The righteousness from God, apart from the Law

The New Testament, taking its cue from certain passages in the Old Testament, often makes the point that what God considers acceptable righteousness is not righteousness through rote obedience to the Law (e.g. Romans 3.21). This sets up two major answers to the question of what God does consider acceptable righteousness that have been championed by different theologies.

These thoughts are in my mind because I recently heard someone talking about Paul’s teaching that righteousness could not be achieved through the Law. Now, since the first few centuries we’ve tended to blur the distinction between the “Law” (a.k.a. the Jewish Torah) and works-based rituals, including even divinely mandated rules; there’s a good basis for this conceptually, so I’ll let that convention stand for now. Anyway, it occurred to me that there are two very different follow-ons to the statement, “Righteousness cannot be achieved through works of law (or Law)…”

1) “…therefore, God supplies a means to accomplish positional righteousness.”

The solution to the problem that has perhaps the most currency today is the idea of God’s intervention in Jesus, in whom perfect righteousness is fulfilled. For these Christians, righteousness is treated as something of a ticket good for admission into God’s Kingdom (not to say “heaven” alone). Since we cannot afford in our poverty of holiness to purchase this ticket, we must depend on a deep-pocketed donor who has sufficient wealth in righteousness.

That is, our “position” as “in Christ” makes us virtually righteous. In essence, He creates an ad hoc law that will allow Him to bring us into good standing with Him despite our remaining at odds with His standards in every other possibly realistic sense.

As I understand it, some Catholics who accept this solution (and not all necessarily do) nevertheless insist that we are responsible for “paying back” as much as we can afford and letting Christ teach us to acquire greater righteousness to show our faithfulness and love. Those Protestants who depend the most on the Reformers’ theology take great offense at this understanding, considering the suggestion that we can earn any righteousness by human effort, even in obedience to God, as a declaration of self-sufficiency that has the effect of repudiating Christ’s completed work. In fact, many in this camp actually define “gospel” in just such a manner as will specifically exclude those trying to accomplish righteousness in addition to Christ’s righteousness, excoriating the attempt to earn salvation as damnable hubris.

Here is an actual exposition of this view as we often encounter it in the wild:

‎Righteousness is a state of being. I stand before God righteous or right with Him, based on who I am, not what I have done or will do. It is a positional reality, not a performance reality. One is either righteous -in right standing with God- or unrighteous. There are only two categories of people on the planet—righteous or unrighteous. There are no gray areas concerning righteousness, no percentages of righteousness. You either are or you are not. You have either received the gift of righteousness or you have not!

Access to this God given and performed “state of being” called righteousness is based on our willingness to believe and receive the person and finished work of Christ on our behalf. It is a gift offered to us without “strings” attached! Believe the almost unbelievable good news that “right standing” with a holy God is offered as a gift and receive it by faith and the miracle of all miracles becomes a reality! I instantaneously become a son of God with all the privileges and standing that reality affords me. Wow! The Gospel really is good news.

~ Clark Whitten

But this isn’t the only way of finishing the statement, “Righteousness cannot be achieved through works of law (or Law)…”

2) “…therefore, God supplies a means to accomplish true righteousness.”

The other major stream of thought holds that the solution to our insufficient righteousness cannot be, or at any rate has not been, shortcut through. God’s demand for righteousness will not be circumvented by a benefactor–even Himself: God insists upon true holiness. Jesus’ role is as the enabler and facilitator we need to become righteous. Righteousness isn’t something that can be simply conjured up by “declaring” its existence; we can’t hide behind someone else’s righteousness.

Jesus’ work on earth shattered death’s hold on us and unshackled us from our unrighteousness. His holiness is not imputed to us from without; it must be cultivated from within.

So to contrast them, in the first formulation righteousness is imputed on top of our unrighteousness; in popular Evangelical vernacular, when He looks at us, He doesn’t see our sinfulness, but His own righteous Son. By legal fiat, He has declared us righteous – on Jesus’ merit, not our own – and thus are we brought in as fully privileged sons and daughters, whose commitment to maturity in righteousness is irrelevant soteriologically. In the second formulation, He declares us righteous only in the sense of our candidacy for properly realized righteousness; in grace He adopts us and teaches us to be a part of His household as children, knowing that He will accomplish righteousness in us. But it will require our participation.

This is no trifling distinction. The “imputed righteousness” model treats righteousness as a legal construct which we can legally flout since God conveniently tacked a rider on the condemnation bill that made an exception for us. We are seen as truly righteous regardless of the state of our hearts and our deeds; although it’s never really stated this way, the logic of this means that sanctification is just something we can bother with when feel up to it.

The second model is the only one that could truly be said to uphold righteousness apart from the law, because God’s solution to our righteousness deficit is to do just what we are taught in the Bible: to replace rote righteousness as dictated by laws and regulations with a heart that organically learns to love and do what is right, good, and holy. If you believe that God has to impute a righteousness that is only positional in order to consider us righteous, you believe that our righteousness is not so much apart from the law as it is an end-run around law-keeping that is itself justified by a legal excuse. No: the righteousness from God is fully and wholly apart from the law; it problematizes the rationale behind the entire legal schema.

There is another, deeper distinction between these two theologies. In one, our problem is that God needs to destroy the unrighteous, and our hope is in God’s commitment to accepting us anyway because of our resting on Jesus’s merit; in the other, our problem is that God needs to destroy unrighteousness, and our hope is in God’s commitment to saving us from it, which is accomplished by our continually submitting to Jesus’ lordship.

Whatever is meant when the NT authors referred in the past tense to our having been made holy through Christ, and they did say this occasionally, this holiness is clearly not enough. We know this because the authors of the New Testament were virtually unanimous that holy is as holy does, and even those who are “in” are subject to judgment (see e.g. Matthew 25.31-46; Philippians 2.12; Hebrews 10.36, James 2.14-26; 1 John 1.6-9, 2.6). Sanctification is justification. No shortcuts.

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