I love this question from Sarah, who lives in New Haven, Connecticut. It’s a deep one and a thoughtful one. Here it is: “Pastor John, hello. I think one of the most important things I have ever learned from you, of the many things, is also something so far beyond my brain that I can only barely begin to grasp it. It’s what you say about 2 Timothy 2:13. There Paul writes, ‘If we are faithless, [God] remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.’ This verse celebrates God’s faithfulness to God. It’s not about our own faithfulness, really.
“I’ve hunted down all the places where you talk about this passage. In your book Spectacular Sins, you write, ‘God acts in righteousness when his actions accord with his own infinite worth and beauty.’ Amazing! And I read in Providence this statement: ‘God is faithful to himself. He is unwaveringly committed to uphold and display what is infinitely valuable, beautiful, and satisfying, namely, his own perfect and glorious being’ (324). I read these lines, and they seem to contain depths I don’t understand yet.
“Can you take a few minutes to explain this text? Why do we need to know this about God? How does this define ‘righteousness’? Why do we need to know this in the context of our own faithfulness? How does God’s commitment to his own worth define what holiness is for us? And how does it explain the worth or value of our own salvation?”
Well, the reason this matters — that God does not deny God, that God is faithful to God, that God is passionate to uphold and display the glory of God — the reason all that matters is that this commitment of God is the foundation of our salvation. That’s why it matters.
Just consider a text like Psalm 25:11, “For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt, for it is great.” In other words, “O God, find a way to base your mercy toward me on your zeal for your own name. Let the commitment that you have to the glory of your name be the foundation of your commitment to me, as I cling to you for mercy.” Isn’t that what he’s saying? According to Psalm 25:11, there would be no pardon for me if it could not be based on God’s zeal for his name, his commitment to the worth of his name. “For your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my guilt.”
“God’s passion for God is the foundation of God’s mercy to us.”
So, that’s my answer to the last question about relevance. Why does it matter to us? God’s inability to deny himself is relevant to our lives because God’s passion for God is the foundation of God’s mercy to us. So, we pray with the psalmist, “For your name’s sake, O Lord — for your commitment to your glorious name — have mercy. Forgive me.”
Right(eous) to Glorify
Now, how does that relate to God’s righteousness? (And I could develop the same argument for holiness, but we only have time for righteousness. I think you can make the extrapolations for yourself.) How does this relate to his righteousness? We see the answer pointed to in Psalm 143:11: “For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life! In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!” So, there’s a parallel. “For your name’s sake . . . preserve my life” is parallel to “in your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble.” Or we could say “for your name’s sake” is parallel with “in your righteousness.”
What that text points to is this: God’s righteousness, at its most essential center or basis, consists most basically in his unwavering commitment to act for the glory of his name. To say it again, God’s righteousness consists most basically in his unwavering commitment, his faithfulness, to act for the glory of his name.
And if you think it through, this makes really good sense. For God to do right — to do what’s “righteous” — to what measuring rod does he look to determine whether one of his actions is right or righteous? The answer to that question is that there are no measuring rods outside God or above God that he looks to. He does not consult anybody’s measuring stick to decide if what he’s doing is right, as though rightness originated from another source besides God.
Well then, what does he consult in discerning the right and what’s righteous? The answer is that he consults the infinite value and beauty and greatness of his own name, his own self. That’s the standard: himself. Which means this: God does right, or God is righteous, when he acts in a way that conforms perfectly to his own worth and his own beauty and his own greatness.
So, when Paul says in 2 Timothy 2:13, “[God] cannot deny himself,” it’s another way of saying, “He can’t be unrighteous. He can’t act in a way that denies his infinite worth or beauty or greatness.” Not to deny himself means not to deny or contradict his Godness — that is, the whole transcendent panorama of his glory, his greatness, his beauty, his worth.
Why the Cross?
Now, we can see this in action for our salvation if we go straight to the heart of the gospel in Romans 3:25: “God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Why did he do this? “This was to show [or demonstrate, or make crystal clear] God’s righteousness.” Christ was put forward to die as a propitiation to demonstrate God’s righteousness.
Why did God’s righteousness need to be demonstrated by the death of the infinitely valuable Son of God? Here’s what the text says: “because in his divine forbearance [in God’s divine patience] he had passed over former sins.”
How is that a reason for the necessity of demonstrating the righteousness of God in the death of his Son? In this way: by passing over many sins of Old Testament saints, like David’s sins, it looked as though God did not properly disapprove of or punish actions that despised his glory. Nathan tells David that he despised the Lord when he committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband killed, saying in effect, “You despised the Lord. You trampled on the Lord’s glory and his word” (2 Samuel 12:9). And Paul had just said (in Romans 1:23 and 3:23) that sin is a failure to embrace and treasure the glory of God and to bring your life into conformity to the worth of his glory.
So, passing over all those sins is to act apparently unrighteously — that is, not out of zeal for his glory and his name. Sin means acting as though God were of no consequence: God is not a treasure. God is not a friend. God is not a Father. God is not a satisfier of our souls. “I’ll just do whatever I want to do.” That’s sin.
And if God just says, “Oh, we’ll just sweep those thousands of God-belittling, glory-trampling sins under the rug. That’s what we’ll do. We’ll just sweep them under the rug,” he would not be righteous. Righteousness is acting in accord with the infinite worth of God’s name. Therefore, Paul says, God put Christ forward as a propitiation, a wrath-removing punishment by his blood, to show that God does not sweep any sin under the rug.
“God’s righteousness consists most basically in his unwavering commitment to act for the glory of his name.”
He’s righteous. He acts to uphold the worth of his glory. The value of Christ in dying because of forgiven sins is the value of the glory of God that we despised in sinning. Embedded in this all-important paragraph of Romans 3 is the assumption that God’s righteousness is his unwavering commitment always to act for the glory of his name. That’s why Jesus died — not so that God could be both righteous and the one who looks like he sweeps things under the rug. No, here’s the wording of Romans 3:26: that God could be both righteous and the one who justifies the unrighteous.
His Glory, Our Hope
So, in answer to Sarah’s leading question, we need to know these things because our fullest confidence and our fullest joy, as undeserving sinners who need a Savior, are based on God’s inability to deny himself — that is, God’s unwavering commitment to act in accord with his infinite worth. That is God’s righteousness. Our salvation is based on God’s righteousness. The death of the Son of God is the declaration of the righteousness of God in passing over sins of people who have trampled the glory of God by our sin. God’s passion for God is our only hope.