DECLARED righteous! How? Can such a thing be possible, when all of Adam’s descendants, every one of them, have been unrighteous, imperfect and with a tendency toward wrongdoing? If honest, each one of us must frankly admit as did the psalmist David: “With error I was brought forth with birth pains, and in sin my mother conceived me.”—Ps. 51:5.
According to the Bible, “sin” and “unrighteousness” are synonymous. (1 John 5:17) Thus the inheritance of sin from our first human parents on down to this day has labeled us all “unrighteous.” And the undeniable evidence of this inherent sinfulness or unrighteousness is the fact that men continue to die. (Rom. 5:12; 6:23) Further, they are unable to relieve themselves of this fatal disability, for the psalmist again writes, under inspiration: “Not one of them can by any means redeem even a brother, nor give to God a ransom for him.”—Ps. 49:7.
Yet the Bible shows that the unrighteous can be declared righteous! How is this possible? On what basis can there be a declaring of imperfect creatures righteous? Can Jehovah God, the great Judge, do this and still remain righteous himself?
THROUGH JESUS CHRIST OUR LORD
Let us take note of God’s “means of saving” sinful humans from the death-dealing effects of inherited sin. (Luke 2:30) He sent forth his Son, born of a woman, it is true, but not tainted with the imperfect reproductive seed of Adam, for “holy spirit” and “power of the Most High” impregnated Mary with perfect seed. (Luke 1:35) Therefore the one born of her came to be “undefiled, separated from the sinners.” (Heb. 7:26) When he was grown to manhood he qualified as having that ‘body prepared by God’ for sacrifice on behalf of unrighteous men.—Heb. 10:5.
At the time of his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus was a perfect, righteous man. He presented himself willingly to enter upon a sacrificial course marked out for him by his heavenly Father. As he came up out of the water God’s holy spirit came upon him, and by marvelous signs God acknowledged him to be his Son—not in the sense that he was God’s human Son at the time of his birth, but now in the sense that he was “born again,” “born from the spirit.” (John 3:3-6) Thereafter Jesus was on his way back to the heavenly life he had enjoyed prior to his being sent forth to the earth.
Actually perfect in his human organism, Jesus held on to that perfection by reason of his integrity maintained under brutal test. “He learned obedience from the things he suffered,” that is, he continued obedient to God even when openly exposed to hateful persecution by Satan and his agents. (Heb. 5:7-9) So God made the Chief Agent of salvation “perfect through sufferings.” (Heb. 2:10) Not one flaw showed up. Jesus stood firmly righteous before God on his own merit—the only human ever to do so.
Those sufferings culminated in Jesus’ shameful but undeserved death on the torture stake. Thereafter God raised him out of death, enabling Jesus to resume life as a spirit creature and to go his way back to heaven, there to present the merit of his sacrifice as an offering in behalf of sinful humankind. This act of God, resurrecting Jesus to life in the spirit, constituted a ‘declaring of Jesus righteous in the spirit.’ (1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Pet. 3:18) It was, in effect, a declaration by the heavenly Father that, despite all the contrary appearances, this Son who had undergone slander, reproaches and a cruel death, had fully accomplished the Father’s will. That sacrificial death of the Son provided the basis for God to declare righteous those who would exercise faith in Christ. (Gal. 2:16) His willingly going into death would serve to cancel out the condemnation of death that had come upon the human family through Adam’s disobedience.
THE CHRISTIAN CONGREGATION
However, God purposed to select a limited number from among humankind and adopt them into his family of spiritual sons, forming “the congregation of the first-born who have been enrolled in the heavens”—a congregation organized under its Head, Christ Jesus. (Heb. 12:23) Theirs is the prospect of life in the heavens as spirit creatures. But first they must prove faithful until death in a service that God assigns them while they are still alive in the flesh. That service is of a priestly nature—the ministry of reconciliation, whereby they must seek to aid men to get reconciled to God.—2 Cor. 5:18, 19.
In order to qualify these ministers of reconciliation for their service, and that they might be “born from the spirit,” becoming sons of God, they must first have a right standing before God in the flesh, even as did Jesus when he presented himself for baptism. How could they attain this? Only by God’s applying the merit of Jesus’ sacrifice in their behalf immediately, forgiving them all their sins, and, by judicial act on his part in imputing human perfection to them, declaring them righteous. And, of course, God takes this action only with respect to those whom he calls to be members of “the congregation of the first-born” and who demonstrate faith in the ransom sacrifice of Christ Jesus. As the apostle Paul explains it: “It is as a free gift that they are being declared righteous by [God’s] undeserved kindness through the release by the ransom paid by Christ Jesus.”—Rom. 3:24.
Keep in mind that these are declared righteous in the flesh in order that they might be in line for adoption into the family of God’s spirit sons in heaven. Their being declared righteous does not result in actual fleshly perfection, but they are accounted by God as being perfect humans; the righteousness is imputed to them. Thus God makes them acceptable for sacrifice to himself. So God now makes them his spiritual sons. As such, they must serve him, even to the extent of yielding up human life and all future prospects of life as humans. In a very real sense they follow closely in the steps of their Leader, Christ Jesus.—1 Pet. 2:21.
We have seen that after his loyal course even until death in the flesh Jesus Christ was “made alive in the spirit,” “declared righteous in spirit,” given immortality and incorruption. (1 Pet. 3:18; 1 Tim. 3:16; 1 Cor. 15:42, 45) In the same way his spirit-begotten followers who prove themselves loyal until death are “declared righteous in spirit” by being resurrected as spirit creatures, and they, too, are made sharers in the divine nature. (2 Pet. 1:4) Then their righteousness is no longer an imputed righteousness, a righteousness derived from someone else’s merit, but it is actual. (1 John 3:2) They are rewarded with incorruption, immortality.
“RIGHTEOUSNESS” IN PRE-CHRISTIAN TIMES
But what about those humans who worshiped God and were inclined toward righteousness in pre-Christian times? How did God view them? They were tainted with inherited sin. Adam had lost righteousness for himself and his offspring, and the time was still in the future when Christ Jesus would “shed light upon life and incorruption through the good news.” (2 Tim. 1:10) How, then, could the holy God have dealings with those pre-Christian worshipers? Because of their faith.
It was because of their faith in God’s promises, which faith was manifested by works, that men and women such as Abraham and Rahab were ‘counted righteous’ by God. (Rom. 4:3; Jas. 2:25) They were not given over to wickedness like the worldly people around them. They “walked with the true God,” even as did Noah and many others. (Gen. 6:9) They were not, however, in line for adoption as prospective spirit sons of God. They looked forward to the time when God by resurrection would restore them to life on earth. God could and did deal with them and bless them because of their faith in his word of promise.
“RIGHTEOUSNESS” OF MODERN “GREAT CROWD”
Today there is “a great crowd, which no man [is] able to number,” of God’s worshipers on earth, in addition to the remaining ones of the 144,000 who are called to the heavens. In vision the apostle John beheld them and heard them described as those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:4, 9-17) They take positive action toward demonstrating their faith in the shed blood of Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God. They are spoken of prophetically by Christ Jesus as “the righteous ones,” because God also counts their faith to them for righteousness.—Matt. 25:37.
But that “great crowd” of Revelation, chapter 7, are not at this time declared righteous with a view to being accepted as God’s sons. Rather, the white robes in their case represent a temporary standing before God—one that will tide them safely through Armageddon’s judgment execution upon a wicked world and bring them into Christ’s thousand-year reign of peace. Under that new system of things they will be trained in righteousness and uplifted toward perfection in the flesh. Under that peaceful reign, too, multitudes will be restored to life on earth from their graves, including the loyal, pre-Christian worshipers of Jehovah God. But will any of such ever be declared righteous?
Yes, but that acceptance of them by Jehovah as his human sons, as part of his universal family, must await the close of the thousand-year reign of Christ. By that time Christ Jesus through his heavenly government will have uplifted obedient humankind to fleshly perfection, to the condition of human perfection enjoyed by Adam at the time God applied the test of obedience to him. Then is the time when Christ “hands over the kingdom to his God and Father” and when the Father determines who are worthy of living forever in happiness on earth. (1 Cor. 15:24-26) That determination, as in Adam’s case, will also be made on the basis of a test—a test that is referred to in the words written at Revelation 20:7-10.
Those then holding fast to the clean worship of Jehovah will be “declared righteous.” They will actually receive “the glorious freedom of the children of God,” earthly children. They will be declared righteous, not in the spirit, but in the flesh. They will then have, not an imputed righteousness, but actual human perfection and the prospect of living everlastingly on earth under God’s fatherly protection.—Rom. 8:18-21; Rev. 21:3, 4.
JEHOVAH RIGHTEOUS IN ALL HIS ACTS
Jehovah never violates his own principles of righteousness. He does not condone or excuse sin. He is too pure and holy to look with complacency on anything unrighteous. (Hab. 1:13) All of those who become his sons in heaven or on earth must be holy just as he is holy. (1 Pet. 1:15, 16) And he has lovingly provided the way whereby his terms of justice can be satisfied while at the same time humans can be rescued from the condemnation of death into which disobedient Adam plunged them.
The vital basis upon which his provision rests is the ransom sacrifice of his own dear Son, Christ Jesus. That ransom, having been once paid, brought release from the condemnation of death to Adam’s offspring. Of course, those released must first have exercised faith in God’s provision of the ransom. While still in the flesh those of Christ’s followers who are called to be eventually with him in the heavens are given the benefit of an early release from sin’s condemnation so that they may be given a “new birth” and so come into union with Christ Jesus as his spiritual brothers.
All others of mankind who will gain everlasting life on earth under the rule of Christ’s kingdom must await the outcome of that test that God will apply at the close of Christ’s thousand-year reign. Those who remain loyal and obedient to God through that test will be declared righteous in the flesh. They will then be earthly sons and daughters of the Most High God.
Thus we have seen that Jehovah is the one who alone can ‘declare righteous.’ And in doing so he proves himself righteous in all his acts. As the apostle Paul explains the matter: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and it is as a free gift that they are being declared righteous by his undeserved kindness through the release by the ransom paid by Christ Jesus. God set him forth as an offering for propitiation through faith in his blood. This was in order to exhibit his own righteousness, because he was forgiving the sins that occurred in the past while God was exercising forbearance; so as to exhibit his own righteousness in this present season, that he might be righteous even when declaring righteous the man that has faith in Jesus.”—Rom. 3:23-26.