The 16th Century Reformer Martin Luther said that whenever accused him of being a sinner, he would agree: “You’re right, Devil — but God has given me Christ’s righteousness.” Okay, that’s a paraphrase; I’m too tired to look up the exact quote. But I’m familiar enough with the story to know I’ve represented it with a fair amount of accuracy.
Luther’s point was twofold. Christians must not forget who we are apart from Christ and we must not forget what He has given us. I like the way R.C. Sproul explained it in this brief clip:
I often emphasize my wretchedness in this blog because 21st Century evangelicals rarely maintain a sense of our unworthiness. I remember hearing people teach that Christ sacrificed Himself for us because He saw something in us worth saving.
That concept makes me feel good about myself and all, but it just doesn’t square with Scriptures like Romans 3:9-19. Again in Romans 7:7-25, the apostle Paul gives a detailed description of his own wretchedness. These passages challenge us to acknowledge our complete inability to claim any righteousness apart from Christ. To paraphrase Romans 7:18, nothing good dwells within us.
If you’re like me, you balk at these passages. Especially in a time when self-esteem is touted as something good and healthy, Paul’s words trouble us. We don’t mind admitting that we’ve sinned, you understand, but the idea of calling ourselves wretches just doesn’t seem right.
Yet on those painful occasions when we sin so badly that we can’t escape from seeing our wretchedness, the Lord reminds us that He credits us with His righteousness. Romans 5:19 clearly teaches that Christ’s sacrifice makes us righteous. In other words, the Father calls Christians righteous based on the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. ~~2 Corinthians 5:16-21 (ESV)
God declares us righteous only because He credits us with the righteousness of Christ. The more I see my wretchedness, the more I take joy in His grace to declare me righteous! My innate wretchedness makes His act of conferring His righteousness to me all the more beautiful and precious to me. Best of all, the glory goes entirely to Him!