XII. THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF FAITH.
"Not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is of [from] God by [upon] faith." — Phil. iii. 9 (R.V.).
Righteousness is a term which is applied in different ways. Often it denotes excellence of personal character. So used, it suggests the idea of a life whose manifestations agree with the standard by which lives are tried. Sometimes it denotes rectitude or justice, as distinguished from benevolence. Sometimes a claim to be approved, or judicially vindicated, is more immediately in view when righteousness is asserted. Paul himself freely uses the word in different applications, the sense, in each passage, being determined by the context. Here we have the righteousness of faith, as distinguished from the righteousness of works, or righteousness by the law. The passage belongs to a large class in which righteousness is spoken of as accruing, through Christ, to those who are unrighteous, or whose own righteousness has proved unreliable. Let us try to fix the thought which the Apostle designed to inculcate in such passages.<
The Apostle, then, conceives of the righteousness, of which he has so much to say, as God's: it is the "righteousness of God" (Rom. i. 17, iii. 22, x. 3). Yet it is not God's in the sense of being an attribute of His own Divine nature: for (in the passage before us) it is called "the righteousness from God"; it arises for us by our faith in Jesus Christ; and so (2 Cor. v. 21) "we are made the righteousness of God in Christ." It is, therefore, something that is from God to us believing, a "gift of righteousness" (Rom. v. 17). At the same time it is not, on the other hand, an attribute or quality of the human mind, whether natural or imparted; for it is something "revealed" (Rom. i. 17). Also, it is opposed to the wrath of God. Now, that wrath is indeed an element of our state as sinners, but not a feature of our character. Further, it could not be said of any internal character of our own, that we are to be "obedient," or are to "submit" to it (Rom. x. 3).
In the latter part of Romans v. we have set before us two counter conceptions: the one of sin and condemnation, deriving from Adam, antecedent to the personal action and offence of those who descend from him; the other of free gift to justification, following from the righteousness or obedience of Christ, this being a gift of grace abounding to many. In either case the Apostle sees arising from one a relation which pertains to many, and which brings forth its results to them: on the one hand, sin and death; on the other, righteousness and life. In both cases a common relation is recognised, under which individuals are found existing; and in either case it traces up to the one — to Adam or to Christ. Whatever difficulties may be felt to attach to this passage, the Apostle's doctrine of the righteousness of faith must be understood so as to agree with the way of thinking which the passage expresses.
It appears, then, that the righteousness which is from God, to or upon faith, expresses a relation between God and believers that is the proper basis for fellowship with God, confiding on their part, communicative of the best blessings on His. It is analogous to the relation conceived to arise when a perfectly righteous man is approved and set apart to weal; and like that it stands in contrast with the relation due to sin as it incurs wrath. It follows that this righteousness, if it exists or becomes available for those who have sinned, includes the forgiveness of sins. But it includes more than forgiveness, in so far as it is not merely negative. It is the concession to us of a standing which is a positive basis for experiences, pointing towards eternal life, and rising into it.
This relation to Himself God has founded for us sinful men in Christ, and specially in His atonement. It is part of what is divinely held out to us, as life or well-being in Christ. When we do awaken to it, our whole religious attitude towards God takes character from it, and is to be ordered accordingly. This way of being related to God is called God's righteousness, or righteousness "from God," because it is not set up by us, but by God's grace, through the redeeming work of Christ ("being justified freely by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" — -Rom. iii. 24). On the other hand, it is righteousness "of faith," or "through faith of Christ," because faith subjects itself to the order of grace, revealed and made effectual in Christ, and therein finds the reconciliation. For the believing man the relation becomes effectual and operative. He is "accepted in the Beloved." He is "constituted righteous" (Rom. v. 19), and his dialogue with his Heavenly Father regulates itself accordingly, he being justified "from — or upon — his faith." The harmony with God on which he has entered becomes, in some degree, matter of consciousness for himself (Rom. v. 1). With this connection of things in view, the Apostle teaches that righteousness is imputed, or reckoned, to him who believes in Jesus (Rom. iv. 24).
Whatever opinion we may choose to entertain of this scheme, it ought not to be disputed that this, in general, is Paul's conception of the matter.
However, let us emphatically note that it is as "in Christ," "found in Him," the Apostle possesses this form of well-being. If there be such a thing as a real union between the Saviour and Paul, then in the Saviour and with the Saviour Paul is thus righteous. The faith to which this righteousness arises is faith that unites to Christ, and not any other kind of faith. And so, if it be possible for Paul to fall from Christ, then also he must fall from the righteousness of faith. In Christ a relation to God appears, made good, maintained, and verified, in which He gathers to Himself and comprehends all true believers: "for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren." Hence also this Christian benefit, though it is distinguishable, is not separated radically from the other benefits. It is not possible to take the one and leave the rest; for Christ is not divided. But there is an order in His gifts; and, for Paul, this gift is primary. God is ours in Christ; therefore religion, true religion, may begin and go on.
It is of weight with Paul that this righteousness of faith, arising for him who is "found" in Christ, is founded for us in the atonement. That is to say, the new relation is not represented as a relation created for us by a mere Divine fiat that it shall be so. It is represented as arising for sinful men out of the redemption of Christ; which redemption is represented as in its own nature fitted to fructify into this result, as well as into other fruits which are due to it. Christ's atonement is the way which grace has taken to bring in the righteousness of faith. In particular, we are made righteous (in this sense) through Christ, in a manner corresponding to that in which He was made sin for us (2 Cor. v. 21). Hence the blood, the sacrifice, the obedience of Christ are referred to on all occasions, in connection with the righteousness of faith, as explicative causes to which this is to be traced. The relation is first of all a relation completely grounded and made good in Christ; and then we are participant in it with Him, in virtue of our faith in Him.
Clearly the Apostle thinks of this righteousness of faith as something very wonderful. It is for him fundamental. It is the first article in which he celebrates the worth of the knowledge of Christ; no doubt, because he felt it transforming his whole moral and spiritual experience; and, in particular, because it contrasted so vividly with the nugatory righteousness of earlier days.
In earlier days Paul sought righteousness — an approved and accepted standing with God — by the works of the law. That project failed when the great discovery on the road to Damascus showed him to himself as all astray; in particular, when the law itself, coming home to him in the fulness of its meaning, both revealed to him the beggarliness of his own performance, and, at the same time, stung into appalling activity ungodly elements within him. Then he saw before him the law rising from its deep foundations in eternal strength and majesty, imperative, unalterable, inexorable; and over against it his own works lay withered and unclean. But another vision came. He saw the Son of God in His life, death, and resurrection. Mere love and pity were the inspiration of His coming: obedience and sacrifice were the form of it. So in that great vision one element or aspect that rose into view was righteousness, — righteousness grounded as deep as the law itself, as magnificent in its great proportions, as little subject to change or decay, radiant with surpassing glory. As he saw, and bowed, an trusted, he became conscious of a new access and nearness to God Himself; he passed into the fellowship of God's dear Son; he found acceptance in the Beloved. Here was the answer to that woful problem of the law: righteousness in Christ for a world of sinners, coming to them as a free gift to faith. Here was the strong foundation on which faith found itself set to learn its lessons, and perform its service, and fight its battles. In Christ he received the reconciliation — merciful, and also righteous. As Paul thought of the ground on which he once had stood, and of the standing granted to him now, "in Him," — it was with a "yea doubtless" he declared that he counted all to be loss for the gain of Christ, in whom he was found, not having his own righteousness, which was of the law, but that which is by the faith of Christ.
Righteousness of faith, as the Apostle conceives it, is to be distinguished from personal righteousness, or goodness, as an attribute of human character, but yet is most closely connected with it. Righteousness of faith opened what seemed to Paul the prosperous way into righteousness of daily living. In the very hour when he first believed for righteousness, he felt himself entering a kingdom of light, and love, and power, in which all things were possible; and ever after the same order of experience verified itself for him afresh. The righteousness of faith being the relation in which, through Christ, he found himself standing to God, fixed at the same time his relation to all Christian benefits, including, as a principal element, conformity to the likeness of Christ. To the man in Christ all these benefits pertained; in Christ he could claim them all: in Christ he found himself before doors that opened of their own accord to let him in; in Christ it proved to be a fit thing, grounded deep in the congruities of God's administration, that God should be for him; therefore, also, the pathway of holiness lay open before him. The fulness of blessing had not yet come into possession and experience. But in the righteousness of faith he apprehended all blessings as stretching out their hands to him, because through Christ they ought to be his. That he should find himself in a relation to God so simple and so satisfying was wonderful; all the more, when it was contrasted with the condemnation belonging to him as a sinner. This was the righteousness from God to faith, in the strength of which he could call all things his own.
If Paul had succeeded in the enterprise of his earlier days, when he sought righteousness by the law, he would, as he hoped, have found acceptance in the end; and various blessings would have followed. He would have emerged from his task a man stamped as righteous, and fit to be treated accordingly. That would have been the end. But now, in reference to his present enterprise, he has found, being in Christ, acceptance at the beginning. So often as faith lifts him into the heavenly places where Christ is, he finds all things to be his; not because he has achieved righteousness, but because Christ has died and risen, and because God justifies him who believes in Jesus. The platform he hoped to reach by the efforts of a lifetime is already under his feet. Paul faces each arduous step in his new enterprise, strong in the conviction that his standing before God is rooted, not in his doings nor in his feelings, but in his Saviour in whom he holds the righteousness of faith.
We need not conceal from ourselves, however, that many find the doctrine thus ascribed to Paul unacceptable. If they do not count it positively misleading, as some do, they yet regard it as unprofitable theory.
Apart from objections drawn from theology or morals or texts, they argue, for example, that it is all in the air, away from real experience. Christian religion is a practical matter, — a question of improved dispositions, improved habits, and improved prospects. If, through Christ, such things as these arise for us, if, through Him, influences reach us that tend to such results, then those are the practical specimens which interpret to us a Saviour's kindness. To know Christ in these must be the true knowledge of Him. To carry us away beforehand into the region of a supposed relation to God is a precarious, and may be a delusive business; it is, at any rate, a dogmatic nicety rather than a vital element in religion. If we are to experience God's mercy or Christ's kindness in any practical form, then that is to be so; and it is shorter to say so at once. Let us fix on that, without interposing any doctrine of "righteousness by faith."
But it must be said, in reply, that to speak of this righteousness of faith as unpractical, is a strange mistake. All religion aims at fellowship with God; and in Christian religion that fellowship becomes real and authentic in Christ. Through all exercises and attainments of Christian religion that are genuine, this thread goes. We have access to God, and we abide in the Father and the Son. How imperfectly this takes place on our part need not be said. The imperfection on our part is, indeed, only exceeded by the condescension on His. Yet our faith is that this is real, otherwise Christianity would not be for us the opening of an eternal blessedness. How can it be judged unpractical, if God reveals to men, first, that in the room of those confused and melancholy relations to God which arise for us out of our own past history, He has constituted for us a relation, apprehensible by faith, in which we find ourselves pardoned, accepted, commended to God to be made partakers of life eternal; and, secondly, that this is grounded in the service and sacrifice of His Son, sent forth to save us; so that we enter this relation and hold it, not independently, but in fellowship with the Son of God, His sonship becoming the model of ours? Is this unpractical? Is it unpractical to be conscious of such a relation between God and men, for ever embodied and made accessible in His Son our Saviour? Is it unpractical to apprehend God in the attitude towards us which is due to such a relation, and to take, ourselves, the attitude of gratitude and penitence and trust which on our side corresponds to it? It cannot be unpractical. It may be pernicious, if it takes the form of a cold, presumptuous arrogance, or of a self-satisfied Pharisaism; that is to say, if God be not in it. But if God in Christ is reaching us along those lines, or if we, alive to His eternal character, and conscious of our guilt and need, are reaching out to real relations and real fellowship with Him through His Son our Lord, then it cannot be unpractical. And, indeed, however men may differ as to theological explanations, some sense of the worth of the thing intended has reached the hearts of all true Christians.
Perhaps the state of the case will more clearly appear if we fix attention on one Christian benefit. Let us take the forgiveness of sins.
Forgiveness of sins is the primary grace, and it sets the type of the grace to which we owe all benefits. Forgiveness, as it were, leads in all other blessings by the hand; or, each blessing as it advances into a Christian life comes with a fresh gift of forgiveness in the heart of it. If this is so, then the tendency, which is observable in various quarters, to pass forgiveness by, as a matter of course, and to hurry on to what are reckoned more substantial, or more experimental benefits, must be attended with loss. It must, so far, damage our conceptions of the manner in which it befits God to present as an honor blessings on sinful men, and also our conception of the spirit in which we should receive them.
But then, in the next place, the forgiveness of sins itself is referred to the mediation of Christ, and the work accomplished in that mediation, as its known basis. Forgiveness of sins was to arise out of an order of grace, embodied in history — namely, in the history of the Incarnate Son of God; and we are not entitled to take for granted it could fitly arise otherwise. Apparently Christ Himself came into the inheritance which He holds for us, by an order of things which it was imperative on Him to regard, and by a history which He must fulfil. And we, believing in Him, find, in consequence, a new place and standing; we receive a "gift of righteousness" which contains the forgiveness of sins; we obtain, through Christ, a mode of access to God, of which forgiveness is a feature. So the place of forgiveness in the Divine administration is vindicated and safe-guarded; and while forgiveness comes to us as a gift of the Father's compassionate heart, it is found to be true also that "Christ washed us from our sins in His own blood." "God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law." "God has sent Him forth for a propitiation, through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, ... that He might be just, and the Justifier of him that believes in Jesus." Our forgiveness is a free gift of God's goodness; yet also, it is our participation with Christ, sent to us from the Father, in a wonderful relation which He has come to hold to sin and to righteousness. If we overlook this, we conceal from ourselves great aspects of the work undertaken for us by the love of God.
But if forgiveness, which is itself a meeting with God in peace, refers itself to the mediation of Christ as preparing for us a blessed relation to God — a righteousness of faith — how should our whole fellowship with God, in grace, fail to presuppose the same foundation?
But argument upon this topic might lead us far. Let us close the chapter in another vein.
All religion, worth recognising in that character, implies earnestness, serious aspiration and endeavour. It supposes human life to place itself under the influence of an order of motives that is to be comprehensive and commanding. And this is true also of Christian religion. But Christian religion, as we know, does not begin with a consciousness of ability to achieve success; it is not grounded in an expectation that by strenuous or apt effort of ours, we may achieve the aims and secure the benefits at which religion points. That is not the root of Christian religion. It begins with a consciousness and confession of weakness: the soul owns its incompetency to deal with the great interests that reveal themselves in the light of Christ; it is without strength for tasks like these. And so the deepest and earliest exercise of Christian religion is Prayer. It asks great things from a great God. "This poor man cried," and the Lord heard him. Paul's Christianity began thus: "Behold, he prays."
Now just so Christian religion does not begin with a consciousness of deserving something, or an idea that by taking pains we may deserve something, may single ourselves out for at least some modest share of favourable recognition. Rather it often begins with the fading away of such ideas when they were present before. Christian religion roots itself in the confession of sin, and therefore of ill-desert; it signalises itself by a deepening sense of the seriousness of the situation in this respect. With this it comes face to face before God. "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." "God be merciful to me a sinner." We have nothing that is not sinful to bring before Him; so, at length, we come with that. It is all we have. Our prayer rises not merely out of the sense of weakness, but out of the consciousness of demerit.
But in Christian religion we are aware, as of strength which can remedy our weakness, so of forgiveness which can put away our sins. "There is forgiveness with You." "Through this Man is preached to us the forgiveness of sins." It is clear also that this forgiveness comes, wherever it comes, as full and free forgiveness, "forgiving you all trespasses." So that in Christian religion we listen at Christ's feet to the testimony directed to all penitent believers, that instead of reckoning in part or whole about the guilt of sins committed, we are to find God in Christ to be One who simply puts away our sin. That shall hold us apart from God no more. Rather, the putting of it away brings with it the strangest, lowliest access to God. "O God, you are my God." "Who is a God like to You?" Forgiveness is by no means mere immunity (least of all for Christian religion). Punishment, certainly, in the sense of the separation and evil which sin deserves, passes away. But forgiveness, in Christian religion, is forgiveness with the Forgiver in it. We meet God in the forgiveness of sins. We abide with God in the forgiveness of sins.
Forgiveness, too, as we already foresee, is but the foundation and beginning of a history in which we are called to go forward. This history may have sad passages in it; but in going forward in it in faith we are assured that on God's part it is a history of most painstaking and most sublime benefaction: all of it ordered so as to be of a piece with His sending of His Son; all of it instinct with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Faith looking to Christ believes this, and receives it. And to faith upheld by Him on whom we trust all this is more and more made good, and comes true. It is a history of progress in true goodness. And the end is life everlasting.
Now the words before us suggest, upon the one hand, very strongly, the simply gratuitous character of the Christian benefits, and the sense of undeserved kindness with which they are to be received. In Christian religion we begin as those who have no righteousness, who plead no merit, who owe and are to owe all to Divine mercy. From the base upwards Christian religion is a religion of grace; and "it is of faith, that it might be by grace." Whatever activities, whatever successes may fall into the Christian's career, whatever long possession of accustomed good may eventually mark his experience, all is to be informed and inspired by this initial and perpetual conviction, "Not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law."
At the same time, the same words of the Apostle suggest very strongly the Divine stability of the good which meets us in Christ. A very strong foundation has been laid for those who flee for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before them in the gospel. To our sense, indeed, things may seem to be most mutable. But when faith reaches to the things not seen, it learns another lesson. In Christ believers are graced with entrance into an order of salvation divinely strong and durable. When God gave us Christ, He gave us, in a sense, "all things," and indeed all things ordering themselves into an eternal expression of fatherly love and care. In Christ comes into view not goodness only, but goodness allying itself for us with Wisdom and Power and Right. It makes its way by incarnation and atonement and resurrection to a kingdom which, being first Christ's, appointed to Him, is also His people's, appointed to them. Now a relation to God which looks forward to all this, which is the basis for it and the entrance to it, descends on the believing man through Christ. It is due to Christ that it should come so. It is the Father's loving will that it should be so. All that is needful to ground and vindicate that most gracious relation is found in Christ, who of God is made to us righteousness; in whom we hold the righteousness which is of God on faith.
The Apostle's course of thought has not led us to raise any question about the nature and the virtue of the faith which apprehends and receives the righteousness of God. It is a subject on which much has been said. What seems needful here may be soon spoken.
The only way of entering on new relations with God, or ourselves becoming new men, is the way of faith. This Christian way is the only way. Every other is simply impossible. Let any man seriously try it, and he will find it so. But the question, What kind of faith? is best answered by saying, Such faith as is called for by the object of faith set before us, when that is honestly and intently regarded. As the gospel is, the faith must be; for the gospel is the instrument by which faith is evoked, sustained, and guided. The great object of faith is God, graciously revealing Himself through Christ. Every genuine aspect of this revelation takes its significance from its disclosure of God. The faith, so called, which misses this, is wrong faith; the faith which marks and welcomes this is right faith. And such faith is already, even in its earliest life, breaking forth into repentance and love and obedience. It must be, for God is in it.
So, to confine ourselves to the aspect of things which occupies this chapter, the faith which meets God in the forgiveness of sins through Christ, and genuinely accepts from Him the wonderful position of holding fellowship with God forgiving, is already, virtually, repentance as well as faith. The man who so meets with God, is therein agreed with God about his own sin: he feels God to be in the right and himself to be wholly in the wrong; he feels, in particular, God to be most sublimely and conclusively in the right in the holy pity of His forgiveness. The man who does not feel this, is not accepting forgiveness. He may be posturing as if he were, but he is not doing it.
There is just one difficulty in faith — the difficulty of being real. But when it is real, it makes all things new.
From the Epistle to the Philippians by Robert Rainy, D.D., Principal of New College. Edinburgh. Published by FUNK & WAGNALLS COMPANY in 1990. Digitally produced by Colin Bell, Julia Neufeld and the Online
Reach for the Calling Creator
To the Philippians - R. Rainy
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your calling be the best.