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Righteousness of Faith

Juhani Uljas | 2000 Treasure Hidden in a Field --

Man, the Image of God

In the righteousness of faith, there is the question of the relationship between God and man. It is the most important issue in our lives. God is just and trustworthy. He is righteous. There is nothing wrongful in Him, nor does He change His mind, but He remains true to His promises. God is so upright that He can never accept anything wrongful. He cannot turn a blind eye to our sins, thinking as people do, “Oh, it's not such a big deal.”

God created man in His own image. He made man to be an eternal being and responsible for his deeds. The man created by God was righteous, so that in that aspect, too, he was the image of God. These characteristics separate man from the rest of creation. Only man can be righteous or lack righteousness, the remainder of creation does not have this gift. When God looked at His creation, He saw that it was very good (Gen. 1:31). Thus, man also was good. But man fell into sin when he was not obedient to, but rather transgressed the will of his Creator. As a result of the Fall, man was separated from God and lost his righteousness. The trusting relationship of the child to the Father disappeared, and in its place, came fear and a need to flee from God. We all bear this poor heritage of the Fall of the first people, which is called inherited sin. Man became incapable of doing that which is right before God.

The Promise of God Is Sure

God is not only righteous but He is also love. He had received a promise from His Son before the creation of the world, that He would redeem man who would fall under the power of sin and death. God created earth depending upon that promise. When the Fall had taken place, the Father came seeking those who had been deceived by the serpent, His fallen children. He called out to them, because they had hidden themselves when they heard His calling voice. When He found them, He gave them the promise of Christ, Who would crush the head of the serpent. When Adam and Eve believed the promise of God, they became partakers in Christ's perfection and received righteousness of faith. When the promise given by God is under consideration, the matter is as certain as if it had already taken place (Rev. 13:8).

The promise of God was fulfilled when the Word became flesh. As man, the Lord Jesus fulfilled the will of God. His life and works were acceptable before God. Love toward sin-fallen man led Him to suffering and death on the cross. He was the sacrifice chosen by God to atone for our sins. This sacrifice was sufficient. The anger of the righteous God was extinguished in the innocent blood of Jesus. Peace was made upon the cross.

Death could not hold the sinless Christ in its power. As Easter morning dawned, the bars of the grave opened and the Victor rose. He had crushed the head of the serpent against the threshold of hell, as some old preachers have described the matter. “Who was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).

When Christ had risen as the Victor, He appeared in the midst of His own through locked doors. He had tidings of peace with Him. He breathed upon His disciples and said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost, whosoever sins ye remit, they shall be remitted unto them.” In this sermon, God preserved the entire blessing of His Son's redemption work, so that a penitent person, yearning for atonement, could find and hear the forgiveness of God from it. Faith is born by hearing this sermon and accepting it. The disciples of the Lord Jesus preached the forgiveness of sins with the authority and power of the Holy Spirit. It is the great love and patience of God that this sermon still can be heard. Man can receive it when God's kingdom approaches him.

Justifying Faith

Faith is not a deed of man, but it is a gift of God. Therefore, faith is not a merit, on the basis of which we are declared righteous, but man owns the perfect righteousness of Christ through faith. The righteousness of faith is righteousness that has come from outside of us. It is also called “gift-righteousness.”

Righteousness of faith became a central question of the Reformation. According to the confessional books, the justification of a sinner before God means that he is proclaimed free of all his sins and his merited condemnation to perdition, and that he becomes a child of God and an heir of eternal life. We do not merit this in the least, nor are we worthy of it. Justification is not based on our past, current, or future deeds. It is based on grace and on the merit of our Lord Christ, alone. His obedience, suffering, and death are counted as righteousness for us.

The Holy Spirit promises and gives these gifts to us in the holy gospel. By faith we take hold of the promise, receive it, and comprehend that it applies to us. Faith is the gift of God by which we come to know Christ, our Redeemer, through the word of the gospel and to trust in Him. We know by faith that we have the forgiveness of sins, by grace alone, only because of His obedience. We also know that God considers us righteous and that we will receive eternal salvation (Formula of Concord, Righteousness by Faith before God).

Righteousness of Works

The opposite of righteousness of faith is righteousness of works, that can also be called righteousness of the Law, or man's self-righteousness. During Jesus' time, the Pharisees thought that they were justified by upholding the Law and the traditional statutes of their fathers with conscientious exactness. They erred because they did not recognize the depth of the fault caused by the Fall. In the light of God's Word, their righteousness diminished to hypocrisy. Jesus said to His disciples, “Beware ye of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1).

Self-righteousness appears during our time in a more covert form. It does not deny Christ, but it does not want to be justified from the godless place (Rom. 4:5). The self-righteous person considers salvation the mutual work of God and man. Man must first do something to merit grace, and when the person has done his best, God fills in what is lacking from the person's righteousness with the merit of His Son.

However, God will not join man in joint justifying work, but wants to present the merit of His Son as a gift to completely godless man. Grace we even receive of grace. John says, “And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace” (John 1:16). In a song of Zion, we sing, “But may it not be ever touched by merits of my own; and may the Lord help us to live e'er by His grace alone” (SHZ 32:6).

The danger of self-righteousness also lurks near the believer, for on our part, we are Pharisees through and through. The warning of Jesus, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees,” applies to disciples.

Righteousness of Life

What significance do a Christian's endeavor and the fruits of faith have? The Formula of Concord answers that those who intend to remain in their sins and continue committing them do not have true saving faith. Sincere contrition always precedes faith. True faith always belongs to and is connected to true repentance. Love, on the other hand, is a fruit that follows true faith. The lack of it is a sure indication that the person does not live as one who is justified. He is either still in the power of death or he has lost the righteousness of faith that he once received, as John says (1 John 3). But Paul says, “A man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom. 3:28). In this manner, he indicates that the justification which happens by faith does not include contrition any more than the deeds following justification. Good deeds are not a prerequisite of justification, but are a result of it. A person must be righteous in order to be able to do good deeds.

The leading thought, when speaking about justification by faith to a believer is the core principle of the Reformation: “Alone by faith, alone by grace, and alone for the sake of the merit of Jesus Christ.”

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