The Reformed Christian Solution
This blog series has attempted to explore the proper place of righteousness in our Christian lives and the secular culture. Central to this discussion is how our motives impact the outward manifestation of righteousness. Is our intent to place ourselves above someone else? Or, do we seek to advance healing and wholeness in this fallen world? Do we usurp God’s role as the only true judge, or, do we testify to His redeeming love through the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
We touched on other important issues including the purpose and use of Biblical standards of righteousness, calibration of our responses to the people and situations that call for judgement and the unavoidable conflicts that will occur as we live out our faith.
Not surprisingly my mind turns to the central theological doctrine of justification through faith alone as the lens through which to understand Christian righteousness. I’ve become convinced that this doctrine’s diminution is central to much that vexes the modern church. This is particularly relevant to the misunderstanding of righteousness that can lead to a judgmental Christianity. Following are some brief thoughts as to why.
To begin, just what is this doctrine? Though there are many statements from which to choose, I’ll go with John Calvin’s (emphasis added).
Scripture, when it treats of justification by faith, leads us in a very different direction. Turning away our view from our own works, it bids us look only to the mercy of God and the perfection of Christ. … when, by the intercession of Christ, he [the fallen human] obtains the pardon of his sins, and is justified; and, though renewed by the Spirit of God, considers that, instead of leaning on his own works, he must look solely to the righteousness which is treasured up for him in Christ.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (3.11.16)
The most powerful contemporary doctrine of justification in the modern Western church is often called “Semi-Pelagianism” (another related term is “Arminianism”). R.C. Sproul explains this doctrine as follows in “The Pelagian Captivity of the Church” (yes, this is a repeat, but it’s essential to this discussion, emphasis added).
Semi-Pelagianism said this: … While we are so fallen that we can’t be saved without grace, we are not so fallen that we don’t have the ability to accept or reject the grace when it’s offered to us. … There remains in the core of our being an island of righteousness that remains untouched by the fall. It’s out of that little island of righteousness, that little parcel of goodness that is still intact in the soul or in the will that is the determinative difference between heaven and hell. It’s that little island that must be exercised when God does his thousand steps of reaching out to us, but in the final analysis it’s that one step that we take that determines whether we go to heaven or hell — whether we exercise that little righteousness that is in the core of our being or whether we don’t.
You won’t be surprised to hear that I joyfully accept justification by faith alone and reject Semi-Pelagianism / Arminianism. There’s so much that could be said, but I’ll focus on some implications for self-righteous Christianity.
If we believe that our salvation depends on having, or not, that sufficient “island of righteousness” on which all depends, then it becomes a matter of the utmost importance to find it within ourselves. The tragic truth is that we most often seek to prove its existence by comparison with others. This makes sense, since the island’s presence should manifest itself in our visible actions, and, the larger is this island the more likely that it can be found to be sufficient for our salvation. So, off we go, quietly or openly comparing ourselves to others. If we can find someone “worse” than ourselves then we feel a bit more confident. However, if we find someone else “better” we begin to wonder if our island is indeed sufficient. We also often begin to examine this “better” person with great interest, looking for faults and failings that might “bring them down a notch.”
This dynamic leads to destructive competition between Christians, a sense of superiority over non-Christians and a narcissistic focus on ourselves. It also leads to habitual acts of petty, self-serving judgement, as we seek prove righteousness in ourselves and its lack in others.
However, justification by grace alone frees us from all this. Our focus shifts from morbid scrutiny of ourselves and others to the wondrous love of God. By trusting fully in God’s grace, we find in ourselves the desire to obey and serve Him. We also can live in confidence that God’s sovereign grace to us cannot be thwarted or removed.
It’s a terrible blow to our pride to confess that no “island of righteousness” exists in ourself. However, in my experience, justification by faith alone is both joyful and freeing. I am no longer bound to others through competition, but rather can hope for God’s grace to all. When I fail and falter, I need not fear for my eternal fate, but can trust that God will complete His good work in me.
Finally, I’m well aware that the above comments may cause discomfort to my brothers and sisters in Christ who hold Semi-Pelagian / Arminian views. My expectation is not that you must agree with my point of view. Rather, I simply ask that you read, consider, pray and contemplate. You must judge for yourself if this is an accurate statement of Scripture’s teaching. If you disagree, then let’s continue the discussion in good will and trust.
For, I stand squarely with Charles Spurgeon:
I believe there are multitudes of men who cannot see these truths, or, at least, cannot see them in the way in which we put them, who nevertheless have received Christ as their Saviour, and are as dear to the heart of the God of grace as the soundest Calvinist in or out of Heaven.
This is the understanding of righteousness that, if reclaimed by the Church and compellingly communicated to our society, can free us from self-righteousness that is driving our nation towards dissolution.