However, writing more than half a century ago, the late church leader and Christian teacher Watchman Nee pointed out that view is erroneous.
What, then, is our righteousness? This is a basic lesson which we Christians must learn thoroughly. We ought to know that in providing for our salvation God solved the problem of righteousness as well as that of sin. Through righteousness God has forgiven our sins, and He has also prepared for us a righteousness by which we can always come to Him. Forgiveness is like taking a bath; righteousness is like wearing a robe. Among men we are clothed that we may appear before them. So too, God clothes us with righteousness that we may live before Him; that is, that we may see Him. He has already cleansed our sins and given us a righteousness by which we may live in His presence.
What is our righteousness? The word of God tells us that our righteousness is Christ—the Lord Jesus himself. “But of [God] are ye in Christ Jesus, who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1.30). From this rich verse we will lift out but one item and concentrate our attention upon it alone—namely, that God has made Christ our righteousness.
Not the Righteousness of Christ
Before we discuss how Christ is our righteousness, we wish to explain briefly that the righteousness of Christ and Christ our righteousness are two totally distinct subjects. It is wrong to consider the righteousness of Christ as our righteousness. The righteousness of Christ cannot be our righteousness; it is Christ himself who is our righteousness.
The word found in 2 Peter 1.1—“the righteousness of our God and the Saviour Jesus Christ”—points to the righteousness which Christ himself possesses. If the Lord Jesus himself is not righteous, He is not qualified to be the Saviour, and we have no way to be saved. This righteousness is purely for Christ himself, not for Him to give to us. The Bible never says the righteousness of the Lord Jesus saves us, because this righteousness is for the purpose of qualifying Him to be our Saviour. His righteousness cannot be reckoned as our righteousness. His righteousness is that which He lives out while on earth. It is His personal standing before God. It is the righteousness of Christ’s personal conduct. It has no way to be imparted to us. Christ’s righteousness is what He himself has worked out. It is exclusively His and is absolutely unrelated to us. It is for this reason that the word of God never says we are “in Jesus.” In being Jesus He is still the only begotten Son of God—He has not yet become the firstborn Son and hence we are not yet the many sons. We therefore have no part in Him.
Let us understand that our union with Christ begins at His cross, not at His incarnation. Until the time of the cross, all that Christ has is exclusively His own; He has not yet shared anything with us. If a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it bears much fruit (many grains). Only since the Lord Jesus has died are we now those fruits, those many grains. Our union with Christ begins at His death, not at His birth. Calvary is where we are united with Him; at Bethlehem there is no such union. Before Calvary, we can only view His righteousness; we cannot share in it. The Bible from its beginning to its end tells us that we are not saved by the righteousness of Christ nor do we become righteous by His righteousness. Our becoming righteous before God is only because of Christ himself.
Some may ask, Does not the Bible tell us that God has given us the righteous robe of the Lord Jesus? But we would counter, Does God’s word say that God will clothe us with the righteous robe of the Lord Jesus or that He will clothe us with the Lord Jesus as a righteous robe? In other words, are we clothed with the righteousness of the Lord Jesus or clothed with the Lord Jesus himself? In point of fact, we have never read in God’s word that we are clothed with the righteousness of the Lord Jesus; we read instead that we are clothed with the Lord Jesus: “Put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13.14).
We see here a most wonderful and distinctive thing: our righteousness before God is not the earthly conduct of the Lord Jesus, our righteousness before Him is the Lord Jesus, a living person. Today we come to God because we are clothed with the Lord Jesus himself. The Lord Jesus is our righteousness; and this is not the righteousness which He has, but He himself as righteousness. Accordingly, since the Lord Jesus lives forever, we have righteousness before God at all times. We may come to Him with boldness at any time, for we have the Lord Jesus as our righteousness.
Christ Is Righteousness
If our righteousness before God were our conduct we would be very unstable, because our conduct is sometimes good and sometimes bad; furthermore, our good conduct is always limited and can never meet the standard of God. Thank God, the righteousness we have before Him is not our conduct, but Christ; we are therefore immovable before Him. Today you may not be very strong and good Satan will come and tempt you, saying, “What are you, after all? God will not have such a person as you” But you can reply: “You have forgotten, Satan, that my righteousness before God is not my good conduct of yesterday nor is it my less good conduct of today; but my righteousness before Him is Christ. Christ has not changed today, so my righteousness remains unchanged.” Should the garment we wear be of our own making, it would be dirty rags and we would be quite unable to meet God. But we are today clothed with Christ; hence we have boldness to see God. Oh! This is deliverance, this is emancipation, this is the foundation of Christian doctrine.
Suppose we imagine ourselves asking a brother who knows the word of God: “Will your righteousness ever fail?” He will answer, “No, never.” “But will your conduct ever fail?” we may ask. He will say, “Certainly.” Do you see that his righteousness will never fail, though his conduct may? His righteousness is not his conduct. If this were true, then when his conduct failed, his righteousness would fail too. Yet his righteousness is not his conduct, it is not that which is subject to failure; his righteousness is the Christ who never fails. And so our righteousness too never fails; it is as unfailing as Christ is. Now this may sound too bold, but it is the word of God. Our righteousness is Christ. Because He never fails, our righteousness never fails either.
Some may perhaps inquire, Does it then mean that our bad conduct does not matter? It definitely does matter. For the Bible shows us that a Christian has two garments: one is the Lord Jesus, for He is our robe, He is our righteousness; the other is the bright and pure fine linen of Revelation 19.8: “For the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” (“Righteous acts” is “righteousnesses” in the original, meaning the many acts of righteousness.) All the good conduct of a Christian—all his outward righteousnesses—come from grace as a result of the working of the Holy Spirit in him; they are not something which he has naturally. As we approach God we are not naked, because we are clothed with Christ who is our righteousness. However, as we appear before the judgment seat of Christ we must bring our own righteousness, that which is called the righteousnesses of the saints (see 2 Cor. 5.10, 1 Cor. 4.5)…
There is one name in the Old Testament which is very precious. It is “Jehovah our righteousness” (Jer. 23.6, 33.16). Jehovah is our righteousness, therefore our righteousness is not our conduct. May God open our eyes that we may see the gospel, even the foundation of the gospel. As we come to God, Christ—not our conduct—is our righteousness. The Lord is our righteousness. We come to Him through Christ. What else is as firm and immovable as this? . . .
We will now consider the third matter, which is found in 2 Corinthians 5.21: “Him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; that we might become the righteousness of God.” We who sinned are saved because Christ was made sin for us. We who are saved through the work of Christ have now become the righteousness of God in Him. This is a direct complement to 1 Corinthians 1.30. There we see that “Christ became our righteousness”; here in 2 Corinthians we find that “we become the righteousness of God.” Whoever acknowledges the One that was without sin and yet was made sin for us becomes himself the righteousness of God.
God’s Redemption Reveals God’s Righteousness
We do not know how to say it, for it is truly most wonderful: we become the righteousness of God! The Bible tells us that our righteousness is Christ and God’s righteousness is we ourselves. God has made Christ our righteousness, He has also made us His righteousness in Christ. What does it mean by our becoming the righteousness of God? It means that if anyone wants to learn and to see the righteousness of God, he need only find a Christian, for it is expressed in the life of a Christian. For this reason, a Christian is the righteousness of God.
Before we believe in the Lord we are blind to God’s standards for righteousness and unrighteousness. But even after we become Christians, we may still be confused in identifying what is righteous and what is unrighteous. God will therefore not only save us but also teach us the lesson on righteousness. In His redemption He not only saves the unrighteous but He also instructs us as to what righteousness is . . . .
Learn to Be Righteous
Having come in by this way of righteousness, we are encouraged to learn a lesson; which is, that we Christians must learn to be righteous. We must not be loose in our daily walk. Since God has been so righteous in saving us, we must be righteous lest we stand as a contradiction to Him. Because of redemption, we as the saved manifest the righteousness of God; because of the teaching that is brought to us through redemption our lives must also manifest the righteousness of God.
We ought to live righteously. We should always remember that even in saving us God cannot be unrighteous. He cannot be unrighteous towards himself, for His nature is righteous and hence He cannot deny himself. Being the specimen of God’s righteousness, how can we do anything unrighteous? Since the only one and true God needs to be righteous, ought we not to live justly on earth? . . .
Hence we must learn the principle of righteousness. What is righteousness? Righteousness means owing nothing to anybody: take not what is undeserved and give not what is improper. Let us reinforce this by stating that as God cannot be unrighteous towards himself so we who belong to Him ought not to be unrighteous. We should not owe any man anything. Whether we are good Christians who are making good progress depends a great deal on our understanding of, and feeling towards, righteousness when we first entered upon the Way. Many so-called Christians cause plenty of heartache to others because they never seem to have any sense of righteousness, are not even aware of what unrighteousness is. Some, upon having become Christians, have never once apologized or made any restitution. Is it because everything they had done or now do is right? If we do not acknowledge our faults, there can be only two possible explanations: either we are always right and never wrong, or else we will not confess our fault. May God be merciful to us that we may not deceive ourselves into thinking we have never done wrong; that we may not refuse—due to hardness of heart or a desire to save face—to acknowledge our fault.