A Protestant leader once told me (he later changed his mind) that although Christians have a legal or judicial (“imputed”) righteousness through the work of Christ, it is false that Christ gives believers any practical, actual, ontological righteousness until we have our new bodies.
Logically, these two concepts need not be mutually exclusive. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that my friend was right and that there is no practical, actual and ontological righteousness that we receive from Christ until we have our new bodies.
Notice what immediately follows. If 100% of our righteousness is a judicial transfer to our account from the righteousness of Christ, then logically how can that righteousness grow over time through sanctification? That answer is that it can’t since a righteousness that is purely judicial is already a fixed amount credited to our account. Yet the Bible does seem to talk about righteousness as something we can grow in.
In Hebrews 12 we read about the spiritual benefits of discipline. The passage ends with these words, “Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:11). Think about that – discipline leads to growth in righteousness! This verse shows that there is nothing fixed about our righteousness, as it would be if it were purely a judicial property that is credited to our account.
When writing his letter to Timothy, Paul told Timothy to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:11) How can you pursue something that you already have in a fixed amount?
Now move to Paul’s second letter to Timothy. In expounding the doctrine of Scripture, Paul tells Timothy that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) If the righteousness of Christ working in us does not have a practical dimension in our actual lives but is simply a judicial transfer of the merit of Christ to our account, then how can righteousness be part of what is involved in making us complete for every good work since our righteousness is a fixed, static entity like the ledger on my bank account rather than the money in my wallet?
Or consider the way the Bible describes men and women of God. Speaking of the heroes of faith, Hebrews 11:33 tells us that “through faith [they] subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises…” and many other things. What I want to know is how these people can have “worked righteousness” if, as my friend said, righteousness has nothing to do with our works but is merely a judicial transaction from Christ’s account to ours?
I want it to be clear what I am not saying. I am not disputing that the judicial notion of righteousness is correct, although I do think that N.T. Wright has done a good job of showing that in the passages often taken as supporting ‘imputed righteousness’ the apostle had nothing of the sort in mind. But what I am disputing is what my friend told me, namely that that the judicial notion of righteousness is the only type of righteousness Christ gives us prior to our resurrection, and that the practical/actual righteousness making a difference in our lives is something that we will not receive from Christ until resurrection. Why can’t these just be two sides of the same coin?
There are many more verses we could look at, but I will end by noting some of the descriptions the Bible gives about individuals.
The Bible speaks of various individuals as being either blameless, just, righteous and so forth. Noah (Gen. 6:9), Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5, 6), Simeon (Luke 2:25), and John (Mark 6:20) are just some of the examples, to say nothing of the Psalmists who, in pleading their innocence, frequently make reference to their own righteousness. What is going on here is not a merit-based system of works righteousness, but simply an acknowledgement that within the context of the covenant, these people were faithful to God and therefore righteous. It does not mean that they were perfect in every respect. Nor does it mean that the righteousness they possessed was somehow the grounds of their salvation. On the contrary, the covenant always made provision for sin through the blood sacrifices, which was itself a foreshadowing of Christ’s once-and-for-all sacrifice which is itself the only grounds of our justification. However, within the context of the covenant, we can begin to understand how these people can be described as righteous. In his essay ‘Looking for Legalism’ Derrick Olliff explains that:
These people are described as righteous, holy, blameless, and devout. They walked in the commandments of the Lord. There is no reason to think the ruler meant something other than this. The problem here is that we have trained ourselves to view concepts like “law” and “sin” exclusively in the abstract and apart from the covenant. And so we see only two possibilities. Someone is either sinless and morally perfect or he is a law breaker. This perspective is certainly useful and applicable in some situations. It is true enough that all men are sinners and that no man can merit anything from God by his works. But this is not the context for this story. The questions on the table and the point being made are different.
Recall that Zechariah, despite being a sinner, walked blamelessly in all the Lord’s commandments. This is not a claim that he didn’t sin. Such a statement was possible because the text is not referring to law keeping in the abstract. It is referring to faithfulness within the context of the covenant. And the covenant itself had the sacrificial system whereby sin could be dealt with by faithful people. So when Zechariah (or someone else) sinned, he remained obedient to the commandments by sincerely availing himself of the sacrificial system. And the same was possible for the ruler. Thus, he need not have been claiming abstract moral sinlessness. He was simply claiming the same kind of covenantal faithfulness that we know others had.