Apparently my favorite words one year were maximize and minimize. How do I know? A member in my congregation playfully told me. Until then I had no idea that I was using these words so much.
Reading through a number of Dr. R.C. Sproul’s books, I came across a word that appears again and again. For example, it appears fifty-eight times in The Holiness of God and seventy-eight times in Dr. Sproul’s commentary on 1 and 2 Peter. It was obviously one of his favorite words. And what is it?
Unlike me, however, I believe Dr. Sproul was fully aware of the frequency with which he used this word. He used it consciously and deliberately. It was a calculated decision, I believe, taken partly because of the historical importance of the word in Reformed theology, but mainly because of the danger of its being forgotten by some and distorted by others. Why is this word so important?
Righteousness Helps Us Understand the Character of God
In The Holiness of God, Dr. Sproul distinguished between two kinds of divine righteousness: God’s internal righteousness and His external righteousness.
His righteousness is of two sorts. We distinguish God’s internal righteousness from His external righteousness. What God does is always consistent with who God is. He always acts according to His holy character. God’s “internal righteousness” is the moral excellence of His character. It is rooted in his absolute purity. There is no shadow of turning in Him. As a holy God, He is utterly incapable of an unholy act. Only unholy beings commit unjust and unrighteous acts.
There is a consistency in God, a “straightness” about Him. Often man’s unrighteousness is described in terms of our being not straight. We are crooked. It is not by accident that we often refer to criminals as “crooks.” Crooks are so called because they are crooked. They are not straight. God is straight. His straightness is seen in His outward behavior, His external righteousness. In all eternity God has never done a crooked thing.1
Which true Christian doesn’t love the beautiful moral excellence of God’s righteousness?
Righteousness Helps Us Measure Sin
Since God’s internal and external righteousness is the standard we must reach and since any shortfall, externally or internally, is sin, Dr. Sproul called us to rethink the deeper implications of the slightest sin. When we sin, he warned, “we are saying no to the righteousness of God. We are saying, ‘God, Your law is not good. My judgment is better than yours.’”2 Our small views of sin would be greatly expanded by a right view of God’s righteousness.
Righteousness Helps Us Understand Mercy
When God saves a sinner, He never does it because of the righteousness of the sinner. In Deuteronomy 9:4–6, God reminds the Israelites three times that it wasn’t because of their righteousness that He would defeat the Canaanites. But neither does He save a sinner at the expense of His righteousness, by setting His righteousness aside. That would be injustice, as Dr. Sproul clarified: “Mercy is not justice, but it also is not injustice. Injustice violates righteousness. Mercy manifests kindness and grace and does no violence to righteousness. We may see nonjustice in God, which is mercy, but we never see injustice in God.”3
This is why one of the Christian’s favorite verses is this: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just [righteous] to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Who would want God’s forgiveness at the expense of His righteousness? Then God would cease to be God and we would have neither God nor forgiveness.
Righteousness Helps Us Understand Justification
If we are not saved by our own righteousness or by God’s setting aside His righteousness, how, then, are we saved? We are saved by Christ’s own perfect righteousness being imputed to us. Only by possessing divine righteousness can we feel at peace in the presence of the God of all righteousness. With his customary profound simplicity, Dr. Sproul summed it up: “When we put our personal trust for salvation in Christ and in Him alone, then God transfers to our account all of the righteousness of Jesus.”4
In his commentary on 1 and 2 Peter, Dr. Sproul went to great lengths to point out that this is a legal transaction where, although no real property is exchanged, the property title is transferred. He warned: “We should never despise that transfer, that imputation of righteousness, that was given to us freely by God when we put our trust in Christ. Because of that, the Father sees his Son, without spot or blemish, when he looks at us.”5
If righteousness was one of Dr. Sproul’s favorite words, imputation of righteousness was perhaps his favorite phrase. As he put it, “There is no doctrine more precious than that of the imputation of the righteousness of Christ to the account of the believer, because the only righteousness by which we will ever be saved before God is the righteousness of Christ.”6
Righteousness Helps Us Oppose Roman Catholicism
If there was one thing that motivated Dr. Sproul’s love of the Reformation and his lifelong opposition to the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation, it was the difference between the Roman Catholic and Reformed views of justification. “The great debate of the 16th century came down to two words—infusion and imputation,” he insisted. “Rome held that one cannot be declared just by God until or unless justice or righteousness inheres in that person’s soul, whereas the Reformers declared that, according to Scripture, we are justified the moment the righteousness of Christ is transferred to us by faith.”7 Because the righteousness of Christ is perfect and never diminishes, there can never be any increase or decrease in a believer’s righteousness.
Righteousness Helps Us Understand the Christian Life
Dr. Sproul noted that for some people, “justification by faith may be viewed as a license to sin. If we have the righteousness of Christ, why should we worry about changing our sinful ways? Since our good works can’t get us into heaven why should we be concerned about them at all?” He rightly retorts: “Such questions never ought to pass over the lips of a truly justified person.” He goes on: “The goal of Christian growth is the achievement of righteousness. . . . In the Christian world today, such a statement may sound radical. Christians hardly ever talk about righteousness. The word has almost become a swear word.”8
Dr. Sproul’s special word is a swear word to many Christians. That’s desperately sad. And deadly serious.
- R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1993), 166–167. ↩︎
- Sproul, The Holiness of God, 177. ↩︎
- Sproul, The Holiness of God, 170. ↩︎
- Sproul, The Holiness of God, 251. ↩︎
- R.C. Sproul, 1-2 Peter, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 262. ↩︎
- Sproul, 1-2 Peter, 206. ↩︎
- Sproul, 1-2 Peter, 210. ↩︎
- Sproul, The Holiness of God, 252. ↩︎