What does is mean that we have received “the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:22)? What does it mean that God “has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). It means that Christ’s personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience to the Law of God throughout His entire life (the active obedience of Christ) is counted as ours. Though we are inherently sinful and commit acts of sin, God sees us the same way He does our Lord Jesus Christ: righteous.
The Covenant of Works
Man’s biggest problem is not the wrath of God, but rather, the righteousness of God. God’s wrath is the consequence for failing to meet the demands of the righteousness of God. God demands righteousness of all made in His image in order for them to have eternal life. This standard is known through the Law of God. The first Law given to man was given to Adam. Adam was commanded by God to work and keep the Garden of Eden, but not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil for “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:15-17). This Law given to Adam is known as the Covenant of Works. The Covenant of Works promised eternal life to Adam and all of mankind upon fulfilling the condition of working and keeping the Garden and not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. However, the consequence for Adam breaking the Covenant of Works would be an eternal death for Adam and all of mankind. Adam, of course, did eat of the tree, thereby imputing His sin to all mankind as it is written, “just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). Why was Adam’s sin imputed to all mankind, and why do we suffer the consequence of death even though we were not the ones who ate of the tree? Because Adam is our federal head. He represented all mankind in the Garden. Though Eve ate of the tree first (Genesis 3:6), it was not until Adam ate that they realized their nakedness (Genesis 3:7a) which was their guilt before God. It was through Adam’s disobedience that we were made sinners (Romans 5:19a), not only in corruption, but in our guilt before God (Romans 5:18a). Guilt preceded corruption when Adam sinned as he first realized his nakedness, and then presumptuously tried to sew fig leaves together (Genesis 3:17b) to hide his corruption.
The Mosaic Covenant
To further reveal our sin, God gave Israel the Ten Commandments (Romans 5:20a, Romans 7:7). The Mosaic Covenant was a type of Covenant of Works for the nation of Israel. After receiving the Ten Commandments, the nation vowed, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient” (Exodus 24:7). If the nation of Israel obeyed the commandments, they would be blessed in all things (Deuteronomy 28:1-14). If the nation disobeyed, they would be cursed in all things (Deuteronomy 28:15-68), including being driven out from the land of Israel by a foreign nation (Deuteronomy 28:49-50, 64). Eventually, they disobeyed and the nation was split into two, into Israel and Judah. Israel was forever scattered among the nations when the Assyrians took them into captivity. Judah was taken into captivity by Babylon (Babylon is east of Jerusalem), but was maintained in order that the Abrahamic promise of the Messiah (Galatians 3:16-18) would be fulfilled in Christ, who was a descendent of David, of the tribe of Judah. This is the paradigm by which Paul and Jesus view the Law.
The Demand and Function of the Law
He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury… For it is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the Law who will be justified.
-Romans 2:6-8, 13
Righteousness merits the blessing of eternal life. Unrighteousness merits the curse of eternal death. It is not enough that we avoid sin, we must actually be “doers of the Law.” A lawyer, asked Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asked him, “What is written in the Law?” The lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus replied, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28). If the lawyer wants eternal life, he must be perfect. He must keep the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments really are these two greatest rules, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Note what Jesus said at the end: “Do this, and you will live.” He gets this phrase that summarizes the function of the Law from Leviticus 18:5, which Paul also uses in Galatians 3:12. But Paul writes in Galatians 3:10, “For all who rely on works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” If we try to gain eternal life by our own works, we will be condemned, because “through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). The Law shows that we are unable to keep it because we are inwardly corrupt. We sin because we are sinners. Recall how Jesus thinks of the Ten Commandments in the Sermon on the Mount. He shows us that it is not enough to avoid murdering someone, committing adultery, or hurting others. We must not be unjustifiably angry with others, not lust over others’ bodies, keep our word perfectly, not retaliate against personal offenses, love our enemies, love the poor, not worship money, treat others as we would ourselves, and practice true devotion to God apart from wanting to be praised by men in order to be properly considered “doers of the Law.” Needless to say, none of us are doers of the Law! We are so wicked, and we probably underestimate our own wickedness. We have by no means earned the blessing of eternal life, but earned the curse of eternal death.
Jesus Christ the Righteous
But the good news of the Gospel is this: God has graciously provided a Last Adam and a Faithful Israel in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary so that He would be born without the stain of original sin. Throughout His entire life, from His birth in a manager to His death on the cross, Christ lived in perfect conformity to God’s Law. He kept the crushing demands of the Ten Commandments, even the standard He clarified in the Sermon on the Mount. He loved the Lord His God with all of His heart, all of His soul, all of His mind, and all of His strength, and He loved His neighbor as Himself. When the Spirit drove Jesus to the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11), Satan tempted Jesus to break His fast, to throw Himself down from the temple to be caught by angels, and with the opportunity to rule all of the kingdoms of the earth. But our Lord did not break His fast, He lived by every word that came from the mouth of God (v. 4). He did not throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; He would not put the Lord His God to the test, and He trusted in the plans and purposes of God (v. 7). He did not accept Satan’s offer to rule all of the kingdoms of the earth because He is the offspring through which all the nations of the earth will be blessed. Jesus would not gain His kingdom by conquering His political enemies with militaristic might, but by conquering our greatest enemy, sin and death, by the means of His own death and resurrection. Israel was tempted and disobeyed in the wilderness; Christ was tempted but obeyed in the wilderness. Even as Jesus was taken to the cross after a number of unjust trials, beatings, and being mocked, Peter writes, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Even as He hung crucified and naked on the cross, with people still mocking Him, Jesus had the selflessness to assign John to take care of His mother after His death (John 19:26-27). Jesus loved His enemies and honored His father and mother. Since Christ’s accomplished perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience to the Law, those who place their faith in him are rewarded with eternal life. Christ’s resurrection from the dead was His vindication before all that He was a righteous man, was who He claimed to be, and that God accepted the sacrifice for our sins (1 Timothy 3:16, Romans 1:4).
“Thy Righteousness is in Heaven”
All of Christ’s active obedience to the Law of God was for the purpose of representing the elect before God as their federal head. Just as through Adam’s disobedience we were all made sinners by imputation, through Christ’s active obedience we were also made righteous by imputation (Romans 5:19). Adam acted as our representative and condemned us all in the eyes of God; Jesus acted as our representative and justified us in the eyes of God (Romans 5:18). Just as our guilt in Adam preceded corruption, likewise our justification in Christ precedes our sanctification. Jesus, as the federal head of the elect, took the Adamic curse on Himself by imputation, in the same way that the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement was imputed with all of the sins of Israel and driven out into the wilderness (Leviticus 16:20-22). Just as Jesus resurrected from the dead because of His righteous, we too will resurrect from the dead since His righteousness is counted as ours (Romans 5:21, 1 Corinthians 15:45-49).
Since Christ is our federal head, we can rejoice because He has accomplished everything necessary for our salvation. There is no need to fear if we have done enough, because Jesus was enough for us! There is no need to fear that our sins we struggle against will condemn us in the eyes of God, because we are Christ’s Bride. Just as Eve’s sin did not condemn her in the eyes of God since Adam was her federal head, our sins will not condemn us in the eyes of God because Christ is our federal head. While Adam blamed his wife for his own disobedience, Christ took the blame for His wife, the church, and we gain the reward of His obedience. When God looks at us, He doesn’t see our nakedness, our shame, our filthy rags, our unrighteousness, or our ungodliness; He sees the royal garments of Christ’s righteousness. He sees Christ crowned with glory (Hebrews 2:9). Indeed, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). We can joyfully proclaim with the Puritan, John Bunyan, “Thy righteousness is in Heaven.”