Apparently my favorite words in 2014 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.
As I’ve been reading through a number of R. C. Sproul books recently, there’s one word that reappears again and again. For example, it appears 58 times in in The Holiness of God, and 78 times in Dr. Sproul’s commentary on 1 & 2 Peter. See why I call it his favorite word? And what is it?
Unlike me, however, I believe Dr. Sproul is fully aware of the frequency with which he uses this word. He uses it consciously and deliberately. It’s a calculated decision, I believe, taken partly because of the historical importance of the word in Reformed Theology, but mainly because it is in danger of being forgotten by some and distorted by others. Why is this word so important?
1. “Righteousness” helps us understand the character of God
In The Holiness of God, Dr. Sproul distinguishes between two kinds of divine righteousness: God’s internal righteousness and His external righteousness.
“God’s internal righteousness is the moral excellence of His character. It is rooted in His absolute purity…As a holy God, He is utterly incapable of an unholy act.”
God’s external righteousness is His outward behavior. As what God does is always consistent with who God is, in all eternity God has never done a crooked thing. We never see injustice in God or done by God.
2. “Righteousness” helps us measure sin
God’s internal and external righteousness is the standard we must reach and any shortfall, externally or internally, is sin.
Dr. Sproul challenges us to re-think the deeper implications of the slightest sin. When we sin “we are saying no to the righteousness of God. We are saying, ‘God, Your law is not good. My judgment is better than Yours.’”
3. “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. Dr. Sproul says:
“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.”
4. “Righteousness” helps us understand justification
If we are not saved by our own righteousness nor by God setting aside His righteousness, how then are we 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.
“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.”
In His commentary on 1 & 2 Peter, Dr. Sproul is at pains to point out that this is a legal transaction where although no real property is exchanged, the property title is transferred.
“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.”
If “righteousness” is Dr. Sproul’s favorite word, “imputation of righteousness” is his favorite phrase.
“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.”
5. “Righteousness” helps us oppose Roman Catholicism
If there’s one thing that motivates Dr. Sproul’s love of the Reformation and his lifelong opposition to Romanism, it’s the difference between Roman Catholic and Reformed views of justification:
“The great debate of the 16th century came down to two words – infusion and imputation. 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.”
Because the righteousness of Christ is perfect and never diminishes, there can never be any increase or decrease of a believer’s righteousness.
6. “Righteousness” helps us understand the Christian life
Dr. Sproul concedes that “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.”
Dr. Sproul’s special word is a swear word to many Christians. That’s desperately sad. And deadly serious.