Righteousness for the Unrighteous


Chapter 5 - Horatius Bonar



It is in righteousness and by righteousness that God saves the sinner.

He justifies the ungodly (Rom 4:5); but He does it in and
by RIGHTEOUSNESS. For "the righteous Lord loveth righteousness" (Psa 11:7). He "justifies freely by His grace" (Rom 3:24); but still it is "in and by righteousness." His grace is righteous grace; it is grace which condemns the sin while acquitting the sinner; nay, which condemns the sin by means of that very thing which brings about the acquittal of the sinner. His pardon is righteous pardon, and therefore irreversible. His salvation is righteous salvation, and therefore everlasting.

It is as the righteous
Judge that God justifies. He is "faithful and just" in forgiving sin (1 John 1:9). By His pardons He magni-fies His righteousness; so that he who goes to God for forgiveness can use as his plea the righteousness of the righteous Judge, no less than the grace of the loving and merciful Lord God.

God loves to pardon because He is love; and He loves to par-don because He is righteous, and true, and holy. No sin can be too great for pardon, and no sinner can be too deep or old in sin to be saved and blest; because the righteousness out of which salvation comes is infinite. (

The sacrifices on which the sinner is called to rest are "the sacrifices of
righteousness" (Deut 33:19; Psa 4:5). It is from "the God of our salvation" that this righteousness comes (Psa 24:5). It is with the "sacrifices of righteousness" that God is "pleased" (Psa 51:19). It is with righteousness that His priests are clothed (Psa 132:9). It is righteousness that looks down from heaven to bless us (Psa 85:11); and it is righteousness and peace that kiss each other in bringing deliverance to our world. It is the work of righteousness that is peace, and "the effect of righteousness, quietness, and assurance for ever" (Isa 32:17).

It is with the "robe of
righteousness" that Messiah is clothed, over and above the garments of salvation (Isa 61:10), when He comes to deliver earth; and when He proclaims Himself "mighty to save," it is when "speaking in righteousness" (Isa 63:1). When He came to "finish the transgression, and to make an end of sin, and to make reconciliation for iniquity," He came also to bring in "everlasting righteousness" (Dan 9:24).

"This is the name whereby He shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS" (Jer 23:6); and as if to mark the way in which e blesses and justifies, it is added in another place, "This is the name wherewith SHE shall be called, The Lord our righteousness" (Jer 33:16),-His name passing over to the sinner; the sinners name lost and forgotten in that of his Substitute. Oneness in name, in nature, in privilege, in position, in righteousness, and in glory with Messiah, his divine sin-bearer, is the sinner's portion. "Their
righteousness is of ME, saith the Lord" (Isa 54:17); for "He, of God, is made unto righteousness" (1 Cor 1:30). The transference is complete and eternal. From the moment that we receive the divine testimony to the righteousness of the Son of God, all the guilt that was on us passes over to Him, and all His righteousness passes over to us; so that God looks on us as possessed of that righteousness, and treats us according to its value in His sight. Men may call this a mere "name" or "legal fiction"; but it is such a "name" as secures for us the full favor of the righteous God, who can only show favor to us in a righteous way; and it is such a "fic-tion" as law recognizes and God acts upon in dealing with the unrighteous as if they were righteous,-supremely, divinely right-eous, in virtue of their connection with Him, who, "though He knew no sin, was made sin for us, that we might be made the RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD in Him" (2 Cor 5:21).

This is the "righteousness of God which is revealed from faith to faith" (
2) (Rom 1:17). This is "the righteousness of God without the law which is manifested, and was witnessed by the law and the prophets" (Rom 3:21); "the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe" (Rom 3:22). (3) Thus, "in believing" (not in doing) this "righteousness of God" becomes ours; for the promise of it is "to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly" (Rom 4:5).

On our part there is the "believing"; on God's part, the "imput-ing" or reckoning. We believe, He imputes; and the whole transac-tion is done. The
blood (as "atoning" or "covering") washes off our guilt; the righteousness presents us before God as legally entitled to that position of righteousness which our surety holds, as being Himself not merely the righteous One, but "Jehovah OUR righteousness." We get the benefit of His perfection in all its complete-ness; not as infused into us, but as covering us: "Thy beauty was perfect through MY COMELINESS which I had put upon thee" (Eze 16:14). Applying here the words of the prophet concerning Jerusalem, we may illustrate and extend the figure used by the Holy Spirit as to the "perfection" of him whom this righteousness covers. Spread out, it is as follows:-

1. "I said to thee, Live" (Eze 16:6).
2. "I spread my skirt over thee" (verse 8).
3. "I entered into a covenant with thee, and thou becamest mine" (verse 8).
4. "I washed thee" (verse 9).
5. "I anointed thee" (verse 9).
6. "I clothed thee" (verse 10).
7. "I shod thee" (verse 10).
8. "I girded thee" (verse 10).
9. "I covered thee with silk" (verse 10).
10. "I decked thee with ornaments, bracelets, chains, jewels, a beautiful crown" (verse 12).
11. "Thou was exceeding beautiful" (verse 13).
12. "Thy renown went forth for thy beauty" (verse 14).

Such, in the symbols of Scripture, is a picture of the perfection (not our own) with which we are clothed, so soon as we believe in Him who is "Jehovah our righteousness." "Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee" (Song 4:7).

"He that believeth is not condemned" (John 3:18). This is the negative side; and even were there no more for us, this would be blessedness, seeing our portion was by nature that of "children of wrath." But there is more; for it is written, "All that believe are jus-tified from all things" (Acts 13:39); and "Christ is the end (or ful-filling) of the law for RIGHTEOUSNESS to every one that believeth" (Rom 10:4). "As by the offense of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by THE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF ONE, the free gift came upon all men unto JUSTIFICATION OF LIFE" (Rom 5:18).

The strength or kind of faith required is nowhere stated. The Holy Spirit has said nothing as to quantity or quality, on which so many dwell, and over which they stumble, remaining all their days in darkness and uncertainty. It is simply in
believing,-feeble as our faith may be,-that we are invested with this righteousness. For faith is no work, nor merit, nor effort; but the cessation from all these, and the acceptance in place of them of what another has done,-done completely, and for ever. The simplest, feeblest faith suffices; for it is not the excellence of our act of faith that does aught for us, but the excellence of Him who suffered for sin, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God. His perfection suffices to cover not only that which is imperfect in our characters and lives, but that which is imperfect in our faith, when we believe on His name.

Many a feeble hand,-perhaps many a palsied one,-was laid on the head of the burnt-offering (Lev 1:4); but the feebleness of that palsied touch did not alter the character of the sacrifice, or make it less available in all its fullness for him who brought it. The priest would not turn him away from the door of the tabernacle because his hand trembled; nor would the bullock fail to be "accepted for him, to make atonement for him" (Lev 1:4), because his fingers might barely touch its head by reason of his feebleness. The burnt-offering was still the burnt-offering, and the weakest touch sufficed to establish the connection between it and him, because even that feeble touch was the expression of his consciousness that he was unfit to be dealt with on the footing of what he was himself, and of his desire to be dealt with by God on the footing of another, infi-nitely worthier and more perfect than himself.

On our part there is unrighteousness, condemning us; on God's part there is righteousness, forgiving and blessing us. Thus unright-eousness meets righteousness, not to war with each other, but to be at peace. They come together in love, not in enmity; and the hand of righteousness is stretched out not to destroy, but to save.

It is as the
unrighteous that we come to God; not with good-ness in our hands as a recommendation, but with the utter want of goodness; not with amendment or promises of amendment, but with only evil, both in the present and the past; not presenting the claim of contrition or repentance or broken hearts to induce God to receive us as something less than unrighteous, but going to Him simply as unrighteous; unable to remove that unrighteousness, or offer anything either to palliate or propitiate. (4)

It is the conscious absence of all good things that leads us to the fountain of all goodness. That fountain is open to all who thus come; it is closed against all who come on any other footing. It is the want of light and life that draws us to the one source of both; and both of these are the free gifts of God.

He who comes as partly righteous is sent empty away. He who comes acknowledging unrighteousness, but at the same time trying to neutralize it or expiate it by feelings, and prayers, and tears, is equally rejected. But he who comes as an
unrighteous man to a righteous yet gracious God, finds not only ready access, but plen-teous blessing. The righteous God receives unrighteous man, if man presents himself in his own true character as a sinner, and does not mock God by pretending to be something less or better than this.

For then the divinely provided righteousness comes in to cover the unrighteous, and to enable God to receive him in love, and justify him before earth and heaven.

In all this we find such things as the following; each of them bringing out a separate aspect of the answer to the great question, "How can man be just with God?"

1. The Justifier;--"It is God that justifieth." The sentence of acquittal must come from His lips, and be registered in His books.
2. The justified;--Man, the sinner, under wrath, the ungodly, the condemned.
3. The justifying fact;--The death of Him whose name is Jehovah our righteousness.
4. The justifying instrument;--Faith. Not strong faith, or great faith, or perfect faith, but simply faith, or believing. "We are justified by faith."
5. The justifying medium;--The righteousness of God. This is the "best robe" which is prepared for the prodigal, by which he is clothed and beautified, and made fit to enter his Father's house, and sit down at his Father's table. Christ is Himself our justifica-tion. In Him we "stand." In Him we are "found." Him we "put on," and with Him we are clothed, by Him we are protected as by a shield, in Him we take refuge as in a strong tower.

"Found in Him." What then? Our own "self" has disappeared; and instead there is Christ, the beloved Son in whom God is well pleased. Found in ourselves, there was nothing but wrath; found in Him there is nothing but favor. We are hidden in Christ. God seeks for us; and when at last He discovers us in our hiding-place, it is not we that He finds, but Christ; so complete is the exchange of persons, so perfect and so glorious the disguise.

Yet it is not a disguise which shall ever be taken off, nor of which we shall have cause to be ashamed. It remains ours for ever. It is an everlasting righteousness. (

Jehovah is satisfied with Christ's obedience. He is well pleased with His righteousness. And when we, crediting His testimony to that obedience and that righteousness, consent to be treated by Him on the footing of its perfection, then is He satisfied and well pleased with us.

Jehovah is satisfied, more than satisfied, with Christ's fulfilling of the law which man had broken. For never had that law been so fulfilled in all its parts as it was in the life of the God-man. For man to fulfill it, would have been much; for an angel to fulfill it, would have been more; but for Him who was God and man to fulfill it, was yet unspeakably more. So satisfied is Jehovah with this divine law-fulfilling, and with Him who so gloriously fulfilled it, that He is willing to pass from or cancel all the law's sentences against us; nay, to deal with us as partakers of or identified with this law-ful-filling, if we will but agree to give up all personal claims to His favor, and accept the claims of Him who hath magnified the law and made it honorable.

(1) "How art thou righteous before God? Only by a true faith in Jesus Christ; insomuch that if my conscience accuse me that I have grievously transgressed against all the commandments of God, nor have kept any one of them, and, moreover, am still prone to evil; yet, notwithstanding, the full and perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ is imputed and given to me, without any merit of mine, of the mere mercy of God, even as if I had never committed any sin, or as if no spot at all did cleave to me, yea, as if I myself had perfectly performed that obedience which Christ per-formed for me.... Why is Christ's sacrifice and obedience called the materi-al cause of our justification? For that it is the same for which we are made righteous (Rom 5:19).-Is Christ's death and last passion only imputed to us, or also the obedience of His life? Both. His satisfaction by punishment meriteth for us the remission of sin. This is His passive obedience. Then there is the obedience called active obedience.... We owed to God not only punishment for the transgression, but also a perfect obedience. All this hath Christ satisfied for us. But our justification is most ascribed to Christ's suf-fering, blood-shedding, and death" (Heidelberg Catechism).
(2) That is: "Therein is the righteousness of God, which is by faith, revealed to be believed."
(3) That is: The righteousness which God has provided for us, the right-eousness of Him who is God, and which comes to us by believing in Christ, is presented to all without distinction, and is put upon all who believe for a robe or covering; as it is written "Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom 13:14); and again, "As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal 3:27).
(4) "I may boldly glory of all the victory which He obtaineth over the law, sin, death, the devil; and may challenge to myself all His works, even as if they were my own, and I myself had done them.... Wherefore, when the law shall come and accuse thee that thou dost not observe it, send it to Christ, and say, There is that man who hath fulfilled the law; to Him I cleave; He hath fulfilled it for me, and hath given His fulfilling unto me. When it heareth these things, it will be quiet. If sin come, and would have thee by the throat, send it to Christ, and say, As much as thou mayest do against Him, so much right shalt thou have against me; for I am in Him, and He is in me. If death creep upon thee and attempt to devour thee, say unto it, Good mistress Death, dost thou know this man? Come, bite out His tooth: hast thou forgotten how little thy biting prevailed with Him once? Go to! if it be a pleasure unto thee, encounter Him again. Thou hast per-suaded thyself that thou shouldest have prevailed somewhat against Him when He did hang between two thieves, and died an ignominious death; but what didst thou gain thereby? Thou didst bite, indeed, but it turned worst to thyself. I pertain to this man; I am His, and He is mine, and where He abideth I will abide. Thou couldst hurt Him nothing; therefore let me alone....'
Hereof we may easily understand what kind of works those be which make us entire and righteous before God. Surely they are the works of another...Salvation hath come unto all by Jesus Christ, as by the works of another; wherefore this is diligently to be noted, that our felicity doth not consist in our own works, but in the works of another, namely, of Christ Jesus our Savior, which we obtain through faith only in Him... Before God this thy righteousness is of no estimation. Thou must set in place thereof another, namely mine. This God my Father doth allow. I have appeased the wrath of God, and of an angry Judge have made Him a gen-tle, merciful, and gracious Father. Believe this, and it goeth well with thee; thou art then safe, entire, and righteous. Beware that thou presume not to deal before God with thine own works. But if thou wilt do anything with Him, creep into me, put on me, and thou shalt obtain of my Father whatsoever thou desirest."
- LUTHER, Sermon on John 20:24-29
5) In this there is no confusion of personalities; no transfer of moral character; no exchange of inherent sin on the one hand, or inherent righteousness on the other; no literal or physical identity; but a judicial verdict or sentence is given in our favor, constituting us partakers in law of all the results or fruits of the work of Him whom God, as Judge, appointed our Substitute. "As we are made guilty of Adam's sin, which is not inherent in us, but only imputed to us; so are we made righteous by the righteousness of Christ, which is not inherent in us, but only imputed to us" (Owen).
The legal or
judicial gift of benefits is certainly different from the personal meriting of them; but the benefits are not less real, nor their possession less sure. That they should come to us in a righteous way, with the consent and sanction of law, is the great thing. The reality is to be measured by the actual possession and enjoyment of the benefits, and not by the way in which they come. The security for them lies in this, that they reach us in a legal and honorable way.