by R.C. Sproul
The Psalmist asked the question: “If the Lord marks iniquity, who should stand?” This query is obviously rhetorical. The only answer, indeed the obvious answer is no one.
The question is stated in a conditional form. It merely considers the dire consequences that follow if the Lord marks iniquity. We breathe a sigh of relief saying, “Thank heavens the Lord does not mark iniquity!”
Such is a false hope. We have been led to believe by an endless series of lies that we have nothing to fear from God’s scorecard. We can be confident that if He is capable of judgment at all, His judgment will be gentle. If we all fail His test — no fear — He will grade on a curve. After all, it is axiomatic that to err is human and to forgive is divine. This axiom is so set in concrete that we assume that forgiveness is not merely a divine option, but a veritable prerequisite for divinity itself. We think that not only may God be forgiving, but He must be forgiving or He wouldn’t be a good God. How quick we are to forget the divine prerogative: “I will have mercy on whomever I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whomever I will have compassion.” (Rom. 9:15 NKJV)
In our day we have witnessed the eclipse of the Gospel. That dark shadow that obscures the light of the Gospel is not limited to Rome or liberal Protestantism; it looms heavily within the Evangelical community. The very phrase “preaching the Gospel” has come to describe every form of preaching but the preaching of the Gospel. The “New” Gospel is one that worries not about sin. It feels no great need for justification. It readily dismisses the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as an essential need for salvation. We have substituted the “unconditional love” of God for the imputation of the righteousness of Christ. If God loves us all unconditionally, who needs the righteousness of Christ?
The reality is that God does mark iniquity, and He manifests His wrath against it. Before the Apostle Paul unfolds the riches of the Gospel in his epistle to the Romans, he sets the stage for the need of that Gospel: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…” (Rom. 1:18).
This text affirms a real revelation of real wrath from a real God against real ungodliness and unrighteousness of real men. No appeal to some invented idea of the unconditional love of God can soften these realities.
The human dilemma is this: God is holy, and we are not. God is righteous, and we are not. To be sure, it is openly admitted in our culture that “No one is perfect.” Even the most sanguine humanist grants that humanity is marred. But, on balance … ah, there’s the rub. Like Muslims we assume that God will judge us “on balance.” If our good deeds outweigh our bad deeds, we will arrive safely in heaven. But, alas, if our evil deeds outweigh our good ones, we will suffer the wrath of God in hell. We may be “marred” by sin but in no wise devastated by it. We still have the ability to balance our sins with our own righteousness. This is the most monstrous lie of all. We not only claim such righteousness; we rely on such righteousness, which righteousness in fact does not exist. Our righteousness is a myth, but by no means a harmless one. Nothing is more perilous than for an unrighteous person to rest his future hope in an illusion.
It was against such an illusion that Paul stressed by citing the Psalmist: “For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one; there is none who understands; there is none who seeks after God. They have all turned aside; they have together become unprofitable; there is none who does good, no, not one.’” (Rom. 3:9–12 NKJV)
What comprises just under four verses of the New Testament is so radical that if the modern church would come to believe it, we would experience a revival that would make the Reformation pale into insignificance. But the church today does not believe the content of these verses: There is none righteous — not one.
Who believes that apart from Jesus not a single human being, without exception, is righteous. Not a single unregenerate person can be found who understands God.
Seeking God? We have totally revised corporate worship to be sensitive to “seekers.” If worship were to be tailored for seekers, it would be directed exclusively to believers, for no one except believers ever seeks God.
Every person turns aside from God. All become unprofitable in spiritual matters. At rock bottom no one even does good — no, not one.
Good is a relative term. It is defined against some standard. If we establish what that standard is, we can congratulate ourselves and take comfort in our attainment of it. But if God establishes the standard, and His standard includes outward behavior (that our actions conform perfectly to His law) and internal motivation (that all our acts proceed from a heart that loves Him perfectly), then we quickly see that our pretended “goodness” is no goodness at all. We then understand what Augustine was getting at when he said that man’s best works are nothing more than “splendid vices.”
So what? The equation is simple. If God requires perfect righteousness and perfect holiness to survive His perfect judgment, then we are left with a serious problem. Either we rest our hope in our own righteousness, which is altogether inadequate, or we flee to another’s righteousness, an alien righteousness, a righteousness not our own inherently. The only place such perfect righteousness can be found is in Christ — that is the good news of the Gospel. Subtract this element of alien righteousness that God “counts” or “imputes” for us, and we have no biblical Gospel at all. Without imputation, the Gospel becomes “another gospel,” and such a “gospel” brings nothing but the anathema of God.
With the righteousness of Christ promised to us by faith, we have the hope of our salvation. We become numbered among those blessed to whom the Lord does not impute sin (Rom. 4:8).