Divine Righteousness in its Actings Towards Men

The righteousness of God is the constant plea of the Old Testament; and naturally so. Especially the Psalms are full of it — a righteousness displayed in governmental dealings with men, His creatures. In the conflict everywhere and at all times going on between good and evil, "the righteous Lord" who "loveth righteousness," and whose "countenance beholds the upright," must needs manifest Himself in behalf of what He loves. Divine righteousness is here plainly, and ever, a part of the Divine character, an attribute of God Himself; not a gift bestowed upon man in any wise, although connected with the salvation of His people, for whom, after a long and needed discipline of suffering, He will at last appear.

But that does not solve all questions as to it; and it could only appear to do so to one whose knowledge of himself and of God was exceedingly superficial. If sin be a real thing, and of infinite concern with God, the pardon of it righteously (and no other pardon could God give) must be no light matter. And if the righteous had still to ask, in a way that implied the hopelessness of the question, "But how shall man be just with God?" then God's righteousness could not be exhibited even in behalf of the comparatively righteous without incurring suspicion of partiality or defect.

It remained to be the glory of the gospel to clear away this suspicion, and to display "the righteousness of God," not now merely in the salvation of the righteous, but of sinners; yea, of the chief of sinners. "I am not ashamed," says the apostle, "of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth." What constitutes it thus God's power to save, irrespective of the character of those that believe? This: "for therein" — in the gospel, in the glad good news to be proclaimed to every one the RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD IS REVEALED, from faith (or, on the principle of faith*) to faith" (Rom. 1:16-17).

{*Ek pisteos, the same expression as afterwards "the just shall live by faith," "justified by faith," etc.

Is this "righteousness of God," which the gospel reveals and puts upon the side of the believer, other than that which the law left unrevealed, in view of that very matter, the salvation of men? Is it anything else than that attribute of His, (part of His glory which He cannot divorce from Himself, or act in contradiction to,) reconciled with, or rather manifested in, the very love which is in His nature? Let us see if it be this or any other thought which the New Testament would convey to us by this expression.

There is first a class of texts which evidently do not speak of any revelation of it by the gospel, and which we need to keep distinct in our minds from those which have to do with this. They are five in number, and of no special difficulty to understand; but should not be confounded with the Gospel revelation.

The first text occurs in the Lord's sermon on the mount: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you" (Matt. 6:33).

Here the Lord's words mean plainly, in the connection in which they stand, "Care you for what belongs to God,} and suits Him, and He will care for you:" and "His righteousness" means all that suits His character, as revealed. Important as the lesson is, it is evidently not what we need to dwell upon in connection with the present inquiry.

The next is in Rom. 3:5: "But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance?" Here again the sense is evident, and we need not pause to consider it minutely.

Once more, in Romans 10:3, we have: "But they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God."

Here many, from the connection with what precedes and follows, suppose the Gospel revelation of righteousness to be referred to; but it is not so, and the connection is different from what they suppose. No doubt this ignorance of God's righteousness is in intimate connection with the rejection of Christ; but that does not show that Christ is identified in this passage with the Divine righteousness to which they have not submitted. The law itself should have so taught them what God's character was in this respect as to have made them conscious of how far short their own righteousness must come of His requirement. They had taken that law to work out righteousness by it, instead of as the "ministration of condemnation," as indeed it was: a "law of righteousness," which for that very reason could not accommodate itself to the unrighteousness of man. Had they humbled themselves under the solemn sentence of the law, Christ would not have been a stumbling- stone: repentance would have led them beyond the law, for salvation through faith in another.

The fourth passage is similar to the first. It is in James 1:20: "For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God."

The fifth and last requires a little more notice. It is in 2 Peter 1:1: "To those that have obtained like precious faith with us, through the righteousness of our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ." This is the marginal reading, and the true one. It is strange that any should confound "faith through righteousness" with "righteousness through faith"; but so it is. Evangelical orthodoxy has discovered to the satisfaction of many that the two are one; but it only shows how prepossession with other thoughts will obscure very plain Scripture. The apostle is speaking really of the precious faith of Christianity replacing the Judaism which had now come to an end, through His righteousness who had come in to make good His prophetic Word, and sustain the hearts of the true Israel with His abundant loving mercy. It is plainly Divine righteousness still exhibited, not conferred, and exhibited in not allowing those really His in Judaism to lose by its being set aside.

And now the way is open to consider the righteousness of God as the Gospel reveals it. The texts are few in number, and for their importance need to be all and well considered. The due order will be that in which their mutual connection is best illustrated and maintained.

(1.) The passages in the third of Romans naturally present themselves here first.

The Epistle to the Romans is that in which pre-eminently the subject of righteousness is treated of, as a glance at the concordance will at once suffice to show. The apostle in the first place is occupied in proving that, whether Jew or Gentile, man has none. The sins of the Gentiles (the heathen) are manifest: their heathenism itself the fruit, not of seeking light when denied it, but of refusing it when God had given it them. "When they knew God, they glorified Him not as God, neither were thankful, but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened: professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds and to four-footed beasts, and creeping things." And from this their notorious immorality proceeded: "Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness," etc.

But if this was the case with the heathen, what about the people to whom God had restored the light when they (as the rest) had lost it? Was Israel better? So far from that, the "name of God," committed to their trust to sanctify, had been "blasphemed among the Gentiles through" them. The very law in which they trusted was their righteous accuser, and had pronounced already as to them, "There is none righteous, no, not one." And "We know," says the apostle, "that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them that are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God."

There was no difference then between Jew and Gentile: righteousness, measured by the Divine standard, was to be found nowhere among men. There the law left man, helpless and hopeless; with the knowledge of sin, but without escape from it: by the deeds of the law no flesh being justified in the sight of God.

And now the way is opened for the Gospel. The shutting of man's mouth opens God's. The exhaustion of man's resources throws the full burden of his salvation upon the arm of God. Human righteousness there is none: the Gospel cannot open again that question; it is ended forever. "But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets.

But the righteousness of God! the dreadful sound! What hope can be for guilty man in that? What Gospel in the display of Divine righteousness? It is what aggravates all his fears, when perhaps the thought of God's mercy has given hope. Yet unrighteous mercy clearly there cannot be. Mercy, above all with God, can only be exercised within the limits which His righteousness imposes. There cannot then be hope for man in a righteous God, except it come in a way of righteousness. It is the glory of the Gospel, not merely to reconcile righteousness with salvation, but more, to manifest it in that very way: to take this object of man's natural dread, and show it him as his friend and advocate, not accuser. In the Gospel it is God who justifies man, — "justifies the ungodly," — and He does this, not simply although righteous, but as righteous. His righteousness is the safe shelter of the sinner. Not merely His mercy is "upon" all them that believe, but His righteousness is: the exact force of which statement we must presently inquire.

But where is there Divine righteousness in this way exhibited? It is in Him "whom God hath set forth to be a propitiatory through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness with regard to the passing over of sins before committed, through the forbearance of God to declare His righteousness in the present season, in order to His being just, and justifying him who is of the faith of Jesus" (Rom. 3:25-26).

I have altered some words, to try and bring out the sense more clearly. The word "propitiatory" is the one used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for "mercy-seat" and that is doubtless its force here. "The sins that are past" of our authorized translation, are not, as it might be thought from the way it is there put, the sins of a man's past life, up to the moment of his justification, but the sins committed in the ages before Christ, while God forbore, but the ground of His forbearance was not yet made manifest. Now, "in the present season" of Gospel grace, God does not forbear merely, or "pass over": He positively justifies, or pronounces righteous. The cross, the blood of atonement, now declares His righteousness both as to the past and in the present. The precious blood has made God's throne a "throne of grace" — a "mercy-seat." Grace reigns through righteousness. Righteousness and peace toward man are one — "they have kissed each other."

And where indeed, as in the blood of atonement, has God's righteousness been displayed? Where has it been seen, as here, that God's judgment of sin is no arbitrary thing, but the fixed necessity of His holy nature? The penalty had to be met, when God Himself had to meet it, and at His own personal cost (and who can estimate at what cost?) to "provide Himself a lamb for the burnt-offering."

Yet this declaration of Divine righteousness, was it against sinners, or rather was it not specially for them, — for sinners as such, — for sinners only? Who else could claim the blood of atonement as shed for them, but such as needed it? — such as deserved the awful place to which the Son of God stooped to set them free? Hence we can fully understand how, "if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." To confess our sins is just to put in our claim as sinners to that to which sinners alone have title, and to which they have (if they will claim it) undoubted title. God is "faithful" to make over to them the provision made for them, as soon as they put in their claim.

God's righteousness is pledged thus in behalf of all who by faith take shelter under it. Declared as regards sin by the cross, it is by this put upon the side of sinners, instead of against them. Hence it is "the righteousness of God by faith of Jesus Christ unto all." It is, as declared in the blood of Christ, a city of refuge with a door ever open — shut upon none that come. And therefore it is "upon, (or, better, "over," which is the exact force: — it is over) all them that believe" (chap. 3:22). It is not a dress clothing, but a roof sheltering from every storm, or a shield protecting from every shaft of the enemy.

No wonder then that the apostle should say of a gospel which reveals this, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ;" or that it should be "the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth" (1:. 16). He who can appeal to the very righteousness of God against every challenge of the accuser, may indeed boast of a "salvation" complete, free, and eternal, which the Gospel, and the Gospel only, can bestow on man.

(2.) There is a passage next which we must look at, although it be only to show that it does not bear, as it might seem to do, upon the present question. It is that in which the apostle speaks of "having the righteousness which is of God:" "and be found in Him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God through faith" (Phil. 3:9).

Here, it is naturally asked, have we not the doctrine announced of our actual possession of the righteousness of God, and must we not understand the expression somewhat differently from that in the former cases? Does not this show that Divine righteousness is in some way the righteousness which is ours by faith?

A glance at the original will, however, clear up the difficulty. The "of God" is really "from God," as it is in 1 Corinthians 1:30: "who of God is made unto us righteousness." In each case it means simply that from God our righteousness comes, but does not further reveal its nature. The expression is really a different one, and must not be confounded with that in the former passages.

(3.) But we have now, however, to trace further the development of the Scripture doctrine. We have seen the righteousness of God declared in the death of the Lord Jesus, and therefore available as the safe shelter of him who takes refuge under it. We have now to see it declared further (but as the necessary result of this) in the Lord's resurrection, where God first was able fully to show Himself on the side of the One who had now glorified Him as to sin, and suffered to redeem those whose condition it was. He "was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father" (Rom. 6:4). His resurrection was now an absolute necessity to the display of that glory. Could He leave it as an unsettled question between Him and the world that crucified Him, on which side He was? Could He leave His cry for deliverance out of death unheeded? or suffer His holy One to see corruption? Manifestly He could not do it. God must act in righteousness and in power, and that both towards Christ Himself and the people whose cause He had taken up.

As between Himself and the world, the Lord's appeal had been: "O righteous Father, the world has not known Thee, but I have known Thee, and these have known that Thou hast sent Me" (John 17:25). There he had linked His believing people with Himself in that appeal to righteousness in His own behalf. And prophetically already had He seen and announced the answer. The Comforter, the Holy Ghost, shortly to come as the witness of His ascension and of His glory, would therefore, by His very presence in it, "reprove (or convict) the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment." "Of sin," says the Lord, "because they believe not on Me; of righteousness, because I go to My Father, and ye see Me no more" (John 16:8–10). The Father would take back out of the world that beloved Son whom He had trusted in the world, and whom the world had so unanimously, so scornfully, so murderously rejected. They should lose the inestimable blessing which they had no heart to value. It was a righteous thing that they should lose it; how necessary a part of Divine righteousness to take Him who had vindicated it with a zeal which consumed Himself as the sacrifice to its majesty, out of the sepulchre in which man had with impotent hatred sealed Him up, no longer to leave Him in the world the man of sorrow He had been, but to exalt Him in the manhood once for all assumed as His, to the right hand of power!

(4.) And this will lead us to the last text, where the result of His work is seen, and where those who are its fruit are linked together with Him, as needed for the display of Divine righteousness: the full answer to His appeal to the "righteous Father." "For He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21).

In our behalf He was made to be what He was not: for had it not been for others He was suffering, this would have been no display of Divine righteousness at all. It would have been the very reverse of righteousness. But therefore, in order to its display, those for whom He suffered must be identified with Him in the results of His suffering. He must not be alone in that place which as man, for man, He acquired, — which for Himself He had no need to acquire. The manifestation of Divine righteousness in the cross required, that, as the fruit of it, His people should have the place which He had toiled to bring them into. They as in Him, blessed and exalted, are made God's righteousness; not merely righteous, but His righteousness, its embodiment, as it were, and its display.

How complete, then, the triumph over sin, when Divine righteousness, not allows merely, but requires the presence of those once, and but now, sinners, in the glory into which He has entered! How marvelous to be linked thus with the display of Divine attributes forever! The glory put upon us is thus in every ray of it the glorifying of Himself before His creatures, so that in us His character may be made known, in us the depth of His heart exhibited, to an adoring universe , — to creatures blessed unutterably by this knowledge. Not righteousness only shall be thus displayed, but treasures of "manifold wisdom" also, as well as (surely most of all shall we acknowledge it) "the exceeding riches of His grace, in His kindness towards us through Christ Jesus."