The Lord Our Righteousness
Adapted from a Sermon by J.C. Ryle
In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’ Jeremiah 23:6 ESV
The time is short. It is only a little while, and the Lord Jesus will come in His glory. The judgment will be set and the books will be opened. “Before him will be gathered all the nations,” (Matt 25:32) “that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor 5:10) The inmost secrets of all hearts will be revealed; and “the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free,” will stand together at the same level, and will see each other face to face, and one by one will have to give account of themselves to God before the whole world. Thus it is written, and therefore it is true and sure to come to pass.
And what does each of you intend to say in that hour? What is the defence you are prepared to set up? What is the answer you propose to give? What is the reason you mean to give why the sentence should not be pronounced against you?
Is there anyone here this morning who does not know? You have not thought about it yet—you have resolved to think about it someday soon; or you are not quite clear about it at present; or you have made out some clever, plausible scheme which will not stand the test of the Bible. Oh, what a fearful case is yours! Life is indeed uncertain; the liveliest or the strongest here may be taken before long—you cannot make an agreement with death—and yet you cannot tell us what you are resting upon for comfort. You do not know how soon the last trumpet may sound, and yet you are uncertain as to the ground of your hope. Surely these things ought not so to be.
Consider the activity in a court of justice just before prisoners are tried. See how anxiously each one consults with his friends and his lawyers as to the defence he will make—how earnest they are, how careful to leave no stone unturned that may help to prove their innocence. And yet most of them are liable to no more than a few months’ imprisonment, or other penalty; perhaps they may get off altogether by a quibble of the law, or through lack of evidence. See now how differently you act in the matter of your souls. In the great day there will be no lack of witnesses; your thoughts and words and actions will appear written in the book one after another. Your Judge is a searcher of hearts. And yet, in spite of all these facts, too many sleep on as if the Bible were not true; too many do not know how or why they are to escape God’s wrath and condemnation.
Listen then, if you love life, while, with the help of Bishop Ryle, we try to get some instruction from the words of our text. The great question to be made known is, “How … can man be in the right before God?” (Job 25:4) “With what shall (he) come before the LORD?” (Mic 6:6) and I hope this morning, if the Lord will, that we will all understand:
I. That we must have some righteousness, or we will not be saved.
II. That we have no righteousness of our own of any sort, and therefore by ourselves we cannot be saved.
III. That the Lord Himself must be our Righteousness, and so we shall be saved.
I. First, then, I am to show you that you must have some righteousness.
The Bible says plainly, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men.” (Rom 1:18) “The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Cor 6:9) “The righteous finds refuge in his death.” (Prov 14:32)“Your people,” says Isaiah to his God, “shall all be righteous.” (Is 60:21) The cursed “will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:46) “Put on the breastplate of righteousness,” says Paul to the Ephesians. And how will anyone presume to say that he can enter into heaven without it!
And here we must consider the folly of all those who talk in a loose and general way about God’s mercy. Men will often say, when urged to think about their salvation, “Indeed I know I am not what I should be; I have broken God’s law very often, but He is very merciful, and I hope I will be forgiven.” And it seems like the religion of many goes no further than this. This is the only point they can lay hold of; this is the only rock on which they build: press them for a reason of their hope, and there is no answer; ask them to explain the ground of their confidence, and they cannot do it. “God is merciful” is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last, of all their Christianity. Now this is a sad and dreadful delusion; a refuge of lies that will not stand being compared with Scripture, and, more than this, it will not last one instant in the fire of trial and affliction.
Have you never heard that God is a God of perfect holiness—holy in His character, holy in His laws, holy in His dwelling-place? “Say to the people of Israel,” says the Book of Leviticus, “you shall be holy to me, for I the LORD am holy.” (Lev 20:2,26) “He is a holy God,” says Joshua; “He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins.” (Jos 24:19) “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong,” (Hab 1:13) says Habakkuk. Without holiness “no one will see the Lord.” (Heb 12:14) And the book of Revelation, speaking of heaven, says, “Nothing unclean will ever enter it.” (Rev 21:27) “It shall be called the Way of Holiness,” says Isaiah; “the unclean shall not pass over it.” (Is 35:8) And will you tell us, in the face of all these texts, that man, corrupt, impure, defiled—as the best of us most surely is—will pass the fiery judgment of our God and enter into the heavenly Jerusalem by simply trusting in the mercy of his Maker, without one single rag to cover his iniquities and hide his natural uncleanness. It cannot be: God’s mercy and God’s holiness must necessarily be reconciled, and the one who goes no further than trusting in his mercy has not done this yet.
And have you never heard that God is a God of perfect justice, whose laws may not be broken without punishment, whose commandments must be fulfilled on pain of death? “All his ways are justice,” says the book of Deuteronomy; “A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” (Deut 32:4) “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne,” (Ps 89:4) says David. “The LORD within her is righteous,” says Zephaniah; “he does no injustice; every morning he shows forth his justice; each dawn he does not fail.” (Zeph 3:5) “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets,” said Jesus: “I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” Nowhere do we see these verses ever being declared useless; Nowhere is it said that the law is now relaxed, and need not be fulfilled; and how, then, can I teach you that it is enough to look to God’s mercy?
There are only two ways in the Bible: One is, to do the whole law yourself; the other is, to do it by another. Show me, if you can, one single text which teaches that a man may be saved without the claims of the law having been satisfied. An earthly ruler, indeed, may forgive and pass over men’s transgressions; but God never changes. “Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Num 23:19) I can tell you, then, God’s mercy and God’s justice must be reconciled; And if you have gone no further than trusting in his mercy, this you have not done yet.
You must have something to appear in at the marriage supper of the Lamb. You would recoil at the thought of a murderer being acquitted, because he said he was sorry and hoped to be forgiven; you must make some amends to justice and to holiness; you cannot shut your eyes against the plain declarations of the Bible. You must have some good reason to give, why you should not be judged for all your sins and backslidings; you must show some cause why the punishment threatened for breaking God’s law is not to fall upon you; there must be satisfaction for your sins, or you will perish everlastingly.
You say that you are not what you should be, but you say that God is merciful. I answer you: this will not stand before the Bible: the wages of sin is death, he who “fails in one point (of the law) has become guilty of all of it.” God loves you, but He will have His demands paid in full: your debt must be paid by yourself or by someone else; choose which you please, but one thing at least is certain—payment must be made. God is indeed all love: He has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked;” (Ez 33:11) but, however small your iniquities may be, they cannot possibly be put away until the claims of His law have been satisfied to the last penny. By some means, then, you must have righteousness, or else it is clear you cannot be saved.
II. In the second place I am to show you that we have no righteousness of our own, and therefore by ourselves we cannot be saved.
Look at the law of God, and measure its requirements. Does it not ask of every man a perfect, unsinning obedience from first to last, in thought and word and deed, without one single failure? And where is the son or daughter of Adam who can say, “All this I have performed”? Who is not conscious of a daily falling short in everything he does? I do not speak so much of thieves and liars and adulterers and drunkards and the like, for these are walking towards their own place, leaning on Satan’s arm. I speak rather of those who do not live in gross vices; I would even take the case of the best Christian among ourselves, and ask him if he can name a single day on which he has not sinned in many things.
How much he would tell you of wandering in his prayers, of defilement in his thoughts, of coldness toward God, of lack of love, of pride, of evil tempers, of vanity, of worldly-mindedness!—and all, remember, in the heart of one of those few who are travelling in the narrow way which leads to life. And how will we then believe, though all the world persuade us to the contrary, that man can ever purchase his acceptance in the sight of God? The words of that clear-sighted witness, the apostle Paul, are ever so true:“by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight.” (Rom 3:20)
But about the reasoning of those who would have men believe that they can assist in the work of salvation by their own works. They cannot accept the idea that we are naturally so helpless, and so they go about to establish their own righteousness, and this they do in a variety of ways.
Some tell us that repentance and the correction of our ways will enable us to stand in the great day, but the Bible does not support this. No doubt, without them no one will enter into the kingdom of heaven; but they cannot put away your sins nor endure the severity of God’s judgment; they cannot open that narrow gate which must be passed before you get into the narrow way, although they may lead you up to it; they cannot blot out one single page of that black book in which your iniquities are written. John the Baptist preached repentance, but he never told his hearers it would save them.
Some say they put their trust in well-spent lives: they never did anybody any harm; they have always done their best, and so they hope they will be accounted righteous. But this is a miserable deception. Let them tell us of a single day in which they have not broken that spiritual law laid down in the Sermon on the Mount. A single day when they have never thought an unkind thought? never looked an unclean look? never said an uncharitable thing? never coveted? How utterly that tenth commandment seems to be neglected and forgotten!—and yet it goes along with murder and adultery. Or let them tell us of a single hour in which they have not left undone something it was in their power to do; and this must be accounted for. They cannot do it; they are silent; and yet these things are written plainly in the Bible. Is it not clear, then, that they do not read the Scriptures, or neglect their precepts if they do, and so, at any rate, they are not doing their best?
Some tell us that they hope sincerity will carry them safe through their trial. They may not perhaps have quite clear views, but still they have always meant well, and so they hope to be accepted. But in vain do we find there is any place for them in heaven. We read in the book of Kings that the priests of Baal called on their God for half a day, and cut themselves until their blood gushed out. That was sincerity at any rate, and yet, a few hours after, Elijah commanded them to be put to death as soul-destroying idolaters. We read that Paul himself, before conversion, was zealous toward God: he thought within himself he ought to do many things contrary to Jesus of Nazareth, and shut up many of the saints in prison, and was exceedingly mad against them. Here was sincerity and earnestness; and yet we find him saying, when his eyes were opened: “I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (1 Tim 1:13) ... “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” (1 Cor 15:9)
Lastly, some tell us that they go through all the forms and ordinances of religion, and build their claim to righteousness on that. “Has not God commanded us,” they say, “to honour his word, His house, His ministers, His sacraments?” All this we do, and surely He will accept us. But again this is not found in Scripture. What we do find is that the Jews had ceremonies and observances in abundance; and find many passages which seem to show that men may pay attention to these things, and yet be abominable in the sight of God.
- Hear the judgment of Samuel: “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams. For rebellion is as the sin of divination, and presumption is as iniquity and idolatry.” (1 Sam 15:22,23)
- Listen to the voice of Isaiah: “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. “When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice” (Is 1:11-17)
- “I did not speak to your fathers,” says the Lord by Jeremiah, “concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.” (Jer 7:22-23)
I hope it will not seem to you unprofitable to have taken up so much time in exposing these delusions. In one way it is very useful. They all show that conscience tells every man he must have something with which to appear before God. Now, the teaching which I hope we all grasp is that we have nothing of our own; the doctrine may seem hard and offensive, and yet there are few who do not accept it at one important period in their lives, if they never did before. And that is at the hour of death.
Notice then how anxious almost everyone becomes, whom God permits to keep possession of his senses. The judgment day appears then in its true light. Man feels naked and empty. He knows he is about to be asked that awful question, “What have you to say, why you should not perish for this long list of sins?” and if he has not obtained for himself the only answer that can be given, the view before his eyes cannot possibly look anything else than dreary, black, and hopeless.
In short, both Scripture and your own experience prove most fully that nothing we can do will stand God’s examination; repentance, works and services, all necessary and useful in themselves, are so tainted, so infected and imperfect, that they cannot justify us. We have no righteousness of our own, and therefore by ourselves we cannot be saved. “We have all become like one who is unclean,” says Isaiah, “and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” (Is 64:6)
“But what are we to do?” perhaps you will ask. “This seems to shut us up without hope. First we are told that we must have some righteousness, and now we are told that we have none of our own. What are we to do? Which way are we to turn? To whom are we to look?” Thanks be God, we are not left by this precipice without hope. We are not lead into the wilderness to be terrified, and then have no path pointed out to us towards the heavenly Canaan.
III. In the third place here is how God can be a just God and yet show mercy and justify the most ungodly: and this is all contained in the words of our text—“The Lord” must be “our righteousness.”
Here a mystery of wisdom and of love. The Lord Jesus Christ has done what we ought to have done, and suffered what we ought to have suffered; He has taken our place and become our substitute both in life and death, and all for the sake of miserable, corrupt, ungrateful beings like ourselves. And is not His name then rightly called, “The Lord our Righteousness”?
It is so important to dwell on this point. It is so very important to have a clear view of it, and Satan does so much to prevent our seeing it clearly, that we have to pause and let it unfold before our eyes, that we may all be able to understand what it means when we are urged to trust in the Lord Jesus as our righteousness.
Consider now: there were two things to be done before guilty man could be saved. The law was to be fulfilled, for we had all come short of it; justice was to be satisfied, for we had all deserved punishment. And how was this brought about? Look! The Lord Jesus Christ, pitying our lost estate, covenanted and engaged to become our surety and substitute; and when the fulness of time was come, He left his place by His Father and took upon Himself the form of a servant here on earth, being born of the Virgin Mary.
In that form, by a sinless obedience to the whole law, He wrought out and brought in a perfect and everlasting righteousness, and this He is both willing and ready to bestow on all who will put their trust in Him. And more than this: to complete the mighty work He consented to offer up Himself in our place as a victim to the wrath of God, to suffer instead of us, to bear that punishment which we had deserved,—and this He did by dying on the cross. It was there He satisfied the claims of justice. It was there He paid the heavy debt written against our names. It was there that God the Father laid upon Him the iniquity of us all, and made His soul a sacrifice for sin. It was there that He redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us. Here, then, you see the plan of salvation which is offered to all the world. The believing sinner’s guilt is taken away and laid upon Christ, for He has carried our transgressions, and all the merit of Christ’s life and death, and all the value of His sufferings, are then accounted to the sinner.
And see how great and glorious is this exchange between Jesus and our souls: the Father sees us now as members of His dear Son, in whom He is well pleased; He deals with us as if we had never sinned, as if we had ourselves fulfilled all righteousness; He looks on us as one with Christ, and acknowledges us as dear children and heirs of eternal glory. Is this to say more than Scripture warrants? Not at all! Listen to the apostle Paul: God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) Are not these strong words? But so it is. Christ was accounted as a sinner, and therefore punished for us: we are accounted as righteous, and therefore glorified in Him. He was accounted as a sinner, and therefore He was condemned; we are accounted as righteous in Him, and therefore justified. God’s law has been satisfied, and now we may be saved. Sin has been punished, and now sinners may go free. God has shown Himself a just God, and yet He can be the Saviour of guilty men.
Are not these things wonderful? Is this not good news the weary and heavy laden? The Lord Himself is our righteousness. Is there anyone here that is groaning under the burden of sin, trembling under a sense of innumerable transgressions? Do not fear, but come to Jesus; He has paid your debt in full; believe, and you will be free. Is anyone assailed with countless temptations—slipping, stumbling, walking in darkness and seeing no light, and often ready to say with David, “I shall perish one day”? (1 Sam 1:27) Fear not, but look to Jesus; He has secured your entrance into heaven; He has fought and won the battle for you. “The Lord is our righteousness.”
This will be our defence and plea, when earth and its works are burned up, and the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and the Chief Shepherd shall appear to judge the sons of men. Who shall lay anything then to the charge of those who have laid hold on Christ? Shall anyone presume to say they have not done everything required?
The Lord, we will answer, is our righteousness; He is our substitute; we have done nothing, but He has done everything; He is our all in all. And who is he that can condemns us? shall death or hell or Satan lay a finger on us, and dare to say that justice has not been satisfied? The Lord, we will answer, is our righteousness; we have indeed sinned, but Christ has suffered; we have deserved wrath, but Jesus has died and shed His blood to make atonement in our place. “Blessed,” says holy David, “is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity.” (Ps 32:2) “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,” says Isaiah; “my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Is 61:10)
Now all this has been said to very little purpose, if you do not this very morning ask yourselves, “Is the Lord my righteousness, or is He not?” Remember this mighty gift is offered to all, but it is only given to those who believe. Faith is the only hand which puts on Christ for justification. Christ is the only garment which can cover your defiled nature, and present you blameless in the sight of God. Without this faith it is clear you have neither part nor portion in this righteousness. There is not a more important question that you can possibly ask yourself; and yet, sadly, day by day, month by month, year by year, many will not take one moment to earnestly consider it, or else will suppose the question may be useful to others, but not so very necessary for themselves.
There are many who let themselves believe that they are in a kind of middle path. They do not, to be sure, pretend they are in the number of the very good people, but they would be very sorry to be thought ungodly. They have a great respect for religion, and some time or other they intend to take it up more seriously—perhaps when they are married and have got a home of their own (so the young say), or when they do not have so many cares or so much trouble with their work and families and their relations, or when they get on in years (so the middle-aged say), or in a little while, or when they become ill (so the old and grey-headed say). But in the meantime, they live on and move forward in a comfortable state of mind, take all the promises of God and all the smooth parts of a sermon to themselves, and leave the addresses to the unconverted and the careless for others.
But to anyone who is in this condition: your middle path seems right in your own eyes; but a diligent search of the Scriptures will show that it is not. There are no more than two descriptions of character in the Bible: There is a broad way, and there is a narrow way; We read of converted men, and unconverted men; We read of heaven, and we read of hell; We read of those that are in Christ, and of those that are not in Christ; but nowhere will you find that middle path in which you put your trust,—and it is sure that you will find it in the end to be nothing better than a piece of that broad way that leads to destruction. No one is trying to hurt your feelings; but to awaken you, to convince you of the folly of this sleepy, half-and-half religion, and to show you the necessity of being decided and in earnest on the side of Christ, if you would not be lost for ever.
So much by way of warning. I now repeat to every man, woman and child here present, the plain question: “Is the Lord your righteousness, or is He not? “I know that there are here, two parties. One would reply, if honest, “I fear He is not”; and the other would answer, “I trust He is.” I purpose, therefore, to conclude this sermon by a few words to each of these two classes.
First, then, here is some advice to those among you who are prepared to say: “The Lord Jesus is, we trust, our righteousness.”
I say then, and I think it safe to do so, You have made a good profession; but I would have you daily search and see that you are not deceiving yourselves. See that your tongue does not lay claim to more than your heart has received and knows of; see that your life and words agree with one another. Show all the world that He in whom you trust is your example no less than your righteousness, and while you wait for His second appearing endeavour day by day to become more like Him.
Study to be holy, even as He who has called you and washed you in His own blood is holy. Do not let the righteousness of the Lord be evil-spoken of because of you; do not let Jesus be wounded in the house of His friends. Think of His love; let that constrain you to obedience—having much forgiven, love much. Beware that you give the Lord’s enemies no occasion to blaspheme. They are always watching you; you cannot hide. They will tempt you to disobey his commandments. Be always saying to yourself, “What shall I do, and how shall I behave, to show my gratitude to Him who has carried my sins and given me His righteousness?”
But know for certain that if the world says “What do these persons do more than others?” if those who live with you cannot tell that you are often with Jesus; if you have no fruit to show of any kind; if you are not habitually and daily just, holy, humble, meek, loving, watchful, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord, hungering and thirsting after righteousness; if you have none of these things, you are little better than “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1) , you are ruining your own soul, and in the day of Judgment you will plead in vain the name of Jesus. The Lord will say, “I do not know you; you never really came to me; I cannot see my seal on your forehead, of which my servant Paul spoke—‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.’” (2 Tim 2:19) “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 13:42)
It only remains now to speak to any among us who cannot say “The Lord is our righteousness.” I feel sad and concerned for you in this condition. I do not understand what arguments you use to smother the striving of God’s Spirit, to stop the prickings of your own conscience. I do suspect you actually never argue, you never reason; you shut your eyes and try to forget your own perishing souls. But do you not know that verse of the Bible which declares “the wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the people that forget God,” (Ps 9:17)—not ridicule, or insult, but simply all who forget.
And do you not know the verse “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Heb 2:3) It does not say abuse, or disbelieve, or deny, but simply “neglect,” and this, I fear, is a charge you cannot turn aside. Think of death; it may be near at hand. Your careless indifference will come to an end then, but without Christ you will find a sting in that hour which no power of your own will ever remove.
Think of eternity in hell: no pleasant diversions, no pastimes, no sports or vacations, no worldly entertainments, nothing but unchanging misery, unceasing torment, and unutterable woe. Think of your judgment: your name will be called in turn, and you will stand in the sight of assembled millions—ministers, father, mother, wife, children, relations, all will see you—you will have to give account of your actions, and you know you will be condemned. But who will then pass sentence? Not an angel, not even God the Father; but the Lord Himself …—the Lord Jesus, whose blood and righteousness you now refuse, will pronounce your condemnation.
These things perhaps sound terrible; perhaps they may be treated with ridicule; but the day is at hand which will bring everyone to their senses, and make everybody sober, and you will then find that they are true. Knowing, therefore, the terrors of the Lord, let me persuade you to close with the gracious invitation of your Saviour, and never rest until you can say from your hearts, “The Lord is my righteousness.”
I know of nothing that should prevent your salvation if you are willing and obedient. I cannot see in what respect your happiness on earth would be diminished. You are discontented with yourself, and I offer in the name of Christ, joy, pardon, and peace; you are poor, and I offer unsearchable riches; you are naked, and I offer you a spotless robe in which you shall sit down at the marriage supper of the Lamb never to be cast out.
But consider, I will not promise you anything beyond today. “Now is the favorable time.” (2 Cor 6:2) Thus far I can go, but one step further I cannot proceed upon sure ground. If you reject the counsel of God now, I cannot promise even the youngest of you another opportunity. Before tomorrow your last home may be fixed unalterably; tomorrow death may interfere, or Jesus may return to judgment, and it would be too late.
Go home, then, if you value your soul, and turn the words of the text into a prayer, and entreat the Lord to receive you and become your righteousness.
Even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly into every heart.