The Bible’s Answer
At the end of our lives, will God judge Christians’ worthiness of eternal life based upon their own righteousness? Or will he judge their worthiness of eternal life based upon Jesus Christ’s righteousness? This question is a very important one. This is because:
- If we are judged according to our own righteousness, then we must meet God’s perfect standards of obedience (Matthew 5:48; Matthew 5:20), and so good works are a prerequisite for salvation.
- If, however, we are judged according to Christ’s righteousness, then Christ has already met God’s perfect standards of obedience for us, and so good works are not a prerequisite for salvation.
Because these two statements are not reconcilable, one of them must be rejected.
By Our Own Righteousness
Let’s examine the first option. Are Christians judged according to their own righteousness? The answer to this question is no, because the Bible teaches that not a single person is righteous:
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, 10 as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God. 12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:9–12)
Since no one is righteous, we cannot rely on our own righteousness for salvation. The Bible warns us of making such a mistake with the example of the Jews, who tried to establish their own righteousness through upholding the commandments of the Law, but failed because they rejected God’s actual righteousness (Romans 9:30–31; Romans 10:3). The Bible states repeatedly that no human being will be declared righteous (justified) in God’s sight by good works, such as in the following passage:
For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20)
Even Paul, a great example of a godly Christian, confessed that his salvation in Christ wasn’t a result of his own righteousness (Philippians 3:8b–9). If Paul’s salvation wasn’t based upon his own righteousness, and he was one of the authors of Scripture, then what could make us think ours is? The Bible also solemnly tells us that if our salvation really did depend on our own righteousness and good works, then this means that Jesus would have died for no purpose, because his sacrifice wouldn’t have been sufficient:
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. (Galatians 2:21)
Thus, the teaching that God judges us according to our own righteousness and good works for salvation is actually blasphemous and insulting to Christ. It is clear from all of the above passages, that no one will be justified before God by their own righteousness. This means that when God judges us as worthy of eternal life, it isn’t because of our own righteousness, but it has to be because of Christ’s. In fact, there is nothing good in any human, since we were all born sinful and unclean (Psalm 51:5; Romans 3:23), and before we had the Holy Spirit, we were constantly disobedient to God and dead in our sins (Romans 8:7–8; Ephesians 2:1–3). The fact that the Holy Spirit gradually conforms us to Jesus’ likeness, doesn’t change a thing. It doesn’t change the fact that we’ve sinned against God and fallen short of his standards.
By Christ’s Righteousness
Let’s now see what the Bible says about Christians being judged according to Christ’s righteousness. The Bible says that Jesus came to perfectly fulfil the Law, which we failed to do (Matthew 5:17). Jesus stepped down from his throne in Heaven and made himself nothing (Philippians 2:5–7), in order to be born of a woman, under the Law (Galatians 4:4–5), and live a holy, sinless, perfect life of complete obedience to his Heavenly Father (Hebrews 7:26). He did this so that by his obedience, many will be made righteous:
For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19)
Thus, our righteousness doesn’t come from ourselves, but it came from Jesus’ own obedience. Jesus made us righteous by fulfilling God’s Law on our behalf. Because of what Jesus has done, the righteous requirement of the Law is fulfilled in us, too (Romans 8:3–4). But the Bible also says that Jesus paid the price for our sins on the cross, so that we will be freed from our punishment. Jesus gave up his life as a ransom in exchange for ours (Mark 10:45). So we see that Jesus lived the righteous life we failed to live, and yet died the death we deserved. The Bible says:
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 5:21)
Here the Bible teaches that the righteousness of Christ has been imputed, or credited, to us, and in exchange our sinfulness was imputed, or credited, to him on the cross. Jesus was judged according to our sinfulness, so that we could be judged according to his righteousness, and freed from the punishment of sin. Therefore, the Bible says that Jesus has become to us righteousness from God (1 Corinthians 1:30), because only in him can we meet God’s perfect standards of obedience.
Anyone who simply believes and trusts in what Jesus has done for them is credited with his righteousness and all the benefits that come with it, namely, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and resurrection from the dead (Romans 4:3–5; Romans 4:23–25). This doesn’t make us sinless from that point onwards (1 John 1:8–10), but instead it means that Christ clothes or covers us with his righteousness (Romans 4:6–7), so that when we are judged at the end of our lives, God doesn’t see us as the sinful people we are, but rather he sees the righteousness of his Son in us, so we are judged according to his righteousness. Our Saviour Jesus said:
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24)
The legal judgement of condemnation that once awaited us has been satisfied by the righteous life and substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since we are then clothed with the righteousness of Christ by faith, we can be assured in our hope of salvation, knowing that we have already passed from judgement and death, to life.
God does not judge us by our own righteousness, but rather by the righteousness of Christ. Therefore, good works are not a prerequisite for salvation, but instead naturally flow from God’s grace. Because of this, we can all say with confidence that we have obtained a faith of equal standing with every Christian in the history of the church, not by our own righteousness, but by the righteousness of our gracious God and Saviour, Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1).
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.