In this language Paul affirms that Christ is our righteousness. This is a momentous thought. It goes to the heart of the scheme of redemption. How is Christ our righteousness? What does Paul mean by the affirmation? The very life of Christianity is involved in the answer. By one's answer we know just where to place him in regard to the vital principles of Christianity.
That one must be righteous in order to be prepared for heaven, must be conceded by those who accept the Bible as authority. "Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God." And this must be a positive, not simply a relative, righteousness. Men may be comparatively righteous, and yet be wholly unprepared for the presence of God. The righteousness required in order to a home in heaven is absolute. All unrighteousness is sin, and one must be perfectly free from sin to be accepted in the Beloved. No sin can enter heaven. One can not stand in the presence of God, accepted through the righteousness of Christ, with the least taint of sin upon his soul. Hence perfect righteousness is required. One must be righteous even as Christ Himself is righteous. Knowing this to be true, and knowing our own imperfections and shortcomings, even in our best estate, it is no wonder that the way is described as narrow. One can not but see at a glance his utter hopelessness if he has to depend on himself. If Christ has made any provision by which this righteousness can be attained then one can not but appreciate what Christ has done for him and his absolute dependence on Him for salvation.
Two distinct kinds of righteousness are clearly defined in the Word of God. They are in striking contrast. One is approved; the other condemned. One is of God; the other of men. One is of faith; the other of law.
God's righteousness is not only a divine, holy principle of justice and mercy, but is also a system or plan of salvation. When Jesus applied to John for baptism, John declined. He was preaching the "baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." He also required a confession of their sins. They were baptized of him in Jordan, "confessing their sins." While he did not know Jesus to be the Christ, he knew Him as his kinsman, and he knew enough of the purity and sinlessness of His life to think that He should not confess His sins to be baptized for their remission. Besides he doubtless hoped that Jesus would be the favored one on whom he was to see the Holy Spirit descending and abiding upon Him. He, therefore, felt himself unworthy to baptize his cousin Jesus. But Jesus said, "Suffer it now, for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness." No matter what John's personal feelings were, or the sinlessness and purity of Jesus, it became the duty of one as the administrator and the other as the subject to observe this divine appointment. Had their idea been that baptism was to be administered to those free from sin, such an objection could never have been raised. Here the word "righteousness" evidently refers to God's appointments in the divine economy -- the plan of salvation.
When Peter went to the house of Cornelius to break the bread of life to the Gentiles, he said: "I now perceive that God is no respecter of persons, but in every nation he that feareth God and worketh righteousness is accepted of him." Here "righteousness" is something to be "worked." It is, therefore, something to be done. In it men are active. It is not, therefore, a quality in God or man, but something that enlists the activities of men. It is a plan by the observance of which men are accepted of God.
Speaking of his own brethren according to the flesh, Paul says: "Brethren, my heart's desire and supplication to God is for them, that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit themselves to the righteousness of God" (Rom. x.1-3). Here the righteousness of God is contrasted with that of the unbelieving Jews. They rejected God's, and set up one of their own. They did not submit to God's righteousness. Here it is clearly a religious system, a plan of salvation. They rejected God's plan and tried to establish one of their own. In this they were zealous, but it was a misguided zeal.
In harmony with this idea of righteousness we understand the expression in the first chapter of this epistle: "For I am not ashamed of the gospel: 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 revealed a righteousness of God by faith unto faith: as it is written, But the righteous shall live by faith." Here we understand God's righteousness to be God's plan of saving or justifying men by faith; the plan to which the Jews would not submit in the tenth chapter. Hence, in the gospel, God's system of justification by faith is revealed in order to faith. Faith comes by hearing the word of God. In the gospel God's plan of saving men by faith in Christ is revealed, and this is the only place in which it is revealed. Consequently the truth herein revealed produces faith. This results in the acceptance of God's plan of salvation.
We have "the faith" as a system of salvation through Christ, and faith as a personal state of the mind and heart. So, also, have we righteousness as a plan of salvation which we accept from God, and righteousness as a personal quality -- a state of personal freedom from sin. And the one leads to the other, as a revelation of "the faith" produces personal faith.
This leads us to consider how we obtain that perfect righteousness, without which we can not enjoy the blissful presence of God.
Paul's teaching in regard to the personal righteousness of the saints, makes salvation by a mere reformation of life, an impossibility. The importance of this fact can not be over-estimated. Many people seem to think that a reformation in regard to moral conduct, is all that is necessary to prepare to meet God. If they can only break off their sinful practices, and practice morality, they think they have done all that is really essential. In this there are two fatal mistakes. First, no reformation is perfect. The best of men whose lives have been moulded into the divine image, and are most conformed to the divine nature, have their imperfections. The ripest saint upon the earth feels that if his salvation depended on his perfect sinlessness in conduct for the rest of life, the chances of heaven would at once become dark and hopeless. The cheerfulness and bright assurance of the child of God are not because he hopes to live a perfect life, but because his imperfections will be taken away in Christ. And second, the most perfect reformation would avail nothing. Could one so reform his life as to never sin again, and practice virtue in place of the former vice, it would fall far short of securing the end. However free from sin one may live in the future, the sins of the past are upon him. These will forever condemn him, unless they are removed. Our ceasing to sin will not take away the old ones. The fact that a man refuses to contract any more debts, will not pay a dollar of his old ones. So no amount of reformation will make amends for the past. Our past sins must be taken away, else they will condemn us in the day of eternity. We can not remove them ourselves; we can not atone for our own sins. Here we are utterly helpless. To what source, then, shall we go? Christ is the only refuge. He alone can take away our sins; His blood alone can cleanse from sin. "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanseth us from all sin." This is the "fountain opened in the house of David for all manner of sin and uncleanness." "Though your sins be as scarlet, he will make them white as wool." "He will put them as far from us as the east is from the west, and remember them against us no more forever." Thus it is that Christ is our righteousness. We are righteous because He has made us such. He makes us such by taking away our sins. When our sins are pardoned, we are as free from sin as if we had never sinned at all. Hence as regards the guilt of sin, we are perfect. We are made perfect in righteousness because Christ removes all unrighteousness. We are, therefore, absolutely dependent on Him for salvation. We have no righteousness of our own. Our robes of self-righteousness are but filthy tatters in His sight. Those clothed in the righteousness of Christ, that is, the righteousness which Christ gives them, shall have right to the tree of life, and shall enter through the gates into the eternal city. Their right is not one of merit, but one that Christ has given. He is our righteousness, and apart from Him none is possibly attainable.
Since we have to be perfectly righteous in order to be saved, and since this is impossible on our part, when relying on ourselves, but is obtained only by being pardoned through Christ, it follows that all boasting is cut off. No man has occasion to glory except in the cross of Christ. Hence the apostle concludes his argument by saying: "He that glorieth let him glory in the Lord." It also follows that he who would obtain personal righteousness, must submit to the "righteousness of God" -- God's plan of salvation. Through the one "righteousness," is the other righteousness obtained.