness, and sinlessness of God. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 implies, righteousness is the very antithesis of sin.
God’s righteousness, therefore, is both just and holy like a two-sided coin; it has both legal and moral significance and can never be one without the other. The righteousness of God, Himself, is the righteousness that saves, and in salvation God freely extends, to sinful humanity, both justice and holiness—the justice and holiness of our very God.
2. Saving righteousness is a response to sin. In Romans 3:5, Paul declares that human unrighteousness commends, i.e., recommends, the righteousness of God. The New International Version (NIV) states that our unrighteousness “brings out God’s righteousness.” On account of human unrighteousness, the righteousness of God appears. The human condition is the dark backdrop against which the righteousness of God shines so brightly. This divine righteousness is God’s response to human sinfulness. We note here just one of the many important consequences of this truth.
If the righteousness of God is to be efficacious, dealing effectively with the sin problem in human experience, there must be, on the part of the sinner, both a recognition and understanding of sin. Indeed, God’s saving righteousness can only be effective when sin becomes known, understood, recognized, and confessed.
This is true not only at the beginning of the Christian life when one becomes aware of having a sinful nature and past life of sin requiring forgiveness, but also at all times in the future as the Christian life progresses. A fundamental presupposition in Paul’s teaching concerning righteousness is that at all stages of human experience men and women are essentially sinful, thus in need of the righteousness that saves. As Lesslie Newbigin so aptly put it, “to be human is to be sinful.”3 Saving righteousness is the divine response to our humanity and revealed because “all have sinned” and because all “fall short” (Rom. 3:23).
3. Saving righteousness is revealed in Jesus. Paul asserts in Romans that our Lord, both in His life and death, was the incarnation of God’s righteousness. However, this righteousness must be explained, as well as proclaimed, must be seen as well as heard, and must be demonstrated as well as argued. It must be revealed and understood before it can be received. Ellen White wrote, “The righteousness of God is embodied in Christ. We receive righteousness by receiving Him.”4 The question, however, is how? How is the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus? Again, the answer is twofold.
First, as Romans 3:24, 25 asserts, Christ’s redeeming death was the glorious manifestation of God’s own righteousness. God revealed His justice through the propitiatory act of the Cross by which human beings are reclaimed from sin and death. Christ’s shed blood, His substitutionary, sacrificial death, deals with human sin, guilt, and condemnation. The Cross reveals the justice of God by meeting the demands or requirements of the broken law. And this revelation of righteousness at the Cross is fundamental—a demonstration of the inherent justice of God.
Second, Romans 5, verses 10 and 19, sets forth the equally fundamental truth that the life of Jesus also reveals God’s righteousness. Christ was obedient not only “unto death” but throughout His life. He revealed the righteousness, the holiness, the very character of God, in His everyday living. His obedience in its totality reveals God’s righteousness and, therefore, the source of human righteousness.
The renowned New Testament scholar, F. F. Bruce, explains the significance of Christ’s obedient life: “The obedience of Christ to which His people owe their justification and hope of eternal life is not to be confined to His death. . . . It was a perfectly righteous life that He offered up in death on His people’s behalf. The righteous life in itself would not have met their need had He not carried His obedience to the point of death, ‘even the death of the cross,’ but neither would His death have met their need had the life which He thus offered up not been a perfect life.”5 The righteousness of God is both judicial and moral. Justice and holiness are revealed in Jesus, through His life and His death.
4. Saving righteousness is received by faith. Two things, particularly, should be noticed about the faith that enables sinful human beings to receive God’s saving righteousness. First, it is a constant faith. Here we return to that text, central to the Epistle to the Romans, Romans 1:17. This verse states that the gospel reveals God’s righteousness “from faith to faith.” This is truly one of the crucial texts of the New Testament. The NIV reads, “by faith from first to last.” Today’s English Version reads, “through faith from beginning to end.” J. B. Phillips says, “a process begun and continued by their faith.”
We must understand what Paul means here. Citing the prophet Habakkuk (2:4) he states, “ ‘The just shall live by faith.’ ” Does Paul speak of the believer’s present life or future life? When will justified people live? Here and now, on earth or some day in the future when all things earthly have disappeared? This question is critical. The rest of Romans makes it clear that Paul’s concern centers primarily with the life of the justified sinner in the present. God’s saving righteousness becomes effective from the moment of first belief to the end of the believer’s earthly life—a process begun and continued by faith. The justified person lives from the moment of justification by faith and lives by that faith until they cease to live. God’s righteousness is revealed in Jesus and received by faith “from beginning to end.”
The second thing we need to remember continually relates to the nature of faith itself. The faith that Paul speaks of includes much more than intellectual assent, important though that is. Saving faith goes beyond knowledge. There is something submissive, dependent, trusting, about true faith. This faith transcends knowledge, evidence, argument, and understanding, although, of course, it does not dispense with any of these. Saving faith is more than what one writer calls “cerebral religion.” Trusting faith receives the righteousness of God as revealed in Jesus constantly from the first moment of belief onwards.
5. Saving righteousness is realized in justification. Two words have traditionally been understood among Protestant Christians as signifying the essence of the plan of salvation—justification and sanctification. As we shall be reminded shortly, the complete gospel includes both. But first, we must consider justification as it stands alone.
In the process of justification, God reveals Himself as just, and the believing sinner is declared just, or righteous. God is demonstrated to be just on account of the Cross and the plan of salvation since it frees those who believe from guilt and condemnation. The believing sinner is regarded as righteous on account of the Cross and the sinless life of Christ that is imputed, or credited, to them. In justification, God imputes His righteousness in Christ to the believer.
Justification concerns the sinner’s standing before God. Nothing visible actually happens in the life through justification. When a sinful human being exercises faith in God through Jesus Christ, they are accepted as righteous by the Father.
God declares that person righteous on account of their faith in Jesus. It is called “imputed righteousness” (see Rom. 4:6). That declaration of God brings the sinner into a new standing or relationship. Whereas before, that individual was sinful and guilty, now they are sinless, forgiven, and guiltless. At this point the sinner is not actually sinless in nature or character. As Luther famously said, “Simul iustus et peccator” (“at the same time righteous and a sinner”).6
So, we can agree with the New Testament scholar, Leon Morris: “Justification is in essence a matter of right status or standing in the sight of God.” It is “the name given in the Bible to the changed status, not the changed nature.”7 And this happens as a result of God’s own righteousness and on account of the righteousness of Christ imputed to the one who puts their trust in Jesus. In justification, the believer is accounted righteous and “Christ’s character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned.” This is, indeed, the very heart of the gospel. But there is more.
6. Saving righteousness is recognizable in the Christian life. We must now consider what has long been known as “imparted righteousness.” The righteousness imputed in justification also becomes part of the believer’s new life and can be seen as such in an authentic Christian lifestyle. Once again, Paul sets forth this truth in his epistle to the Romans, as well as in his other epistles.
Through the years since the Reformation, there has been an ongoing debate concerning Romans. Some affirm that Paul’s main purpose in this epistle is to expound the doctrine of justification by faith. The book of Romans has often been preached from this standpoint. However, a strong case exists for a broader interpretation. Paul’s exposition of justification by faith takes up the first five chapters of the epistle. Beginning with chapter 6 another emphasis appears, which runs on through chapters 7 and 8 and reappears in chapters 12 through 14. This emphasis centers on the life of the one who has been justified. In these chapters Paul talks repeatedly about personal lifestyle, victory over sin, the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, a relationship with God, one’s fellow-believers, and those in the unbelieving world. The inescapable truth remains that the gospel according to Paul includes both justification and sanctification. The later chapters of Romans are just as much a part of Paul’s gospel as are the earlier chapters. We find this confirmed when we examine some of his other epistles. In 1 Corinthians 15:34, Paul’s calls us to “awake to righteousness and do not sin.” In Philippians 1:11, he admonishes Christians to be “filled with the fruits of righteousness.” He urges Timothy to pursue righteousness, linking it with godliness, love, and gentleness (1 Tim. 6:11). It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid the conclusion that Paul’s gospel is one in which the righteousness of God becomes evident in the life of the believer.
How, then, does this happen? It happens as a result of God’s presence and activity in the believer through the Holy Spirit, which is the crucial message of Romans 8. That is why we can categorically say that even when righteousness is imparted, it is still the righteousness of God and comes as the result of the working of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. It is what has been known through the Christian ages as sanctification. It is part of the gospel, the good news, that God helps us to live in harmony with His will.
7. Saving righteousness is reaffirmed by hope. There is one final, magnificent truth concerning the saving righteousness of God. In Galatians 5:5, Paul says that we “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.” God’s saving righteousness, and the need for it, are constantly reaffirmed in the believer’s life by hope. The final chapter in the gospel story is yet to be written. The ultimate experience of righteousness in the life of the believer and the ultimate revelation of God’s righteousness are still to come.
In Hebrews 11, Noah and others became heirs of “the righteousness which is according to faith,” but all died not having received the promise. Elsewhere we are reminded of the new earth “in which righteousness dwells.” The fact is that there is a strong eschatological dimension to the truth of God’s saving righteousness. Its full consummation is not realized through any of the descriptions we have traditionally used and not totally encompassed even by the words justification and sanctification but not something fully attainable in this life. Many times, especially in Romans and Galatians, Paul uses the words justify and justification in a future tense, particularly in relationship to judgment and the last days.
Perhaps the clearest statement of this end-time dimension of saving righteousness is Paul’s words to Timothy, “Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day” (2 Tim. 4:8). Frankly, I do not know what a crown of righteousness is. There have been many attempts to precisely define what Paul means. He cannot be talking of a literal crown— that much is clear. It is equally clear that there is a future element in the human experience of righteousness as important as the present. Only the future will set the final seal on God’s righteousness—the beginning and consummation of the plan of salvation. Therefore, we must allow that future to beckon us on. We must continually stretch forward in hope, reaching for that crown, the eternal reward of those who become and remain righteous in Christ.
And finally . . . In 1888, the message of righteousness by faith came to this church. Some think it was never fully received, some think it was not a complete message. Others think that even when it came, it was soon lost, at least in part. Many think that it needs reviving in our time; the work of the Lord will not be finished until the third angel’s message becomes, in reality, the message of righteousness by faith. One, at least, thought that. She wrote, “Clad in the armor of Christ’s righteousness, the church is to enter upon her final conflict.”8
I do not know what you think, but I think that all the foregoing is probably true. I also think that we should thank God constantly for the gospel that reveals His righteousness—fully, freely, consistently, and persuasively. God’s righteousness, the righteousness that saves, revealed in Jesus and received by faith, realized in justification and recognizable in the Christian life, can one day be ours in its fullness and forever, if we live by faith and in hope.
1 Biblical references are quoted from the New King James
Version unless otherwise indicated.
2 Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to Romans (London:
Oliphants, 1954), 13.
3 Lesslie Newbigin, Sin and Salvation (London: SCM Press,
4 Ellen G. White, Thoughts From the Mount of Blessing
(Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1956), 18.
5 F. F. Bruce, The Letter of Paul to the Romans (Downer’s
Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 120, 121.
6 Cited, for example, in Alister McGrath, Luther’s Theology of
the Cross (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1990), 133.
7 Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (London:
Tyndale Press, 1965), 290, 291.
8 Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings (Mountain View, CA:
Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1917), 725.