Saving Righteousness

Okay, classmates, please bear with me as I get something off my chest.

It’s the language: saving righteousness and judging righteousness. What does that mean?

Okay, yes, I muddled through the readings and guessed on meanings for these terms, and then finally I took 5 hours to intensely go through Schreiner and others to find out for sure. So, I totally agree with the gist that righteousness from God is both the positional righteousness that God credits to my name (traditional justification) and the experiential righteousness that God produces in my life through transformation (traditional sanctification). But I hate the language that has been adopted to describe it.  Here’s why.

I fear that to make the (valid) point, the interpreters have adopted a terminology that changes the meaning of Scripture and will in the end do more damage than good. I suggest that there is no such thing as saving righteousness. Righteousness doesn’t save; God does. God saves based on his righteousness.  God saves consistent with his righteousness. God saves by imputing Christ’s righteousness to us. God saves by producing his righteousness in our lives. But righteousness doesn’t save.

Language is incredibly important. And when pastors and theologians develop language that must be decoded, it is great loss for the cause of Christ. The perspicuity of Scripture is the life-blood of the church. When my grandfather returned to Japan as an adult, he quickly became a favored speaker to the churches he visited. He knew some Japanese, but it was only the vocabulary he learned as a child growing up as a missionary kid. People preferred his faltering Japanese to the seminary-trained Japanese pastors, because the pastors spoke in a theological language unknown to the masses. I believe that our hardest and best work is to understand the Scriptures and then discover how to say it in language that is readily understandable.

Back to saving righteousness. One problem with the phrase is that it is turning righteousness into an agent rather than the attribute which it is. As such it turns our focus to a powerful righteousness rather than to God. If God saves by giving righteousness, then I must turn to God to be saved. If there is such a thing as a righteousness that saves, then I must solve the puzzle of where and what that righteousness is and then figure out how to energize it in my life (I’m struggling for words here, feeling like I just entered a new Pantheon, and should write Righteousness instead of righteousness. Or maybe this is where Scofield ended up declaring this was a reference to Christ.)

Second problem with the phrase saving righteousness is that it twists Paul’s emphasis from the result to the process. Paul seems to be broadly stating his theme in Romans 1:16-17 as the resultant righteousness that is ours from God by faith. Later he will detail out this theme in terms of our resultant standing of righteousness and our resultant “victory over sin” righteousness. And Paul will go into great detail as to the process that God uses to accomplish this righteousness. But here he still seems to be pointing to the resultant righteousness.

Okay, enough of that. Is there an alternative? I’ll suggest one that may or may not work. I think this fits the words of Scripture well, but our theological distinctions have been so set that maybe this would cause more problems than good and some other terms should be sought.

We speak of justification, sanctification and glorification. Justification is our beginning standing of righteousness in Christ. Sanctification is our growing experience of holiness. Glorification is our future perfect glory in eternity. So I will make my suggestion as a comparison. We have realized that since “holiness” is something slightly different from “righteousness” and “glory” it is proper to speak of an aspect of sanctification that occurs at the point of salvation, an aspect of sanctification that occurs progressively, and an aspect of sanctification that will occur when we meet Christ. I suggest that, in the same way, justification is slightly different from holiness and glory, and thus it is appropriate to speak of an aspect of justification that occurs at the point of salvation, an aspect of justification that occurs progressively, and an aspect of justification that will occur when Christ returns.

There’s not time here to try to flesh out this proposal (besides, flesh in Romans is not a good thing). And, as I said, our terms may be too emotionally charged to use them in broader ways now, anyway. But here is one direction it could go …

In order for sanctification to have past, present and future implications, it must not be limited to the narrow definition of “growing victory over daily temptation” but must be allowed the broader idea of “becoming holy.” Even so, for justification to have past, present and future implications, it must not be limited to a narrow definition like “imputed righteousness at the point of salvation by virtue of our union with Christ.” Justification must be allowed a broader idea of “vindication.” Or, to be slightly more specific, justify contains both the ideas of “declare righteous” and “prove to be righteous.”

So, when God justifies, he declares someone to be righteous. But since God is righteous, that declaration is defensible. It can be proven to be legitimate. The Old Testament, the Gospel of Christ and the Acts of the apostles have shown time and time again that God accepts obviously sinful people. In the gospel, Jesus often says “Your sins are forgiven.” So this prompts the theological question that Romans answers; how does God accept sinners? But there is also the practical question also covered in Romans; how do people in the church know which sinners are accepted by God and which aren’t? For instance, in the gospel we hear about Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. Why is Peter still saved, and Judas not? Another example: after Saul was saved by God, he went to Jerusalem, but the Jerusalem church did not believe he really was a disciple. What could Saul do to prove his claim? To use the term in its broader sense, he needed to be justified. Barnabas came and did the proving for him.

If this direction is correct, we should find evidence for it in two areas.  First, there should be evidence that God’s justifying work applies at times other than just our initial salvation. Second, there should be evidence that justification contains elements of declaration as well as elements of proof.

Here’s one possible example of the first kind of evidence. Garlington makes the observation (“provocative” according to Schreiner): “Gen 15:6 cannot refer to forensic righteousness in terms of Abraham’s conversion since in Gen 12:1-9 he already believed, and this belief was attested by his exodus from his homeland” (Don Garlington, Faith, Obedience and Perseverance: Aspects of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, as quoted in Schreiner’s evaluation in JETS 40:3, p. 475). So, it appears that Abraham’s faith was credited as righteousness decades after he was ‘saved.’

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