But to the one not working, but believing on Him justifying the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.
(Rom 4:5 LITV)
The Constantinian gospel evolved in its Protestant stream (under Martin Luther) to include the doctrine of Imputed Righteousness. This doctrine teaches that because of a believer’s faith, God doesn’t see and condemn the person for the very large gap between the person’s actual (un)righteousness and what they should be before God. In regard to communion with God, it’s not the believer’s character and ethical life that’s important but only Jesus’ character and life – and the believer’s faith in Jesus’ sufficiency. The believer’s actual character and life is effectively hidden from the attention of God’s Holiness and “(punitive) justice” because the believer, him or herself, is (hidden?) ‘in Christ’. “Imputed righteousness” indicates that a believer can become “righteous in God’s sight” without having either a good heart or a life full of good deeds. Righteousness is “imputed” to the one “believing on Him” (Rom 4:5 above). Progress towards Christlikeness will come later, slowly and only very partially in this life as the post-justification process of “sanctification” gathers momentum. Or so the modern Protestant gospel declares. A Wikipedia article on “Imputed Righteousness” (accessed 18/6/16) says “imputed righteousness is practically synonymous with justification by faith”.
What’s wrong with the doctrine of Imputed Righteousness?
1. Imputed Righteousness reassures its adherents that they need not fear eternal torment by, or separation from, God after death. (The teaching that “hell” in the New Testament means postmortem torment is also on my Six Heresies list.) Imputed Righteousness provides a kind of counter-balance to the heinous belief that God is capable of, and fully intends to, keep some (perhaps a majority) of human beings, who He magnificently made in His own image and for His own glory and pleasure, in torment for eternity to satisfy His own need for holiness (with “holiness” – or justice – defined as a characteristic that requires the imposition of suffering on those who rebel or otherwise cause suffering threw their wickedness.) Imputed Righteous(IR) functions to reassure Constantinian Christians of a better fate for themselves than the impending damnation they believe awaits others, while explaining how “faith alone” is sufficient for God to distinguish between Christians and non-Christian, even if the Christians are little (or no) better than non-Christians in terms of love, joy, peace, justice & good works.
2. The phrase “imputed righteousness”, itself, is nowhere used in Scripture. Biblical texts taken by Constantinian Christians to allude to imputed righteousness are better explained differently – as I will show later.
3. There is no explicit teaching in Scripture that says we are hidden in Christ from God. Paul says the believer’s life is hidden “with Christ in God” (Col 3:3) meaning, I think, that the believer’s inner life – their vision, purpose, satisfaction and joy in God, which powers their visibly good behaviour and deeds – is hidden from the world, along with Christ whom the world also neither sees nor gets.
4. Imputed Righteousness (IR) diminishes a believer’s motivation to earnestly strive to leave the wilderness of sin and to enter God’s rest where s/he is enabled to be good in actuality. “Earnest striving” is what Heb 4:11 says we need to do “to enter God’s rest.” It is akin to Jesus saying we should earnestly strive to enter the narrow gate (Luke 13:24 ) & to Paul’s teaching that God will reward those who earnestly strive to do well (Rom 2:7).
5. IR, together with the Constantinian version of “justification by faith” produces the general lack of sanctification and Christlikeness in the Constantinian Church that has existed throughout the last 1700 years and not least today. Yes there have been plenty of exceptions to this but they have come from people guided more by their conscience than by traditional orthodoxy, who arise despite, not because of, Constantinian theology.
The young Luther rediscovering the importance of faith in justification, is an example of a person of conscience prompting a different reading of Scripture, even as the older Luther’s with his active encouragement of State leaders to slaughter tens of thousands of European peasants seeking better living conditions is an example of the problem with IR. (See Dominic Erzodain’s excellent “The Soul of Doubt” for his analysis of the change in Luther’s doctrinal emphasis over time.)
6. Imputed Righteousness teaches that:
- saving faith exists separately in a person from a good heart and a life of good deeds.
- In the moment of conversion the convert has only ‘saving faith’ and not yet a new heart and a new life.
- If all develops as it should, the convert will go on to have a good heart and good deeds, but don’t worry if it doesn’t happen because God is less interested in our characters than in our ongoing faith in Christ alone.
In this way, IR falsely separates faith and human goodness – and this gives rise to a number of problems:
- How can ordinary sinful hearts give rise to such a pure thing as faith? And if any human heart gave rise to faith, wouldn’t that provide some grounds for boasting? (One terrible solution is Calvin’s harsh doctrine of predestination, instead of which more compassionate Evangelicals have little or nothing to offer.)
- It discredits any good hearts and good lives, which exist anywhere outside the accepted definition of a Christian. This is actually very reminiscent of how Jesus’s claims to both a good heart and a good life were considered to be outside the accepted definition of “Messiah” or even “godly Jew” by those who murdered Him. (Jesus said “believe in Me even if for no other reason that the good miracles I am performing – John 10:38 & 14:11.)
- Most importantly, it is exactly the reverse of Jesus’ own emphasis on obedience and righteousness in action. This point will be considered further in the next section.
Actions are important in the worship of God – Jesus and the NT tells us so:
Toward the conclusion of His sermon on the mountain, Jesus contrasted those who would follow and obey His teaching in their future actions, behaviour and lifestyle with those who wouldn’t. They would fare as differently as two houses, one build on rock and the other on sand. In the storms of life the former would stand but the latter would fall. No explicit mention of faith at all.
Many other times, His teaching about how we are to live focused on what we do, with no mention of faith:
- When Jesus gave His disciples an object lesson in servanthood by washing their feet, He said “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (Jn 13:17)
- In His question about two sons, one who said he would comply with his father’s request and one who said he wouldn’t and both did the opposite of what they said – Jesus question was simply which son DID THE WILL of his father?
- He said “Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord Lord’”, He said, “will inherit eternal life but the one that does the will of My Father.”
- When a man asked Him, “What good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus did not disabuse him of the notion of having to do something to obtain eternal life but, rather, told him “If you want to enter life keep the commandments” and He went on to elaborate that He meant the commandments against murder (i.e. pacifism), adultery, theft and lying and commandments for honouring of parents and loving one’s neighbour.” And when the man claimed to have kept all these Jesus was not astonished or disbelieving. No, He simply added another thing for the man to DO – “If you would be perfect, go, sell your possessions, give to the poor, then come and follow me.” (Matt 19:16-21)
In these and other places, Jesus taught that God is interested in real goodness of heart that results in real goodness of action. Furthermore, He taught this association between heart and life as a principle that always applies:
Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.
(Mat 7:17-18 NIV)
Therefore the righteousness that Jesus’ brings to the life of a believer must be a righteousness of both heart and action/life/deeds, as the one always goes with the other.
And besides “heart” and “deeds” Jesus indicates other factors need to be at work:
“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” (Joh 14:23 NIV).
So, according to Jesus, love for Jesus causes the believer to obey His teaching resulting in God coming to indwell the believer (Who produces good deeds of mercy – cf Matt 5:16, Gal 5:22-).
Now, given that a bad tree cannot bear good fruit, rebirth is equivalent to turning in bad tree (incapable of producing good fruit) into a good one (incapable of producing bad fruit), as Jesus said:
“Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.
(Mat 12:33 NIV)
So, “good fruit” is what a person becomes capable of producing from their heart (inner self) because of Christ in their heart making them a “good tree.” I can think of two ways one can metaphorically “make a tree good or bad”? One way is to change one’s opinion or definition about what constitutes good (or bad) fruit. e.g. the Pharisees opinion of Jesus is that He was a bad tree and His fruit was bad (even if is appeared good). However, the Pharisee called Saul changed his mind about Jesus – Saul “made the bad tree good” in Saul’s own estimation. The other way to “make a tree good” is to change the tree itself – that’s what happened to Saul, a bad tree, was made to be a good tree.
“Making the tree good” is equivalent to the real change of heart that the Gospel can bring, which results in a new creation and a new life of goodness. Saul-Paul called the Gospel “the power of God for salvation (rescue, transformation) to everyone who believes (the Gospel).” We turn now to that Gospel which, by our faith, becomes the power of God for transformation, rescue and salvation to us.
What is the Good News that Jesus preached? Jesus preached that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” So how does this “good news” help us? I suggest believing this message helps us to repent – which is exactly what Jesus suggested we should do with the news:
“The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
(Mar 1:15 NIV)
To repent means to change our minds and/or beliefs and so go/live in a completely different way. So there seems to be built in some overlap, emphasis or even technical redundancy built into Jesus’ Gospel. i.e. if we believe the Kingdom of God is immanent we will ‘repent’ or ‘change our minds’ because until now we have NOT believed the Kingdom of God is immanent and we have been living in (bad) ways that naturally emerge from that unbelief. Human beings naturally WANT to be happy, WANT to have the love and respect of other people and WANT be genuinely good people. If we and our fellow human beings COULD attain these things, Earth would be a paradise – that indeed would be “the Kingdom of God”! The problem is we believe we CAN’T fulfill such lofty aspirations. We believe that because we’ve tried and haven’t succeeded. The Kingdom of God seems oceans away – completely unrealistic.
But we tried to attain it without Jesus. Now Jesus has come and in Him the Kingdom of God is “near”, “at hand” and immanent! But it requires us to change our minds (repent). We must stop thinking it’s impossibile. We must stop thinking even God can’t help us. We must stop settling for fake public personas of fake goodness, fake love. We must not be resigned to cynical private self-concepts of “survival of the fittest” and it is not possible for me (or anyone) to consistently and genuinely love others. We must think and believe differently. We must think and believe that all things are possible for God and that, in Jesus, the Kingdom of God has come near.
This good news so reaches into the core of the problem in the heart of every person that, I suggest, that anyone who doesn’t repent upon hearing Jesus Gospel, hasn’t really understood and believed it. This good news is so relevant to all of us, that only if we already believe the good news in full with no waivering, would we need to repent no further or again.
And what, essentially, we are repenting from is that we have not / not fully believed God. For example, we have not/not fully/not unwaiveringly believed that God intends to live in us, that human beings are not complete as human beings without being indwelt by God in the same way that God the Father indwelt the man Jesus of Nazareth.
The problem of faith, is that human beings often don’t believe God because it SEEMS either too demanding of us or too good to be true – or both. Expressed as a faith issue: we don’t believe in God and we don’t believe the best of God and we don’t much trust God. Instead we’ve all grown up in families and in a world where there is a profound distrust of Him, even if we try to be religiously devout! For example, the Western Church especially has thought of God as ultimately less compassionate than we are (to the unbelieving dead), more tied up with rules and our transgressions that the priest is, and more intent on punishing the wicked that the cruellest tyrant, etc. When faced with trials and temptations we prefer to trust ourselves and to thereby retain as much personal control as possible. Jesus of Nazareth was amazed by Humanity’s lack of faith.
When the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached by someone with a practical credibility and heard by a heart of “good soil” the message is believed as it is heard. God is believed no longer to be an emotionally and physically distant tyrant but a loving Heavenly Father present by His Spirit, loving and blessing us. And God intends to bless us even more and in our daily conscious living; He’s been waiting for so long to bless us like that…. – and it was our distrust of Him that kept Him away. And now our suspicion and even our past hatred of God is evaporating… – they were based on misinformation and lies about God.
This revolution in our beliefs about God is, itself, the heart of “repentance” because repentance is about changing one’s mind about what is true and of prime importance. It is this inner change that results in outer change. And the change of mind results in a change of behaviour. The new believer sees life differently – generally and in lots of specific ways precisely because of his change of mind. For example, having lost their hang ups about being a fake and a failure in regard to loving genuinely, they will be freed from anxiety around being exposed as a fake and as a sinner. Having lost their conception of a punitive God, they will be freed from fear of Divine punishment. Being freed from anxiety, they will come alive to the wonder of glory of the Creation, especially of the Human family and all its members. And all of this will free them to enjoy others and act in their interest. In other words, seemingly paradoxically the good news, if believed, sets us free to be joyful and loving, as God intended.
Notice that the repentance at the level of belief soon becomes evident at the level of action. Notice that human beings get to be whole and holy (meaning fully joyful, loving and genuinely good) because the God Who is genuinely good comes to dwell in the spirit of the person who believes the best (as preached by Jesus) about God. Notice that we get to be whole and holy ‘on the outside’ by first being whole and holy ‘on the inside.’
Notice, too, that like most of the rest of the observable world, the awesomeness of God’s creation is increased by it being integrated with a whole universe of natural processes which He has ordained from the Beginning. What I mean is that constant miracle-working is a child’s idea of God’s power. If God would make life on earth run by a whole series of miracles one after another, life would be very unpredictable. No doubt we would soon take the miraculous as just the ordinary way of things, not something that necessarily even reflected God’s love. Pre-scientific societies resorted to such superstitious (magical) explanations and laced the explanations with whatever sociological or political meaning suited their purposes or needs. With modern scientific understandings of the created world how much more awe have theists and Christians for the complexity, intricacy, diversity and interlocking harmony of all things! In a similar way, I believe, that over the centuries as Christians have wondered far from Jesus’ pacifism they have wondered into superstition and magical thinking in their theology, especially in their soteriology.
CBT and transformation
I was fortunate to work in the area of offender rehabilitation for 10 years during which I used Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Briefly, we know from practice wisdom that a person’s behaviour will change if their underlying core belief changes. For example, in sessions focused on changing group member’s domestic violence, “Bill” once told me the following example of his anger towards his intimate partner. He would get a call from his casual employer to take a vehicle from A to B asap. As he was suddenly thrown into a process of leaving the home to do the job, his partner would call out to him, “Bill, do you want me to make you lunch?” and “Are you remember to take your reading glasses?” This would make Bill angry and he would storm out, banging the front door behind him.
When I asked Bill why his partners question led him to become angry, he said it was because his partner was treating him like an imbecile. I asked Bill if he was sure that his partner’s questions came out of her thinking him an imbecile. He replied that he was because after four years of living together he knew her pretty well. Nevertheless, as we had been studying CBT in the session, I asked him to see if he could think of any other possibilities.
The following week he came in an exceptionally good mood. He said he’d had a really good week, largely because he hadn’t been angry with his partner. I asked whether he’d had any more job call outs and whether they had gone any differently. He said he had had a job call out and it had been very different. Although his partner had been the same, he had not been angry or aggressive toward her. I was curious as to how Bill could have achieved such a great change when his previous aggression toward her had brought him to my group. He said he had thought about the homework I had set him and he had realised that in her previous relationship she had cared for a man for 16 years, who drank heavily and then contracted cancer and died. He had wanted the woman to do everything for him and she had. She was, he concluded, a “fusser” by nature – she wasn’t trying to put him down at all, she didn’t think him an imbecile, she was just doing what she had done for her previous man – fussing. How did Bill feel about her being a fusser? He was surprised by the question – “Okay, fine”, he said with a shrug. “You don’t feel angry about it?” I said, trying to push home the lesson. “Nah!” he said,”why would I be angry? It’s just the way she is.” Later I heard from Bill how his father told him from childhood, and even on his death bed, that Bill would never amount to much and was a great disappointment.”
Bill greatly feared both that his father was right about him and that others often thought Bill stupid. Because of this belief, he often felt defensive and angry. Because of that belief and that feeling, he often gave in to temptation to be aggressive. Whilst “trying to control his temper” was difficult and often unsuccessful, changing his core belief in this instance was unexpectedly easy, yet amazingly effective.
Now apply this story to Christian transformation. Let Bill’s aggression toward his partner be an example of sinful behaviour. Let Bill’s initial negative belief (that his partner’s efforts to be helpful were evidence of her thinking him stupid) represent the unbeliever’s negative beliefs about God. Now, the idea that Bill’s partner only fussed about him because she was a ‘born fusser’ is to him “the good news“! When he believed this good news, it had the power to change him from the inside out. He no longer had to try, in vain, to control his temper. Instead, he felt affectionate towards his partner regardless of her funny ways and they had a much more harmonious week together than usual!
CBT is one of the most richly-evidenced and effect approaches to behaviour change in the secular world. It might seem to work “like magic” sometimes – but it is not magic. Rather, it works because it represents an insightful view about how human beings work – how human behaviour is governed by our cognitions. Having new or different cognitions inevitably result in new and different behavioural choices. And whilst it is just about impossible to change human behaviour at the level of behaviour, it is very possible for a human being to change their cognitions. Cognitions Change starts off as a matter of intellectual investigation but it ends as a decision. A decision is all it takes to change our cognitive orientation. Like wise Christian transformation through the Gospel involves both intellectual investigation and decision making – in fact a life long practice of both! i.e.
Christian transformation involves voluntary cognitive change.
I think having “believing the Kingdom of God is at hand” or having “faith in the name of Jesus” means choosing to think and make decisions as though the following is true:
that all the goodness we could ever wish for the universe is actually either already true or already and inevitably becoming true by the processes God has put in place and we ourselves are ready and able now to burst into a deep consciousness and changed life experience of that goodness! And most wonderful of all, the transcendent Creator wants a loving personal relationship with each and every one of us.
Faith is actually important in all relationships between persons. In fact, the relationships stand or fall on faith or doubt. To support loving and truthful intimacy – persons in relationship each need the other to choose to positive expectations & cognitions toward the other. What is true in human-human relationships also is true in human-God relationships. I believe that for God to be as fully known and loved by us as much possible, we need to come to trust Him in and with everything. Job says “though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” (Job 13:15). Job has very high expectations of God’s love and justice despite coming to realise God’s ways can include suffering for him. A kite cannot rise except for a wind against it; how can we learn great faith unless we have great reason to doubt? With such confidence in God, suffering can be emptied of it’s anxiety and narscissism leaving only pain which heals cleanly on the other side of trials and death. (“Pain is necessary, suffering optional.”) The world in general teaches us habits and thought forms of Doubt. To be taught habits and thought forms of faith we need to read the Scriptures – the “Word of His grace” – to strengthen our faith (Acts 20:32, Rom 10:17).
Law, Legalism & Behaviourism
After the fall, Adam and Eve did not think “Though God slay us, yet we will trust Him.” Actually, they no longer thought in terms of we except in opposition to others. Eve had made a unilateral decision to eat the fruit without Adam, and Adam made a unilateral decision to choose fellowship with Eve over fellowship with God. Both Adam & Eve knew the other was now ultimately “only in it for themselves” and both knew the other knew it. (Their eyes were opened to their own and each others shame and they wanted to cover up!)
I know neither Adam or Eve thought “Though God slay me, yet will will trust Him” because if they had they would have headed straight back into the garden, sword of God or no sword (see Gen 3:24). Of course God wants humanity to eat of the Tree of Life but He wants it to be very meaningful i.e. all about faith not just a simple matter of stretching out an arm (Gen 3:22)! But rather trusting God though He slay them, Adam & Eve, headed out to survive as long as they could on Earth outside of Eden. Not so Jesus, who died rather than miss out on the fellowship those who trust and obey have with the Father. And thus Jesus broke the curse of death and of the fear of death.
But what of the people who lived between Adam and Jesus? They all wanted to preserve their physical lives as long as possible – even if they had to kill. They wanted to keep their fear in abeyance and their pride and ego uppermost – even if they could only salvage it by bloody revenge on those who had violated their safety and confidence (more on this elsewhere). So ever since the fall, human have posed great potential danger to each other. This resulted a world of violence up to Noah (Gen 6:11). After the Flood, law was introduced as a result of God sharing His thoughts about how to manage murder – Gen 9:6.
So “Law” is how human societies minimise the danger from other human beings and keep a lid on the human potential for conflagration of violence. Recent history in Rwanda, Cambodia and other places have witnessed the violence that can be unleashed without a strong law, police and judiciary. I’m not saying this justifies Christians being in the armed forces. Nevertheless, if we lived in a world like before the Flood (no law and order except as provided by the strong for their small clan), we would all be so traumatised and fearful, we would not be able to think straight enough to come to faith in Christ. Chaos would reign – to an unimaginable degree.
So how does “Law” operate? It outlaws certain dangerous behaviours and prescribes punishments for breaches. Notice that what is outlawed are not thoughts or feelings – but only behaviours. This is completely logical since it is only behaviours that hurt others, never mere thoughts and feelings. But where do behaviours come from according to CBT logic? From thoughts and feelings. But we cannot regulate thoughts and feelings because they are internal to human beings. Only behaviours can be externally observed and objectively discussed.
This leads to a situation where the Law – and Mum, Dad, my extended family, my teachers at school and the Police officer say “Do not bear false testimony (lie)!” Me, not wanting to get into trouble, tries to make sure I don’t lie. But these instructions from others and myself are legalistic and behaviouristic – i.e. they don’t care a hoot about my thoughts and feelings behind wanting to lie. This can lead to a situation where in my thoughts and feelings I WANT to lie, even though I try to act like I don’t! See, although Law is a Guardian for human societies (Gal 3:24), it can’t ever make us good. We can try to be good via behavioural and legalistic means but we can never achieve it. We may not break the law, but it comes at such an effort we feel proud – all the while secretly wishing we could break the law. Alternatively, we secretly and fearfully break the law and either justify it or feel terribly ashamed. So neither can Law deliver us from our sinfulness.
As we have seen, what can deliver us from our sinfulness is any way-of-thinking that allows us to cognitively experiencing the world as completely positive. This is the Gospel. The change that happens as a result is so effortless that we cannot boast in anything save the Gospel itself and God’s grace in it all! We might have to strive to find such a Gospel, such a positive way of thinking and believing – but when we find an enter into such a Gospel, it is God’s ultimate rest for us! (Heb 4:8-11; Matt 11:28-30)
God “reckoning our faith as righteousness”
(not to be confused with orthodoxy’s IR)
Something that is a part of “justification by faith” and which happens as when we believe is that God “reckons our faith to us as righteousness” – but this is not the “imputed righteousness” that Martin Luther preached. Imputed righteousness is fictitious righteousness that poor miserable (Lutheran & other Evangelical) confused-believer-sinners can latch onto to soothe their misery over their continued sinfulness. But at the end of the comfort, they are still confused believer-sinners and still pretty miserable. They can say “Lord, Lord” but if they are not doing what Jesus says, their house will fall with a crash as often as not as temptation comes around (prompting more confusion and ‘doubts about their salvation’ in them).
James acknowledged that salvation is by faith – but made the strong point that faith that does not result in loving action is sterile and is not really Biblical faith at all. Far from saying that faith is irrelevant and only works count, he says “show me anyone who really does righteousness and I guarantee that person is a person of (Biblical/true) faith” (my paraphrase of Jas 2:8).
The Lutheran/evangelical concept of “imputed righteousness” misunderstands what it means that God reckons/credits/attributes/imputes our faith as righteousness. The key issue is does God deal in fiction or truths? If God had said “let there be light” and the universe had remained dark then He would be dealing in fiction. But because God deals only in truth, there was light! Well, it was this God who has shone in our hearts – so how could a heart in which God has shined stay dark? Stay selfish? Covetous? Idolatrous? Unloving? It can’t. Real conversion happens when a person decides to personally believe (read “afford prime truth status to”) the fact that Jesus is God in the flesh, full of grace and truth. “Affording prime truth status to” (i.e. ‘believing’) means that all their conclusions and decisions are now influenced by this belief. Because this is such a dramatic change from what they previously gave “prime truth status” to, suddenly they are coming up with lots completely different conclusions and decisions. i.e. Suddenly others notice that there is a ‘new person’ who acts differently, speaks differently and seems to be genuinely thinking differently. (It’s because they are believing differently!)
These outwards signs are not themselves “righteousness” but only the outward signs of a really good person. The believer’s fundamental goodness is the source of their loving and courageous actions. The source of all human beings actions, whether good or bad, is their core beliefs. The fundamental difference between a “good person” and a “bad person” (in very simplistic terms to make the point) is that they have different core beliefs. The good person has “good” (loving) core beliefs and so makes positive evaluations and loving decisions. The bad person has “bad” (hating) core beliefs and makes negative, hateful decisions. Of course, in practice we all have a mixture of positive and negative (Christlike and unChristlike) core-beliefs. At conversion, however, the believer adopts Jesus’ teachings about God as their own prime truth, to affect their everyday deliberations and decision-making and that new believer is full of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness & self-control.
So we see that faith in God results in real righteousness! God gives us new hearts and new minds by shining into them the light of the Gospel of the glory of God – in the face of Jesus Christ. We suddenly saw and experienced the Kingdom of God at hand! … that every good thing we could wish for the Universe was, as far as we could tell, already true!
Wages are not reckoned as a gift but as the labourer’s due, says Paul in Rom 4:4. Well, why are they “reckoned” as the labourer’s due? Because while the labourer is still working, it is not pay time yet. The labourer can’t spend his pay until he has finished the day’s work. In Matthew 20, in Jesus’ parable of the generous vineyard owner, the employer pays the wages at the end of the day, to some labourers who have reckoning their pay to be more than the owner has reckoned it (v8). In our times, we might only get paid fortnightly or monthly – and so the number of hours we work is recorded so that the amount of pay we are due can be reckoned. Reckoning is required because of the gap in time between the action (work) and the consequence (payment).
In Christian transformation, the action is our believing (which is the work of God – Joh 6:29) and the consequence is our being proven righteous (outwardly). Now, because God looks on the heart, doesn’t have to wait for outward proof – He knows the moment we believe the Good News and are transformed! Not so human beings – there is a time lag between when a person believes God and when they are observed to have changed.
In my own conversion, I had no awareness that I had really been changed until about two weeks afterwards. I now believe I was transformed (‘made righteous’ i.e. justified) the instant I believed the Gospel – but not even I knew it to be a reality for two weeks. It may have taken my non-Christian family, friends and casual acquaintances much longer to believe I had really been changed. This is because human beings must rely on behavioural indications and, of course, human beings from a young age can choose to act good when people are watching in order to be thought good…. So other people would actually have needed to see me consistently be loving and joyful under pressure and over a considerable length of time before they could believe that, somehow, I had really been changed by the conversion experience I professed.
When the Scriptures say God “reckoned” Abraham’s faith as real righteousness (from the moment Abram believed) He is pointing us away from our legalistic and behavioural definitions of personal righteousness. God is, I believe, assisting us to appreciate that transformation and righteousness are a thing of the heart and are able to change instantly and easily if we only trust that He is real and gracious – and not the demanding, selfish or cruel God humanity has so often secretly or openly supposed Him to be.
Justification vs Sanctification
In New Testament Greek, the verb form of the noun “righeousness” is not translated into the English as “righteous-ify” (meaning to make righteous) because there is no such word in the English language. Instead the word used is “justify” i.e. to “justify” means to make righteous. When God “justifies” a person, He makes that person “righteous”. “Righteousness” refers to all that a human being should be: loving, joyous, etc. As has been hinted “justification” is not something that happens just once to a believer. Rather, it is something that can only continue as believers continue in true faith in the Gracious God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Believers, especially given all this Constantinian heresy going around the Church, fall back into thinking badly of God again and again; and walking around in the world doesn’t help. At these times we don’t need a bath, just a foot wash (John 13:10). We don’t need reconversion but we need a renewal of our faith in God. Sometimes we can go long years between renewals of our faith – how sad!
The book of Genesis seems to illustrate this from the life of Abraham also. Whne Abraham believed God, he was, I believe, instantly changed from being a sneaky, cowardly man to one who could dare to even question God when He is on a mission of judgement, so as to save others (Gen 18:17f). But when Abraham forgot to walk by faith, his sneaky & cowardly distrusting ‘side’ re-emerged (e.g. Gen 20:1-13). After all, the particular neural connections in Abraham’s brain, formed by biology and biography and which gave rise to his cowardice, were still there, being reiterated and kept operational by times of lapses back into unbelief.
This, I think, is how it is with all believers – we are only righteous for as long as we are “abiding in the vine (Christ)” by faith (John 15:5). When I do abide in Christ by faith, my righteousness is not fictional but real, not imputed but actual! Then I am able to “do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13) because “I am living in faith that is of the Son of God!” (Gal 2:20). It’s our faith (expressed in brave and selfless deeds) that overcomes the world (1 John 5:4) (and its resignation, cynicism & opposition).
Occasionally, things in our lives will ‘make our tree bad’ – anything that causes us to lose our faith in His beneficence is likely to make us feel bad (e.g. guilt, fear, resentment, shame) and act bad. All such feelings and actions flow from negative BELIEFS taking hold of our thinking and decision-making – BELIEFS that God and/or others are looking to punish, traumatise, deprive or humiliate us. (The Bible doesn’t call these negative beliefs “negative faith”. Rather, by “faith” the Bible most often means the correct, positive belief that God is very good in all His ways – full of love, grace, kindness, patience, etc.) The new or immature Christian will still fall for all sorts of nasty beliefs that undermine faith in God’s goodness. The nasty beliefs I’ve been dealing with here include the belief that on becoming a Christian all we get is notional righteousness, plus the other five Constantinian heresies I am highlighting in this website, which are based on and reinforce very negative stereotypes of God. If you’ve never met a Christian who is very Christlike, perhaps the Christians you know don’t have very pure “faith”. Chances are, they (and you) believe many of the six Constantinian stereotypes of God prevalent in modern Christian orthodoxy.
It’s been said and I think it’s true that we all become more and more like that which we worship – and we all worship whatever is our own idea of goodness. If I think Hitler is good, and I act on that belief in worship, I’ll become like Hitler – a ‘Neo-Nazi’. Now, to a Neo-Nazi, it is obviously “good” to be a Neo-Nazi – unless and until they have a revelation of what monsters Neo-Nazi’s really are. The revelation will show them the contrast contrast between, on one hand, themselves as they conceive themselves to be and, on the other hand, real goodness and how God has conceived them (i.e. as they really are below their machinations). See 5-things-i-learned-as-neo-nazi for a good example of this revelation.
Likewise, the revelation of the Gospel can convict all sorts of people – including both ‘Christian’ and nonChristian non-pacifists. In each case, what is needed is a glimpse of real human goodness – and that is what Jesus gives us to the maximum degree. When we see His graciousness to the needy and hurting & His willingness to unveil evil principles in high places at great personal cost – and when we understand that both proceed from His faith in His o-so-good Father – then we can start to share in Jesus’ faith. When we are living in the faith we get from Jesus, then it is no longer us who live but Christ who lives in us (Gal 2:20). And we “with unveiled faces, beholding the glory of the Lord” are ourselves changed into His likeness “from one degree of glory to another.” The test of whether the faith we think we have from Jesus really does come from Him is how we act. Remember “you shall know them by their fruits” and “every student will be like their teacher.”
A young Christian may have a ‘honeymoon period’ in which they believe the best about the Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Then they start to have questions, for example, about their own sinfulness. Constantinian guides will redress the convert’s “overly rosie-eyed” view of God. No-one says that is what is happening when Constantinian orthodoxy concerning sin, wrath, hell, atonement and imputed righteousness etc are insisted upon but I think that’s probably what does happen – resulting in the end of the honeymoon period (just as unspoken &/or unresolved doubts between human newly-weds spell the end of their honeymoon period). It may be that the very Christians God uses to bring a new convert to Himself, actually go on to establish in that new convert evil things about God. And so the enthusiasm of first faith is diminished in quality, the first love is lost, and the convert becomes spiritually dry like the others.
If the new convert perseveres for a decade they will likely have decided there are some things the Church says that they are not sure about or outright don’t believe. Give them a few more decades and, hopefully, they are getting better and better at picking the difference between the evil that is said about God from the good. Many sensitive souls seem to give up on doctrinal details and stick with the generalisation “God is love.” But we all need both grace and truth. Law came through Moses and a thousand of our teachers; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. So let us earnestly seek to believe what He believed.
As mature Christians understand better their times of dryness and refreshment, they get more sanctified which, I think, is simply the process of learning over time how to spend more and more time in the Spirit, abiding in Christ, and living ‘the Jesus-life’ in more and more of life’s adventures and challenges. The mature (more ‘sanctified’) Christian is no better in Christ or worse out of Christ than they were when they first believed. The difference is only that the mature, sanctified Christian knows how to more consistently abide in Christ despite all the forces against that abiding, forces both internal and external. To resume abiding in Christ requires the same process as when the person first believed – it’s about becoming a ‘good human being’ (fully alive, filled with joy and compassion) by being transformed by believing (giving truth status to) the goodness of God as revealed in Jesus and naturally becoming like Him.
and we all, with unvailed face, the glory of the Lord beholding in a mirror, to the same image are being transformed, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.
(2Co 3:18 Young’s Literal Translation)