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The elect of God are chosen to be “holy and blameless before him” (Eph. 1:4), having been “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). That is the future, the everlasting future, for those who love God and are called according to His purpose (v. 28). From the time that they are born again in Christ, the Spirit of God is at work to bring them into that conformity with Christ. This is called progressive sanctification, the glorious work of God carried out over the course of their lives to make His fallen, sinful people holy as He is holy.

Yet surprisingly, and wonderfully, sinners who are saved by grace through faith in Christ are also declared to be holy even before they have received glorification with God. They are called “saints,” or holy ones (Pss. 16:3; 30:4; 37:28; Acts 9:13, 32; Rom. 1:7; 8:27). As God’s chosen ones, they are even now “holy and beloved” (Col. 3:12). This is called definitive sanctification. Such saints are still sinners, ever in need of God’s grace. If they say that they have no sin, they deceive themselves and the truth is not in them (1 John 1:8). Even so, they are called holy in the Holy Scriptures. How can this be?

What we were—guilty of sin—He became. What He is—righteous—we become.

Ground zero for answering this impor­tant question is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In the first three chapters, Paul shows that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23), thus ruling out any reconciliation with God based on works. Then at the end of chapter 3, he reveals the good news that Jesus Christ has made propitiation for the sins of His people by shedding His blood on the cross (vv. 21–31). Salvation comes to them as a gift from God to be received by faith. In chapter 4, Abraham is given as the chief proof of this good news, for “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (v. 3; see Gen. 15:6). Those who receive the gift are counted as righteous in the eyes of God.

The Greek word translated here as “counted” is used eleven times in Romans 4. We can get a good idea of its meaning if we begin in Luke 22:37, where Isaiah 53:12 is quoted: “And he was numbered with the transgressors.” Why was Jesus numbered (“counted”) with the transgressors? Because, to quote Isaiah 53 again, “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; . . . and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (vv. 5–6). Though He was without sin, He was counted as a sinner, regarded as a sinner, and thus punished like a sinner. God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).

In the same way, but in reverse, because He became sin for us, we become righteous by faith in Him. This is called the great exchange. What we were—guilty of sin—He became. What He is—righteous—we become. It is in union with Christ that we are declared righteous, counted as righteous. His perfect obedience to the law is counted to us. This is why and this is how we can be called holy. An alien righteousness, the righteousness of another, has been given to us. We are thus set apart from the world of sinners because the righteousness of Christ has been imputed, counted, credited to us. It has covered us and our sins. We who believe become “a holy nation” in Him (1 Peter 2:9).

Martin Luther’s discovery of this good news in the letter to the Romans is hailed as the recovery of the gospel that ignited the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. It is a truth that must be cherished and treasured by the church, for in it we have the whole foundation of being reconciled to the holy God. Standing alone in our own sins, we stand condemned before God. Nothing awaits us but hell, whose gate, Dante imagined, greets us with the inscription “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” But if we stand before God united to Christ, then even now we are justified by faith—declared righteous, declared holy. We thus have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:1–2). Soli Deo gloria!

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From the July 2024 Issue
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