Thursday, April 11, 2013

The fatal flaw in works righteousness

There are people who think works righteousness is impossible because our souls just aren't that pure. There are people who think works righteousness is a bad goal because it takes the focus off of God and his goodness. Then there are those who don't apologize but set their goal as working toward their own righteousness. If we are going to do anything at all, surely we should do good things. So shouldn't our own righteousness be exactly what we're working for? Is there actually anything wrong with setting our highest goal as working towards our own righteousness?

Yes, actually, there is -- if you'll bear with me, I'll explain where I see a contradiction, a fatal flaw in the premise there.

For a Christian, righteousness is not something we define, but something God defines. That is to say, we do not pick our own goal and call that "righteousness". For those who acknowledge God, we allow God to name our goal. Paul sums it up like this: what counts is "faith which works by love" (Galatians 5:6). Jesus said that the highest laws, the most important commands, were the commands to love God and neighbor. His famous saying "Be perfect" was said about loving not only our neighbor but even our enemy. So for a Christian, righteousness is all about love, and works of love: it is all about others.

If our highest goal is attaining our own perfection or sanctification, then it is about ourselves, not about others. We will never reach God's goal by pursuing our own separate goal, one that is different from it, one that sets us on a different path in a different direction. We may do similar things -- help the poor, for example -- but if our goal is our own righteousness, then love is sabotaged by that self-seeking goal. It hardly matters whether we reach our goal, if our own goal is not God's goal for us.

Pursuing our personal righteousness risks turning religion into a self-help program, and God into little more than our personal trainer. Where is the neighbor we're supposed to love? (Has he become nothing but a means to improve our own righteousness?) If someone has too little work in loving their family and their neighbor, let them try to love their enemy.

It's easy to get confused about striving to be good. What goal is "good"? Are we trying to be perfect to be seen by men? We have our reward in full. It is not much better to want to be perfect just for ourselves; it's still a self-centered goal. Or do we want be good -- and become better -- so that we help our neighbor, and so that our lights can shine and glorify God? The focus is not so much on ourselves. There is nothing wrong with striving to be good for the sake of God and neighbor. The closer we come to God's goal, the less I'd expect us to think of ourselves and our own perfection, and the more I'd expect us to look to others and their well-being. In that case we will set our hearts on loving God and others, and act accordingly.

I could have easily titled this "Another fatal flaw in works righteousness", and there are more that I haven't mentioned here. But there is a time for focus, and that seemed best.

1 comment:

Martin LaBar said...

"It hardly matters whether we reach our goal, if our own goal is not God's goal for us." True. Wow!