The Christian can approach God with confidence because he knows that his sin no longer belongs to him, but to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness is his own. As Martin Brecht observes, in Luther’s thinking, though Christians are still actually sinners, they are righteous in the sight of God because of Christ’s righteousness which is imputed to them by faith. This teaching has enormous pastoral implications. The Christian who is wearied by the magnitude of his own sins can look in faith to the cross and see his many sins condemned in the wrath-bearing death of Christ his God. Then he can have hope of eternal salvation knowing that he is dressed in the garments of Christ’s righteousness without sin in God’s sight.
Another significant way Luther spoke of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness was through the parallelism between Adam and Christ. As Luther said, “Adam is a figure of Christ. The similarity consists in this, that just as through Adam sin came to all, so also Christ’s righteousness comes to all who believe in Him” (1:219). Just as we are sinners because of the sin of Adam, we are righteous because of the righteousness of Christ. Luther used Romans 5:19 to prove that all became sinners as a result of Adam’s sin and that Christians become righteous by Christ’s righteousness so that the believer and Christ share the same righteousness. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness is the counterpart to the doctrine of original sin: Adam’s sin is imputed to all mankind, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers, and the sins of believers are imputed to Christ. Christ’s righteousness is now given to us instead of Adam’s sin:
“Just as original sin is there before our every evil work, so original righteousness would have been there before our every good work. In its place the righteousness of Christ is now given us before every meritorious work” (11:174).
Though Luther was condemned as a son of Adam, he took courage in the truth that he had another righteousness who is Christ. Luther admitted that he had no righteousness of his own, but saw Christ as his righteousness and only way to have peace with a holy God. Luther saw that the only way man can be saved is through receiving Christ’s obedience which is imputed to him as a free gift from God. While we are all guilty as a result of Adam’s sin, there is hope for fallen man because Christ has done what the law could not do. His spotless righteousness is far greater and accomplishes more than the original righteousness of Adam. This righteousness comes by grace through faith to all who trust in Christ alone for salvation.
As Paul Kang correctly notes, “Luther’s concept of oneness with Christ is the key to his doctrine of justification.” Union with Christ is the foundation for Luther’s belief that both Christ and the believer share the same righteousness. The imputation of Christ’s righteousness and Christ as present by faith through union with him are not mutually exclusive concepts in Luther’s doctrine of justification as some have contended. Luther relates them in this way:
“Therefore, know that Christ himself was made our righteousness, virtue, and wisdom by God [cf. I Cor. 1:30]. In him God the Father reposed all his wisdom, virtues, and righteousness in order that they might become ours. This is what it means to know the Son. Moreover, you should know that the Father in his mercy reckons to us his Son’s righteousness, which is his own righteousness; for the righteousness of the Father and the Son are one; it is one life and one virtue which is given to us” (51:28).
Because the believer and Christ are one, they share all things, including Christ’s righteousness. Because Christ and the Christian are united, his righteousness covers all of our sins so that we stand without sin in God’s sight:
“This is an infinite righteousness, and one that swallows up all sins in a moment, for it is impossible that sin should exist in Christ. On the contrary, he who trusts in Christ exists in Christ; he is one with Christ, having the same righteousness as he. It is therefore impossible that sin should remain in him” (31:298).
Without this divine righteousness covering our sins, we would have no hope of salvation. To illustrate this blessed truth, Luther used the biblical metaphor of bride and bridegroom to represent the believer and Christ. When our conscience condemns us because of our sins, we should tell it to be quiet because we have the righteousness of Christ. Just as a husband and wife share all things, so too do Christ and the believer, including Christ’s righteousness. We must not rely on our own reason, but believe by faith alone that we have Christ’s righteousness. Satan seeks to rob Christians of their assurance of salvation by deceiving them into thinking that they must rely upon their own works for salvation, but Luther rebukes this error by pointing to Christ’s own righteousness which comes to us when we take hold of Christ alone for salvation. Only when we know that Christ’s righteousness is our own will be ever have a clear conscience before God.