Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What is Righteousness by Faith?

In Trent, Italy, between 1545 and 1563 (18 years), a council of bishops of the Roman Catholic church wrote findings  known as “The Council of Trent.” The findings of the Council remain in effect to this day.

The Council of Trent came about because of an uprising in the church. A large number of people were listening to and following what the church believed to be a heretic. The heretic opposed the teaching of the church. The critical teaching in opposition to the church was how a person enters Heaven. The opposing doctrine was a different way of salvation, a different gospel.

The church declared the man an official heretic for teaching a wrong gospel. In return, the man claimed the church to be heretical for teaching a false gospel. The church brought the heretic to trial and sought to force him to recant his doctrine and proclaim the church’s teaching to be true. The man refused to recant. In 1521, Martin Luther was officially excommunicated from the Roman Catholic church for teachings deemed heretical. The Council of Trent came about 20 years later.

Righteousness by Faith Alone – The Reformation

Martin Luther was studying in the book of Romans. He was looking at Romans 1:16-17, which says:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “BUT THE RIGHTEOUS man SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” (Romans 1:16-17)

During his study, Luther did not rely upon the Latin Vulgate translation but the original Greek manuscript. He found that there is a different understanding of Greek than Latin. The Latin translation is understood as meaning, “those who are actively working to make themselves righteous live by faith.”  

The Greek word changed the meaning of the sentence. The Greek word of Romans 1:17 (dikaios - dik'-ah-yos) is a word that declares a person righteous. In other words, “the person who lives by faith is declared righteous.”

Which is it, Martin wondered. Does it mean that those who are actively working to make themselves righteous live by faith? Or, those who live by faith are declared righteous?

The Latin translation implies an active work to make ourselves righteous by God.

The original Greek manuscript which Paul writes defines those who live by faith as righteous. They do nothing to receive the declaration of righteousness; instead, they are passive recipients.

Upon further study, Luther came to a conclusion that, indeed, righteousness is given by faith. The true meaning of Romans 1:17 is that those who live by faith receive righteousness, but do not actively make themselves righteous. The righteousness which comes by faith is a gift God gives freely by His grace.

Luther concluded that we do not actively produce the righteousness we need for salvation; it is given to us. It is an alien righteousness. It is a righteousness that comes from outside of us. When Luther discovers this truth, he says, “I was born again of the Holy Ghost. And the doors of Paradise swung open, and I walked through.”

One of the key findings of the Council of Trent states that if a person believes they are made righteous by “faith alone,” then let that person be “anathema.” The word anathema means excommunicated or cursed. If you believe in righteousness by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, you join me in being declared anathema by the Roman Catholic Church.

We receive righteousness by faith. It is according to grace. As Romans 10 says:

For with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. (Romans 10:10)

Main Idea

Our salvation is much more than having our sins forgiven. Not only are our sins forgiven, but we receive from God the righteousness of Christ. In this second message answering the question, what is righteousness by faith, we will arrive at the following main idea:

MAIN IDEA: Know we are adorned with Christ’s perfect righteousness when we put our faith in the gospel.

We will see three truths about the righteousness we receive from Christ.

  • It is a righteousness of surpassing value.
  • It is a righteousness that is perfect.
  • It is a righteousness that adorns.

A Righteousness Of Surpassing Value

Think about what it is like to try to be righteous. When we pursue righteousness, we try to do religious things. We go to church, read our Bible, help old ladies cross the street, teach Sunday school, and do all kinds of good things. We have to ask ourselves, does that righteousness save us?

The Bible teaches Christians are to be righteous after becoming Christian. However, we must not confuse doing righteous things for salvation and doing righteous things after being saved. It is very important for us to understand the distinction. Of course, we are to do righteous things after we are saved.

Martin Luther sought to answer the question of salvation. Can our righteousness save us? But, what kind of righteousness allows us to walk through the pearly gates of Heaven? What righteousness is needed for us to be allowed into the presence of God in the first place?

The answer is that the righteousness required to walk through the pearly gates is surpassing righteousness. God requires perfect righteousness for entry into His kingdom. We have to ask ourselves, can our righteous deeds amount to any value? Can a person fill up their “righteousness bank account” enough to earn entry into Paradise? The answer is no. No amount of our righteousness will gain us entry into Heaven. We do not have surpassing righteousness.

The Apostle Paul writes to the church in Philippi and describes his pursuit to fill his righteousness bank account with his religious works (Philippians 3:4-7). Before Paul knew of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection, he had great confidence in having enough righteousness built up to allow himself to stand before the throne of God in good favor. Paul expresses that his religious effort exceeded others. He counted himself as a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, he served as Pharisee. Paul was zealous and passionate in his effort to be righteous before God. He even went so far as to persecute Christians who he believed to be unrighteous and blasphemers. When it came to following the Law, Paul considered himself blameless.

After God saves Paul, his conclusions about religion are changed completely. He found that all his effort to be righteous, things he thought were pleasing to God, were not pleasing to God at all. He considered all his bank account of righteous good works as nothing but rubbish and a big waste of effort. His account did not reach the level of surpassing righteousness.

Paul concludes that the only righteousness acceptable to God is the righteousness given to him by faith in Christ. He writes:

More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, (Philippians 3:8-9)

Receiving Christ’s Righteousness

After Paul’s salvation and indwelling with the Holy Spirit, he reads the Law and the Prophets and concludes, Jesus Christ is our righteousness. For example, the prophet Isaiah writes:

As a result of the anguish of His (Jesus’) soul, He (God) will see it and be satisfied; by His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant (Jesus), will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:11)

In writing to the church in Corinth, Paul pens,

He (God) made Him (Jesus) who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (Jesus). (2 Corinthians 5:21)

2 Corinthians 5:21 expresses what theologians call the Great Exchange. Jesus exchanges our sin for His righteousness. Jesus becomes sin for us and gives us His surpassing righteousness.

The surpassing righteousness of Christ is appropriated (given, imputed, credited) by God to all who put their faith in Christ for salvation. As Paul concludes, our religious works do not provide us with righteousness, no matter how good they appear. Our righteous deeds are not enough to save us. (By the way, they are not enough to keep us saved either.) The surpassing righteousness of Christ is the only righteousness acceptable to God.

A Righteousness That is Perfect

In thinking about the universe, we know it is unfathomably big and vast. We are unable to comprehend the size of the universe.

In the same way, the righteousness of Christ is vast beyond our measure. When we think about receiving the righteousness of Christ, we need to consider the enormous perfection of His righteousness.   

The righteousness we receive as a gift is perfect in every way. Think about this truth. When we have Jesus’ righteousness, in God’s eyes, we are as righteous as Jesus, whose righteousness is perfect and overflowing.

A righteousness that has no numerical limitation

For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19)

God’s Word says we are all sinners because we are descendants of Adam. We are born with a sinful nature and we are spiritually dead. But the perfect obedience of Jesus is given to us, and He makes us righteous.

The righteousness of Jesus has no limitations. It can apply to all sinners without exception. The sinner who hangs on the cross next to Jesus is a man with egregious sins worthy of execution. Yet, without doing any righteous deeds, Jesus takes his sin and gives him His righteousness. The man on the cross is with Jesus that day in Paradise. He does no good works. He has faith in Jesus, and that saves his soul.

A righteousness that can transform the vilest

The righteousness we receive is perfectly transforming. In the spiritual realm, we transform from sinners to being people who are completely righteous. Listen to the expression of how we are made pleasing in the eyes of God when we have the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach— (Colossians 1:21-22)

Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy, (Jude 1:24)

just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love (Ephesians 1:4)

A righteousness that is eternal

Your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness … (Psa 119:142)

Lift up your eyes to the sky, then look to the earth beneath; for the sky will vanish like smoke, and the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants will die in like manner; but My salvation will be forever, and My righteousness will not wane. (Isaiah 51:6)

The righteousness we receive from Christ is eternal. It never comes to an end. We are forever righteous. We never have to fear of our righteousness coming to an end.

A righteousness that is pleasing to God.

Quoting Psalm 45:6-7, the writer of Hebrews says,

But of the Son He says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness above Your companions.” (Hebrews 1:8-9)

The righteousness we receive from Jesus is pleasing to God. God anoints the righteousness of Jesus. Therefore, when we have Jesus’ righteousness, God anoints us as well.

A Righteousness That Adorns

Imagine standing with Jesus, with our sins forgiven, but not being righteous. Imagine the shame of being in the presence of Jesus’ perfection, as His bride, but not being equal in holiness. We would feel as though we did not belong. We would forever feel inferior.

But, Jesus loves us beyond measure. He adorns us with His robe of righteousness. Jesus makes us beautifully attractive by adorning us with His perfect righteousness.

When the Apostle John is given a vision of the saints in Heaven, he writes this:

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10)

We appear clothed in Heaven with white robes. The robes are brilliant and without stain. We will stand in Heaven as a bride adorned for her Husband.

Jesus loves us as His bride. It is Jesus who makes us holy. Listen to the description of how Jesus cleanses us. He cleanses us …

so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:26-27)

Listen to the garment language of Ephesians. No spot or wrinkle speaks of a garment to adorn a bride. Imagine the tragedy of arriving on a wedding day with a dress that is wrinkled and stained. Jesus’ righteousness prevents that from happening. He clothes us with sparkling linen that is pure and holy.

Again, in John’s Revelation, we have a beautiful description of us, the bride of Christ. John sees us as the new city of Jerusalem (Revelation 21:11-22). He describes the overall appearance looks like a very costly stone. The material of the wall is jasper, and the city is pure gold, like clear glass. In looking at the foundation stones of the city wall, John sees they have every kind of precious stone, jasper, sapphire, chalcedony, emerald, sardonyx, sardius, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, and amethyst. The twelve gates each made of a single pearl. And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.

The picture of dashing brilliance and beauty is a picture of us, the bride of Christ. We are a city of sparkling brilliance in the kingdom of Heaven. We sparkle because the righteousness of Christ adorns us. It is not our righteousness, but His.

Righteousness by faith is a doctrine of first importance

Martin Luther was right in declaring that righteousness is by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone.

To the established church at the time, it was scandalous. How is it that we can do nothing of any value to earn our salvation? What about all the righteous deeds of people in the world?

What about today? Do people still believe good works fill our righteousness bank account? Indeed. Many religions deny what the book of Romans teaches about righteousness by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone.

For example, in our day, people such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta gave her life to help the disadvantaged. People are appalled if we suggest Mother Teresa did not earn her way to Heaven with her good works.

May 24, 1937, Mother Teresa took vows to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The world holds her in high esteem. But, she did not embrace the righteousness which comes from faith in Christ.

When asked by the Pope if she sought people to convert, she replied, “Yes, I convert. I convert you to be a better Hindu, or a better Muslim, or a better Protestant, or a better Catholic, or a better Parsee, or a better Sikh, or a better Buddhist.” She believed all faiths lead to Heaven. Her faith is not according to Scripture.

There are many doctrinal differences in Christianity. However, the way of salvation is of utmost importance. It is a matter of life and death. There is not a more foundational doctrine.

When we stand firm on righteousness by faith alone in Christ, we stand on the truth of Scripture, not on our understanding.

If you are listening to this message, and you do not put your faith in Christ as the giving to us by grace the righteousness needed for salvation, you will perish in your sins.

But, if you put your faith solely in the righteousness which comes from Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, you stand before the throne of God holy and blameless, adorned in the righteousness of Christ.