There is no doubt that God gave us His righteousness and holiness when He came to live in us. Scripture is explicit on this point:
The new Man … was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph. 4:24)
The word, “created” indicates that God used His power of creation to bring into existence a life that did not exist before. The words, “according to God” indicate that the life He created is in His image. The words, “in righteousness and holiness” tell us that our likeness with Him includes the deep things of God, even His righteousness and holiness.
Ephesians 4:24 would mean what it means without the word, “true” in it at all, but its placement there emphasizes the fact that the righteousness and holiness we have in Christ is the real thing. The righteousness and holiness we possess in the new man is the exact same righteousness and holiness that God Himself possesses. Having new life in Christ makes us truly righteous and truly holy in the inner man.
Ephesians 4:24 does not stand alone in Scripture. Many other verses say that we are holy and righteous in Christ. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” 1 John 3:7 says, “Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.” Romans 8:4 says that God sent His Son in order that “that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.” 1 John 3:9 says, “Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” 1 John 5:18 says, “We know that whoever is born of God does not sin.” Hebrews 12:23 describes our spirits as “spirits of just men made perfect.”
Every one of these verses conveys the same message concerning the righteousness we possess in Christ. The righteousness and holiness we possess is true righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24), it is God’s righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21), and having it means we are righteous just as He is righteous (1 John 3:7). With it, we fulfill God’s requirements for righteousness (Rom. 8:4), and we are impervious to sin (1 John 3:9, 5:18). In short, these verses say that Jesus made the inner persons of our hearts (i.e., our spirits) perfect in every way (Heb. 12:23).
And these verses do not stand alone in Scripture either. They are complemented by a whole host of verses that speak well of our new lives in Christ. And while they may use different terms to name the inner person of the heart, each verse conveys the same message. The righteousness we have in Christ is the real thing—it is God’s righteousness. Scripture does not present any exceptions to this rule:
Christians need to learn to trust God’s testimony that in Christ they are everything God wants them to be. “For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him” (Col. 2:9–10). We don’t need to manufacture any righteousness for ourselves (and we can’t do it anyway) because we already have it. Denying the righteousness that we possess in Christ is the first step in trying to manufacture our own righteousness (Rom. 10:3), and trying to manufacture our own righteousness is the first step in alienating ourselves from the grace of God (Gal. 5:4).
I suppose the greatest impediment for us to believe that we are righteous and holy is the presence of sin in our lives. The fact that sin is present even within Christians is not debatable among reasonable people. And Scripture does not pull any punches when it talks about the sin that is in us.
The Bible identifies the source of our sinfulness as Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden, and it condemns all human beings as having received a sinful human nature by inheritance from Adam (Rom. 5:12, 19). It describes our human nature as being “sold under sin” (Rom. 7:14) and as being full of “fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Col. 3:5).
No matter what language Scripture uses to describe it, whether it is expressed directly or implied, the human nature that we inherited from Adam is always presumed to be corrupt. There are no exceptions:
But the presence of sin in our flesh should not detract from the fact that our spirits have been made right with God. In fact, the war that exists in us between the flesh and the spirit should be proof that our spirits are not corrupt like the flesh. Otherwise, we wouldn’t fight that war.
We should see in our distaste for sin a confirmation of the fact that we are right with God. This is so because our spirits, which are perfect, align us with God; but our flesh, which is still corrupt, aligns us with sin (Gal. 5:17). And because we have both natures, the internal conflict between sin and righteousness exists in us. If this internal conflict is present in us, it should be strong evidence that God lives in us. And though it is true that not all internal conflicts over sin indicate a right-relationship with God, the kind of internal conflict described in Romans 7:14–25 does:
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.
I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good. For I delight in the law of God according to the inward man. But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin. (Rom. 7:14–25)
There has been a great deal of debate about whether Paul’s testimony in this passage describes his life before or after he was saved. But to me, these verses are self-explanatory. I understood the passage the very first time I read it. Without any theological training and without much experience reading the Bible, what these verses say rang true to me.
What I saw in them was an explanation of what was going on inside me. On one hand, I had a deep-seated desire to be well pleasing to God, and I had a pure delight in the things of God (now I know these things are in me because I have new life in Christ). But on the other hand, I could not deny a bent toward sin and a consistent inability to fulfill completely the good I wanted to do (now I know this weakness is in me because I am a human being). I was so excited to find that what was going on inside me was not unique to me, and that God understood me, that when a co-worker passed by (I was on lunch break at work), I stopped him and explained the whole passage to him.
This passage perfectly describes what every Christian must contend with—having a divine nature that is holy and having flesh that is corrupt. It can’t be about lost people because lost people do not delight in the law of God in their inward man (Rom. 7:22), and they do not serve the law of God with their minds (Rom. 7:25). They do not hate sin (Rom. 7:15), and they do not always concede God’s laws are good (Rom. 7:16). Many don’t even think man is by nature sinful (Rom. 7:18). The way they think about these things is completely consistent with their human natures, “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7).
Yet, even after we have been given new life in Christ, Christians still have human natures that are completely corrupted by sin just as lost people do. We may rightly blame this on Adam and Eve. Romans 5:19 says, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” Adam and Eve passed down to every human being a sinful human nature. Based on Jesus’ words in John 3:6 that, “[Whatever] is born of the flesh is flesh” we also may say that everything we received from Adam and Eve is corrupted by sin. Becoming a Christian did not change that fact for anyone.
But when each of us became Christians, God gave us divine natures that lost people do not have. Therefore, with the same conviction that we blame Adam for passing down filthy flesh to us, we should also credit Jesus for passing down to us spirits which are righteous (Rom. 5:19). Also, based on Jesus’ words in John 3:6 that, “[Whatever] is born of the Spirit is spirit,” we must conclude that everything passed down to us by the Holy Spirit is holy and righteous, just as He is.