Righteousness has a forensic, or legal, sense as in being declared “in the right” by a judge in a lawcourt. The judge may render a verdict in favor of either the plaintiff or the defendant. He declares one party or the other as being “justified” which means put in a right standing with the court.
As sinners who stand before God, our judge, how might we be put into a right standing with him? A person is put into a right standing with God when one’s sins are forgiven. This means the sinner is reconciled to God since one’s sins no longer form a barrier that separates them from a God too holy to tolerate sin’s presence. Forgiveness means being saved from God’s wrath because of the sinner’s acknowledgement that the penalty for sins was paid by Christ.
While righteousness (“what is right”) can refer to a right standing before God it can also refer to right behavior in terms of moral virtue. God, who accepts nothing less than perfection, can only declare one righteous because the righteousness of Christ—his moral virtue—has been credited to one’s account. This changes a person’s status in God’s sight. He no longer sees the person as a sinner, but as a wholly righteous person.
We could never be right with God through our own moral efforts at doing right. Our righteous works could never contribute the slightest merit into our bankrupt account. Since God only accepts perfection, our works count for nothing. We can only depend upon the righteousness of Christ which he achieved by living the perfect life of moral virtue as the only person who ever kept God’s law perfectly.
Once we are made righteous, in the forensic sense of having been acquitted of all wrong and having been declared “in the right,” we are called to take on what Luther called “proper righteousness,” which might also be referred to as “ethical” or “moral” righteousness. Having received an alien righteousness imputed to us from Christ’s account, this in turn motivates right living before God. The good works which flow from this righteousness have no bearing whatever upon whether we are saved or lost.
It is certain, however, that one whose life does not bear the fruit of righteousness is not saved. While good works are the evidence of a right standing before God, and the fruit of it, they are not the basis for it.
To understand the Protestant view that leads to this understanding, we must turn to the Book of Romans. We will do so in the next post.