While reflecting on what stands at the heart of the gospel, I thought first of what Paul called, “the goal of the commandment” in Titus 1:5. “Now the end (goal) of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith.”
That is indeed the outworking of the fruit of His life within us, as to our sanctification, but it’s foundation and root is deeper still. It’s root is the resurrection life of Jesus, as both imputed and imparted to the justified believer. Its source is as far from the strength of nature as the budding of Aaron’s rod.
Paul says this righteousness is now revealed in the recently unveiled “mystery of the gospel”.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.
In Eph 6:19 and elsewhere Paul calls the gospel a mystery that was fully foretold in the prophetic writings (Acts 26:22), but kept secret in times past till the appointed time of revelation (Ro 16:25-26). Why only now, with the post-resurrection revelation of the gospel, is this righteousness revealed? Wasn’t the righteousness of God already fully revealed and well established all throughout the scriptures?
How is the righteousness of God which might be seen as a source of terror to a sin stricken conscience to be understood as good news? It is because this is the justifying righteousness of God whereby He justifies the ungodly (Ro 3:25-26; 4:5). It is the righteousness by which a helpless condemned sinner is enabled to stand blameless in the presence of unapproachable holiness.
This righteousness is wholly other, because it is nothing of our own (Ro 10:3; Phil 3:9). It has no of point intersection with even the highest ethic within human reach or power. It is of a completely different origin and source in that it resides in only one person.
Of course we are speaking of the very righteousness of the Lord Himself, but particularly as wrought out and perfected in only one place. That is the seamless garment of His own humanity as our representative, as the second Adam, “the Lord from heaven” (1Cor 15:47).
Our second Adam passes the impossible test for us and reverses the curse, not only by expiating our guilt, but by imputing to us the very righteousness that He perfected in His representative humanity, as necessarily lived out “under the law” (Mt 3:15 with Gal 4:4). This righteousness, though revealed in the gospel, is only imputed to a faith that has been “born of God” and quickened by the Spirit by the transforming revelation of His face (Mt 11:27 with Jn 5:21; Ro 9:18; 2Cor 3:18; Eph 2:1; Tit 3:5; 1Jn 5:4).
This is not the righteousness whereby God is righteous in His heaven, though it is in perfect union with that too. No, our justification is located, not in ourselves, but in another person’s righteousness (Ro 3:25-26). That is the righteousness that was perfected in the Lamb of God over 33 1/2 years of spotless obedience under the exacting inspection of the law.
This is the only righteousness that God can accept. To presume to come before Him in anything less or other than this man’s righteousness is an affront of intolerable presumption. The imputation of this one, only acceptable, pure, unmixed, fully complete righteousness of Christ Himself is the indispensable wedding garment that alone stands between joyful, abundant acceptance and stern rejection (Mt 22:11-13).
Christians must know by the Spirit the holy dread of presuming to appear before God in any lesser righteousness than this. It is this righteousness that is given to the least truly regenerate believer, not in the part but in the whole, as though perfectly performed by each one under the exacting scrutiny of the law.
If we could grasp this for all its implication by the Spirit of revelation, as a dear brother once said, “the ground would shake before us!” Some things are just too glorious for us to grasp, even when acknowledged as true, unless it comes by the power of divine revelation, and how rare is that?
This righteousness not only exceeds the righteousness of the scribes Pharisees; it even surpasses Jesus’ contemporaries’ highest conceptions of John the Baptist. We must ask, why does Jesus use the example of John the Baptist to send home the point that even the least citizen of the kingdom of heaven is greater than him? What is Jesus’ meaning here?
Jesus appropriates the popular view of John’s high spiritual and prophetic stature to push their conceptions of him to the completely inconceivable level of “none greater” born of woman (Mt 11:11). He did this to underscore and magnify how much greater the very least citizen of that realm is than even the most spiritual and approved among God’s servants of whom none has ever been greater.
Think how this must have been taken. Jesus is inviting them to conceive the inconceivable, and for one purpose. That purpose, I submit, is to show, not an exceedingly surpassing greatness, but an exceedingly surpassing righteousness. As in the case when Jesus terrifies His Jewish contemporaries with the forbidding task of exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 5:20). So here, He sets before them the possibility of exceeding the highest conceptions of John’s spiritual greatness. How can these things be? Exactly!
Jesus is laying the foundations for Paul’s doctrine of justification by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, as a unique kind of righteousness, which has no earthly comparison. He is giving us to understand that this righteousness of the kingdom of heaven is nothing of our own, but wholly His alone.
This is the OT promise of an “everlasting righteousness” (Dan 9:24). It is the righteousness of the new / everlasting covenant (Isa 59:21; Jer 31-34; 32:40). It is the promise that “in the Lord will all Israel be saved with an everlasting salvation” (Isa 45:17). It is the righteousness of the Lord by which “all the seed of Israel shall be justified and shall glory” (Isa 45:25). It is the expectation that in that day, it will be the Lord who works all their works in them (Isa 26:12). “And their righteousness is of ME, says the Lord” (Isa 54:17).
It is the righteousness of the Lord Himself, but particularly as wrought out, performed, and fulfilled in the person of our representative humanity, the scion of David, the curse reversing Seed of the woman, the second Adam.
“Behold, the days come, says the LORD, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In His days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby He shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Jer 23:5-6).
The implication of this glorious truth will be totally lost if we assume that John stood on the outside of the kingdom of heaven. Quite the contrary! Some were pressing into the kingdom at that very time and taking it by force (Mt 11:12; Lk 16:16). Others were refusing to enter and blocking the way for those seeking to enter (Mt 23:13).
So this is not a kingdom that is only future on the far side of the great tribulation, as commonly and correctly expected by the Jews. Rather, Jesus is revealing the mystery of the kingdom as present and active, even as the outward structures of this evil age remain.
The kingdom is a revelatory (apocalyptic) phenomenon as well as a chronological event. It can be “at hand”, not only in terms of chronological time, though that too, but in terms of a realm that is only accessible to the Spirit of revelation. One must be made spiritually alive (born again) to see it (Jn 3:3 with 1Pet 1:23). It is present and suffering violence now, as it is being brought decisively near by the presence of its uncrowned King.
The action of the King is the action of the kingdom. The proof that the kingdom has come in power is in the binding of the strong man and the spoiling of his house, as demonstrated by the expulsion of demons by the finger of God (Mt 12:28-29).
So it is clear that John was in the kingdom as Jesus was preparing His disciples to understand its presence among them, as He begins to reveal to them what He calls, the “mystery of the kingdom”. The popular and correct understanding was that the messianic deliverance of the kingdom of God on earth comes only after the tribulation and its climax in the long awaited great day of the Lord. Against this background, Jesus begins to introduce the revolutionary new concept that the promised deliverance of the long awaited kingdom of God has two distinct stages, one present and one to come.
This kingdom that Jesus announces as presently “at hand” is not entirely new. It has always been an ever present and active reality (Ps 103:19; 145:11-13; Dan 4:17, 25, 32), but now “the time is fulfilled” for the great transition that brings the first fruits of the fulfillment of the ancient promise (M 1:15) . Even with the promise now partially fulfilled in the suffering of the Lamb that precedes the glory (Acts 3:18-21; 1Pet 1:11), there is a future glory and greater fulfillment and manifestation of the kingdom of God when all the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea (Isa 11:9; Hab 2:14). But now, even in the temporary absence of the risen and ascended King (Lk 19:11-15 with Dan 7:13-14), the kingdom is no less present in mystery form, as active in the person and power of the Holy Spirit, not only in the age to come but even now.
This revelation of the mystery of the kingdom stood in contrast (but not contradiction) to the common Jewish expectation of one coming of the Messiah in connection with Israel’s post-tribulational deliverance at the day of the Lord. The mystery of the kingdom is based on the unknown secret of two separate comings of Messiah (Acts 26:22-23; Ro 16:25-26).
The foundation of this kingdom is not simply righteousness as the world, with its religions, sects, and cults has always conceived of God and the demands of His character and laws. That understanding is common to man and leaves one fatally short of the righteousness of God that is imputed to the believer in Jesus alone.
No, this is an “apocalyptic” (unveiled) righteousness that requires the Spirit’s revelation to understand and grace, because it is a righteousness of another kind. The Reformers called this an “iustitia alien” (alien righteousness). It is apart from me; it’s not mine inherently. It belongs to Christ. It’s source is God alone by grace alone through faith alone. Yet the imputation of His righteousness assures that the Holy Spirit has come to work the works of God in and through the justified believer.
This is why we are careful to clarify and insist that “whereas we are justified by faith alone, the faith that justifies is never alone”. The righteousness that justifies us also guarantees its lively working in and through us by the indwelling Spirit of Christ. The truth of whether we are in the faith in vital reality (2Cor 13:5) is shown and vindicated by the fruits of the Spirit (Mt 7:19; Mk 4:20; Jn 15:2; Ro 7:4; Gal 5:22; Phil 1:11; Ja 2:18) , albeit in varied measure differing between believers (“some thirty, some sixty, and some a hundred fold”; Mk 4:8).
To see (really see and apprehend by the Spirit) this righteousness of the King, as actually belonging to everyone in the kingdom, even those of the least spiritual maturity or stature, one must be born again, since “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3).
According to Jesus, the spiritual birth is not new. Nicodemus should have understood this as a fundamental presupposition of all spiritual life (Jn 3:10). This righteousness is the only ground and basis by which anyone was ever justified at any time or dispensation.
The Father already had in His secure possession the predestined work of the Son, counted as already done, even before the beginning of creation (Ro 8:20; Eph 1:4-5, 9-11; 3:11; Heb 9:12; 13:20; Rev 13:8). This is how God could give the Spirit of Christ to OT believers on the basis of a work yet to be accomplished in “the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), even before the full revelation of how this would be accomplished in the gospel of the Messiah’s twofold appearing to Israel (Acts 26:22-23; Ro 16:25-26; Eph 6:19; 1Pet 1:11)
Can we even begin to take this in? In the words of Fanny J. Crosby, “I scarse can take it in!” Indeed, no one can, except by the quickening of the Spirit’s illumination. Yet when we see this clearly and grasp its implications by the grace of the Spirit’s illumination, we will begin to grasp the unfathomable glory implied by such a righteousness as this.
Can we believe that we really are, not only someday, but right now this very righteousness of God in Christ? The scripture certainly affirms this. “For He made (counted) Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2Cor 5:21).
Only by the grace of revelation can we begin to grasp the inconceivable implications of 2Cor 5:21 and therefore the glory of Jn 5:24. What had, until then, only been associated with a future hope is here declared by Jesus to be the present possession of every truly regenerate believer. “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.”
Could grasping this by the Spirit be what it means to enter His rest? I think so. The writer of Hebrews calls this blessed estate, “the full assurance of faith.” This is far more rare than usually assumed by superficial views of the nature of true, Spirit quickened, saving faith.
This is the overcoming faith that shows itself through testing to be truly “born of God” (1Jn 5:4). It is not the lifeless, fruitless faith that is no better than the faith of demons (Ja 2:19). It is not the superficial, rootless faith that is quickly withered by the heat of temptation and adversity (Lk 8:13). It is the very faith of Christ at work in the believer (Jn 6:28-29; Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16, 20). It is the faith that Paul calls, “the faith of God’s elect” (Tit 1:1).
The Roman Catholics at Trent branded this glorious doctrine of imputed righteousness a “legal fiction”. To which I answer, if it is no legal fiction that He who knew no sin could counted as sin, not by His own sin, but by the imputation of mine; how is it a legal fiction if I should be counted the righteousness of God by a righteousness that is not mine, but His freely imputed to me? Oh wonder of wonders!
“And indeed, this is one of the greatest mysteries in the world; namely, that a righteousness that resides in heaven should justify me, a sinner on earth!” (John Bunyan).
No wonder Jesus said, “except a man be born again, he cannot see …” Not only can he not see the kingdom; he cannot see or understand the kingdom’s unique and only righteousness. This righteousness is not only impossible for the natural man to receive; it is impossible for him to conceive. It must be revealed.
“For therein (the gospel) is the righteousness of God revealed ….”