Who’s Your Righteousness?
By the Revd Canon Chuck Collins
Who’s your righteousness? “The Lord our Righteousness” was the sermon preached March 20, 1757 at St. Mary’s Church in Oxford. It offended nearly everyone that day and William Romaine was invited to never preach there again. Preaching about a righteousness that is not our own doing, the undeserved free gift of God’s own righteousness, is the last thing someone wants to hear who is seeking God’s approval on the treadmill of good works and self improvement. Romaine calls this “the fundamental doctrine of the gospel” and “the most important truth of Christianity.”
There are two kinds of righteousness, according to St. Paul, the self-righteousness of good works, and God’s own righteousness imputed to unworthy sinners who believe him for it by faith (Rom 10:3-11). It should be clear to everyone that we are born with a default mode for works-righteousness; something in everyone wants to contribute to their own salvation. Legalism orders our lives, and the Pharisees viewed justification as a process of transformation. Whole systems of religion are devised to facilitate our understanding of salvation-by-increments: acquiring grace by participating in the sacraments or modern-day discipleship plans that are meant to lead us towards the goal of obtaining human worthiness to stand before God. Preachers thrive on this. They are paid good money to fuss at their congregations for not getting better, chiding them to do more and try harder. Self-righteousness inspires pride for a job well done and disdain for those who haven’t tried enough.
The righteousness that transforms lives begins with the recognition that no one is innately righteous enough (Rom 3:10), and that our personal righteousnesses are as filthy rags (Isa 64:6). Yet, to stand before a perfectly righteous God requires righteousness! Knowing this, God gave us a righteous branch to execute justice and righteousness (Jer 23:5) whose name is “The Lord is our righteousness” (23:6). Jesus is our righteousness – “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). Our hope is not for moral improvement, but Jesus Christ who clothes us with the garments of salvation and covers us with the robe of his righteousness (Isa 61:10) – God’s righteousness inputed (reckoned, counted) to the unrighteous (Rom 4:3-6) making us the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor 5:21). We are not made intrinsically righteous and meritorious of God’s love, but rather God’s love gifts us with an alien (outside of ourselves) righteousness – “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by faith” (Thirty-nine Articles, Article 9). Righteousness that saves and sanctifies results in grateful hearts and changed wills to love God with our whole heart and our neighbour as ourselves.
William Romaine understood this:
“Consider your state. You are a pardoned sinner, not under the law but under grace, freely, fully saved from the guilt of all your sins. There is none to condemn, God having justified you. He sees you in His Son, washed you in His blood, clothed you in His righteousness, and He embraces Him and you, the head and the members, with the same affection.”
“The salvation which the gospel makes known to us, puts us in the position of mere receivers. It refuses to deal with us on any other footing but this.”
The English reformers preached this central message of the Bible, that our salvation depends on God’s mercy and not on our treadmill accomplishments:
“There is a glorifying righteousness of men in the world to come; and there is a justifying and a sanctifying righteousness here. The righteousness wherewith we shall be clothed in the world to come is both perfect and inherent. That whereby we are justified is perfect, but not inherent. That whereby we are sanctified, inherent, but not perfect. This openeth a way to the plain understanding of that grand question, which hangeth yet in controversy between us and the Church of Rome, about the matter of justifying righteousness.” (Richard Hooker, “A Learned Discourse on Justification”)
“This justification or righteousness, which we receive by God’s mercy and Christ’s merits embraced by faith, is taken, accepted, and counted by God as our perfect and full justification.” (Thomas Cranmer, Homily “Salvation by Christ Alone,” Gatiss edition)
“We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies…” (Thomas Cranmer, Book of Common Prayer)
If all this sounds formulaic, propositional and cold, it wasn’t so for Romaine or the English reformers, and neither is it for Christians today. It is a life-changer! Dane Ortland reminds us that “the gospel offers us not only legal exoneration — inviolably precious truth! — it also sweeps us into Christ’s very heart.” Saving faith is much more than a legal agreement for adoption signed in some far-away heavenly courtroom; it is becoming his children! It’s not just about having our sins forgiven; it’s union with the one who created us and loves us for such a relationship. It doesn’t make us righteous, but such a love in the power of the Holy Spirit reorients our wills to love God and to love our neighbour. In justification, God moves into a Christian’s heart to take up residence in the power of the Holy Spirit — Christ is in you, the hope of glory! (Col 3:3).