Summary: This article was written and published July ’14. The next two articles deal with a doctrinal error in Protestant teachings known as “the active obedience of Christ” – that Jesus vicariously accomplished and fulfilled the law of Moses for every Christian, resulting in the righteousness of God being given to the believer as a legal, judicial righteousness and as a consequence of the life Christ lived out in the flesh before the event of the cross. The bottom line is that this is not the true gospel, but rather a different gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). And this is a serious charge against those who hold this doctrine as truth. These two articles use a lot of scripture in order to prove the points I make, so please be prepared to study and concentrate if you go on to read them. Nothing is too difficult for the believer to understand. You just may need to re-read a few times to better comprehend important points.
We all (teachers and theologians) have the tendency, in getting hold of some truth, to pursue our own reasonings on it. In divine things all too often we have thoughts in which there may easily be some error or flaw, some obvious text forgotten that would show the contradiction, or with which the drawn conclusions are in disagreement. It becomes essential to review all one’s assertions and statements, and compare them with the word of God. We should always search God’s word to understand, in our measure, all its teaching on any point. It is then we may be guarded against any self-drawn conclusions which may, more or less, swerve us from God’s truth (John 17:17).
Conclusions are never the same thing as knowing the truth. I may draw many conclusions: They are mostly the assumed consequence of one idea which is implied from another. The truth is what exists in Christ, or is the displaying everything as it is true, by Him (John 8:31-32). The truth is, whereas a conclusion might be true. In the truth I have what is—in a conclusion I have an idea, hopefully, rightly deduced. There is an immense difference, morally speaking. I must be subject to the truth. But with conclusions I must prove, again hopefully, their accuracy and fitness. I say this not to hinder study and research, but to insist on testing by the scriptures all conclusions I may arrive at— which are only man’s conclusions, and must be always judged and corrected by the divine testimony.
If we all were simply willing to bow to God’s word, human reasoning really would not be necessary. Divine teaching is necessary to have our understandings enlightened (Eph. 1:18). But what we should do is simply learn God’s thoughts by the direction of the Spirit of God—not struggling to draw conclusions (I Cor. 2:12-13). However I realize we are not as simple as this. The pleading and reasoning and debating go on unfortunately. I prefer the word “discussions” coupled with the adjectives “brotherly” and “friendly”. But if these are carried on in the spirit of grace, and the content continually tested by God’s word, it does elicit truth. It calls for watching ourselves very closely, especially the flow of human thoughts in contrast to the divine. God has determined it to be this way, because of the weakness of our flesh.
There is a convincing of disputers, as well as teaching the truth. We need the Spirit of God for this as for everything else. We have such good examples of this in scripture – Paul, Stephen and others – they had power in confounding the opposers of truth! Discussion and study, if properly pursued, coupled with a passionate love of the truth, are a means of enlarging and deepening our own thoughts to be in line with God’s. The same, in grace and humility, is needed in convincing others; of correcting them also, of perfecting fellow believers as to the truth; rendering them free from such objections which serve to cast doubt on the truth we hold as Christians. Thus the truth and all its consequences are better known as they stand in the divine counsels, and the teaching is recognized as coming from God. This, I pray, is my heart attitude in writing these two articles about legal righteousness (Post #2 and 3). The need for correction is great. The error multiplies on itself, and unbiblical conclusions are drawn and taught. I hope none of my words are held as harsh or rude. I hope my words spring forth from a passionate love of God’s truth, and a godly desire for His truth to be known.
I have searched the scriptures to learn what the Spirit teaches on righteousness, especially as to the righteousness of God. I believe in my heart I have done so sincerely. With increasing clarity of understanding I believe the teaching I present here in these two articles (Post #2 and 3) to be the doctrine of scripture as the Spirit would have the believer to hold. What is presented will be in direct opposition to the error we will examine. My search of God’s word on this topic has made me feel more deeply than ever that the ground on which legal righteousness from the law rests is simply false. The root of this error lies deep. When what they teach is carefully searched, or, as I attempt to do here, extensively unfolded, the error is worse than it at first appears. Many traditional errors are like this – held without seeing all it implies. The path it takes you down is little understood. The end result is not grasped. I do not say that all who teach this error fully understand all the implied consequences; thus they should not be charged so severely. But we are justified in exposing the error, and showing it to its full results.
I believe that Jesus kept the law perfectly and He had no sin. He lived a life of perfect obedience before God. He was the perfect obedient Man. I believe every true Christian would say the same. He always did what pleased His Father. He spoke God’s words and did the Father’s works. There is no question that in His life He kept the law of Moses perfectly.
There are many theologians and teachers in Protestantism who wrongly teach that Christ fulfilled the law vicariously for us – for all believers. No normal human could keep the law, and those to whom the law was given proved this. But Jesus could keep it and did. So they reason that Jesus must have kept the law as a substitute for us, and therefore, the believer gains certain redemptive benefits from a Christ in the flesh doing the law.
Rom. 3:20 (NKJV)
“Therefore by the deeds of the law shall no flesh be justified in His sight…”
The apostle doesn’t just say that by my doing the law I will not be justified. He says emphatically that “by the deeds of the law”, that is, by the principle of law keeping there is no justification. It means that law keeping is the wrong method. This directly implies that even if Jesus keeps the law for me, I am still not justified in this way. Obviously then, Jesus keeping the law is not the means by which I am justified or declared righteous.
The Holy Spirit goes on to say, “…for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20) A similar thing is said here (Gal. 3:19), “What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions…” Here we have the proper purpose of the law, the reason why God brought law in and gave it to Israel – it was to fully expose to man, and this through Israel, the presence of sin in the flesh. Yes, it enumerated transgressions, making it very clear what these were, but its deeper purpose was to expose the reality of sin residing in the flesh of man. This should become clear by reading this passage from Romans:
Romans 7:12-20 (NKJV)
“Therefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.
13 Has then what is good become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. 20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
Through the disobedience of one man sin entered the world (Rom. 5:12). And when sin entered, death came with it, so that death spread to all men. The reason death spread to all was because sin had spread to all. All those born of Adam were born with sin residing in the flesh. This was easy enough for God to see, but it was and is very difficult for man to comprehend. Sin as a state of existence, residing in the flesh, ruled and dominated man. So much this was true that it is said in the above passage, “But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells.”
So then the reason God gave the law was to expose the presence of this state of sin in the flesh of man – a state that dominated and controlled, and made man’s will a slave (John 8:34, Rom. 6:20; 7:1, 5). What God was doing was testing man in Adam by giving the law to Israel. The Jews, as God’s chosen and highly privileged people, served as the test-case. God’s purpose in giving the law was to unequivocally prove man’s depravity. Knowing this truth, we hardly can say with a straight face that God’s intention for the law was for Jesus to come along and do it vicariously for us. It was definitely a means by which God tested man descended from Adam. That was the law’s true purpose.
Using the law for a different purpose then what it was intended for is only a mistake. The law was a ministration of death and condemnation (II Cor. 3:7, 9). Its purpose was to condemn man to death. Not only did the law expose sin, but the doing of it could only result in condemnation and death. The law entered that sin might abound (Rom. 5:20) – that is, increase and increase, and increase some more. Sin, by the law became exceedingly sinful (Rom. 7:5, 8, 13). The law not only proved that sin was present in the flesh, but that man was a slave to sin (Rom. 6:14; 7:14). It was impossible for man in Adam to be subject to the law, he could not please God, and he was proven to be nothing but an enemy (Rom. 8:7-8). There was never found anything good or of value in man in Adam when God tested him by the law (Rom. 7:17-18). This describes the sin state of man as born of Adam – he was in the flesh (Rom. 7:5; 8:8).
Rom. 3:21 (NKJV)
“But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested…”
How is it without the law? Redemption, which makes the believer the righteousness of God in Christ, is through His blood (Rom. 3:24-25). When it is through His blood, it means by His death. Redemption was not through Jesus’ life lived out in the flesh for us. And this is true concerning any aspect of redemption (i.e. the righteousness of God). Everything related to our redemption starts with the death of Christ.
We are justified – become the righteousness of God in Christ – by His blood only. We are told this in the most positive way in Romans 3, and we are told in the negative that it is not by “deeds of law”. And further, to emphasize the point, he says, “But now apart from the law…” It all starts with the death of Christ:
2 Corinthians 5:21 (NKJV)
“For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Christ being made sin for us is not Christ keeping the law for us (II Cor. 5:21). We become the righteousness of God in Him by Jesus being made sin. Certainly every believer can see the connection in this verse – Jesus was made to be sin by God, and this happened on the cross; then Jesus died. The connection is that this was the means by which the believer was made “the righteousness of God.” But there is no mention of Jesus doing the law on our behalf, and that such a requirement being met by His life in the flesh was the means by which we were made the righteousness of God. The truth of scripture is in contrast to this erroneous thought. The requirement was that Jesus had to be made sin and die.
The wages of sin is death, so on the cross He was condemned to death by God (Rom. 6:23). He was made sin for us on the cross, and it is said that God did what the law could never do when He condemned sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3) – what was it that the law could never do? Satisfy and magnify the righteousness of God by the actual judgment of sin in the death of His Son. The law could never deliver to anyone the righteousness of God.
Gal. 3:21 (NKJV)
“Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.”
Eternal life is the free gift of God. By the doing of the law, whether we did it or Jesus did it for us, one could not receive life or righteousness. The death of Christ was the foundation of both (John 6:53-54, II Cor. 5:21).
So again we read, “…being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:24) Justification is in our redemption. And by what means are we redeemed? “…whom God set forth to be a propitiation by His blood” (Rom. 3:25) His blood refers to His death – the sacrifice being slain and offered up, its blood being placed on the mercy seat. You couldn’t have the blood of the sacrifice unless it was put to death. Then in this same verse the Holy Spirit tells us that His shed blood – His death – is the revealing or demonstration of God’s righteousness. And this righteousness of God is shown by a two-fold action: God forbearing sins of Old Testament saints by passing over them, and God forgiving sins presently for the believer (Rom. 3:25-26). Christ’s death and blood are made good for those saints before the cross, as well as those after. By the law God was only a Judge. By the gospel He is now the Justifier.
We have now the clear connections of three things found in our redemption that is in Christ Jesus – forgiveness of sins, justification, and becoming the righteousness of God in Christ. We may also say the gift of eternal life. All these aspects of redemption are founded on His death and His death alone. This is the clear teaching of Scripture.
The life of Christ in the flesh before the cross, fulfilling the law in a legal way as a substitute for us, providing us a legal righteousness by the law that is given to us and called the righteousness of God, is a fantasy of the human mind. This thought and doctrine cannot be found taught anywhere in Scripture. As perfect as Christ was in His obedience before God – He loved God with all His heart, as well as His neighbor – by this He redeemed no one.
John 12:24 (NKJV)
“…accept a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.”
God’s righteousness in the gospel is by Christ’s death and blood, and He being made sin and condemned before God (Rom. 1:17; 3:21-26; 8:3, II Cor. 5:21). God was glorified by the condemnation of sin in the flesh and the bearing of sins away. God was glorified by the just and righteous condemnation of sin. This alone constitutes what the righteousness of God is based upon – not the doing of the law, but God condemning man’s sins and sin.
Where was obedience (responsibility) to God proved? In the place where Christ was “made sin”.
Where was the love of God proved? In the place where Christ was “made sin”.
Where was God’s righteousness, God’s justice, God’s holiness proved? In the place where Christ was “made sin”.
The righteousness of God (manifested in the gospel of Jesus Christ – Rom. 1:17-18) is fully proved by God’s full judgment of sin on the cross – His judgment, condemnation, and wrath poured out on Christ, yet on behalf of the believer. Christ’s obedience to the cross and His death there, is the propitiation for our sins before God. This was the only thing that fully satisfies God’s righteousness and therefore glorifies God Himself.
John 13:31-32 (NKJV)
Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him. If God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and glorify Him immediately.”
God is glorified in righteousness, glorified in His majesty, glorified in truth, glorified in His love, by Christ being made sin. It must be this way, because since the garden, man’s sin has always been before God’s eye. And if Jesus had not accomplished all by His death, it would never have been done. But now, all is accomplished, and in such a perfect way that we may say to any unbeliever – the blood is on the mercy seat, Christ has gone into the heavens, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. God has been glorified in Christ.
I emphasize this point because of the large amount of misguided teaching that has this error as its basis and foundation – that we receive the righteousness of God based on the life of Christ in the flesh, doing the law for us in some type of substitutionary way. This is not the truth of God, nor can it be found in Scripture. This actually becomes a false attempt to prop-up and improve the first Adam, when God has entirely passed him by (Gen. 3:15). It is false teaching that is associated with a large school of theological doctrine in Christianity today. We will discuss more in the following article. The consequences of holding this error as truth are profound.