Romans 3:21 “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”
In order to appreciate “a righteousness from God,” we need to realize it is something we lack. What I am about to say is intended to keep you and me from saying the really foolish thing people say that keeps us from seeing our need for righteousness. That is the statement, “I am a good person.” If all we mean by this is, “I am not a habitual criminal,” then perhaps we can let it pass. But you know that even the family and friends of convicted criminals are inclined to say, “But he is really a good person.” I once knew a woman whose husband had multiple affairs and finally divorced her for no other reason than he was tired of her. Still, she insisted, “But he is still a good person.” Our contemporary culture is so uncomfortable with the truth about us, that even in the most obvious cases, we find it difficult to say, “He is not a good person. In fact, he is bad.”
What does Jesus have to say about all this? You may remember the rich young man who came to Jesus to learn what he had to do to inherit eternal life. The first words out of his mouth were, “Good teacher…” And Jesus couldn’t let his greeting pass. “Why do you call me good? Jesus answered. No one is good–except God alone” (Luke 18:19). No one is good, except God alone. Jesus wasn’t denying that Jesus was good. But he wanted the man to think some more about the person to whom he was talking, and he was already starting to confront some of the false ideas this man had about the man’s own goodness.
This isn’t said to drive us into depression. It is meant to help us confront the truth. It helps us get past our rationalizations about our own behavior. We can become very comfortable thinking that we are good because, in our opinion, we are mostly good. We are mostly pure and chaste. We are mostly generous. We are mostly obedient. We are mostly content. We are mostly free of anxiety and worry. We think we are “mostly good.” But that isn’t the same thing as righteous. I believe that I have developed a reputation for patience. Ask my wife, however, how patient I am in the middle of a home improvement project that isn’t going right. So it turns out I am “mostly patient.” And that isn’t the same thing as being good.
Even if we were to shape up 100 percent today (something that no one ever does), we would still have a sinful past keeping us from being righteous–100 percent in conformity with God’s law. Righteousness would still be something we lack. Since we can’t become righteous ourselves, Jesus comes to bring it as God’s gift. This brings us to the righteousness Paul means, “a righteousness from God, apart from law.”
Jesus brings us righteousness from God. The gift wasn’t a repair project, as though our bodies and souls had a few bad parts that needed to be replaced, and then we would work properly. He didn’t tweak our spiritual diet and exercise to improve our performance, like athletes in training. Nothing but a full replacement was going to do if we were going to be righteous.
So that’s what Jesus did. He gave us a full identity swap. He became us so that we could be him. He traded our sinful past for his life of perfect love and obedience. On God’s books, if the Lord were now to do a background check on us based on his own records, the article on your life story or mine reads like the story of a man born in Bethlehem over 2000 years ago. He was raised in Galilee. He traveled Israel as a courageous preacher and teacher, a friend of the poor and the outcast, and a worker of miracles of mercy. There simply isn’t any fault to be found here.
That sinful past we traded to him, together with our sinful present and our sinful future, eventually landed Jesus in man’s court, where he was condemned as a criminal, and in God’s court, where he was condemned as every sinner who ever lived. From the cross, Jesus life-blood flowed across God’s record book of our sins, erasing every entry as it went, leaving behind nothing but pages fresh with the story of his own love. Now our life’s story, from beginning to end, reads like perfect conformity to God’s law.
This righteousness isn’t a gift Jesus found somewhere, purchased one for us, boxed it up, gave it to us, and then stood back while he watched us open it. In giving us righteousness, Jesus is giving us his very self. He is our substitute in life and in death. His righteousness is legitimate. His righteousness works. He is “a good person,” and now in God’s eyes, so are we.