In 1513 Augustinian monk Martin Luther agonized day and night over the condition of his heart. His conscience tormented him; he knew he was a sinful man, and that God was a holy and righteous God, and he was terrified.
One day Luther was preparing a course of lectures on the Psalms for a class he was teaching at the University of Wittenberg where he was Professor of Sacred Theology. He came to Psalm 31 and read:
In Thee, O LORD, do I put my trust; let me never be ashamed: deliver me in Thy righteousness (Ps. 31.1).
Deliver me in Thy righteousness? Luther was arrested by the words. How could God’s righteousness deliver him? God’s righteousness was his greatest problem; sinner that he was, God’s righteousness must surely condemn him.
Then Luther began thinking of Paul’s words to the Romans.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth…
For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith (Rom. 1.16,17).
Suddenly the light went on. Here are Luther’s own words about what happened.
I had greatly longed to understand Paul’s epistle to the Romans, and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, “the righteousness of God,” because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and acts righteously in punishing the unrighteous…. Night and day I pondered until… I grasped the truth that the righteousness of God is that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, He justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before “the righteousness of God” had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gateway into heaven.
The rest is history. The Reformation (though terribly contaminated by the hand of man in his attempt to accomplish the works of God) was a significant milestone in the unfolding purposes of God.
But justification by faith is only the beginning of the Christian walk. It is tremendous world-shaking truth, but God never intended that we should receive His gift of righteousness only to satisfy ourselves that we are now fit for Heaven. Paul does not lay the foundation of justification by faith in the first four chapters of Romans to stop there, but to build thereon. The righteousness of God is not just something that is put to our account by our faith in Jesus. As we read Romans Five to Eight we see that the righteousness of God by which we were justified becomes the principle of life pulsing within us—and the outer garment we wear for all the world to see.
We have not yet seen the full outworking of this second part—the saints of God walking in no lesser righteousness than the righteousness of Christ Himself. But when we do we will discover this to be more world shaking than the rediscovery of justification by faith.
It is wonderful truth that Christ died for us. But wonder of wonders, my friend Righteousness not only died for me, He lives for me.
For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more being reconciled we shall be saved by His life (Rom. 5.10).
Meaning? Not just that when God looks upon the believer He sees us justified through the blood of Christ. Much more than this, the same eternal life and righteousness of the Ascended One is in me by His Spirit. And so, “Because I live,” He says, “ye shall live also” (Jn. 14.19). And He is speaking here of the coming of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. By His Spirit He lives in me the life that is otherwise impossible for a man to live, saving me in all things day after day after day.
And so we have this from Romans Eight:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God, sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh
That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit (Rom. 8.1-4).
How little we Christians have entered upon this powerful truth. Like Luther we still think of righteousness as that outward set of rules that is against us. What about the Gospel—the good news—the righteousness of God that becomes the inner empowering law at the spring of our being and life?
The word condemnation in the above passage is often taken to mean the guilty feeling we have as a result of sin. We feel “under condemnation,” that is, “guilty.” The word actually means there is no “sentence against” those in Christ Jesus. There can be no charge whatsoever against those who are in Christ Jesus, “who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit.”
Mark those last words. My friend Righteousness who first gave me a hand up out of the pit of sin and death continues to walk with me by His Spirit, thus enabling me to walk in righteousness—His own righteousness—all my days.
I love the old hymn by Nicholas von Zinzendorf (translated by John Wesley):
Jesus thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
‘Midst flaming worlds in these arrayed
With Joy I shall lift up my head.
My beauty are, my glorious dress! Not just my legal standing before God, but the robe of righteousness I live in and wear, covering me from head to foot with the beauty of Christ. And so “‘midst flaming worlds” when all around me is going up in smoke, I am not one of those hanging my head in fear and shame; I lift my head high with the greatest joy!
Here’s the whole hymn… but be forewarned: it’s not in the genre of some of our modern light chaffy entertainy type Christian music. I doubt you can take this one in without your heart being on its face.