Theologians refer to Christ’s work in terms of His active obedience and His passive obedience. In His passive obedience, He paid the penalty for sin; He atoned for sin. In His active righteousness, He earned righteousness on our behalf. No other message and no other means can save us or deliver us. Paul spent decades and piled effort upon effort in attempts to white-knuckle his way to God. All to no avail. Then, on the road to Damascus, Saul came to an end as Christ, “the Man in white,“ brought Paul to Himself.
Paul was likely one of the most intelligent people to have ever lived. He certainly is one of the best writers. He was extremely ambitious. He knew adversity, yet he persevered. If anyone “thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh,” Paul tells us, “I have more” (Phil. 3:4).
Yet, Paul realizes that “whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (v. 7). He counts all his accomplishments, all his strivings after righteousness, as “rubbish,” a polite word for “dung.” All of Paul’s abilities and accomplishments simply serve to underscore his utter inability to achieve righteousness.
Instead of putting his confidence in the flesh, Paul learned to put his confidence in Christ and in the gospel. Paul wanted to be found in Christ. He writes, “That I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (v. 9). The theologian Francis Turretin expresses it this way:
God grant that, dismissing a vain confidence in our own merit, we may rest in the most perfect merit of Christ alone and so keep faithful in him and fight the good fight even unto the end that we might receive the crown of righteousness; due not to our merit, but most graciously promised to us from the heavenly rewarder.
Johnny Cash wrote a novel on the life of the Apostle Paul. Yes, one of country music’s icons and one of American music’s legends wrote a biography of Paul. Cash called it The Man in White, and it is a piece of genius. The “man in white” is actually not Paul. It’s Christ. Therein lies Cash’s genius. (Similarly, Augustine is not the main character in his autobiographical Confessions. God is.) Paul is not the main character in Cash’s biography. He’s the prominent and predominant character as the pages unfold. But all along, we get the sense that there is far more to the story than what we are seeing on the page. Behind the scenes of Paul’s life, there is One at work, orchestrating all the details to one desired end and one certain outcome.
Paul knew he had to put his confidence in the gospel, because nothing else can turn the human heart and nothing else solves the human dilemma. People think the human dilemma is many things. Some say it’s poverty or the unjust distribution of resources and wealth. Some say it’s war and our penchant for war. Some simply think the human dilemma is internal and psychological. As R.C. Sproul has often said, “The human dilemma is this: God is holy, and we are not. God is righteous, and we are not.” Our problem is not lack or abundance of wealth or resources. Our problem is not that we are a few degrees short of finding utopia. Our problem is the wrath of a holy God. No amount of righteousness that we might produce can solve that dilemma. Paul testifies to only one solution: the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ.
When we think of Luther’s main doctrine, we think of justification by faith alone. That doctrine hinges upon one word. In fact, the entire Reformation and the protest the Reformers launched against the Roman Catholic Church could very well be summed up in this one word: imputation. The doctrine of imputation teaches that our sin, which cuts us off and alienates us from a holy God, gets imputed to Christ. Christ paid the penalty for our sin, and so our sins are forgiven. The doctrine of imputation also teaches that Christ’s righteousness gets imputed to us. If Christ’s work only accomplished the forgiveness of sins, we would be right back to where we were in the garden before Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Christ’s work overcame the curse and restored “Paradise lost.” Christ’s work also leads to “Paradise regained.” We now stand in the very presence of God clothed in Christ’s righteousness. The “Man in white” took our filthy rags and gave us His white, pure, and righteous robe. Paul says it plainly in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.”
Theologians refer to Christ’s work in terms of His active obedience and His passive obedience. In His passive obedience, He paid the penalty for sin; He atoned for sin. In His active righteousness, He earned righteousness on our behalf. No other message and no other means can save us or deliver us. Paul spent decades and piled effort upon effort in attempts to white-knuckle his way to God. All to no avail.