Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
By Rev. Thomas Whitelaw, D.D.
("The Lord our Righteousness").
Jeremiah, the weeping prophet of Judah, entered on his ministry in the thirteenth year of the good King Josiah. The kingdom of Judah was within forty years of its overthrow. Unwarned by the terrible fate which two hundred years before had overtaken Israel, uninstructed by the prophets whom Jehovah had sent her, — "rising up early and sending them," — "Judah had not only followed in the footsteps of her northern sister but had even exceeded her in wickedness. When the first of the above prophecies of Jeremiah was spoken, Judah was ten years from her fall; when the second was uttered, she was only one year removed from her doom. The good Josiah was in his grave — slain by the archers of Pharaoh Necho of Egypt Jehoahaz his son, after three months' reign as successor, had been deposed. Jehoiakim his brother, after acting as sovereign for eleven years, was a captive in Babylon. Jehoiachin, after three months of inglorious rule, was like his father carried off into exile. And now Zedekiah, his father's brother, occupied the throne. Still things in Judah went from bad to worse. Judah was on the down grade. " There was no remedy "; " no healing more." Like a boat that has crossed the death-line on Niagara, Judah was in the rapids and hurrying to the brink of the fatal precipice. Her sun was going down in blood and darkness. Her day of grace was expiring. The thunder-clouds and lightning shafts of judgment were drawing near. No power on earth could save her.
In these circumstances Jeremiah was directed to call the attention of the pious remnant of the people to what was about to happen, the destruction of the city and Temple by the Chaldean armies, the deportation of the flower of the people to Babylon and their continuance in captivity for seventy years; after which there should come a deliverance from Babylon, a restoration to Palestine, and the dawning of a brighter era, when Jehovah should raise up to them a better Shepherd than the faithless pastors who had led them astray, and a nobler King than the worthless monarchs who had destroyed them. " And this is His name, whereby He shall be called," said Jeremiah in the first prediction, " The Lord our Righteousness," altering it in the second to read, "This is the name whereby she," i.e. the united kingdom of Judah and Israel, "shall be called. The Lord our Righteousness." The meaning is the same, that in those days the righteousness of Judah and Israel should be found not in themselves but in Jehovah.
It requires no penetration to see that the pith of Jeremiah's prophecy lay not in the promise of a political restoration under a future scion of David's house, but in the clear certification that the brighter era which should follow on the Captivity would reach its highest point in the appearance of a great Descendant of David, whose name should be " The Lord our Righteousness " to the whole spiritual house of Israel, i.e. to the Universal Church of God. Now, that this great Descendant of David who should be in Himself a righteous Branch of the Davidic house and to His people " The Lord our Righteousness " was Jesus Christ no intelligent reader of the New Testament can doubt Not only was Christ when on earth known and addressed as " the Son of David' but in the Gospels and Epistles He is expressly called the holy and righteous One, and said to have been set forth to declare God's righteousness and to be made righteousness unto them who believe. Hence we cannot be wrong in accepting the expression in our text, " Jehovah-Tsidkenu," as a designation of our Lord Jesus Christ, in which is set forth what He is for all without exception in offer, and what He is in reality to all who believe. It was the standing watchword of the Reformers in the sixteenth century — of Martin Luther and John Calvin and John Knox; it has been the trumpet-call which has sounded in every evangelical revival which the Church has enjoyed since the days of Paul; it contains the essence of the gospel to-day, that "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth," without which preaching will be powerless to reach the hearts or elevate the lives of men.
The truth, then, which is set before us is that righteousness before God for sinful men has been provided by God and can be found by men only in Christ. In illustrating this I shall endeavour to show: first, that all men without exception naturally stand in need of righteousness before God; second, that this righteousness cannot be provided by themselves; third, that the righteousness they need has been wrought out for them by Jesus Christ; and fourthly, that this righteousness may become theirs to-day on the easiest terms.
I. Righteousness: a Universal Need of Man.
Martin Luther, in his Commentary on Galatians, distinguishes four kinds of righteousness: " a Political or Civil Righteousness which emperors, princes of the world, philosophers and lawyers deal withal; a Ceremonial Righteousness which the traditions of men do teach; a Righteousness of the Law or of the Ten Commandments which Moses teacheth; and a Righteousness of Faith or Christian Righteousness which must be carefully discerned from the fore-rehearsed." Now, it is obvious that the righteousness required by sinful men is not political or civil righteousness, which is nothing more than compliance with the statutes of the land, the enactments of the Magistrate, whether King or Parliament or Council. Persons who are righteous before Cæsar may be exceedingly unrighteous before God. Nor is the righteousness required by sinful men ceremonial righteousness, or observance of religious forms — which may be all gone through, as Bunyan saw, without the possession of that which constitutes a soul righteous in God's sight. It is doubtful if righteousness signifies nothing more than external obedience to the Ten Commandments — rather, it is not doubtful, as the example of the young ruler in the Gospel proved, that evangelical righteousness goes far beyond mere outward morality. True righteousness will be found only, as will by and by appear, in that which the soul receives from Christ.
Perhaps the simplest answer to the question, What is righteousness? is, that righteousness is that which puts a sinful soul right before God, whose creature the soul is, whose law the soul has violated, and whose condemnation the soul has incurred. Had the soul never sinned, it would have required nothing to put it right — it would have been right. All the law's demands upon it would have been satisfied. But the soul having sinned and fallen under condemnation, the case is different" the situation is changed. Two things are required to restore it to a position of rightness before God: holiness, or perfect compliance with the demands of the divine law; and satisfaction, or submission to the penalty which through sin has been incurred. It is quite impossible that any one can in himself be right who does not render pure, perfect, perpetual, and personal obedience to the precepts of God's law, since it is inconceivable that God could be satisfied with less. And even though this were rendered from a given moment forward, the question would remain. What about the past transgressions and the penalties these have entailed? Clearly something must be done in the way of rendering satisfaction for these!
Well, then, that all need these two things requires no demonstration. Men being sinners — and "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God " — are in want of holiness; and being under condemnation on account of sin want acquittal or release from the penalty. This, at least, is the Bible's view of man's natural state and condition.
2. Righteousness: an Impossible Attainment BY Man.
That is, by sinful men's own endeavours. Of course men have often fancied they could work out a righteousness for themselves. The Pharisees and the Jews generally imagined they could do so by ceremonial observances; and men commonly suppose it can be done by what are called good works, virtues, philanthropies, religious forms, penitential inflictions, and such-like performances. But all these might exist without holiness, as has been said. And since holiness means keeping God's law without defect, without transgression, without interruption, without a fleck or stain of moral defilement, nothing can be clearer than that no mere man since the Fall has ever done or can do so. For any one to claim that he has done so, or can do so, is pure delusion, and betrays a singularly low conception of what God's law is and a frightfully high idea of his own moral ability. Either he must think God's law is not so holy as it Is, or he must fancy that God can accept something less than His law demands; or that his own ability is greater than it is: otherwise he would never dream that he, a fallen creature, could rise to the standard of a perfect obedience. " I have vowed above a thousand times' said Staupitz, Luther's friend, "that I would become better, but I have never performed that which I vowed. Hereafter I will make no such vow, for I have now learned from experience that I am not able to perform it' Even Bernard Shaw has pointed out with much penetration that " it is possible for a man to pass the moral catechism. Have you obeyed the Commandments? have you kept the law? and at the end to live a worse life than the sinner who must answer Nay! all through the questions "; while W. R. Greg, content with low ideals, can only hope "that men may attain the. measure of the stature of — "William and Robert Chambers."
And if this part of righteousness be beyond the reach of all, much more must the other part be, which consists in rendering satisfaction for the penalty attached to sin. The mention of that penalty is enough to make this clear — " The soul that sinneth it shall die," and " The wages of sin is death." How a sinful man can discharge this without himself dying, is hard to see. To endure the penalty is simply to be lost. And how to render satisfaction for it so as to escape it, none can tell without express revelation from God the Lawgiver, Men have tried the way of sacrifice — sometimes going so far as to offer the fruit of their bodies for the sin of their souls. But in this way they have never found abiding or perfect rest. This way has ever proved a hopeless and endless task. Men have also tried good works without reaching peace, like John Wesley, who on returning from Georgia exclaimed, " I went to America to convert the Indians; but oh I who will convert me? " The absolute helplessness of man to work out a justifying righteousness for himself is as clearly attested by experience as it is plainly affirmed in Scripture.
3. Righteousness: a Divine Provision for Man.
Since man cannot supply a righteousness for himself, he can manifestly look to no other quarter for it but to God. And the message of the gospel is that the Lord Himself is man's Righteousness; i.e., has provided a righteousness which can be transferred and imputed to man, counted his, so that on the ground of it he may be accepted before God. A common objection to this statement says that such imputation or transference of merit from one to another is impossible, and even immoral. But rightly viewed it is neither the one nor the other. In ordinary life men are every day suffering for others' sins and being rewarded for others' merits. And nobody's conscience or reason is offended thereby. Besides, it is the only method indicated in Scripture by which the sinner who has no righteousness of his own can obtain a righteousness (Rom. iii. 22, v. i8, x. 4; 2 Cor. v. 21; Phil. iii. 9). If a sinner is to be justified, he must find his righteousness not in himself but in another, i.e. in Christ, whom God set forth to declare His righteousness. How Christ wrought out the necessary righteousness for man should be known to every careful reader of Scripture. What man could not do for himself, Christ did for him — obeyed the precepts of the law without sin, and suffered the penalty of the law, death, so that, as the old divines say, by His passive obedience, death. He cancelled the sinner's guilt, and by His active obedience in living He acquired for the sinner a title to eternal life. Should any one inquire how Christ could do this, the only answer possible is, that He was the Lord. Being the Lord, He had no need to obey or suffer. The law had no claim on Him who was the Lawgiver. But, having come as man's surety. He voluntarily placed Himself under the law, that He might finish the transgression, make an end of sin, and bring in an everlasting righteousness. And He has done it, finished the work.
4. Righteousness: a Free Gift to Man.
There are only two ways conceivable of obtaining righteousness: either by works or by faith; through personal merit or through Christ's merit; from self or from God. Hence Scripture always opposes these two things — the righteousness which comes through the law and that which comes through grace; that which is of works and that which is of faith; that which is the fruit of our own endeavours, or self-righteousness, and that which is the fruit of Christ's obedience unto death, or the righteousness of Christ. The first of these is worthless, imperfect, and stained, is in fact non-existent, — "all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags," — the second alone remains available. And this is offered to man on the easiest terms, viz., those of repentance and faith — repentance meaning the renunciation of self-righteousness, and faith the acceptance of Christ's righteousness. These two righteousnesses — man's and Christ's— cannot go together as a plea for the justification of a sinner. He who wants to be saved by works cannot be saved by faith; he who stands on his own merit cannot stand on Christ's; he who hopes to be accepted on account of justice does not need to be accepted through grace. On the other hand, he who accepts Christ's righteousness has no need of his own. Because Christ's is all-sufficient. It covers him in law, and renews him in life. It clothes him without, and it cleanses him within.
This being so, it is worth while putting to ourselves the question — "Are we looking to the Lord as our Righteousness? or are we still looking to ourselves? The Pharisees trusted in themselves that they were righteous; so did the young ruler and thousands of the Jews; so do multitudes to-day. Philip Henry's remark, "He who looks to find that in himself which can only be found in another — righteousness — will find himself mistaken," is worth pondering. Christ's righteousness alone will suffice to cover one before the throne. Paul, Luther, Wesley, Bunyan, Baxter, and Owen all looked to Him and His righteousness. Owen remarked, " I do not remember that I ever heard any good man, in his prayers, use any expression about justification wherein anything of self-righteousness was introduced. Nor have I observed that any public liturgies (the Mass Book excepted) guide men in their prayers to plead anything in their acceptance with Him, or as the means or condition thereof, but grace, mercy, the blood and righteousness of Christ alone." Why, then, should we cling to our own righteousness and reject His? Especially when ours is worthless and His is all-sufficient.
Yet many have been and still are opposed to Christ's righteousness. M'Cheyne's experience has often been reproduced —