In 1862 J N Darby wrote to the Christian Examiner about an article in the British and Foreign Evangelical Review. Teaching which was very prevalent in the established churches was that the Lord had fulfilled the law on our behalf. Looking at various current sermons and writings on the internet, it would appear that this error is still held by many.
The Truth is needed to keep souls in progress and subjection to God. Scripture, the WORD OF GOD, must have its authority. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter, forms the unity of Christ’s body on earth and dwells in the believer. The Lord is about to take the saints to Himself, and then appear with them, his Church, to judge the world and reign for 1000 years. These teachings will protect us from some of the unscriptural and erroneous doctrine that abounds in Christendom – in Romanism, Protestantism and even amongst evangelicals.
What is Righteousness, and what was the Law?
Righteousness is living as we ought and fulfilling our relationships rightly towards others and towards God. When it says, ‘The righteous Lord loveth righteousness’ (Psalm 11:7) or, ‘Grace might reign through righteousness’ (Rom 5:21) the word is used abstractedly; when it says, ‘the righteousness of God’ or ‘the righteousness of faith’ (Rom 10:3,6), the expression is more specific. We ought to love God with all our heart; we ought to love our neighbour as ourselves. That is the law in its clearest terms. It would also have been our righteousness had we kept it. But as sinners, we did not, nor could not keep the law. And since we have a conscience, the sense of good and evil we know we are guilty, unrighteous and lawless.
Did the Lord keep the Law for us?
My righteousness under the law is absolutely zero. In God’s sight, my efforts are evil and nothing else. Therefore Christ died for me. I am born again, and I receive Him as eternal life. Does Christ make up for defects in my righteousness? What defects? Is my righteousness patched up by Christ’s acts, when I have acted after the flesh? Is that what is meant by Christ being made unto us righteousness? Of course not.
Many reformers, puritans and theologians seem to believe this, in effect saying that Christ kept the law for us. But the WORD OF GOD is clear, and tells me that if we are justified by law we are fallen from grace (see Gal 5:4). If Christ kept the law for us, and righteousness imputed to us because of that, we are justified by law. Of course the Lord kept the law, but where in scripture do we find that He kept it for us? According to the WORD OF GOD this doctrine is FALSE, it is legal fiction.
We are accounted, imputed or reckoned (the same word in Greek λογισθῆναι/ logisthēnai/Strong 3049) righteous (See Rom 4:11). Christ has born the sin of each of us, and put it away. This is no fiction: sin has been dealt with.
Applying the Law to a Child of Adam
Those going on with this error pretend that the defects of the old man are somehow made good, so that man, a child of Adam, might appear righteousness before God. He ought to walk in accordance with the law and according to this doctrine, when we fail Christ makes our defects good. That is not Christianity.
This false doctrine leads to an absurdity. It confuses practical sanctification, with righteousness before God. It makes Christ establish our standing as alive before God in the old man.
The truth is that the life which we receive is Christ. This does not make my flesh good. As a child of Adam, there is no good in me. Christ died to put away my sin, so I reckon myself dead, my flesh condemned. I find myself in Christ, Christ being in me. I have put on the new man, and that is what I am before God. In that Christ died, He died unto sin once; in that He lives, He lives unto God (See Rom 6:10). ‘I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me’ (Gal 2:19-20). I am dead to law by the body of Christ (See Rom 7:4).
What Sort of Law or Righteousness?
These people measure the righteousness of God and divine justice by the law. But they contradict themselves. On one side righteousness is said to be of the law, but at the same time righteousness is a gift’ (See Rom 5:17).
It is nonsense to say that we are living by a personal law. Indeed they even talk about a person redeeming him/herself. Grace, not law, is towards a sinner. Law does not forgive, it condemns. Satan’s deception is to set aside Christ’s death. He died that we might live, our sin being atoned for by Him.
They might cite James. But James merely said ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2:20). That cannot be as a result of Christs’s law-keeping.
Some would give the impression of a God who is incensed (or vengeful or full of wrath) at our disobeying the law, but at the same time, a God who acts in grace rather than judgment. This is the doctrine of legal righteousness. This might appear plausible, but it destroys the thought of a righteous God who reconciles us to Himself and justifies us. God is just in justifying. his is the essence of the gospel.
We know who bore the wrath for us. Let us never forget the cross, the cup that Jesus had to drink, His sweat in Gethsemane, His being made sin, and crying ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34). He was perfectly obedient.
But how can we have righteousness? We need a new righteousness, by faith, fit for the throne of God. If we are to be accepted, the righteousness must meet all that God is His own infinite excellency.
Christ revealed God’s nature, and glorified Him when He was made sin for us. Hence we are made the righteousness of God in Him. Christ finished the work His Father gave Him to do. Now the ground of our acceptance and righteousness, is complete. Christ becomes our life.
The law does not, nor cannot do this.
This is a summary of a paper by John Nelson Darby. The Pauline Doctrine of the Righteousness of Faith. It is published in Collected Writings Volume 7 (Doctrinal 2) page 349.