Let’s begin with two stories. The first is about an innocent man who was falsely accused of a brutal killing. We’ll call him Bill.
Bill happened to be at the scene of a crime and was picked up by the police. It was a case of mistaken identity. He was falsely accused and charged with a crime that he did not commit. The evidence presented at Bill’s trial was easily refuted, and in the course of the hearing, it soon became clear that Bill was innocent. The jury pronounced their verdict: Not guilty! And Bill was free to go home.
Bill was overwhelmed with joy as he walked out of court. His hands were raised in triumph as he was reunited with his family and friends. Bill was an innocent man, and he was filled with joy that the truth about him had finally been made known.
The second story is about Bob, the man who did commit the crime. Bob escaped from the scene of the crime, but he was arrested and charged with the killing a few months after Bill had been vindicated. The prosecution bungled their presentation at Bob’s trial. They missed a key piece of evidence that would certainly have secured a conviction, and when it came to the summing up, Bob’s attorney was brilliant.
The jury decided that the prosecution’s case had not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and so they returned their verdict: Not guilty! And Bob was free to go home.
Bob walked out of the court in subdued silence. He was free only because the truth about him had not been made known. Bob smiled for the cameras and offered a sound-bite about “always knowing that I was innocent,” but Bob knew that he was guilty and lived with the fear that one day the truth about him would be known.
Bill and Bob have an entirely different perspective on the truth about what happened on the day of the killing. Bill has great joy because the truth about him is now known. Bob has great fear because the truth about him is not known, and one day it might come out into the open.
The Bible uses the picture of a courtroom to help us understand our new identity in Christ. Imagine yourself standing before Almighty God on charges of violating his laws. The evidence is brought against you, but at the end of the trial, astonishingly, God pronounces you “not guilty.” The Bible calls this justification; we are “justified through faith, in the Lord Jesus Christ,” and it is in this way that we have peace with God (Romans 5:1).
Now here’s the question: When you leave God’s courtroom, are you like Bill or like Bob? Both of these men were pronounced “not guilty,” but it was for very different reasons. Bill was innocent and falsely accused. Bob was guilty but not convicted.
Good News for the Guilty
The Bible makes it clear that all of us are like Bob: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Nobody comes up innocent when our lives are examined in the light of God’s perfect law. Now here’s the amazing and wonderful truth at the center of the Bible’s message: God justifies sinners (Romans 4:5). He pronounces people who have broken his law “not guilty!”
This is mind-boggling and, at first sight, it looks like a miscarriage of justice. You would expect the Bible to say that God justifies the righteous. But if that was the case, neither you nor I would have any hope. We’re not Bill! We’re not in the position of being righteous before God.
The good news is that God justifies the guilty. He throws out the legitimate charges against us. He does this freely and justly through Jesus Christ who bore the penalty for our sins on the cross. God’s justice fell on him so that God’s mercy could be released to us.
When you turn to Christ in faith, God says, “You are justified. You are forgiven. You are clean. You are righteous, through my Son Jesus Christ.” We believe this, but since our lives are still far from what God wants them to be, it feels like believing something that isn’t really true. How can you be clean when your choices have left you feeling used and dirty? How can you feel clean when your mind and heart have been distorted by images you find hard to forget? How can you remain clean if you have been violated and endured horrors that leave you feeling wretched and worthless inside? These are deep and painful questions, but God has an answer: “In Jesus Christ, you are clean.”
Your Righteousness Is in Christ
The first step to discovering your new identity in Christ is to recognize that your righteousness is in Jesus and not in yourself. Paul says, “You are in Christ Jesus who has become for us…our righteousness” (1 Corinthians 1:30). It’s not your faith that makes you right with God. It’s not your repentance or your performance in the Christian life. What
makes you clean is not found in your good works or your ministry or anything else that you might offer to God.
That’s good news. My faith is genuine, but it is far from perfect. My repentance is begun, but it is not yet complete. My Christian life is still a work in progress. My ministry has its failures, its missed opportunities, and its neglected duties, as well as its successes. The great Christian preacher Augustine once said,
I do not dare to commend the works of my hands for fear that you may find more sins in them than merits.
If my entrance into eternal life depended on my performance over a lifetime measured in the light of the awesome holiness of God, I would have no hope whatsoever. The good news for those who are in Christ is that what gets
examined by God on the last day is not your faith, your repentance, your Christian life, or your good deeds, but your Savior, and there is no fault in him. He is righteous. This is why Paul said,
I want to be found in Christ not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Philippians 3:9).
If you have been abused, assaulted, or violated, this truth of your purity in Christ can bring a wonderful healing to your wounds. Those who have experienced the trauma of abuse know that the deepest pain comes from the sense of being personally violated. Something has been taken that you did not choose to give. Something has been lost that can never be recovered, and you are left with a gnawing sense of shame.
If your purity was in you then once it was lost, you could never get it back. But if your purity is in Christ, nothing can take it from you. Nothing you do can make Jesus less righteous, and nothing that is done to you can violate the purity that is yours in him. If your righteousness is in Christ, it is completely secure. That means you can’t foul it up!
Think about it: If your righteousness was in you, one sin would blow it out of the water, and you would need to start your pursuit of righteousness all over again. You could lose your own purity by giving it away or someone else could take it from you.
But nothing in this world, or even in hell itself, can foul up the righteousness of Christ, and that righteousness is yours if you are in him.
Enjoying Your Righteousness in Christ
Let’s imagine for a moment that you are living as a squatter in a derelict building that has been condemned by the village and will soon be pulled down. You have been sleeping on top of a pile of magazines strewn over the floor. You have no money, and you have no other place to go.
One day you meet a man who has compassion on you. “I have a home that is not being used, and I’d be glad for you
to live there,” he says. You explain that you have no money to pay the rent, but he tells you there is none to pay.
“How long can I stay?” you ask.
He tells you that the invitation is open-ended. “Treat my home as if it were your own,” he says. “You can live there as long as you wish.”
The man tells you that he will come by each day to clean the home and to tend the garden. “You won’t see me,” he says, “I only call when my tenants are away.” With that he draws you a map, hands you the keys, and then drives off, leaving you bewildered by this unusual act of kindness.
When you find the house, you are absolutely overwhelmed. The lawn is lush green like a deep pile carpet. The white picket fence is freshly painted, and inside the house is everything that you need for life. It is the home of your dreams. But more than that, it’s yours!
You walk in the garden. You sit in the lounge. You eat at the table. You sleep in the bed. Every day you see evidence of the owner’s presence. The grass is cut. The rooms are cleaned. The fridge is stocked. The home is yours to enjoy, not on the basis of ownership but on the basis of a gracious gift in which what belongs to another is offered to you so that you can enjoy it as much as if it were your own.
That is how it is with Christ’s righteousness. When you are “in Christ,” what he owns becomes yours to enjoy.
Of course, Satan will come to the picket fence and tell you that you are nothing more than a squatter and that there is no place for you in the house of the righteous. But you are not a squatter; you belong in the house by the invitation of the owner.
Knowing your new identity will change the way you live. If you believe that you are squatter, you will live like a squatter – throwing your trash on the floor. But when you know that you are a guest in the house of righteousness, your thinking, feelings, and behavior will all be different. If Satan can convince you that you are just a sinner, then
nothing will be more natural to you than to go on sinning. But when you see that in Christ you are clean, you will begin to live a new life.
When my desk is covered with papers, the most natural thing in the world is to thrown more paper on top of the pile. But when my desk is clean I am much more careful about what I put there. If the compassionate friend gives you the use of his home, and every day he cleans it and replenishes it, are you really going to trash it? Instead you will say, “I can never repay this friend for what he has done, but I will do all in my power to care for his house in which I am privileged to live.”
The Christian life is not about pretending to be something you are not. It is about being who you are. In Christ, you are clean. Be who you are.