Righteousness, Justification, and God’s Kingdom People

Yesterday I wrote on the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin. (You can use that link to see it, or, if you’re on this blog’s home page, you can just scroll down to the post below.)

The question posed at the end of that post was how John—and Paul in some of his other passages—can put conditions on being one of those blessed people to whom God will not impute sin, when Paul said it’s given to those who believe "in the One who justifies the ungodly apart from works" (Rom. 4:6).

Two Stages of Salvation

I write about this a lot, so if you’ve read my blog or any of my web sites (such as The Rest of the Old, Old Story or Christian History for Everyman), then you already know what I’m about to say.

It never hurts to repeat important things, though, so here goes …

There are two ways in which we need to be saved:

  • We need to be saved from the world and enter the kingdom of Jesus Christ on this earth (Col. 1:13). This is being saved from our sin nature and being born again (Jn. 3:3-8; Rom. 6:3-11), so that we have the power to obey God (Eph. 2:10; Rom. 8:1-4; 2 Cor. 5:15-17). This is one of the main purposes of Jesus’ death (Rom. 14:9; Tit. 2:11-14).
  • We need to be saved at the judgment when we die. The judgment will be based on works and will reward eternal life or condemnation (Matt. 25:31-46; Rom. 2:5-8; 2 Pet. 1:5-11; Rev. 20:11-15).

(That second point is not a very popular thing to say, but the Bible’s very clear about it. It doesn’t take a scholar to look up those verses and see what they say. It takes a scholar to explain such obvious verses away because we don’t like what they teach.)

The first of those things happens completely apart from works. This is the context of the emphasis Paul makes on faith only. If you look up "faith apart from works" verses, you will see that they are only in Paul, and they are consistently in the past tense.

In other words, Paul is the only NT writer careful enough to distinguish between our salvation from our flesh and the world—our being born again—and our entrance into heaven after we die. All other NT writers speak of both together, which is why it’s harder to find faith only taught in them.

Paul distinguishes clearly and consistently, always using the past tense when he says we’re saved apart from works. we have been saved—that is, have been born again and delivered from the flesh—by faith apart from works.

When he talks about works, he speaks in the future tense. We shall be saved from wrath through him. We shall inherit the kingdom of God if we do not walk according to the flesh.

There’s one very interesting passage that helps us see that because he mentions both at the same time, with some clear distinguishing features:

Much more then, being now justified (past and present together here) by his blood, we shall be (future) saved from wrath through him. For if, when we were (past) enemies, we were reconciled (past) to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled (present state), we shall be (future) saved by his life. (Rom. 5:9-10)

Note the distinguishing features. We have been justified and reconciled by his death, by his blood. We shall be saved by his life.

Paul says this because even our current good works are not done by ourselves. It is "by the Spirit" that we put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:13). King Jesus has been made to us wisdom, righteousness, holiness, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). It is if we "sow to the Spirit" that we reap eternal life and "do not grow weary in well-doing" and thus "reap, if we do not faint" (Gal. 6:8-9).

So that’s the first reason. Paul knows that we are made into people who live in repentance by faith apart from works. We are the ungodly, and we are justified, past and present tense together, apart from works.

It is thus that we can be those who walk in the light and thus experience fellowship with one another and the ongoing forgiveness of sins by the blood of the King (1 Jn. 1:7).

But there’s a second reason, and it is here that N.T. Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said really helped me.

Righteousness, the New Covenant, and the People of God

It was fascinating to me, in that passage from Justin I quoted yesterday, to discover that the Jews considered themselves to be those to whom God would not impute sin if they stuck to the terms of the covenant: circumcision, sabbath-keeping, and a couple other important rituals like feasts and sacrifices.

N.T. Wright explains that righteousness doesn’t mean good living. Righteousness is the state of being considered righteous by God if you are in covenant relationship with him.

Jews keeping the terms of the covenant I just described considered themselves in covenant relationship with God, so they were automatically righteous. Those who are righteous are not necessarily living without sin, but since they are righteous, they reckoned, their sins would not be imputed to them.

Justin refutes this idea, but we need to look at it.

I’ve always had a problem with the scholars who say that justification means right standing with God, not necessarily righteous living. The reason I had a problem with that is because there’s a lot of verses where that doesn’t make sense. Righteousness and justification—which are exactly the same word in Greek just translated two different ways by our English translators—are often, if not usually, tied to righteous living.

For example, we looked yesterday at John’s statement that those who are righteous as Jesus is righteous are only those who are practicing righteousness (1 Jn. 3:7). He even warns us not to let ourselves be deceived about this.

Nonetheless, I’m not a Greek scholar, and I’ve never felt comfortable dismissing the definitions of those who are Greek scholars.

But why would they say justification—or righteousness, same word—does not mean righteous living when the Scriptures seem to indicate differently?

N.T. Wright solved that issue for me.

A righteous person has right standing with God because he is in a covenant relationship with God.

Now, I can’t prove that because I’m not a Greek scholar nor enough of a historian to do so. You can always get Wright’s book if you want to see his argument for it, but I can’t cover that here.

However, I can show you how it makes the passages of the New Testament fall into place with one another.

Righteousness, the New Covenant, and the Holy Spirit

Jews are no longer in covenant relationship with God through circumcision because God has made a new covenant in which circumcision is of the heart and of the spirit, not of the flesh nor of the letter (Rom. 2:28-29). Paul even argues that they’re not even Jews, but we are, whose circumcision is worshiping God in the Spirit and having no confidence in the flesh (Php. 3:3).

But that’s just it. The righteousness of the New Covenant is living by the Spirit of God.

Even under the new covenant, righteousness is not right living. It’s living in covenant relationship with God. But the new covenant relationship with God is all about living in the Spirit.

Acts 2:17-18 is a quote from the prophet Joel right at the start of his sermon on the first Pentecost that makes it clear that the central issue of the New Covenant is that everyone would have the Spirit (and the ability to prophesy, 1 Cor. 14:31).

Thus, the person who is righteous is not the person who once asked Jesus into his heart. The person who is righteous—who is in covenant relationship with God—is the person who is living by the Spirit.

This explains why Paul would say that if we live by the flesh, we will die, even though he has told us that salvation is apart from works. If we wish to be in covenant with God, we must live by the Spirit, and if we do, then by the Spirit we will put to death the deeds of the body (Rom. 8:12-13).

It also explains why he would say that those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:24). (Is that as convicting to you as it is to me?)

In the very next verse, he says, "If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit."

When Paul rebukes the Galatians, does he rebuke them for trying to do good deeds?

That can’t be because he is very strong about exhorting them to good deeds in Gal. 6:9-10. In addition, in the letter to Titus he twice tells us that the people of God—the New Covenant people of God—must be zealous for good works (Tit. 2:14; 3:8).

No, he rebukes them for trying to be made complete by the flesh (Gal. 3:3).

Notice that. He does not rebuke them for trying to be made perfect. They are supposed to try to be made perfect (Php. 3:8-15). He marvels that having begun in the Spirit, they are trying to be made complete by the flesh (Gal. 3:3).

Back to the People to Whom God Will Not Impute Sin

Thus, the people to whom God will not impute sin are those who are sowing to the Spirit. By the Spirit they are putting to death the deeds of the flesh.

They are not perfect at it. They sin. If we say we have no sin, then we are liars and the truth is not in us (1 Jn. 1:8). Nonetheless, the letters are written to the church so that we might not sin (1 Jn. 2:1; 1 Cor. 15:34).

It is only if we sow to the Spirit that we will reap eternal life (Gal. 6:8), and it is only if we do not grow weary in doing good that we will reap eternal life (Gal. 6:9). That is because those two things are the same thing.

If by the Spirit we are putting to death the deeds of the body, then God will not impute sin to us, quite a blessed state to be in.

It’s not an impossible state to be in. David was in that state, except when he violated it by committing adultery and then murder. Paul says that we can all be in it by living by the Spirit.

If we do not live by the Spirit, then we are not Christ’s.

I wish I could say something easier than that because it applies to me as well. But the fact is that the Bible says that it is those who have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires who are Christ’s.

The Gospel and Righteousness

We need to believe a bigger Gospel than we believe.

Paul said that his Gospel was the power of God for salvation to those who believe. In it, he says, the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith (Rom. 1:16, 17).

But let’s interpret that saying the way Paul did!

He wondered aloud, "How can those who died to sin continue to live in it" (Rom. 6:2).

Paul had great confidence in the grace of God. It would teach us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age (Tit. 2:11-12). It would make us new creatures, created in King Jesus for good works (Eph. 2:10). It would make us zealous for those good works (Tit. 2:14). It would allow the righteousness of the Law to be fulfilled in us (Rom. 8:4). It would remove sin’s power over us (Rom. 6:14).

Paul didn’t know about any other kind of grace. The grace he knew about wouldn’t allow the unrighteous to inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9), but it would wash and free us from unrighteousness (1 Cor. 6:11).

And it wouldn’t happen automatically. In order for it to happen to Paul, he disciplined his body and brought it under subjection (1 Cor. 9:27). He knew that if he didn’t, then he, too, could be disqualified (ibid.).

Well, I’ll let y’all chew on that a while. It’s scary to me, too, but can we really deny that’s what the Bible teaches?

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One Response to Righteousness, Justification, and God’s Kingdom People

  1. Joel says:

    Wow! This seems to shed a clearer light on what’s said about the church in eph 5:26-27 it’s really quite revealing and humbles me a lot.

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