Sunday, November 18, 2007

Righteous by faith: imputation and God's righteousness

Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. (Romans 4:3, among other places)
There is a theory of our righteousness before God that is called "imputed righteousness." That terminology comes from Romans 4 in the AV (King James) translation, where God "imputeth righteousness without works" (Romans 6:6 AV). How exactly we should understand that has become a matter of some discussion over the ages, and currently again in the latest round of atonement debates.

Peter Kirk recently wrote,
Meanwhile, the view that I am working towards is a rejection of the “Reformed” idea that Christians remain sinners in actual fact but are nevertheless, by a legal fiction, counted as righteous in Christ. (Emphasis added. H/T Henry Neufeld.)
"Imputed righteousness" is often described as -- or thought of as -- a legal fiction. The weight of the argument is sometimes even rested on the word "imputed" as if that word meant an inaccurate accounting, a bookkeeping entry without basis in fact. However, a study of that word shows that the normal meaning is making an accurate accounting, not an inaccurate accounting.

I wouldn't for a moment dispute that, on the bookkeeping analogy, God does some very generous bookkeeping in our favor. "Forgive us our debts" presents itself to my mind as the most obvious example. Still, it is not quite a perfect analogy for a view that imputation is a legal fiction, because forgiving our debts is not a legal fiction; once the debts are off the books they are gone for all intents and purposes.

The question becomes, then, when we are counted righteous by faith, whether this is a legal fiction (imputing against reality) or whether there is any reality to being righteous by faith, any real righteousness involved. A number of questions arise in light of Paul's teachings in Romans 4 and in light of some of the subsequent debates on the topic:
  • Is faith righteous?
  • Is being accounted righteous by faith a gift? Is it gracious?
  • Is being counted righteous by faith merited or unmerited?
  • Do we merit the attainment of eternal life?
  • Are we righteous in and of ourselves?
The following are my thoughts on this.

There is no such thing as being righteous "in and of ourselves." That is the mistake of Eden, seeking a right status in and of ourselves instead of with God. Righteousness then primarily means being right with God. As I mentioned in a previous post, the pivotal event in humanity's fall from grace was distrusting God. Righteousness before God is trusting God, and from trusting God it follows that we will trust his ways and keep his word.

So I would argue that faith is righteous, not by legal fiction but by the inherent nature of things. This leads straight to the question of whether faith should be credited to us as if it were merit on our part. If we take this same view of faith -- not changing to another view of faith but maintaining the same view of faith as trusting God to keep his word -- then such faith is not any credit to us, since we do not create such faith. Neither can anything create this kind of faith in God except for the knowledge of God's faithfulness. That is to say that God is faithful, and when we realize this it is called by the name "faith." Here "faith" cannot mean mere belief in the existence of God, which is a faith no greater than the demons possess. But we mean knowing God as trustworthy and faithful, as the one who keeps his promises and fulfills his covenant.

From this it follows that while faith merits nothing, it is still genuinely righteous. Through that faith we are again put right with God, not because faith was meritorious, but because God had reconciled the world to himself through Christ, not counting our sins against us, and we were implored to be reconciled to God. Faith is the human side of reconciliation with God: a confession of faith is a confession of God's faithfulness. Those who are genuinely righteous, then, are not preoccupied with merit of their own, since they trust God who justifies sinners. Instead, by faith, they seek after the things of God: to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God.

On this view, faith is genuinely righteous. But it is a misunderstanding of both faith and righteousness to think of faith as our faith as if it did not depend wholly on God's faithfulness, or to think of the righteousness of faith as our righteousness as if it consisted of something other than trust in God, the recognition of God's righteousness, God's mercy, and God's love.

We do not, then, merit the attainment of eternal life as if it were by works (however assisted) or as if it were an obligation of God's to us based on our works, that he must award eternal life simply to satisfy justice. Eternal life is a gift, one whose source is the overflowing generosity and joyful charity of God towards his children. No human act could ever earn eternal life. Nothing within our power could obligate God as a matter of justice to grant us an eternal reward. It is his faithfulness and love, it is his grace, which says to us that he will raise us from the dead. It is his everlasting love which is the source of his promise of everlasting life. It is his great mercy which speaks to us of the forgiveness of our sins, which are many and great.

Abraham was fully persuaded that what God promised, God was able to do. Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.


Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Sometimes people ask the wrong questions, ya know?

Like whether there can be any righteousness apart from God. The question could not even arise if one understood righteousness correctly -- as right relationship with God. You can't have that without God!

Or, if I am righteous, whose righteousness is it -- mine by imputation, or Christ's? Well, it's OURS, if righteousness is right *relationship with Him*. Put another way, insofar as I am united with Christ, the question makes no sense. (Obviously it was His originally; He is the only Source of it.)

Or, can there by any righteousness apart from faith? But "faith" is precisely the name we give to a right relationship with God; i.e., to righteousness, so again, it's like asking you can have a cat which isn't a cat.

Can there by faith without works? Not if faith is right relationship with God, not if faith is righteousness. "Be not deceived," the holy Apostle says, "He who DOES righteousness is righteous."

Can there be any such thing as "salvation" which saves us only from the *consequences* of our sins, but not from continuing to be sinners? Naw.


P.S. We're all waiting to hear how it went with the JWs!

Weekend Fisher said...

About asking the right questions -- yah, don't even get me started on the Calvinist/Arminian debate. They're very fond of telling me that Calvinism and Arminianism are the only two answers to that particular question. But "Have you stopped beating your wife?" likewise only has two answers; it's just that's not enough to make it a good question.

I'll write about the JW's visit soon, I just wanted to put up something edifying between-times and not become "JW debate central." You may've noticed that I have my own personal JW blog-watcher now ...

Take care & God bless

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Just to let you know, Anne, I've referenced this post (and quoted briefly from it) on my blog.

No, I'm not sure I know what you mean by having your own JW blog watcher now!


Peter Kirk said...

Thanks for your discussion of my point about legal fiction.

In response I would say that there is a confusion here between two rather different images of the result of sin. The image which I was working with, because that is the favoured image of the people I was responding to, is that of the law court. This seems to be the image Paul is using in Romans 3:21-26, although maybe that is debatable. On this image, someone who commits a sin is guilty in law and deserves punishment. If they are not punished, and if someone else is punished in their place, that is either an injustice or a legal fiction.

But in Romans 4, specifically in verse 4, Paul shifts to the image of a financial account, and it is this image you are working with. On this image, the result of a sin is a debt, which must be paid. This is also the image Jesus used in the Lord's Prayer, Matthew 6:12, where the sins are literally debts; similarly in several of his parables where debts symbolise sin. And on this image it is quite possible for one Person to pay the debts of others; this is not a legal fiction but proper accounting for a free gift, grace.

Perhaps the implication of this is that we should describe the atonement less with legal imagery but more in accounting terms. But we need to remember that both are imperfect images or models of the underlying spiritual truth.

But a responsible human benefactor will not pay off someone's debts and then allow them to continue to go into debt while continuing to pay off those debts. Instead the benefactor will find ways for the former debtor to live within their means, to avoid going into debt again. Similarly God in Jesus pays off our debts of sin, and also provides the means for us to live a debt-free life in future - while recognising that we will not be able to do so perfectly and may need help again.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

Thanks for stopping by.

I think, in Scripture, the line between legal and accounting language is not absolute. In some of the teachings where debt is a stand-in for sin, we see the debt as the basis of a legal consequence such as imprisonment (e.g. Matt 18:34). With our modern legal landscape no one is put in prison or sold into slavery for debt, but those have been commonplaces in human history; accounting debt was a form of criminal liability. I think that's why Paul so easily transitions from what we see as legal language to what we see as accounting language.

I expect we have some differences behind your phrase "the means to live a debt-free life in the future". By that I would mean trusting God and the life built on that trust.

At any rate, my point was that when we are "accounted righteous," it is not merely on the basis of a debtor's analogy either. While I agree with the "accounting of grace" erasing our debts, there is still the righteousness of faith. I.e. it is not merely a book entry which corresponds to nothing other than the removal of the debt on the books. It also is an accurate accounting of the new state of the real world, where righteousness before God is acknowledging *his* righteousness, i.e., is faith. This may be a debtor's righteousness, but as creatures there never was any other kind available to us.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Anne. I suppose the distinction I am trying to make is between criminal and civil law. Debts etc are a matter of civil law, and it is just to set free an imprisoned debtor by paying the debt. But many people describe sin as if it is a matter of criminal law - but it is unjust and corrupt to set free an imprisoned criminal by paying cash. But then I wonder, how far is this distinction between civil and criminal law a modern one? I don't know.

I would agree with you that "the means to live a debt-free life in the future" is "trusting God and the life built on that trust". Also "righteousness before God is acknowledging *his* righteousness, i.e., is faith" is a good way of expressing this.

Annette said...

Good post. I learned something. :)

K.R. Miller said...

Great thread, why is it a year old?

As a "commoner" in theological study, may I make two small points?

1. If you consider sin as "separateness" or "separation" from God (its there as one of the nuances in the greek), and read "righteous" or "righteousness" as "as you ought to be" (also an available nuance) then "righteous by faith" equates to "... 'as you ought to be' by faith" as opposed to your not "being as you ought to be" in sin.

If this is a valid construct then God "imputes" to you the condition of being "as you ought to be" when you surrender your self in faith". Which brings me to point 2:

2. "Faith without works is dead" - or - "faith without resulting actions motivated by that faith does not exist" means that faith includes two components: belief - which even the devils have, and an action taken in risk because of that belief.

My personal definition of "faith" is "a risky action taken based on a belief developed by a trust from prior experience with that action" ( I, in faith, take the risky action of driving my car based on trusting the experience of having arrived safely at my destination in the past). We are told God "wooes" us long before we know who He is or accept Him. I believe when we come to the conscious acceptance of - and surrender to - Him it is a risk-filled action taken based on prior contact with Him - self-acknowledged or not.

So, I would offer that God "treats us as if we are as we ought to be with Him when we take the risk-filled action of surrendering to Him".