Christ, Our Righteousness
by Roger Nicole
“To know that one has died and been raised is far, far more pastorally significant than to know that one has, vicariously, fulfilled the Torah.”
—N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, p. 233
N.T. Wright in his advocacy of a “new perspective” on Paul and his teaching makes a special plea that “justification” should relate to the question “who belongs to God’s covenant with the world?” rather than “how can you be saved?” Wright’s answer to the question is “Jews and Gentiles alike, who believe in Jesus the Messiah.” This position is discussed widely in the present issue of Tabletalk. The subject of our essay is to consider how the perfect obedience of Christ to the Mosaic law does apply to those who believe in Him. The answer to this question, according to the Reformed understanding of Scripture, is “the active obedience of Christ is imputed to the justified believers as their positive cover in the last judgment.” The Westminster Confession of Faith states, “Those whom God…freely justifieth…accepting their persons as righteous…by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them” (11:1).
First, this position is articulated in an emphatic way in Romans 4:3–24. The pivot of this passage is the word logizomai, to credit, to include in one’s accounting. This word is used ten times in this context in Romans, and the word is used elsewhere in a similar fashion in Psalm 106:31, Galatians 3:6, and James 2:23.
What is credited is not the believer’s good works in obedience to God’s law (vv. 9–11). Not even his faith is meritorious, but one is justified by grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ (3:24).
The effect of justification is that no one can boast of being better than others; rather, each one must own that, being no more worthy of the divine choice, he was saved by God’s grace alone (Eph. 2:5, 9).
Second, the fact that salvation is a blessing apprehended here and now, and not merely a hope to be realized at some point in the future, is made very clear in Scripture (see John 5:24; Rom. 8:1; E ph. 2:5, 8; 1 John 3:14).
This assurance of future salvation could not be had on the basis of perfection in people who have not actually reached perfection, but it is freely appropriated to those to whom the imputation of Christ’s perfection has been applied.
Third, the prophet made this clear in Zechariah 3:1–5. The taking away of the filthy clothes is a metaphor for the divine atonement for sins; the putting on of the rich garments represents the imputation of the perfect obedience of Christ. But if the imputation of righteousness were not taking place, Joshua would have had to appear naked before God. The same concept is found in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt. 22:11–13).
Commonly, there are three objections that are raised against this understanding of imputation:
• “If God cancels both the iniquity and the insufficient obedience of His people, this wipes out personal responsibility.”
Answer. No, for responsibility remains and will be the basis of the ultimate judgment (Ezek. 18:4, 25–29; 33:17–20), but there are some elements of corporate responsibility, particularly in the covenantal unity, where the head of the covenant may absorb the punishment due to some members (Isa. 53:5–6, 11–12) and cover by His righteousness those whom He represents. This substitution has a double impact: forgiveness of past sins and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us.
• “If Christians are viewed by God as covered with the righteousness of Christ, it is urged, it does not matter what sins they may commit.”
Answer. This objection, already raised in Paul’s time (Rom. 6:1, 15; 1 Cor. 15:32–33), is a travesty of justification. A position that would achieve impunity and forget that our Savior suffered and died for our sins is the very reverse of what God teaches everywhere. If someone asserts that faith in Christ opens the door to sinning, it is obvious that this faith is not alive but is dead!
So Paul and James (2:14–18) are in agreement on their view of justification as follows:
Paul: Faith that validates dead works is itself dead.
James: Faith that is not accompanied by a renewal of obedience to God is also dead. Both teach salvation is apprehended by a faith that produces good works.
• N.T. Wright asserts that Paul does not deal with the question “how can I be saved?” but simply with the question “may the church accept into its membership people who have not accepted circumcision as necessary?”
Answer. It is true that many passages from Paul can be quoted in response to this query, but it remains that this answer was established by the church at large as early as 50 AD at the meeting in Jerusalem that gave a definitive answer long before Paul wrote Galatians or Romans. It is inconceivable that Paul would write so long a treatise like Romans after the matter was settled without using the church’s response that he had solicited (Acts 15).
The gospel ministry with its proper emphasis on justification and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the repenting and believing sinner does not need a new perspective but a renewal of spirit-filled preaching.