We know we need a Savior, so we trust in Christ to redeem us from the curse of God’s law. But though we believe we’re saved as far as our eternal destiny is concerned, we may not be sure about our day-to-day standing with God. Many of us embrace a vague but very real notion that God’s approval has to be earned by our conduct. We know we’re saved by grace, but we believe God blesses us according to our level of personal obedience. Consequently, our confidence that we abide in God’s favor ebbs and flows according to how we gauge our performance. And since we each sin every single day, this approach is ultimately discouraging and even devastating. This is exactly why we need the first bookend. The righteousness of Christ changes all this.

Jesus Christ the Righteous One

What exactly is the righteousness of Christ? And how will it give us a sense of assurance in our day-to-day relationship with God? To begin answering those questions, let’s go to one of our favorite verses of Scripture:

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)

The first thing we need to consider in this verse is the sinlessness—the perfect obedience—of Jesus as a man living among us for thirty-three years. The Scriptures consistently testify to this. All four of the major writers of the New Testament letters attest to the sinless, perfect obedience of Jesus throughout his life on earth. In addition to Paul’s words that Jesus “knew no sin,” we have the testimony of Peter, John, and the writer of Hebrews: “He committed no sin” (1 Peter 2:22); “In him there is no sin” (1 John 3:5); Jesus was in every respect “tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

One of the most powerful indications of the sinlessness of Jesus came from his own mouth. To a group of hostile Jews to whom he’d just said, “You are of your father the devil,” Jesus dared to ask the question, “Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:44-46). He could ask this question because he knew the answer—he was sinless. Jesus could confidently say of the Father, “I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:29). Every moment of his life, from birth to death, Jesus perfectly obeyed the law of God, the same law that is applicable to all of us.

Christ’s obedience was tested by temptation (Matthew 4:11; Hebrews 4:15), and the intensity of his temptation was greater than any we’ll ever experience or even imagine. When we succumb to temptation, the pressure is relieved for awhile; but unlike us, Jesus never gave in.

As astounding as that is, it wasn’t the epitome of Christ’s obedience. The pinnacle of his obedience came when “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). The obedient death of Christ is the very apex of the righteousness of Christ.

Let’s not miss the implications of this. At the cross, Jesus paid the penalty we should have paid, by enduring the wrath of God we should have endured. And this required him to do something unprecedented. It required him to provide the ultimate level of obedience—one that we’ll never be asked to emulate. It required him to give up his relationship with the Father so that we could have one instead. The very thought of being torn away from the Father caused him to sweat great drops of blood (Luke 22:44). And at the crescendo of his obedience, he screamed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). The physical pain he endured was nothing compared to the agony of being separated from the Father. In all of history, Jesus is the only human being who was truly righteous in every way; and he was righteous in ways that are truly beyond our comprehension.