Scripture tells us again and again that none of us has kept God’s law sufficiently enough to be declared righteous based on our own obedience. The Preacher, who authored Ecclesiastes, tells us, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Eccl. 7:20). Genesis 8:21 asserts, “The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” And Paul, after surveying Scripture and the evidence in the world around him, concludes, “All, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God’ ” (Rom. 3:9–11).
Consequently, the only way we will stand in the day of judgment is if God gives us a perfect righteousness that another has achieved for us. This righteousness is the righteousness of Christ, by which many are reckoned or declared righteous (Rom. 5:19). At the final judgment, only Christ’s righteousness will preserve us unto eternal life.
Our Creator will accept the righteousness of Christ in place of our own, but a key question remains: How do we appropriate His righteousness? Only by faith. The sacraments and our good works of true but imperfect obedience are important, but they are not the means by which we receive the righteousness of Christ. Scripture is clear: justification is based only on the righteousness of Christ, which is received only when we renounce all claims to having met God’s standard and trust only in Christ for salvation (Luke 18:9–14; Rom. 4). Faith is the only instrument by which we receive the righteousness of Christ.
The Apostles were not the first to teach that we can survive God’s judgment and inherit eternal life only through faith. Paul, in fact, turns to the Old Testament for this teaching, arguing his point from Habakkuk 2:4: “The righteous shall live by his faith” (see Rom. 1:17). Habakkuk lived in the late seventh century BC and despaired that God had not brought judgment on the people of Judah, who were guilty of flagrant sin (Hab. 1:1–4). The Lord responded to Habakkuk, telling the prophet that He was going to judge Judah by sending Babylon against His people, but this confused Habakkuk because Babylon was terribly wicked and needed to be judged herself (1:5–2:1). In light of this, it would have been tempting to believe that one would survive the judgment on Judah and on Babylon by one’s own righteousness. But God told Habakkuk that life would be found only through faith (Hab. 2:4). Those who are righteous in the day of judgment are not righteous through their own works but only through faith.