Written Word

Paul’s Conversion – Part 4

As far back as Job, men have been asking, “How can a mortal man be righteous before God?” (Job 9:2) The Jews of Paul’s day (including himself before his conversion) pondered the same question and produced their own solution: “Since they did not know the righteousness that comes from God [they] sought to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:3-4)

How did they set about establishing their own righteousness? By trusting in what they were doing, even the good things God told them to do. The focus of their faith was not on God, but on what they did, on what God told them to do. Trusting what they did could not produce righteousness acceptable to God. When Paul says that God saves us, he moves quickly on to say that it is “not because of anything we have done”. In other words, salvation is not given in exchange for obedience. (2 Timothy 1:9) Even good deeds that are noble and honourable do not possess what is necessary to save us. It is God who saves us, “not because of righteous things we have done.” (Titus 3:5) The tenor of scripture is clear: man cannot make himself righteous before God no matter how hard he tries. And so much of what Paul wrote on this subject reflects his former religious beliefs and practices. If man is to be saved, then God is going to have to save him.

An Imputed Righteousness

There is only one way to answer Job’s question, “How can a mortal man be righteous before God?” God must impute righteousness to him. After writing three chapters about the sinfulness of man and his inability to alter his situation, Paul introduces the theme of grace: “But now,” he says, “a righteousness from God apart from the law has been made known, to which the law and the prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Christ Jesus to all who believe.” (Romans 3:20-21) Throughout his life Paul had tried to produce an acceptable righteousness, but failed. Now, however, he understands that there is a righteousness that comes from God himself and it is not obtained by flawless performance, but by faith. This was not a doctrine developed by Paul; it was a doctrine enshrined in the Old Testament Scriptures. For example, David – Israel’s great king – “speaks of the blessedness of the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works.” (Romans 4:6)

There are three things that need to be said here:

  1. Righteousness comes from God.
  2. Righteousness is credited, or imputed, to the believer.
  3. Righteousness is independent of works; that is, it is not a reward for having done something, neither is it imputed because God is obligated to us in some way.

The point is further amplified when Paul says, “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus.” He is saying that the relationship we have with God is attributed entirely to Jesus. He goes on to say that Jesus “has become to us… our righteousness.” (1 Corinthians 1:30) And in one of the most amazing verses in the Bible Paul says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) The doctrine of substitution is clear – the sinless Jesus took upon himself our sins, so that “in him” we could be accounted righteous before God. Sinful people are granted the very righteousness of God himself.