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” (Eph 6:19).
“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” (Ro 1:7).
Paul shows that the mystery that could not come to full light until the revelation of the gospel was fully foretold in the prophetic writings (Acts 26:22-23). Yet, kept secret in times past till the appointed time of revelation (1Cor 2:7-8; 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? What kind of righteousness is this that has waited till now to be “revealed”?
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 point of 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, performed, and perfected in only one place. That is the seamless garment of His own humanity as our representative, fulfilling in His flesh so much more, infinitely more, than was lost in ours.
As the last Adam, Jesus’ sinless life qualifies Him to take our place as penal substitute for the debt we owed to the holiness of the law as the ground of God’s just government. His predestined atonement on the cross purchased the Holy Spirit’s eternal right of access to lawfully and justly “quicken whom He will” (Jn 5:21; Ro 3:26; 9:18).
As the risen “second man from heaven”, He becomes the head of a new spiritual race. But even before the atonement was made in time, it was no less the basis on which He quickened His saints before the cross. “I am the the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mt 22:32).
On the basis of the “blood of the everlasting covenant” (Heb 13:20) that would be shed “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4), Jesus was always known to the Father as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8). The eternal surety of the Redeemer’s blood was the only basis by which any of His saints were quickened (Ps 80:18; 119:50, 93; Jn 5:21; 6:63; Ro 4:17; Eph 2:1, 5; Col 2:13), “born again by the Word of God “(1Pet 1:23), and brought into living union with the divine nature (2Pet 1:4).
Then as now, the natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit unless first made alive by the Spirit (Rom 8:7; 1Cor 2:14). Then as now, there were the “children of the flesh” who persecuted those who were “born of the Spirit” (Jn 3:6; Gal 4:29). And Peter will say the Spirit who filled and indwelt the OT faithful (Gen 41:38; Ex 31:3; ; Num 11:26; Deut 34:9; Neh 9:30; Ps 51:10-12; 139:7; Prov 1:23; Isa 63:11; Eze 2:2; 18:31; Dan 5:14; Mic 3:8) was none other than “the Spirit of Christ” (1Pet 1:11).
This is to point out that when Jesus rose as the “second man, the Lord of heaven”, He was made a quickening (life giving) spirit (1Cor 15:54), not only to those who would believe after the cross, but to all the regenerate children of God since the beginning. In all times, it is only by the Spirit that the dead live, and that Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. “Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2Cor 3:17).
As our head, Jesus took us with Him to the cross. When He died, we died. “Our old man is crucified with him” (Ro 6:6). When He was buried, we were buried with Him (Ro 6:4; Col 2:12). When He arose, we rose with Him (Eph 2:6; Col 2:12; 3:1). When He ascended, we ascended and set down with Him at His Father’s right hand (Eph 2:6; Rev 3:21).
While there remains an ongoing, active “putting off” of old things (Eph 4:22; Col 3:8), the purpose and the power to “die daily” lies in the freedom of being dead, not only reckoned as dead but actually being dead, having once and forever “put off” (past tense) the old man (Col 3:9). It is this knowledge of something that is finished that empowers victory over the flesh.
Being dead to the first Adam and eternally alive to the “second man, the Lord from heaven”, we are no longer “under the law” (Ro 3:19; 6:14-15). To be in the first Adam is to be in the flesh. To be in the flesh is to be “under the law”. We are “dead to the law” and married to another by the crucified and ascended body of Christ (Ro 7:1-5). This is because we are no longer alive to the “old man” against whom the law breathes out its fearful threatening (Ex 19:16).
Paul’s seeming vehemence against the law in this negative sense, so unique to his writings, is best understood by understanding a single verse. That verse is found in 1Cor 15:56:
“The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law.”
For Paul, the strength of sin is the law, not because of any defect in the law, but only because the strength of the law to condemn resides in what Paul elsewhere calls, “confidence in the flesh” (see Phil 3:3-8). The law holds dominion over the conscience as long as confidence remains in anything of natural human ability. It is the problem of self reliance to meet the holiness of the requirement.
Paul fully understands that his kinsmen of the school of the Pharisees knew that trust in God was necessary for salvation. However, they regarded this requirement as fully within their power to perform. They did NOT, as some ignorantly suppose, believe that salvation depended entirely on themselves. This is not their fall.
No, their fall lay in the ill fated presumption that this trust could be mixed with some residual measure of trust in themselves. This is what grace cannot tolerate. Paul utterly condemns the perverse presumption that grace and works, Spirit and flesh, the perfect righteousness of Christ and some measure, any measure, of human contribution can mix (compare Ro 11:6; Gal 5:9). For Paul, grace is all or nothing.
When the heart is divided in its trust, then the broken law continues to have claim and dominion over the conscience. Paul’s point is that the law becomes the strength of sin when there is confidence in the strength of man to meet the holiness of the standard (“But I say unto you”; Mt 5:22, 28, 12:36; 39, 44; James 2:10).
This is the lie that gives sin its strength to accuse. It is also the source of the pride that God must resist. It is this misplaced confidence that gives Satan access and opportunity to accuse the conscience by his prosecutorial use of the law (Jn 5:45; 2Cor 3:9; Rev 12:10).
When Christians fail to grasp the all sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness alone, not only for justification, but also for power, this divided dependence limits, if not completely defeats, the freedom of the Spirit to bear true and permanent fruit unto God (Jn 15:16; Ro 6:22; 7:4; Gal 5:22; Eph 5:9). This is the double mind of which James speaks in Ja 1:8; 4:8. This is what afflicts and binds up many poor defeated Christians, and also many who are in peril of “failing of the grace of God” (Heb 12:15).
Therefore, being dead to the old man over whom the law, and therefore sin and Satan, held accusing, condemning jurisdiction, we have become “dead to the law” (Ro 7:4; Gal 2:19). “In Christ” the law has reached both its goal and termination, but only in the sense of its capacity as a “ministry of death and condemnation” (2Cor 3:7, 9). And also the completion of its tutelage to bring (drive) the despairing soul to Christ who is, in this sense, “the end of the law for righteousness” (Ro 10:4; Gal 3:23-25).
It is in this sense that the law has been completely “taken out of the way” (Col 2:14), and “done away” (2Cor 3:7, 11, 14). We are no longer “in” the first Adam’s nature, but the last’s. “For you are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). This is how Paul can say “it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).
Not only is our life located in another person who also lives in us (Col 1:27; 1Pet 1:11); it is in another place, “far above all principalities and power” (Eph 1:21; 4:10), and therefore secure beyond Satan’s reach (compare Rev 12:5 with 1Jn 5:18; especially in light of the implications of Ro 7:17, 20 in light of 1Pet 1:23; 1Pet 3:2; 1Jn 3:6, 9).
Our life is now in heaven, because when He ascended, we ascended and sit down with Him at the Father’s right hand (Eph 1:20; 2:6; Col 3:1; Heb 12:2; Rev 3:21). The language of “set down and seated” implies something that is finished. Like Him, we are waiting till all things are put under (Ps 110:1; Heb 2:8), but as to the certainty of our position and hope of inheritance, “it is finished!” The new creation has irrevocably begun. The first fruits have been secured and brought in. If Jesus is raised, He lives, and if He lives, He is able to come again.
We are not on our way to becoming a new creation; we ARE a new creation! This is because we are safely and forever in Him whose victory over Satan, sin, death, and the grave is the first fruits, not only of the resurrection in its order (1Cor 15:20, 23), but the entire creation (Ro 8:20).
Christ, the whole Christ, not only the death He died for us, but the life He lived for us, is now our very life, so that His appearing will be the appearing of our life. “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Col 3:4). Here is the sublime logic of a most inconceivable glory, promised to every believer: “Beloved, now are we the sons of God, and it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1Jn 3:2).
Here is a profound principle. Our deeper, fuller transformation into His likeness does not depend on a new reality, but an ever increasing revelation of Him “as He is“. “But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2Cor 3:18). This means the transformative vision that begins now by the Spirit awaits its fullest revelation beyond the veil at at His return when the transformation will be complete.
As the promised Seed of the woman, Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension has secured the complete reversal of the curse for all who are in Him. That is the key word, “in Him”. He has done this, not only by expiating our guilt, but by imputing to us the very righteousness that He perfected in our representative humanity, as necessarily lived out “under the law” (Mt 3:15 with Gal 4:4).
In this we see that the life He lived was as crucial to our salvation as the death He died. It is the righteousness of His life that He lived for us that is imputed, and put to our account, as though we lived that fully examined, fully approved life.
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.
It is this righteousness that is put to the everlasting seal of everyone who has the faith that is “born of God” (1Jn 5:4). This kind of faith is so much more than mental consent to a correct creed. Saving faith is born by the Spirit.
According to Paul, we are inwardly changed and transformed, not only by believing the right facts, but by the Spirit’s revelation of the face of Jesus, which is to say, a revelation of His mind and heart (2Cor 3:18 with Mt 11:27; Jn 5:21; Ro 9:18). That moment of true believing is itself a resurrection event (Eph 2:1; Tit 3:5). “How precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed!” (Amazing Grace, John Newton).
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 ….”