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White Horse Inn: Conversational Theology

Not Having a Righteousness of My Own, Part 3

Release date:

July 14, 2013

In the last blog piece I discussed Paul’s use of the word “dung” to describe not his sins, but his righteousness. He goes on to say that he desires to be “found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” (Phil 3:9)

Here, we are confronted with one of the crucial components of the gospel message. Sometimes Catholics will argue that the Protestant doctrine of justification amounts to a “legal fiction.” That is, if you say that you are still a sinner but that you are righteous “in Christ” (what Luther called simul justus et peccator), then you are actually telling a kind of untruth or fiction.

But this criticism actually exposes a critical flaw. If our doctrine is to be condemned on the grounds of a legal fiction due to our belief in the idea that we are declared righteous while we are actually not, then what are we to do with the idea that Jesus was considered a sinner when he was in fact personally righteous? In other words, if you stick with this argument, you’ll ultimately undermine the substitutionary atonement.

The idea of an alien righteousness is the witness of both the prophets and the apostles. Paul here is focusing not on his own works, but on Christ’s. Similarly, Jeremiah wrote of coming day when a righteous branch would finally spring up out of the house of David, resulting in salvation for God’s people. “And this is the name by which he will be called, ‘The Lord is our righteousness'” (Jer 23:6).

This is also the witness of the early church. Some have tried to argue that Luther came up with this idea of justification by an imputed righteousness. Though it is true that this particular doctrine had been obscured for centuries (and had in a real sense been recovered by Luther), we find it clearly articulated in the writings of various church fathers. A good example of this is Mathetes, who observed in 130 AD:

Christ Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! That the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors!

This idea of the great exchange, though clearly taught in Scripture, has at various points been controversial in the church. This was especially true at the time of the Reformation. In a tract called “The Necessity of Reforming the Church,” John Calvin summarizes the thinking of his day:

It’s true Jesus is called a Redeemer, but this is understood in a manner which implies that men also, by their own free will, redeem themselves from the bondage of sin and death. True, he is called righteousness and salvation, but in a way that men can still procure salvation for themselves, by the merit of their works… True, Christ is said to have reconciled us to the Father, but with this reservation, that men, by their own satisfactions, buy off the punishments which they owe to the justice of God. When supplementary aid is sought… no more honor is paid to Christ than to saints such as Cyprian or Cyricius. For, in making up the treasury of the Church, the merits of Christ and of martyrs are thrown together in the same lump.

This Christ and this approach is exactly what frustrated Paul about the Judaizers. The Judaizers said that, in addition to believing in Jesus, one also needs to be circumcised in order to be saved. Unfortunately, this same spirit is plaguing the church in our day, even in Reformed circles. There are some who teach, for example, that we are saved by Christ, and by our own obedience or faithfulness to the covenant, and that, on the last day, the basis of our final justification will partly rest upon our good works.

But Paul does not say that if we do good works, we will be justified, but rather, “there is therefore now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). Peter also addresses this in his first epistle when he says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…” (1Pet 1:3-4). It’s an inheritance, not a wage; it’s rooted in God’s mercy, not our works; and it’s in heaven right now, waiting for us, rather than something that we currently possess.

In Phil 3:10-11, Paul then says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Here again we’re met with the verb “to know.” Many Christians in our day might wish to state this a little differently, something to the effect of, “I want to experience Christ and the power of his resurrection.” It’s certainly true that our knowledge of Christ has an experiential dimension to it (since we don’t merely know things about our savior, but we know him in relationship). But when “experience” or “relationship” becomes unmoored from doctrine and content, it quickly turns into mysticism, which is a huge problem in our time.

In the next blog post, we’ll draw some conclusions as we finish up with Philippians chapter 3.