Isaac Watts wrote his poems and hymns in the shadow of reformation upheaval sweeping through Europe. But he wasn't an outsider. As one of the first English hymn writers, he stood in the footprints of Martin Luther and John Calvin, reforming the worship of the church. As a nonconformist minister, he staked his position squarely against the State Church. This is why the words to the beloved Christmas carol, "Joy to the World," are the way they are, and it is the light in which they are properly understood.
In the last verse of the song, Watts considers the gospel's impact in society, particularly in Christ's kingdom ruling the hearts and minds of individuals. He targets God's righteousness and love, and how Christians live in light of them. In this article, we will consider the "glories of His righteousness".
To understand why Watts thought God's righteousness was glorious and important enough to include in the hymn, we need to go back two centuries before Watts wrote this song to Martin Luther. Luther is famous for beginning the Protestant Reformation by nailing 95 arguments to the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg against the practices of the Catholic Church. Throughout his lifetime, his most pressing disagreement with the Church was over the doctrine of imputed righteousness. The Catholics believed righteousness was something Christians worked to achieve. Luther understood Romans 1:17 to tell something completely different. When he read the words of Paul: “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:17), he understood Paul to say by faith the righteous live. That meant God's righteousness wasn’t just observed in the gospel, it was given to the sinner by faith. This passage opened his eyes to the true gospel that we are not saved by works, but by faith alone, and it changed everything for Luther. It was a glorious gospel!
In light of Luther's revelation, Watts observed how the true gospel gloriously changed lives; he could see two hundred years' worth of gospel transformation. It could have been when Watts wrote of "the glories of His righteousness," Martin Luther’s understanding of Romans 1:17 was in the back of his mind.
Since the Reformation, the doctrine of imputed righteousness is a shibboleth for gospel-centred Christians. It is almost certain those who do not believe it have a legalistic or moralistic tint in their Christian lives, and they do not live as though they are saved by grace alone (even if they claim to believe it). However, the gospel rests upon the fact of God unilaterally saving sinners. Paul summarizes the prophets of old and Jesus' teaching of salvation by speaking of it as adoption, redemption, reconciliation, and most often as justification. All of these rest on or include Christ's righteousness imputed to us and our sin imputed to Him.
Salvation is often thought of as an effective changing work in the lives of people, which the Scripture speaks much of, but it is most fundamentally regarded as a legal transaction in the court of God. Because the Law declares us unjust and condemns us before God, we must have our legal standing with God dealt with before any change in us can or will happen. Unless we are righteous before God, His Spirit does not bless us with fruitful lives. Furthermore, since we cannot become righteous by our good works, our only hope is someone perfectly obedient to the Law of God transfers their righteousness to us. That is Christ, and that is what happens at the cross.
Imputed righteousness isn't only helpful for Christians at the moment of salvation, it is helpful throughout the entire Christian life. That is what Paul meant by "the righteous will live by faith." Faith in Christ transfers our sin to His account and His righteousness to our account. Because of this, whenever God wants to see how righteous we are, He needs only look to His right hand where Christ sits. What comfort! What hope! Because the righteousness of God is imputed to us, we really live. No more let sins and sorrows grow, we are right with God. No more let fear and anxiety overwhelm us, we are right with God. These are the blessings that flow wherever the curse is found.
This Christmas, or any time of the year for that matter, whenever this famous carol is sung, and the words, “The glories of His righteousness,” repeated, remember Christ’s righteousness is indeed glorious because it is yours by faith and it makes you right with God.