Righteousness of God: Punishment or Pardon?

In the backstage area where I spend some time before services each weekend, I have a few things hanging on the wall: pictures of cities where we have planted churches, a photograph of me baptizing my daughter, a gigantic picture of Charles Spurgeon with one of my favorite quotes of his, and an actual signed picture of Nicolas Cage from a scene in The Rock. (It randomly arrived in our office one day. Some have questioned its legitimacy. I choose to believe.)

The last and most treasured item in this room, though, is a famous quote by Martin Luther, describing his struggle to understand the phrase “righteousness of God” in the book of Romans. See if you relate to this:

“I hated that word ‘righteousness of God,’ which I had been taught to understand is the righteousness with which God punishes the unrighteous sinner ….


Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that verse, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul [meant by this.]


At last, by the mercy of God … I began to understand that the righteousness of God is righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.”

Many of us feel like Luther. The concept of God’s righteousness scares us because it feels like a standard we’ll be judged by or one that causes us to feel excluded or condemned.

But when we come to see that it is a righteousness God gives by faith, everything changes. It’s what theologians call the Great Exchange.

I haven’t been in school for years, but I still have nightmares about being unprepared for a final exam—showing up only to find out that today is the day 80 percent of my grade is determined and that I had forgotten all about it.

Imagine with me: Your professor announces that your final exam is to write an essay identifying the three different kinds of atomic isotopes and discussing the varying electromagnetic qualities distinguishing them. The thing is, you don’t have the foggiest idea what he is talking about—you vaguely remember some song about being home on the range where the deer and the isotope play… but you’re pretty sure he’s talking about something else.

Fast-forward 90 painful minutes and you take the long, lonely walk up to the professor’s desk at the front of the auditorium. You reach out to turn in your failing essay.

But then something happens.

Just as the pages of your scribbled nonsense are about to hit the professor’s inbox, a classmate that you have never met reaches out, grabs your exam, marks out your name, and prints his own name. Then he writes your name on his exam. Then he turns both in.

The grades come back.

You pass.

He fails.

You get credit for his and he takes the blame for yours.

Now, I realize you’re not allowed to actually do this in college, but it’s a good picture of what Jesus did for us in the 33 years he spent on earth. He lived the life you were supposed to live and then erased his name and wrote yours on it. He died the death you were condemned to die, wiping out your name and writing his. His obedience covers what you couldn’t and didn’t do. His reward comes to you. Your punishment goes to him.

People sometimes ask me how I can be sure I’m going to heaven. Is it because I’m so good at the Christian life? Absolutely not.

No, I am as sure of heaven as Jesus Christ himself, because he became my righteousness. So when God says to me, “J.D., why do you think you’re worthy enough to get into heaven?” I will say, “Because I fasted for 40 days in the wilderness, and then I resisted Satan to his face. I had so much faith that I walked on water. I never had an impure thought. And I was so full of love that when they crucified me, I looked down from the cross and said, ‘Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.’”

When did I do all that? Well, I didn’t. Jesus did. That was his exam. And after he passed, he took his name off of it and wrote my name on it instead.

People ask me why I’m not discouraged over my struggles and lack of progress in the Christian life. It’s because I know that he who began a good work in me will complete it. I have in me the resurrection power of Christ. One day, I’m going to see him as he is, and in that moment, I’m going to be like him. He will present me faultless before his throne.

If you’re a believer, you’re not just forgiven; you’re made righteous; you are seen in God’s eyes as Jesus himself. That’s an assurance that if God has given you his righteousness, he will keep you all the way through.