A Gospel Primer
How may a sinful man approach God? (Exodus 3:5) Does God require perfect obedience to His law in order to achieve the righteousness He demands of us?
"Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life? ... If you would enter life, keep the commandments," (Matt 19:15-17). Moses writes about righteousness that is based on the law, stating that a person who follows the commandments shall live by them (Ro 10:5). However, "the very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me," (Ro 7:10). "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it," (Jas 2:10) ... and “the soul that sins shall die,” (Ez 18:20). Yet, "...God [sent] his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh ... in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us," (Ro 8:3-4).
From the above Scriptures, we observe that:
- There is a righteousness based on the law,
- The commandment promises life,
- This life could be attained if we were to keep the law perfectly, but
- We fail to do so, and
- Jesus mercifully keeps the law for sinners so that its requirement might be met in us.
There are two operative principles in the Bible:
- “Do this and live,” (Leviticus 18:5; Romans 2:13; 10:5) and
- “Trust in the Mediator to do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves,” (Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 10:6; Galatians 3:11).
The first principle is often referred to as “the covenant of works,” and the second as “the covenant of grace.” The covenant of grace becomes possible because the Mediator fulfilled the covenant of works. As John Calvin once stated,
"The person who wants to be justified by works must do more than produce just a few good deeds. He must bring with him perfect obedience to the Law. And those who have outstripped all others and have progressed the most in the Law of the Lord are still very far from this perfect obedience."
From the beginning to the end, the Bible unambiguously states that perfect adherence to the law is necessary to earn eternal life. However, the law results in death because we have all failed to uphold it, with the notable exception of Jesus Christ. Born under the law, He fulfilled its righteous requirements on our behalf. Praise be to God. Christ's voluntary acceptance to bear all the sanctions imposed by the law for the transgressions of His people forms the foundation of God's justification of sinners (Rom. 5:9). This act of Christ is the very act by which they are forgiven. Moreover, His perfect obedience to all the prescriptions of the divine law provides a perfect righteousness before the law that is credited to those who place their trust in Him.
What exactly is the Righteousness of Christ? To answer this, let's examine a couple of pivotal passages that offer some insight.
"We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” Galatians 2:15-16.
In context, Paul was addressing the Judaizers who were imposing the additional requirement of circumcision onto the grace of the gospel. Against this backdrop, Paul declares, “We are justified not by works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.” But why not by works of the law? In Gal. 3:10 (just a few verses later), Paul states, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM."
Effectively, Paul is challenging his listeners: You wish to live by the law and achieve righteousness by observing it? This would necessitate absolute obedience to every intricate detail of the law in its entirety. While the word “all” is sometimes used in a relative sense, such as when “all Jerusalem went out to see Him,” which obviously does not mean every person without exception, in this instance (Gal 3:10) Paul indeed means “all” without exception. He is not suggesting that if a person wants to be saved, they must obey most of the law; rather, he is making it clear that they must shoulder the full burden of the law, all 613 commands of it. One small covetous thought, therefore, would entirely ruin your chances of being righteous by observing the law. Given our sinful, fallen, corrupt nature, this level of perfect obedience is, of course, impossible for any of us and would lead only to despair.
When a lawyer asked Jesus about the greatest commandment, Jesus said it was to love God with all of our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Understanding this intellectually and being able to practice it are two very different things. In fact, none of us come close to keeping either of these summaries of the law; we woefully fall short every hour of our lives. Remember, Paul declares that the purpose of divine legislation is not to demonstrate our ability if we try hard enough, but to reveal our sin - “through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:19, 20). So, apart from the work of Jesus Christ, because of our woefully inadequate law-keeping, we all justly deserve the law’s curses.
It is solely because of Jesus Christ that we are not under a curse for failing to uphold God’s holy law. As Paul says in Gal. 3:13,
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us.” Apart from absolute perfection, we are under a curse from the law."
So, how do we become righteous? Let's consider 2 Corinthians 5:21:
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
This verse provides a profound summary of the gospel on two important levels: both the forgiveness of our sins (by absorbing the wrath of God due to our failure to keep the law) and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to us (stemming from His perfect obedience to the law). Note how Paul tightly interweaves Christ’s sinlessness with our righteousness in Him. This righteousness is not simply because Jesus was inherently righteous from eternity, but because of his perfect obedience as a human being to God’s law, not for himself, but on our behalf. In doing so, he could truly represent us from our side as a man before God. Let's delve into the critical truths this passage brings to light:
- Jesus was absolutely sinless. Or to put it another way, Jesus was perfectly obedient to the law. Paul states “He knew no sin”. We find the same testimony throughout the Scriptures:
Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”
In the same context, a few verses later (Heb 5:7-10), we read, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.”
1 Peter 2:22 reads, “He committed no sin.”
1 John 3:5 declares, “You know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin.” Furthermore, Jesus himself testifies to his sinlessness in John 8, asking, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” He could pose this question because he knew he was indeed absolutely sinless.
Twice in Jesus' life—at his baptism and the transfiguration—God the Father proclaims, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” If there had been any blemish in Jesus' character or a single spot of sin, the Father could not have made this declaration about Jesus.
So, the first truth we glean from this text is the absolute, spotless obedience of the Lord Jesus Christ in His humanity. This occurred after He became flesh and lived among us as a human being in a real family, in the midst of a physical life. This is perhaps the main reason for the significance of His incarnation: so that He could truly represent us as a human being (from our side) as a sinless substitute. Does not the Scripture declare, “God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4)? And Jesus Himself said that He came to “fulfill the law” (Matt 5:17). In other words, someone like us (a man) did what we were unable to do ourselves (obey the law). Jesus Christ fulfilled the demands of the Mosaic Law, which called for perfect obedience under the threat of a “curse”—a destiny we would all face apart from Christ. This brings us to the next point.
God made the sinless one “to be sin”. What Paul means here is that God made Jesus Christ bear the full brunt of the pain, burden, and curse of our sin. He redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse in our place. The expression “He made Him sin” emphasizes the fullness of our sins being placed upon Jesus, our substitute. All the sins that we have ever committed were laid upon the Lord Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus became the very embodiment of sin. He was no sinner Himself, and so could qualify as a human being to substitute in our place. As our representative, the Last Adam, He bore our sins in His own body on the cross. “The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6). All of our sin was charged to Jesus Christ, who paid our penalty in full, thus cancelling all our debts.
That we might become the righteousness of God. What does Paul mean by “becoming the righteousness of God?” Many assume this means the righteousness which God requires of us, that in order to be accepted by God, we must perfectly keep His holy law. This would be correct since God will condemn those who do not present themselves before Him with perfect righteousness. God does require this perfect righteousness from us, but, in the gospel, this is also the righteousness that He provides for us in Christ. Thanks be to God; for without this provision, none of us would have the faintest glimmer of hope. That is, God credits to us the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus perfectly lived out and fulfilled the requirements for that righteousness. God then takes that righteousness and credits it to us, which we receive from Christ through faith. Those who are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit through faith are credited with that perfect righteousness, one that is pleasing to God. We stand before God just as righteous as God’s Son, Jesus, who perfectly kept the law in absolute holiness.
"in Him" How does that righteousness come to us?
The answer is, "In Him". We are united to Christ. Just as we entered this world united to Adam (dead in trespasses and sin), so now, by grace through faith, we are united to Jesus Christ. Just as Adam was our representative in the garden, so Jesus was our representative both in His perfect life of law-keeping and in His death on the cross. He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we justly deserve. Everything Jesus did throughout His entire incarnate life and death, He did as our representative and substitute; it is credited (reckoned) to those who place their faith in Him. As we are united to Him by faith, we benefit not only from His death on the cross but also from His incarnate life. Therefore, our becoming the righteousness of God is received in our union with Christ and is the righteousness we receive by faith: "that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, 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 3:8-9).
Thus, in 2 Cor 5:21, it means that God takes our sin and charges it to Christ, and takes Christ’s perfect righteousness and credits it to us. God not only cleanses us from our sin but also clothes us with the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus must represent us in both His life and death.
The result of both of these is called justification. It is as if you had always obeyed; you are credited with the perfect righteousness of Christ. And it is as if you had borne the penalty of your sin on the cross; Christ is credited with your sin. Therefore, in light of the promise of life given to us if we obey God's law (Matt 19:17), we can only cast aside all pride, conceit, and self-righteousness for having woefully fallen short of its demands. But now that the law has done its job of showing us our sin and spiritual poverty, the gospel then opens our hearts to the promise of life through trusting the One who did obey the whole law, fulfilling the covenant on our behalf, and who bore its covenant curses in our stead.
“The Reformation, however, held to the unity of the covenant of grace in its two dispensations while at the same time sharply contrasting law and gospel. According to the Reformed tradition, law and gospel describe two revelations of the divine will. The law is God’s holy, wise, good, and spiritual will, which on account of sin has now been made powerless, fails to justify, and increases sin and condemnation. The gospel, as the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise, has Christ as its content and conveys grace, reconciliation, forgiveness, righteousness, peace, freedom, and life. The law proceeds from God’s holiness, is known from nature, addresses all people, demands perfect righteousness, gives eternal life by works, and condemns. By contrast, the gospel proceeds from God’s grace, is righteousness, produces good works in faith, and acquits. Faith and repentance are always components of gospel, not law. The gospel, therefore, always presupposes the law and differs from it especially in content.”
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4 442
Everyone is in covenant with God and the sanctions are according to which covenant you are in. Covenants are the architectural framework, the superstructure of the Bible. Covenant theology is just biblical theology because we find covenants everywhere in the Bible. Many scholars try to discover what is the center of the Bible ... the center of biblical theology? Some of the proposed centers for biblical theology are God, Israel, Covenant, creation, kingdom, salvation, new creation, and so forth. None of these are the center of the Bible though. They lose their meaning without Christ. If there is no Christ, there is no kingdom to talk about. The diversity of the Bible is unified in Christ. He is the center that holds all of the biblical data together. While the covenants night be the vehicle by which God relates to his people and the kingdom of God is certainly his pervasive rule over all people yet the fullest expression of God and His glory come in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ and this is why covenants are important. They teach us about Him.
- Rev Dan McManigal