Are You Righteous (Yet)?


My friend Tullian Tchividjian has a message burning in his bosom, the leading edge of which is expressed in his recent re-post, Are You Righteous? It is a crucial message which liberates men and women from the hamster wheel of self righteousness. In Tullian’s words:

“There is nothing that sinners hate more than to be told that there’s nothing they can do, that everything has been taken out of their hands, that no matter how hard they try, their best is never good enough. And yet, we’ll never be free until we give up fighting for a righteousness we can claim as our own.”

One is hard-pressed to get closer to the beauty of gospel grace than this. As Paul states, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). This happens to be the verse with which Tullian begins his post and it is also the idea driving his final admonition: “The perfect righteousness of Christ has been freely credited to your bankrupt account forever (what theologians call ‘imputation’). The gospel is good news for those who have finally been crushed under the weight of trying to make ‘righteousness’ happen on their own.”

Speaking as a man who came to faith as an adult from a religious background which imposed a certain degree of injurious guilt, the doctrine of imputed righteousness is more than a centerpiece of theology; on a deeply personal and existential level, it is the life preserver that saves me from myself. In other words, I stand with Tullian in asserting that the gospel revolves around the doctrine of imputation. On account of it, we are considered sons and daughters of God. But as Paul demonstrates in Romans 8, the verdict of no condemnation naturally and necessarily leads one to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:1-4).

To highlight the Spirit’s role in justification is in no way to detract from the Reformer’s emphasis on “uncreated grace”—that humans are intrinsically sinful yet extrinsically righteous. Luther properly rejected the nominalistic covenantal soteriology of the via moderna which taught the church of his day to pursue justification by earnestly “doing what lies with you” (“facere quod in se est,” in the words of Gabriel Biel). But how does one know if he or she has in fact done enough to achieve sufficient merit to satisfy God’s justice and merit salvation? This conundrum constitutes the hamster’s wheel, which Tullian rightfully critiques. It was for Luther the darkness into which the light of imputation shined. But Luther takes a step further, one that Tullian’s post doesn’t.

According to Luther, Christ’s righteousness justifies sola fide (by faith alone) since only faith is capable of grasping Christ (fides apprehensiva). In his classic analogy, Luther likens faith to the clasp of a wedding ring, so through faith the Christian is united to Christ. This faith is not mere assent (assensus) to propositional truths; rather, it is a trusting (fiducia) faith that actively depends on God’s promises, including his promise to send his Spirit to bring internal renewal.

One implication of an active, trusting faith is that it naturally and necessarily issues forth in good works. To make this point, Luther explains:

“Faith, however, is a divine work in us which changes us and makes us to be born anew of God, John 1[:12-13]. It kills the old Adam and makes us altogether different men, in heart and spirit and mind and powers; and it brings with it the Holy Spirit. O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good works incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them. Whoever does not do such works, however, is an unbeliever. He gropes and looks around for faith and good works, but knows neither what faith is nor what good works are. Yet he talks and talks, with many words, about faith and good works.”[1]

These “works,” says Luther, justify the sinner before men (coram hominibus) and not before God (coram Deo), but they are no less necessary. He writes elsewhere, “First of all there is God’s word. After it follows faith; after faith, love; then love does every good work” (LW, 36:39). This sequence constitutes Luther’s theologia crucis (theology of the cross), a work of Christ’s righteousness that isn’t simply applied on behalf of the Christian; it is also performed in the Christian. While there is a proper distinction between justification (based on an alien righteousness and imputed forensically) and sanctification (imparted by the Spirit to effect internal renewal), it is nevertheless the same righteousness of Christ that accomplishes both. Thus, the cross applies for us (pro nobis) and in us (in nobis).

The purpose of this little Lutheran excursion is not to correct Tullian. Surely, he can’t be expected to say everything there is to say about justification and its implications for pastoral ministry in a single blog post. I am motivated, however, by a concern that I observe in the church at large. Simply put, very often people in our circles, those who regularly employ the phrase “Gospel-Centered,” fail to insist upon good works as an essential part of salvation. Scriptural admonitions such as “loving neighbor as self” or “diligently preserving the unity of the Spirit” often fall impotently to the ground before reaching our hearts because our theological firewall picks them up as “law,” which we know as good Reformed Protestants has no business motivating our wills beyond admitting that we are slugs who fall short of divine righteousness and who therefore need the gospel. Okay, a slight tinge of sarcasm there, but does it sound familiar? Where I sit, I’m afraid it does. But this is not Luther, and, more importantly, neither is it the teaching of Scripture.

But what if “the gospel” extends beyond the legal declaration of our righteousness in Christ to include the righteousness that the Spirit brings to our souls? Should we not say that we are growing in righteousness on the basis of God’s initiative and persevering grace? And shouldn’t preachers of the Word reprove, rebuke, and exhort with the expectation of seeing real obedience and genuine transformation? If so, maybe our answer to the question “Are You Righteous” shouldn’t be “No,” but “Not Yet.”

[1] Martin Luther, “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” in Luther’s Works, vol. 35, Word and Sacrament I, ed. E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1960), 365-380, at 370-371.

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