Righteousification

The great message of the Christian gospel is that the righteous God sent his Son to bear our sins in order that we sinners may be justified — rendered righteous — in his sight. He stepped in to do what we cannot do for ourselves; incredibly, the Holy One justifies sinners. Justification is the act of God bestowing on us a right standing in his eyes, imputing to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the concepts of “justice” and “righteousness” are fully interchangeable; two English words translating the same Greek word group. The Greek adjective dikaios means upright, just, right, fair or equitable and is typically translated “righteous” or “just.” The related noun dikaiosyne means righteousness, juridicial correctness or justice and carries strong legal connotations; it is typically translated as “righteousness,” and is prominent in Paul’s writings, especially Romans 1–8. The Greek verb dikaioo means to show or do justice, to vindicate, to prove to be right or to make right and is translated “justify.” [1]

Justification, with its connotations of legal vindication, is the opposite of condemnation. “It is God who justifies — who is to condemn?” asks Paul rhetorically, juxtaposing righteousness and condemnation as opposites (Rom 8:33–34). Likewise in Romans 5:18: “Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” Righteousness is apprehended through faith in Jesus Christ and unequivocally comes from God (Rom 3:20–30). Paul desired to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9). And in Romans 1:17, the verse that was so transformational for Martin Luther: “For in (the gospel) the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written: ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” Luther realised that “righteousness OF God,” dikaiosyne Theou, also meant “righteousness FROM God,” the genitive case denoting possession/origin or a coming out from. It is God’s righteousness, not our own, and God bestows it freely on us; that is justification. God’s declaration of righteousness is a “not guilty” verdict which is given to those who have faith in Christ. Christ’s own righteousness has been imputed to them and they stand uncondemned in God’s sight (Rom 8:1).

This remarkable act is a paradox, for the holy God has justified the wicked (Rom 4:5). Those who should be under his wrath and stand condemned have been declared to be in right standing with him. As Luther helpfully put it, Simul iustus et peccator ; “simultaneously justified and yet sinners.” This is possible because of the cleansing of our sin through the blood of Christ; the act of redemption and propitiation (Rom 5:9; Eph 1:7; Col 1:20; Heb 9:12). This is wholly the work of God, in Christ, and we can do nothing to obtain it, except hold out our empty hands in faith. Paul explains; “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (Rom 4:3–5). Apart from the propitiating (wrath-removing)  sacrifice of Christ, God could not justify the wicked (declare righteous the unrighteous) without compromising his holiness. God’s love and mercy toward humankind drove him to find a way of reconciliation, yet to simply dismiss or ignore sin would be unthinkable for a holy God. So, his own arm wrought salvation; by bearing our sin and the punishment for it, the Son propitiated the Father’s wrath, enabling God to be both just AND the one who justifies.
“But now the righteousness of God (dikaiosyne Theou) has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it — the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified (dikaioo) by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just (dikaios) and the justifier (dikaioo) of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:21–26).

Biblical justification is an instantaneous and complete declaration of righteousness bestowed on the sinner who comes to Christ in faith (Rom 5:1–2). It is our assurance of acceptance on the day of judgment for “there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus, in whom the righteous requirements of the law have been fully met by the condemnation of sin in the sacrifice of Christ” (Rom 8:1–4). “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). These verbs are all in the simple past tense, the aorist, and make it abundantly clear that there is an inseparable connection between God’s choice of his elect, their calling, justification and assured glorification. This is plain Bible teaching and it permeates the writings of Paul, especially in Romans. Faith then is not a work, it is the grateful reception of the imputed righteousness of God, through faith in Christ whose sacrifice took away our sins and propitiated God’s wrath.

It is tragic then, to see that a rejection of the substitutionary atonement by Christadelphians is accompanied by so little understanding of this righteousness from God and justification by faith. “Justification” is rarely found in the index or discussed in the body of any Christadelphian writings, and “righteousness” is typically presented in a frighteningly works-based context. Harry Tennant, who has written a great deal worthy of respect on many topics, doesn’t discuss justification at all in his overview of Christadelphian doctrine.[2] He describes righteousness as “that relationship in which a man stands with God, once he knows that he has confessed his total inability to save himself, and yet believes implicitly that God will fulfil all His promises.” This is correct, but incomplete, in light of Romans 1-8. The rest of his references to righteousness speak of God’s holiness or Jesus’ sinlessness and our need to emulate it.

The seminal Christadelphian work on the movement’s doctrines as against mainstream Christianity is Christendom Astray, by Robert Roberts. This book doesn’t discuss justification either, and he limits his discussion to “saving righteousness is recognised or imputed by God where He is honoured by faith being exercised in what He has promised.” [3] Sounds good, albeit again far short of the comprehensiveness of the New Testament on the subject, but at least he describes righteousness as imputed and in response to faith. However the real gist of the Christadelphian view of saving righteousness comes in his pamphlet titled The Blood of Christ, [4] written by Roberts in 1895, continually republished since then and regarded as the definitive Christadelphian position on the atonement.

Roberts, citing one clause from Romans 3:25, makes the central point of the atonement the declaration of God’s righteousness. Notice that he omits any suggestion of the substitutionary/ ransom aspect of sacrifice, nor does he examine what propitiation actually means, which is actually very important to Paul’s understanding of Christ’s atoning work.
“Why could not the blood of bulls and of goats take away sin, seeing the shedding thereof was apparently as much a confession and abjuration of sin on the part of the offerer as the man who comes to God through the shed blood of Christ? We find the key to this problem… in Romans 3:21,22, ‘The righteousness of God without the law is manifested (in Christ).’ Verse 25, ‘Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.’” Roberts asserts that forgiveness rules out substitution, arguing that if someone pays the debt then it is not truly forgiven. That might be sustainable if the one who paid the debt to God and propitiated God’s wrath was not God himself. But substitutionary atonement and the deity of Christ (i.e., his work and person) are inextricably linked in Scripture. In contrast, Roberts sees this declaration of the righteousness of God as THE grounds of atonement.
“We find answer in the statement that the death of Christ was to declare the righteousness of God as the ground of exercise of his forbearance. That is to say, God maintains his own righteousness and His own supremacy while forgiving us: and exacts the recognition of them and submission to them, as the condition of the exercise of His forbearance in the remission of our sins. Now as we look at Christ, we find in his death the declaration of that righteousness… The death of Christ was ‘that God might be just’ while acting the part of justifier or forgiver.”

The way in which God’s righteousness was declared, as Roberts sees it, is in the condemnation of sin in the flesh of Christ. This depends entirely on his view of Christ as a mere (albeit sinless) human being, not the divine Son of God.
“Thus was the righteousness of God to be declared, and sin condemned in its own flesh as the foundation of all the goodness to come afterwards. …” He goes on to explain that this required a fully righteous human being. “Christ could not righteously die if death had no dominion over him… he had no sin of his own: it was the sin of others that was on him… ‘The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all’ – a figure of speech, because God proposed to forgive us all for Christ’s sake.” Roberts’ point is, that as a representative human being, Christ was himself under condemnation and subject to death, but it is appalling that he brushes off the testimony of passages such as Isaiah 53 as being a mere figure of speech; Jesus only metaphorically bore our sins! But this is fine by Roberts because he believes that “Wrong was not done when he (Jesus) was impaled on the cross. ‘It pleased the Lord to bruise him’”. Roberts explains that Jesus deserved this death because he was intrinsically human, bearing sinful human nature which was deserving of death, even though he did not himself sin. “It is in Christ crucified that we are invited, but not without condemning sin in a federal representative. The human race is, as it were, crucified in His Son. In Christ crucified, man is put down, man is killed; God is exalted and glorified.” In this view, Christ did not bear our sins, God just made an example of him.

How then does Roberts see Christ’s non-substitutionary death as efficacious? He dismisses any judicial declaration of righteousness (i.e., justification).
“God says now: ‘If you will recognise your position, repent and come under that man’s wing, I will receive you back to favour and forgive you. My righteousness has been declared in him… Obey his commandments, and I will receive you and forgive you for his sake, and you shall be my sons and daughters.’”
“Remission,” says Roberts, “is not as a legal right accruing, but as the gift of grace, ‘through the forbearance of God.’ There would be no ‘forbearance ‘ if a legal claim had been discharged… The whole sacrificial institution and our endorsement of it in baptism is comparable to a form of apology presented by the Majesty of Heaven as the condition of our receiving His mercy unto life eternal… Thus law and mercy are reconciled.”

So, in effect we look upon Jesus on the cross and say, “Yes, I agree that I deserve that. I apologise.” Then God forgives. Thus is all the richness of the propitiating, justifying, redeeming, sin-bearing work of Christ reduced to two purposes; to declare God’s righteousness and to condemn sin in the flesh; a simple exhibition to the world of the righteous treatment of sin. “It pleased God to require the ceremonial condemnation of this sin-nature in crucifixion in the person of a righteous possessor of it, as the basis of our forgiveness.”
So, not only is Christ’s sin-bearing a mere figure of speech, his death is ceremonial! Where then is the heartfelt assurance of passages like Psalm 103, Romans 8 and Ephesians 2? Instead we find a denial that our debts are paid and an exhortation to works righteousness.
“We must also understand that we can establish no claim; this passing by of our sins is the act of His forbearance; that no debt of ours has been paid or can be paid; that what the death of Christ has done has been to declare God’s righteousness that we may, by taking part in it, receive God’s free forgiveness through him.”
“The idea that Christ has borne our punishment and paid our debts, and that his righteousness is placed to our credit, and that the only thing we have to do is to believe it, is demoralizing. It nullifies that other most important element of the truth, which must be given its due place, that the unrighteous shall not inherit the Kingdom of God, and that he only is righteous who doeth righteousness. It draws a veil over the truth that we have to ‘work out our salvation’ by a ‘patient continuance in well-doing’… Christ is the judge of who is fit to be saved, and that he will impartially give to every man according to his works.”[5] Roberts clearly doesn’t understand the basic meaning of the diakios word group, nor the teaching of Paul in Romans 1–8. He has completely and utterly missed the glorious doctrine of justification by faith — effectively “righteousification” if we were to translate consistently.

Sadly, even contemporary Christadelphian works refer to a forgiveness that rests at least partly on human effort rather than the all-sufficient work of Christ.
“By acknowledging the Lord Jesus Christ as the standard God is looking for in us, and seeking to associate ourselves with his sinless life and sacrificial death, we simultaneously acknowledge the righteousness of God’s condemnation of sin and take advantage of his gracious offer of forgiveness.”[6] Most Christadelphian writings simply do not discuss justification at all, and present righteousness as something to which we can only aspire.

Yes, the death of Christ declared God’s righteousness; but it doesn’t stop there. By bearing our sins upon the cross Jesus propitiated God’s wrath, paid the ransom, redeemed us from enslavement to sin and death. We were bought with a price, his precious blood. Furthermore, by imputing to us Christ’s righteousness, apart from works, we have God’s assurance that we have been justified — righteousified — and will stand uncondemned before our Saviour and righteous Judge on that day, clothed in his righteousness, because it’s all about what HE has done. He is our Advocate, who pleads on our behalf, “not guilty!” — Jesus Christ the dikaios (1 John 2:1). Those who are Christ’s can be confident of his love and that he will finish the work begun in them (Phil 1:6). Those who belong to Christ have eternal life (1 John 5:13). They have the Spirit as a guarantee of God’s commitment to them (2 Cor 1:22). Of course, if we did have to add something to Christ’s work — if it was up to us to prove ourselves “worthy” then, agreed, it would be impossible to have assurance. Unfortunately, by denying the all-sufficiency of Christ’s propitiating, reconciling, justifying, redemptive, substitutionary work of atonement this is the position in which Christadelphians find themselves. If only Robert Roberts and his disciples understood the beautiful doctrine of justification and were able to join in the conviction of the apostle Paul, “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called, he also justified, those whom he justified, he also glorified.”

References:
1. All these definitions can be found in any reputable lexicon. I have used Danker, ed. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (BDAG) 3rd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2000).
2. Harry Tennant, The Christadelphians: What they Believe and Preach (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 1998), 33.
3. Robert Roberts, Christendom Astray from the Bible (first published 1884; reprinted West Beach SA: Logos Publications, 1984), 112.
4. Robert Roberts, The Blood of Christ (Birmingham: The Christadelphian, 2006). Page numbers cited in order as follows; 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 21, 23.
5. Fellowship in the Christadelphian community still requires assent to this position, as evidenced by Article XVI of their Statement of Faith: “The way to obtain this salvation is to believe the gospel (the apostles) preached, and to take on the name and service of Christ, by being thereupon immersed in water, and continuing patiently in the observance of all things (Jesus) commanded, none being recognised as his friends except those who do what he has commanded.” and Doctrine to be Rejected #24 “That the gospel alone will save, without the obedience of Christ’s commandments,” contra Romans 1:16–17.
6. Jeremy Thomas, ‘Forgiveness of Sins,’ in Reg Carr, ed. The Testimony Handbook of Bible Principles (Kings Lynn: The Testimony, 2010), 45.

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