July 10, 2022

Christ, Our Righteousness

Speaker: Bret Rogers Topic: Justification Passage: Romans 5:18–19, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Philippians 3:8–9

You might be surprised that I didn’t say Revelation 12. We finished Revelation 11 last Sunday. For several reasons, though, I’ve planned a couple of messages on the doctrine of justification and its relationship to good works. One reason is simple: I need more time to study Revelation 12 and 13. But during that time, I also wanted to equip you on a particular subject.

I chose justification because, in talking with newer believers, I noticed a need for growth in understanding this precious doctrine. Others of you who’ve been walking with Jesus longer—you need a fresh reminder of the blessing God declares in justification. Others of you are fluent in justification, but you haven’t yet connected the dots to many ways that justification affects relationships.

We also live in a social-media age where there seems to be an endless preoccupation with people trying to prove themselves, or people finding new ways to heap guilt on you for not doing more—“Five reasons you should be doing ____;” “Eight ways you’re failing your child;” “Your silence is violence;” and on the posts roll. Is there any good news for a world so inundated with guilt?

Finally, I’m concerned that some have divorced justification from their union with Christ and the fruits of that reviving relationship. That’s why I want to talk about justification. More specifically, though, I want to focus on the basis for our justification. In Scripture, justification is a legal term. When speaking about God saving us, it has to do with God making a legal declaration in his court of law. It has to do with God declaring a verdict of “righteous” upon those who, in themselves, are guilty.

But if he’s a righteous Judge, how can it be that God ever declares ungodly people righteous? As some have objected, wouldn’t that be a legal fiction? Wouldn’t that be a false judgment? Wouldn’t we remove a judge if he called guilty people righteous? On what grounds can God render such a verdict on ungodly people? He does it by imputing his own righteousness to those who believe in Jesus. That’s our subject today. I’m narrowing the focus from justification to its basis in imputation.

Imputation builds off legal and accounting words in Scripture. Sometimes impute has to do with crediting to someone what’s truly present—like when Phinehas stood up for what’s right and God counted his act as righteousness. But other times impute has to do with crediting to someone what belongs to another—like when Paul asks Philemon to count Onesimus’ debt as his own. It’s this second use that helps us understand what God does for the Christian. He credits to us what belongs to another.

Christ, Our New Adam

Let’s see this doctrine developed from three passages. The first is Romans 5:12, 18, and 19. I want us to see that Christ is our new Adam, whose obedience justifies those united to him. Paul is dealing with how God reconciles sinners to himself through Jesus.[i] Verse 12 then says, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…”

We then expect something like, “so also righteousness entered the world through one man.” But he stops to explain why death reigns over all people. Death reigns over all people even before the Law of Moses existed. Death reigns because of our connection with Adam—that’s the point of verses 13-14. No one after Adam’s sin escapes this problem. Even worse, we’re born with the problem. Adam is our representative, and we inherit guilt from him. The proof that we inherit guilt from Adam is that we’re all dying.[ii] When Adam sinned, God views all of us as having sinned in Adam and are thus guilty and deserving condemnation.

Look at verse 18, “one trespass led to condemnation for all men…” Our problem is not simply that we sin. Our deepest problem is that we are sinners. We’re guilty because of our connection with Adam. That’s our biggest problem. If that’s our problem, how can we be made right with God? Not good works—3:20 says that “by works of the law, no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight.” We need another representative. We need a new Adam who obeys where the first Adam failed, who obeys where we all fail.[iii] That’s who we get in Jesus Christ.

Verse 18, “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” That’s the solution: “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” What earns us a right standing with God? Not our own obedience. It’s Christ’s life of obedience climaxing in the cross that justifies.

In other words, Christ obeyed not only to become our pardon. He also obeyed to become our perfection. Christ’s perfect obedience is the basis for our justification. And that means it’s not a legal fiction, as our Catholic neighbors might object. In the words of J. I. Packer, “God reckons righteousness to [us], not because he accounts [us] to have kept the law personally…but because he accounts [us] to be united to one who kept it representatively…” (that’s Jesus, our new Adam).

Now, someone may object, “Wait, nothing in the passage suggests that Christ’s righteousness is something given to us in justification.” Even some Protestants will object this way, especially those embracing the New Perspective on Paul. But verse 17 helps us here: “…if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.” The righteousness—which is Christ’s obedience—is a gift we receive.[iv]

There’s also the parallel logic of chapter 5. Just like it was not our personal sins but our connection to Adam’s sin that condemns; it’s also not our personal obedience but our connection to Christ’s obedience that justifies. God imputed Adam’s sin to humanity, and thus declares all people guilty. But if we trust in Christ, God imputes Christ’s obedience to us, and thus declares us righteous.

The Great Exchange

A second passage that supports imputation: 2 Corinthians 5:21. In this passage, we learn of the great exchange: God imputes our sins to Christ and Christ’s righteousness to us. Start with verse 18: “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation. That is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

What’s our problem, according to verse 19? We have trespasses. Trespass is another word for sin. It has to do with violating a moral standard. In this case, we’ve violated God’s moral standard, and that means we deserve punishment. It also means that our trespasses separate us from God. Condemnation and separation—that’s what happens when God holds our trespasses against us.

But here’s the good news: in Christ, God reconciles the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. This is book-keeping language.[v] Basically, we’re in the red, way in the red. In terms of God’s righteousness, we have zero. Our side of the line shows nothing but sin and debt. Even though that’s our condition, God doesn’t count those sins against the people he reconciles to himself.

How can he do that as a righteous Judge? Verse 21 answers: “For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Isaiah 53 foretold of a unique Suffering Servant who does two things for us. One, the Lord lays on him the iniquity of us all—he’s like the sacrifices in the Old Testament where the sins of the people are transferred to the animal before it’s slaughtered (Isa 53:6). Two, he would make many to be accounted righteous (Isa 53:11).

Paul is pointing out these two realities in the work of Jesus. Some have called it “the great exchange”—all our sins upon Jesus for all his righteousness on us. This is the answer to how the righteous Judge doesn’t count our trespasses against us and declares us righteous and upholds his own righteousness in doing so. God makes Christ to be sin—not meaning that Christ himself becomes a sinner but meaning that our sin gets imputed to Christ. Christ becomes our sin without himself being inherently sinful.

That shapes how we understand the next line: we become the righteousness of God without ourselves being inherently righteous. Meaning the righteousness is outside us. It belongs to Christ, but God counts it as ours. In ourselves, we are still sinful people. We have nothing inherently righteous about us. But by imputing Christ’s righteousness to our account, God ‘thinks of’ us as righteous.

It’s not that the righteousness gets personally disconnected from Christ and given to us, but that in union with Christ himself God views his righteousness as belonging to us. It’s like an indebted poor woman, who then marries a generous, rich king. Not only does he clear her debts, but all the treasures of his kingdom become hers now that she is “one flesh” with him. In union with Christ, God not only clears our debt, he gives us the treasures of his righteousness.

A Righteousness Not My Own

One more passage—Philippians 3:9. We need a righteousness that isn’t our own. Paul is showing the supreme value of Christ. But he does this first by listing many reasons he could boast. Verse 5, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Anybody who observed Paul’s life could’ve said that Paul was consistently religious. Relationally, he was upright. Before people, he was blameless.

But before God it was like a pile of mess. Paul needs a superior righteousness. One that only God gives in Christ. Verse 7: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”

Paul is not trading one inner virtue for another inner virtue. He wants the person of Jesus himself! Why? Because Christ’s righteousness makes all his law-keeping look like rubbish. He needs God’s righteousness. He needs Christ’s obedience. And he gets that “on the basis of faith.” Faith is not what makes us righteous. Faith unites us to Christ, whom God makes our righteousness.[vi] Faith is not the basis of your justification; it’s the instrument that unites us to the basis of our justification, Christ.

What is faith? Here it’s renouncing all self-confidence before God and placing your confidence solely on Christ as your only hope. When we stand before God, and he asks what makes us fit for eternity with him, our only answer is, Christ! It’s not, “Well, I was a good person…I was a faithful deacon…I was great at evangelism…I was a pretty good parent.” It’s not I anything. It’s, Christ is all! Faith looks away from self to Jesus.

You remember the parable Jesus told about the Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18. Only one of those men went home justified; and it wasn’t the man trusting in all the things that he viewed as God working through him. He thanked God(!) that he wasn’t like other sinners. And for placing his confidence there, he went home condemned. When we turn the results of God’s grace into reasons for self-glory, we condemn ourselves. It was the man who couldn’t even lift his eyes to heaven and asked God to have mercy on him—he went home justified. Even the good things that God works in us cannot become the object of our faith. Christ must be all, period!

Imputation versus Infusion

I’ll stop there with those three passages. There are others.[vii] But what I want to do now is contrast imputation with the Catholic teaching on justification by infusion.[viii] Sometimes facets of the true gospel come into sharper focus when we contrast it with a distortion. When the Catholic Church refers to “justification,” they mean God’s act of “making” someone righteous, not “declaring” someone righteous.

Justification is a process for them. For Rome, it’s about God conforming us to his righteousness until we ourselves become inwardly just. In this process, justification comes through the sacraments of the church. It begins with baptism.[ix] Through baptism, God infuses grace into the soul, placing an individual into a state of justification. But baptism is just the starting point. It’s also possible to sin in such a way that removes you from this state of justification. The grace infused to you at baptism can be lost if you commit mortal sins: immorality, outbursts of anger, idolatry, and so forth. Committing mortal sin means you lose your state of justification.

That leads then to the sacrament of penance. In order to restore yourself to the state of justification, you do penance and you must especially perform the works of satisfaction prescribed by the priest, such as good deeds for the poor, fasting, prayer, and so forth. By performing these works of satisfaction, a person merits God’s favor such that God restores that person to the state of justification. All this still includes faith. Don’t get them wrong, Rome teaches that faith is necessary for any of this to count. The issue is that Rome doesn’t view faith as a sufficient condition to be justified. It’s necessary but not sufficient. Faith must be accompanied by works, like those in satisfaction, to maintain or even to restore yourself to the state of justification.

So, we’ve seen three pieces to Rome’s teaching: justification is a process instead of a declaration; it involves infusing grace that eventually makes a person inherently righteous, as long as they cooperate; and since faith isn’t sufficient, we also need works to maintain our right standing with God. Is that good news? Is it good news that God will not accept me until I prove myself to be inherently righteous? Is it good news that I can somehow have faith, but if I die with any sins I must go through the fires of purgatory until I possess an inherent righteousness of my own?

Compare that to what we saw earlier: in Christ God declares us righteous the moment we believe; God does this not based on a righteousness we inherently perform and cooperate with, but on everything Christ performed for us; and all the righteousness that Christ—it becomes ours by faith alone. That’s far better news.

How Imputation Affects Worship, Community, & Mission

Now, let’s not just correct what is false. Let’s also construct how the true gospel of imputation impacts our own worship, community, and mission? Doctrine is for life. Theology is for mission. Let’s begin with imputation and worship.

Imputation is our only hope for worship. There is no access to God’s presence without Christ’s righteousness. Like Joshua the High Priest in Zechariah 3, we need new clothes with our filth removed; and God gives us those clothes in Christ. Through Christ we can approach God freely in worship. Through Christ, you’re accepted with God. He has opened the way for you to approach his throne with confidence. You can pray freely without fearing condemnation. When you sin, you can go to him trusting that you will stand on the last day not by your perfect obedience but by the obedience of Jesus.

Imputation keeps us humble about our works. Even your best deeds don’t measure up to what you already possess in Christ. Our boast will always be in the Lord, no matter how many good things we perform. Imputation also keeps us from robbing Christ of glory by living as if his righteousness isn’t enough, as if you must do more and then you’ll be confident. To live this way is to rob glory from Christ’s obedience. It’s to diminish the obedience that God vindicated before the world in resurrection.

When we get to James 2—again, a couple weeks from now—we’ll also see how imputation leads to obedience and good works, which is a major part of worship. Obedience flows from a heart that’s amazed that God would love us this much as to hide us in his Son’s righteousness. If we truly possess it—or better, if he truly possesses us—then we will live in accord with his glorious righteousness.

Imputation also affects community. Consider a couple of examples. Luke 18:9, which is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. It says that “[Jesus]…told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Self-righteousness breeds contempt. Or take Galatians 2, when Peter separates from the Gentiles at supper. He fears the circumcision party. Paul then re-teaches justification by faith and explains how it creates table fellowship.

Contempt and disunity—that’s what self-righteousness will always produce. But imputation kills self-righteousness and unites the community around Jesus. Nobody has grounds to boast. Nobody has room to look down their nose at another. Everyone needs the same righteousness. In Christ everyone has the same righteousness. None of us possess more of Christ’s righteousness than the other. The starting place for community, no matter how we might offend each other—is in Christ’s righteousness. You’ve got to put on new lenses to see your brother and sister this way—no matter who they are.

Let’s say that a fellow Christian offends you and seeks reconciliation. Can you not just forgive them but also see them as righteous in Christ? Can you disagree over a non-gospel issue (e.g., method of education, medicine, food, some aspects of culture, music, politics), and walk away with the same fondness that God has for them in Christ? Your standing before God is as good as theirs in Christ.

What about conflict in marriage? You know those fun times when your spouse corrects your sin? We have a little defense attorney living in here, don’t we? Best friends—now enemies in a courtroom. It’s time to defeat and prove yourself innocent. What’s really going on? We’re trying to justify ourselves. Imputation works wonders in marriage. If God already accepts you, lay down your defenses, admit your wrongs, and apologize. Being righteous before God frees us to receive rebuke with humility. It frees us to confess our sins and take confidence in God’s forgiveness.

Or maybe you’re at a ballgame and your child starts acting up. And then he keeps acting up, to the point it gets embarrassing. You start wondering what others are thinking. You begin fearing everybody’s judgment about your parenting. You now find yourself angry—this little one is smearing your reputation as the good parent you are. Without knowing it, Satan chips away at your trust in Christ’s righteousness. You will not stand before God based on your superior parenting skills. Other people’s opinions are not the ground for our justification. Christ is all that matters. That frees you to be patient and to find your acceptance with God, not with man.

Maybe you’ve made decisions in the past that weren’t good. You carry the consequences of your actions, even as a Christian. And they follow you around, and they won’t go away even though you try to hide them. You feel ashamed, unclean, like at an outcast at times. In all these situations, our response is to preach imputation to one another. The days ahead of you need not be filled with despair. If you have Christ’s righteousness, you have everything before God that you need. You’re not just forgiven; you have God on your side. Christ is all, brother…sister. Point each other there.

Finally, imputation also affects mission. Everybody in the world has the same problem. We’re all born sinners in Adam. How do we know that? Death. It’s like a veil that is spread over all nations, Isaiah tells us. Death proves that we’re connected with Adam’s sin and guilt. But we have good news: in Christ, God justifies the ungodly leading to eternal life. Nobody else has this gospel.

All other religions are based on your obedience. In Hinduism, one seeks to escape the cycle of reincarnation through works, knowledge, and devotion. Islam has submission along with its five pillars—profession, prayer, alms, fasting, pilgrimage. Yet even then, there’s never assurance that your submission is enough. In Judaism, the major problem is exile, and the solution is returning to Yahweh through Torah-keeping. Buddhism has the noble eightfold path of right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Many tribal religions have their ongoing rituals to keep the gods happy. Mormonism will say that Jesus died to forgive sins, but passage to eternal life in the celestial kingdom comes only to those with faith and your obedience to the laws.

Exhausted yet? Now, it’s also true that none of these religions share Christianity’s view of our radical sinfulness. But just look around. Do some history. Read the news. Honestly assess your own motives and thought life. The Christian claim of man’s radical sinfulness squares with reality. In Adam, we are truly bad. Even our best works are shot through with mixed motives and limited abilities. For anyone to say that salvation is based on our works plunges man into despair.

Here’s the far better news of Christianity. In the moment you’re united to Christ by faith, God not only takes away your sins, he also imputes Christ’s perfect obedience to your account. We’re saved by Jesus’ works, not our own. We know his works are perfect. He is without sin. Based on Jesus’ obedience, God declares us righteous in his sight. That’s where our assurance rests—Christ is our righteousness.

What good news we get to proclaim to a world inundated with guilt and who are weary trying to prove themselves. Social media is filled with people and politicians who have mastered the art of heaping guilt on everybody not like them. There’s a constant stream that says You’re not good enough. On top of that—just of the major religions I mentioned earlier—there’s 4.6 billion people preaching that salvation is all about your inherent goodness and your obedience.

Into that world, we get to preach that our God justifies the ungodly by faith alone in Christ alone. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have the only good news for the world. So, proclaim it far and wide. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ. Pick one lost person to pray for; and then ask God to open a door for you to share the goodness of Christ’s imputation with them. Let’s pray together.


[i] Cf. Rom 5:1, 11.

[ii] Cf. Rom 5:13-14, 17.

[iii] Verse 14 hints at this when it calls Adam “a type of the one who was to come.”

[iv]Cf. Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3-6. Genesis 15:6 says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Abraham didn’t work for this righteousness. By simply trusting in God and his promises, God counted to Abraham a righteousness that wasn’t inherently his. God gave his own righteousness to Abraham by faith alone. Especially helpful is the treatment by O. Palmer Robertson, “Genesis 15:6: New Covenant Expositions of an Old Covenant Text,” WTJ 42 (1980): 259-89.

[v]This is the same accounting, book-keeping, imputation language that Paul uses in Romans 4:5—Abraham’s faith is credited, or counted for righteousness.

[vi]Some will argue that Philippians 3:9 is not teaching that we receive Christ’s objective righteousness. However, at least four observations counter this argument: (1) Paul wants to be “found in [Christ];” (2) the righteousness is “from” God and something he must “have,” much like the gift in Romans 5:17; (3) he contrasts a righteousness from within himself through law-keeping with the righteousness from God; (4) to be found “in Christ” or to have faith “in Christ” is what links him to “the righteousness of God”.

[vii]E.g., Rom 3:21-22; 4:3 (cf. with Gen 15:6); 1 Cor 1:30.

[viii]This entire section is indebted to R. C. Sproul, Are We Together: A Protestent Analyzes Roman Catholicism (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2012), 29-50.

[ix]Catechism of the Catholic Church (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1994), 482, par. 1992: “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy.”