I was thinking about a great theological discussion I had yesterday with my friend and it occurred to me that the contemporary “Piperesque” idea of imputed righteousness has been grossly over exaggerated in modern Christology.
My best guess is that it stems from the “holiness” ideas where God’s perfect righteousness is a pre-requisite for man if he is to enjoy the presence of God. (BTW, countless biblical stories and the incarnation seems to dispute that idea.) Plus I think it is linked to salvation as it is understood that without this righteousness (which is imputed at the moment of conversion) becomes the defining basis of faith in the new believer. This is why they think they can’t apostatize, because it isn’t their righteousness they are living on. (Gal 2:20)
Thus, in this perspective, the moment of conversion must be critically defined, calculated, and grasped in order for it to be fully transformational and reach the soteriological benchmark. And so salvation is the sole focus of most churches. It is a mystical conversion and a person lives a Christian life only by revisiting it, thus the role of sanctification in their life becomes truncated (revisit the elementary things of God, Heb 5:13), because they are already at max righteousness if they have appropriated Jesus this way.
That depicts most modern Christianity doesn’t it? But is that necessarily the case?
Scripture seems to paint a different picture.
Genesis 18:19 describes God’s election of Abraham and his family to bless them all so they could keep the way of righteousness and justice. But what was the basis of such righteousness? It certainly wasn’t understood to be Christianity or imputed, it wasn’t even based on covenantal nomos (law), as this is the inaugural revelation of this covenant to Abraham, so he was keeping and applying something that was deemed righteous, but what was it? I would suggest a nomos based on imageo dei (image of God), more on this later.
Later in chapter 18 Abe negotiated with God that as many as 10 righteous people could dwell in sodom without its destruction. When in chapter 19 the angels decide to destroy the city they determine to spare or SAVE Lot’s family (my best guess is because they are a part of the promise of Gen18:19 by extension), but nonetheless, they are deemed righteous enough to be saved from the fire to be reigned down (I think this has metaphorical meaning too). But what we see next is nothing like the modern “imputed righteousness” of Christ.
The salvation came to the righteous and the righteous people are the ones who were willing to give their daughters to be gang raped by the men of the city. The righteous who were saved are the manipulative daughters who have a drunken sex fest with their dad.
This leads me to conclude that way too much is made out of righteousness in relation to salvation, yet we are told our righteousness must exceed that of the pharisees, Matt 5:20. Scripture seems to tell a story about God saving who he will, however he so decides (Deut 7: 7-9), and that Christ is at the epicenter of that process (Rom 10:13-17), whether archetypical as in the old covenant, or actual as in the new covenant, both appear to still be at work today.
Righteousness then is more evidentiary, and based upon word and law, which are promised to be written on the hearts of people bearing God’s image. That seems to be what we see in the whole world as we examine the presence of moral thinking regardless of religion, tongue or creed. The modern Christian mindset is that even the strictest knowledge and adherence to this embedded moral compass cannot save, and while that may be true, it doesn’t necessarily need to be true (For God saves who he will, John 6:44) but clearly this knowledge can and does produce righteousness even if it doesn’t produce the modern Christian idea of salvation. Just look at all the righteous people who do not subscribe to Christianity.
The question then is whether ones definition of salvation requires the presence of righteousness. It did for Sodom. But If it does for modern people, then it seems highly plausible that not only is that righteousness the effect of Christ (even imputed) if ones Christology will allow it, or else righteousness can come from someplace other than God. But that must then extend to those who are righteous but not naming Christianity.
Of course moralism is a risk in this system.
If not, then who can blame a modern Christian person for concluding they cannot apostatize, because the center of faith is not on ones righteousness, but on Christ’s. If righteousness only becomes REAL righteousness if they having a knowledge and faith in Jesus, then Abraham and the fathers of the faith are not saved and they were not righteous people, and we are back to the Star Bellied Sneetches again.
Now see if you can see where I’m going in this next thought:
Jesus had the right to dissolve one covenant and inaugurate another and so he did (Heb 8:7), but he didn’t abolish the nomos (law), but rather fulfilled it (Matt 5:17). This new covenant is internal if the prophets are correct (Ez 36:26 Jer 31:31), and its non discriminating (women, men, Jews, Gentiles, all comers (Gal 3:28)).
If this is true then all people everywhere must “know” this law (know righteousness) as he has put it into hearts of flesh. And this is what we see. Thus salvation may not be about knowing Christ (for all know him), but about knowing his name or actually seeing him as the source behind it all.
Wouldn’t then every moral choice essentially be Christological in its essence? That is the goal and function of Christian thinking isn’t it? The question for modern believers is whether or not they will accept the possibility that following after that little “moral something” inside them (Do as you would be done to, Luke 6:31), is the same as following Christ. Most can’t or won’t go there.
Certainly Jews struggled with this idea that people of other religions could be saved by their God and especially those who were far out of the temple system and its methods. Sound familiar? Kind of like modern cultural evangelicalism?
Just how fixated should Christianity be on a salvation threshold, when even some who are certain they surpass and who do righteous deeds won’t be saved in the end (Matt 7:21).
See how this all fits together?
All over the map then are people who differ significantly on how they understand this, each claiming to be right. So for me there is hope in progressive revelation. New understandings will replace old ones in light of discovery and new knowledge. New wine will burst old wine skins. The person who preserves the ideas of the past will resist progress. Perhaps the unbeliever (the one lacking faith in Christ) is not the one who has yet to acknowledge Christ (for there are many seekers of spirituality), but the one who limits access to him by insisting on old ideas or by creating a salvation litmus test. That seems more likely to be the person who lacks a faith big enough to save people.