…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 (from 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?
There are a number of problems with the doctrine of imputed righteousness (IR), including:
1. IR reassures believers in Christ 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.) IR (Imputed Righteousness) provides a kind of counter-balance to the heinous belief that God is capable of, and fully intends to, keep some (and perhaps a majority) of human beings in torment for eternity to satisfy His own need for holiness. 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 actual love, joy, peace, justice & good works.
2. The label “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 – not the same thing at all.
4. 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. Has earnest striving any place in the Christian life? Yes – “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 over the course of the last 1700 years and still 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 that forgiveness is freely given by God upon repentance (no indulgences to pay) is an example of a person of conscience prompting a different reading of Scripture. However, later in life with IR under his belt, Luther activlye encouraged the slaughter tens of thousands of European peasants seeking better living conditions. (Also see Dominic Erzodain’s excellent “The Soul of Doubt” for his analysis of the change in Luther’s doctrinal emphasis over time.)
6. IR 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 otherwise don’t worry too much 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; with IR etc compassionate Evangelicals have little or nothing to offer in place Calvinism.)
- 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 (John 14:11) and a good life (John 10:38) were considered to be outside the accepted definition of “Messiah” or even “godly Jew” by those who murdered Him.
- 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 and wouldn’t follow and obey His teaching in regard to their future actions, behaviour and lifestyle. 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. He makes no explicit mention of faith at all – only of obedience.
Many other times, Jesus focuses on what a person does, without any 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. Yes, He also taught on the importance of faith – so faith and obedience are both important; not faith alone if that faith is only talk that doesn’t result in obedience.
Jesus taught that the association between heart-felt faith and actual obedience and goodness 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)
The righteousness that Jesus’ brings to the life of a believer is a righteousness of both heart and action/life/deeds – for 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 a bad tree (one incapable of producing good fruit) into a good one (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.” But how do we “make” a tree good or bad? I can think of two ways. One way is to change one’s opinion or definition about what constitutes good (or bad) fruit. e.g. the Pharisees opinion of Jesus was that He was a bad tree and His fruit was bad (even if it appeared good). However, the Pharisee called Saul (later Paul) changed his mind about Jesus – Saul “made the bad tree good” in his 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, renamed Paul.
“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 actual righteousness to us.
What is the Good News that Jesus preached? It was that “the kingdom of God is at hand.” How is this “good news”? I suggest 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 Jesus tells us how to change our minds – namely, “believe the good news.” What good news? The good news of the Kingdom of God, in particular that it is “near.” Previously, we have NOT believed the Kingdom of God is near and we have been living in (bad) ways that naturally emerge from that unbelief.
Of course, human beings naturally want to be happy, want to have the love and respect of other people and want to 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 these seemingly basic 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” or 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 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 either hasn’t really understood or hasn’t believed it. Neither of which is surprising, which is why we need to see it the change in people we know or encounter Jesus somehow. Otherwise this Good News seems too naive rosy to be true.
Our lives before meeting Jesus contradicts that God is love. We’ve grown up in families and in a world where there is a profound distrust of God! Even the Church has widely 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. Plus, when repeatedly traumatised or let down by others, we prefer to retain as much personal control as possible. For whatever reasons, Jesus of Nazareth was generally appalled by Humanity’s lack of faith.
Yet with God nothing is impossible. Sinners do come to hope that God may indeed be near and do call on God and experience His loving Spirit. 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 of mind that results in outer change in behaviour. For example, the new convert loses their shame and fear of being a failure. Relaxing in faith in Jesus’ promise of transformation, they acknowlege their sins and inabilities before God, including not being genuinely loving. Freed from anxiety around being exposed as a fake and as a sinner, they will come alive to the wonder of the glory of the Creation, especially their fellow human beings. And all of this will free them to let go of vain hopes, goals and priorities and live in the moment – enjoying others and acting in their interest, joyful in a sense of God’s nearness. First a person believes God is near, which results in them experiencing the truth of it.
One way or another, change at the level of belief results in change at the level of action. Notice, too, the natural process here. Faith naturally results in changes in character and behaviour since behaviour does come out of our cognitions. By “cognitions” I mean all mental processes mediated by language. One’s worldview or “core beliefs” determine our values and priorities and even our perceptions and interpretations.
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. In the times he believed this fear, he felt defensive and angry. With this belief, he had difficulty manageing his temper – but changing his core belief in this instance occurred quite suddenly and was 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. It’s just he natural way God has made us human beings operate. 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.
Cognitive change starts off as a matter of intellectual investigation and ends up as a decision. A decision is all it takes to change our cognitive orientation. Likewise Christian transformation through the Gospel involves both intellectual investigation and decision making – in fact a life long practice of both.
“Believing the Kingdom of God is at hand” or having “faith in the name of Jesus” results in and means choosing to think and live 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. For God to be known and loved by us as much as 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.
As 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
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!
We call this faith but it also has a knowedge aspect. This is knowing by faith that God’s universe is bountious and magnificent. It is this faith – or we could say, this absence of unbelief and ignorance of the true nature of the created universe – that allows us to experience all that goodness. Experiencing God’s reality internally results in us expressing God’s goodness externally. We expresss God’s love and joy by loving and joyful action. But loving in action is not righteousness. It is the result of righteousness. Faith in God is righteousness. And whatever is not of faith is sin – Rom 14:23.
Consider a loving action. Choose anything you want. Could not someone do this action with selfish motivation, only pretending to do it out of love? Yes they could. The action is not the love. The motivation is the love. The motivation flows when people believe in God and His love. Humanity only functions as God designed us to when we live in God, trusting and believing in God and His goodness. Faith is righteousness.
We can see people actions and perceive their facial expressions and words but we can’t so apprehend another’s faith – or even our own. We can count on it though. We can reckon. God especially can see the birth of righteousness (faith in Himself) in a person. He saw Abraham’s faith and counted it as righteousness because it WAS righteousness. Even Abram’s wife Sarai could not see the righteousness birthed in Abram when he believe God’s word to Him (although she probably noticed its effects first after Abram himself).
Besides there was no-one there to record how Abraham’s character and actions changed as a result of him believing in God’s grace to him. So God tells us the most important part that we need to learn from – not that Abraham did good deeds and so became righteous but that Abraham believed God and so became righteous. For this is the only way any human being becomes righteous. They may call God by other names, they may never have heard of Jesus Christ; but they believe in God’s grace. After they believe – really, deeply believe (more than what can be born of flesh) – then the change shows up in their face, words, character and deeds. Other people notice then – and they may say s/he is a really good, kind person, etc. They describe the outward signs. Others might try to do similar actions, etc in order to be a good person and be liked. But they will not succeed. Righteousness is not essentially a matter of trying to shape our own behaviour – its about what we believe – about ourselves and about life and in the end, what we believe about God.
So we should listen to what Jesus says about us, about life and about God – the words He spoke are still full of Spirit and Life for us (John 6:63).
The whole confusion about “imputed” righteousness is, in my view, a mistranslation of a word Paul uses to convey this idea of living in faith such that the faith affects your values, interpretations and decisions – logizomai. It is translated as “reckon” “count”, suppose, reason. Paul uses this word 19 times in his letter to the Romans, 11 of those times in chapter 4. He uses if to communicate both how human beings should reckon certain things as true. He also uses it communicate in chapter 4 how God reckons a certain thing as true, especially that God reckoned Abraham’s faith as righteousness (Rom 4:3; Rom 4:4; Rom 4:5; Rom 4:6; Rom 4:9; Rom 4:10; Rom 4:11; Rom 4:22; Rom 4:3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 19, 11, 22, 23, 24.)
The Doctrine of Imputed Righteousness says God thinks about and acts toward Abraham as though Abraham is righteousness – even while actually and objectively Abraham, or at least his actions, are not righteous. It’s getting close to teaching that God is dealing in fiction or at least substitution where mere faith substitutes for behavioural righteousness.
But the whole point of “reckoning” is to believe what actually is truth. We need to reckon that what God says about Himself and us is true. If God reckons Abraham is righteous by faith then this in not in any way fictional righteousness but actual righteousness. In the next section, I look at how this can be so.
Wages are not reckoned as a gift but as the labourer’s due, says Paul in Rom 4:4. Why are they “reckoned” as the labourer’s due? Because they really are due to the labourer; this is not a fiction nor it is kindness to the labourer. But why reckon at all? If the day’s work was done, the labourer would be paid; having been paid he would no longer be owed and he could display his money to anyone he wish to see it.
Say the labourer was broke before his day started. Say we speak to the labourer at lunch time on the first work day of the week. He’s not been paid any of his wage yet – but he is already owed three hours of pay. It’s not obvious to us that he is so owed – there is no visible sign that he has has accrued this money. But the employer knows, and the labourer probably does too more or less.
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)