The Righteousness of God in the Gospel

QUESTION: In Romans 1:16-17 Paul says that the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel. The word “gospel” means “good news.” In what sense can the righteousness of God be good news for sinners?

ANSWER: That God is righteous means that he must always be true to himself; he must always be true to every aspect of his nature. This is his consistency of character. It means that he must be true BOTH to his holy nature (his perfect moral purity) AND to his loving nature.

In reference to the former, “righteousness” includes seeing that the requirements of his LAW are satisfied: either through obedience to its commands or through the suffering of its penalties. God would prefer that it be done through the former; but if it is not, his righteousness demands that his law’s penalty must be applied.

Thus, God maintains the integrity of his law—i.e., he maintains his own righteousness—by requiring its commands to be obeyed, and by imposing the penalty of eternal suffering upon those who disobey. Sadly, sin is simply a fact. Therefore his holy wrath MUST be applied and satisfied, for his own righteousness’ sake.

Here is where the question arises: in what sense can the reality of God’s righteousness be GOOD NEWS to sinners? How can the righteousness of God be the subject of the GOSPEL message (Rom. 1:16-17)?

We can answer this question through the following imagery. EVERY TIME we sin, we are figuratively writing out an IOU to God: “I owe you, God, the debt of eternal punishment in hell.” Here is where the righteousness of God comes in: because God is righteous, his righteousness demands that these debts—these IOUs—MUST be paid. How will this be accomplished? This can happen in two ways: either under the system of law, or under the system of grace.

Under the LAW system, God will uphold his righteousness (i.e., he will satisfy the requirements of his law) by calling in all of these IOUs on the day of judgment. On this day his righteousness will take the form of his holy wrath, which he will begin to pour out upon sinners directly, sentencing them to eternity in hell. In this way God is true to his holy nature. His justice is satisfied, in reference to his holiness.

But – there is ANOTHER way that he can uphold his righteousness: a way motivated and devised by his LOVE (John 3:16; 1 John 4:9-10). This is the way of grace. Under the GRACE system, God also bestows his righteousness upon sinners, but in a very different way. I.e., he does so through the gospel (see Rom. 1:17). Here the satisfaction of his law’s requirement for penalty upon the disobedient is achieved through the substitutionary atonement of Jesus, the sin-bearer. How does this work? There are two steps.

First, the righteous Father pours out the requirements of his holy wrath directly upon Jesus. Jesus becomes the “designated sinner” who takes the place of all actual sinners. He is our substitute as he suffers within himself the full force of sin’s penalty. He suffers the equivalent of eternity in hell for the whole human race.

Remember: as sinners, we owe God the debt of eternal suffering in hell. But here is where Jesus comes into the picture. He takes upon himself ALL the IOUs generated by all the sins of all the world, and carries them to the cross, and pays them in full: Colossians 2:13-15. See verse 14: God saved us “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (ESV).

This is the correct understanding of Colossians 2:14. The Greek word for “record of debt” is cheirographon, literally, “handwriting.” It has nothing to do with any law code (contra the NIV’s “written code”), Mosaic or otherwise. It refers to a handwritten document, a certificate of indebtedness – like an IOU. According to Ceslas Spicq, Theological Lexicon of the NT (III:508-509), this word was often used in the papyri as “a technical term meaning ‘acknowledgment of debt,’ i.e., the receipt signed by a debtor, who acknowledges that he owes a certain sum and undertakes to repay it.” “Once the invoice was paid or the note was honored, it was canceled with two crosswise strokes.”

Commenting on this last statement (“canceled with two crosswise strokes”), Spicq cites a late first-century document that says, ekeleuse to cheirographon chiasthenai (“he ordered a cross to be marked on the invoice”). The word for “mark a cross on” is chiazō, which means “to shape like the letter chi” – which is the shape of an X (two lines crossing one another), i.e. , the shape of a cross. This reminds us of Colossians 2:14, which says God removed our cheirographon by “nailing it to the cross.”

God’s holy nature is thus righteously satisfied. God thus maintains his righteousness, his justice, in reference to his HOLINESS.

But now comes the second step. In the act of saving the individual sinner, in the moment of conversion, God gathers up all the canceled IOUs relating to that person’s sins (past and future), wraps them up in a gift package, and presents them to him or her as a free gift. These canceled IOUs (the cancelation of our deserved eternal punishment in hell, canceled by means of the substitutionary atonement of Jesus) represent God’s righteousness being bestowed upon us as God’s gift of grace. See Romans 3:22; 10:3; Colossians 3:9.

In this way God’s own righteousness—the satisfaction of the law’s requirement of penalty for disobedience—is bestowed upon us indirectly, having been bestowed directly upon Jesus and having thus been satisfied by Jesus Christ in our place. We can think of this gift of God’s righteousness as something like a receipt that says, “This sinner’s eternal penalty for his/her sins has been paid in full by Jesus Christ. There is therefore now no condemnation awaiting this person, since he/she is now in union with Jesus Christ.” See Romans 8:1.

The moment we receive this receipt, i.e., this certificate guaranteeing that the penalty for our sins has been paid, we are JUSTIFIED: the Judge says, “No penalty for you!” By justifying us in this manner, God maintains his righteousness (his “justice”), in reference to his LOVE. Even though in his love he is justifying us, he is still just (i.e., righteous) in terms of his HOLINESS (Rom. 3:26). This is the essence of Romans 3:21-26.

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