The Righteous shall live by faith in Christ

by | Posted March 22nd at 3:24am

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes…for in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed — a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’.” (Romans 1:16-17; compare Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4)

In the first chapter of Romans, Paul is exalting the righteousness of God as our foremost focus on what is revealed through the atonement of Jesus Christ — what was taught to us as the primary message of the Gospel.

The letters of Paul on the Righteousness of God

Peter was called the apostle of hope, and John of love, whereas Paul was the apostle who defines the doctrine of God’s righteousness as it applies to our life of faith in Christ.

Paul experienced direct communications from the Lord. He was taught by the revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12) and even caught up into paradise to hear unspeakable words (2 Corinthians 12:4). He was led by the Spirit into the importance of the law and the prophets where Jesus revealed to him the truths verified in the Lord’s atoning death. Jesus gave this to Paul who was directly called to become his chief doctorate on earth — Paul, the principal intellectual architect of the Gospel and Christ’s church.

He teaches the doctrine of God’s righteousness from the objective truth opened up to him in the Old Testament, and from his experiential acquaintance with Christ as the end of the works of the Mosaic law for any false sense of justifying righteousness. The apostle makes use of all the terms employed by the other writers, such as redemption, propitiation, peace, and the like, descriptive of Christ’s sacrificial death, there is one peculiar to him, THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD, which very frequently occurs. Though announced in the prophets, and indirectly alluded to by Peter and John in their use of the designation “the Righteous One,” it is especially found in Paul, who uses this abstract expression to describe the atonement in relation to divine law. 1

“Righteousness by Faith in Christ” has been a doctrinal term with many different concepts within the various denominations of the church. It may be one of the most confusing and uncomprehended teachings due to its many variant ideas both academic and unacademic. However, Christ himself told us to “seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.” (see Matthew 6:33 NIV) It is imperative that we understand God’s kingdom wherein his children seek His righteousness above all else. It is the golden-key doctrine — that unlocks the blessed life.

Theories of Law and Grace Abound

The are some groups who believe that the Mosaic law including the Decalogue is done away with, which does not line up with scripture.

As a Puritan who believed in the continuation of the moral law found in the Decalogue — not to be confused with the ceremonial laws, given within the Mosaic period, Theodore Beza (1519-1605) affirmed that ignorance of the law-gospel distinction “is one of the principal sources of the abuses which corrupted and still corrupt Christianity.” 

In agreement and with careful clarification of the distinctions of the administration of law and grace, the Puritan reformer and writer, Burgess, noted that “when one takes the law strictly [primarily and foremost] and identifies it with the covenant of grace, he or she confounds “the righteousness of works, and of faith together” — an axiom which referenced the contradistinction during the Reformation, held by the Protestant’s theology versus Roman Catholic dogma blending and confusing works of the law with God’s mercy and grace — he added as a Puritan writer  “as the Papists do”. 3  He was careful to express this distinction because the Papacy had instituted many works-related methods by which to be saved such as indulgences.

Aside from works as a method to obtain salvation or merit from God I would like to make a scriptural observation of truths noted by the prophets, both in the new and old testaments worth comparison. We find that men and women were often accounted righteous in tandem with a confession of sin and God’s reconciling forgiveness, and by expressing absolute belief in the prophetic word of God declared to them as when Abraham believed God’s claim that his progeny would include the nations. Thus it is evident that grace has been working through the old as well as the new covenant when God restores a person from a life of sin; and when a man walks in faith as a friend of God as did Abraham. (Psalm 32:1-2; Romans 4:3, James 2:23) Further study on this point: (Romans 3:25-26; 4:8; Galatians 3:11; 2 Corinthians 5:19; Hebrews 10:38)

A comparison of Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Romans, and Philippians where the righteousness of God is the central thought shows that there was a doctrinal conflict within the churches antithetical to living a righteous life by faith. These letters reveal his constant need to counteract Jewish legalism. The mindset of the Jewish Pharisee hinged on the works of the law, a refined keeping of the written code with its strict enforcement of legal ceremonies such as circumcision as erroneously thought to remain in continuum with the gospel of Christ. However, the purpose of the Mosaic law was to increase the Jews’ understanding that we are all sinners and to lead us to understand the need for Christ’s atonement. (Galatians 3:24) This understanding Paul brings out well in his letters.

In Romans, “the righteousness of God” is a descriptive name Paul uses to illustrate the atoning work of the Father, allowing and determining the death of his son, Jesus Christ on the cross — displaying Yahweh’s righteousness of the once-and-for-all final atonement to redeem humankind from sin. Because the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all One in the Godhead, it should be understood that this was a joint effort to redeem man first prophesied in Genesis 3:15 and referred by Paul after the cross in Romans 16:20 — a plan which was put into effect before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4)

For this reason, some churches hold to a continuance of all of the ten commandments as a rule of faith because Christ died to redeem transgressors of God’s divine law. Because we all have sinned (Romans 3:23-24) when we are moved by Christ’s atonement on the cross and His offer of grace, the Spirit of God lovingly convicts us of sin and leads us to repentance (John 16:8). We find repentance comes easily when we first understand the forgiveness of our Lord. (Romans 2:4).

In tandem with faith in Christ, led by the Spirit in love, it is of paramount interest to understand righteousness by faith is synchronous understanding of the moral law as now written on our hearts in response to Christ’s atoning work (Jeremiah 31:33). The divine law which is based on love was the standard bar of Christ’s atonement, so any faith in the receipt of grace upholds the primary genus articulated further by differentiating a divine moral decalogue and as such cannot be contrary to Christ’s remnant church! (John 14:15; 1 John 2:3; Revelation 12:17, 14:12)

Martin Luther noted that “whoever knows well this art of distinguishing between the Law and the Gospel, place him at the head and call him a doctor of Holy Scripture.” 4  The 10 commandments are not observed as a way of justification, but as based on the foundational principles of loving God first for what He accomplished in His Son on the cross on our behalf, and loving others as yourself, which is the way that the Spirit leads us to live agreeably in our lifestyle by faith and love (Romans 8:14).

The letter to the Galatians is an enforcement of the great truth that this righteousness of faith in Christ is the one plea valid before God; without complicated confusion by adding any form of works for our justification before God to add to this completed work of salvation. (Galatians 2:21, 3:21).

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, we find the same antithetical theme even though other points required attention in this church (1 Corinthians 1:30; 2 Corinthians 3:9). Paul contrasts the two economies: the law is called the ministry of condemnation, and the gospel, the ministry of righteousness. In the letter to the Philippians Paul accounts all things as a loss in exchange for this righteousness despite approaching martyrdom (Philippians 3:9). We find an allusion to the righteousness of God also in the pastoral letters. (Titus 3:5–7).

Dr G. Smeaton noted how Luther struggled with the phrase the righteousness of God: “All alike need the provision of the gospel, and must repair to it; FOR they have nothing to expect but a revelation of wrath on their account. The mode of expounding this phrase by allusion to the divine attribute was in reality overcome at the Reformation. Luther tells us that, having long had a desire to understand the Epistle to the Romans, he was always stopped by the expression “the righteousness of God,” which he understood as the divine attribute; but after long meditations, and spending days and nights in these thoughts, the nature of that righteousness which justifies us was discovered to him; upon which he felt himself born anew, and the whole Scriptures become quite a different thing. It is evident, indeed, that there can be no allusion to the divine attribute of justice, because this would furnish the idea of an incensed God, which is the purport of the law; whereas the provision is one of grace, displaying a reconciling and justifying God, which is the essence of the gospel.5

In Romans, we will see that the primary use of the term righteousness of faith or righteousness by faith will represent God’s righteousness in the act of his redemption of humanity: Christ was made to die for our sin so that the righteousness of God might cover us as we accept his gracious gift of His own Son Jesus Christ. As theologians note, Christ was a propitiating sacrifice in our stead, as he died on our behalf for our transgressions of the law. (I John 3:4)

First, it must be clear that the Christian is not made as a man or woman to attribute any of the righteousness of God to him or herself (2 Corinthians 5:21) by any good works demonstrated outwardly by our keeping of any prescribed law. Humanity has proved incapable of achieving any righteousness on our own. (Philippians 3:9).

If we think of God’s unmerited favour towards us, covering our sin as a father might lovingly embrace a long-lost son (Luke 15:18-20), we have a pretty good picture of His forgiveness, which motivates our love to follow Him as our Redeemer, and to demonstrate our life as a reflection of Christ’s righteousness via His Spirit within — letting our light shine as Jesus taught in the sermon on the mount. (Matthew 5:16)

Secondly, the divine justice against man’s sin was due to the transgression of God’s law (1 John 3:4). Because that law furnished the rule or standard by which God’s righteousness was tried and delivered resulting in the atoning death of Christ; we now seek to follow the Royal law of Christ, by loving God and our neighbour as yourself. Love is the fulfilment of the law (Romans 13:10)

This righteousness is called a gift (Romans 5:17) and said to be of God, moreover divinely provided in Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Since this is in contrast with the ongoing failure of works of the law, or of any good works of our making (Philippians 3:9), the fact is clear. We have no righteousness of our own. This atonement of Christ on the cross is the gracious provision of God, which is imputed, accounted to us only by faith in what he has done on our behalf. (Romans 4:3-6, 22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:21)

1 Smeaton, G. (1870). The Doctrine of the atonement, as taught by the apostles. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Theodore Beza, “The Christian Faith (1558)”  in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Volume 2: 1552-1556, comp. James T. Dennision Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 173-74.   

Burgess, Vindiciae Legis, 230

Martin Luther, The Proper Distinction between Law and Gospel:  Thirty-Nine Evening Lectures, ed F.W.Walther, trans. W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia 1986

5 Smeaton, G. (1870). The Doctrine of the atonement, as taught by the apostles. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

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