Friday, July 25, 2014

Imputed Righteousness - God's Exit Strategy

In my last post, we examined the Biblical term "justification." In short, justification refers to one's legal standing before an authority, not the state of one's character. When God justifies someone, He declares them to be legally righteous in His sight. Justification is a one-time step in the process of human redemption. It is distinct from sanctification, which is the way through which God makes us more and more like Christ (with our cooperation). Justification paves the way for sanctification, but sanctification is not what makes us right before God. So now that we understand what justification means, how exactly can we be justified?

Galatians 2:16 clearly states that man is justified by faith in Jesus, not by works of the law. The COGs, however, equivocate on this point. They acknowledge that we can never do anything to earn salvation, but then add that, going forward, we are responsible for maintaining the  justification through which we receive salvation. UCG specifically covers this erroneous concept of ongoing justification on pages 90 and 91 of its booklet, The New Covenant: Does it Abolish God's Law?

The problem is, this theory unequivocally ties our salvation to our works, which contradicts Ephesians 2:8-9. Furthermore, if we must maintain our forgiven state through obedience and repentance, the only logical conclusion is that we must achieve a perfect record of both in this life. Otherwise, our record will be tarnished, our white garments soiled with sin. There is no other exit strategy.

Ironically, just a few weeks after I made this point, UCG's  Beyond Today program posted a daily video segment entitled "Exit Strategy." Early in the clip, host Steve Myers cites Hebrews 11 as the model exit strategy for our lives. What does he say this model is? Live as the heroes of faith did - realize this life isn't what it's all about, embrace God's promises, put your trust and faith in God's promises, His plan and in God Himself.

Guess what? I agree with that! Surprised? Remember that COG teachings often seem to agree with Protestants up front. They only diverge further down the road, maligning evangelical Christianity to their followers using proof-texts and cognitive dissonance. For example, when discussing justification, UCG agrees with Protestants in stating that believers are justified or aligned with God upon repentance and faith in Christ. (The New Covenant: Does it Abolish God's Law?, p. 91). However, UCG then claims that, even after their "initial" justification, Christians must be continually justified or reconciled when we fall "out of alignment through sin."

"Every sin is a very serious matter - requiring renewed repentance," UCG tells us on page 90 of the New Covenant booklet. "In fact, neglecting to repent over an extended period can eventually lead to rejecting God and losing salvation. Thus, each occasion of seeking and receiving God's forgiveness is essentially a renewed salvation - salvation from rejecting God and the terrible end that would lead to." (page 90 of the booklet).

Again, this sounds good in theory. Who would say that sin is acceptable? Who believes that failing to repent doesn't damage our relationship with God? Not me. Again, the problem comes when we follow ongoing justification to its logical conclusion. If every sin requires renewed repentance, then logically we must repent of every sin or risk losing our eternal life. If the COGs claim we can lose our salvation through our actions, then by default they must also endorse the opposite - that our actions can earn us salvation.

What's worse, JUST having a perfect record of repentance isn't good enough, according to some COG literature. Do you remember our imaginary courtroom in my previous post? Well, the COGs have a courtroom too, which UCG aptly describes on page 16 of its booklet,  Transforming Your Life - The Process of Conversion. The difference is, in these proceedings, we are found guilty each time we sin and are subsequently pardoned by God. "If a judge pardons someone of a crime, he expects that person to cease his criminal acts. He doesn't pardon him so he can continue his life of lawbreaking. Likewise we are to turn away from sinful acts and thoughts."

So are we to cease from sinning, or just turn away from our sinful acts and thoughts? Anyone I've asked in the COGs claims it's the latter, but logic dictates it must be the former. And UCG backs this logic up with its own definition of true repentance: "repentance is to cease from sin - to quit transgressing God's laws." (Transforming Your Life,  page 9). How can this definition support anything but a perfect record?

If that's not enough pressure for you, consider how many pardons you should need if you are sincere about your repentance. After all, "godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted, but the sorrow of the world produces death." (2 Corinthians 7:10). Most human judges would doubt your sincerity after a certain number of pardons. Regardless, if you're overcoming your sins, you certainly won't be asking for pardons at age 75 for the same sins you were committing when you were 30.  According to the COG salvation model, we are growing and maturing until we have overcome a vague, undefined percentage of our sins at the end of our lives. But James 2:10 reminds us of the true standard - if we stumble on even one point, we are guilty of breaking the whole thing.

Only one person has ever left the courtroom the COGs describe with a righteous verdict. Trust me, you won't be the second. But in the courtroom of biblical Christianity, the highest power in the universe has promised to declare you righteous, or innocent, when you acknowledge your sin, repent and place your faith in the shed blood of Jesus. Your condemnation has been placed on Him, and there is no one who is able to appeal God's decision.  "Who shall bring a charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. (Romans 8:33)."

Let's consider our chances in each courtroom as we visit Jesus' teachings in Matthew 5. We'll start in verses 21-22. We can all agree we're guilty of sin if we murder someone. But what if we're just angry with a brother over something petty, or call him a fool when we're fighting? Look ahead to verses 43-45. Are we sinning when we don't show love to someone who has persecuted us? Ignore their physical needs if they are destitute? What if we don't pray for them? At what point does our action or inaction become sin?

It's only when we multiply these instances to include everyone we've ever met and every private thought we've ever had that we fully comprehend the mountain of sin under which we are buried. And we're just talking about repenting, not overcoming. At least for now. To assert that we could somehow repent of each and every sin is laughable. Is UCG really teaching that a perfect record of repentance is possible, and furthermore, necessary for salvation?

Like it or not, that's the only logical conclusion of UCG's teachings. Steve Myers' video might get high public relations points with its strong references to faith. But when you look beyond the sound bites, his own church teaches - in writing - that each time we sin, we fall from God's grace, and each time we repent, we are renewing our salvation. In short, we must maintain our justified state through our works.

And really, that's what Myers hints at near the segment's end. He concludes that "our exit strategy has to be living that exit strategy, living by the way of God now, so we can look forward to the true Kingdom of God." In this same segment, he defines an "exit strategy" as an objective to get out of a situation once something's been achieved. So if I understand correctly, our objective (our plan) to get out of a situation (this life) is by living according to that objective. Our plan is to live by the plan? Tell me how I do that. What does that even mean? When you boil things down, once again, we're back to hoping we have tried hard enough, been good enough, gone over our checklist closely enough (never mind determining what's actually on the checklist.) Just hoping we've been good enough is a far cry from having full faith in God for salvation, as Myers seems to claim.

This is not just a matter of semantics, according to evangelical Christian theologian John Piper. Misunderstanding this issue can undermine our entire Christian walk. If our struggle against sin is made part of our justification, much of the foundation for successful warfare has been removed, and we are fighting a battle that we cannot win, Piper says.

"The battle will be engaged differently without this faith, and the fallout cannot be a happy one over the long haul," Piper explains on page 50 of his book, Counted Righteous in Christ. Our unity with Christ (Romans 6:5) through justification establishes the relationship with God we need to make progress in sanctification. This assurance of our favor with God and our reconciliation to Him are the foundation for our Christian walk. Security in His love and acceptance give us joy and peace as we honestly face our sins. Without this confidence, we are locked in a constant struggle to maintain our salvation by our performance. This daily battle results in a spirit of guilt and fear, not power, love and a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7).

My list of examples from Matthew 5 is intended to show just how short of God's standards we fall, not to give you a new checklist. If you've read this blog recently, you already know what I think about checklists. You see, the COGs have programmed in us a righteousness checklist the size of a bingo card, when God's actual standard is more the size of a billboard. We put down our chips for things like Sabbath-keeping and abstaining from murder, believing we'll get BINGO by the end of our lives and win a trip to the first resurrection. When it comes right down to it, many of us feel like we have little need for forgiveness, which is why we are so willing to embrace errant doctrines like ongoing justification. In the back of our minds, we devalue the magnitude of Jesus' sacrifice. We are in a catch- 22 situation where we've reduced God's requirements for salvation through righteous living to a level that almost seems achievable. But when we reject the doctrine of imputed righteousness, in reality, we embrace "doing it on our own." (I know, we say we are using the Holy Spirit as a tool. But we put the cart before the horse and spin our wheels when we "use" the Spirit instead of letting the  Spirit "use" us.) Sure, Jesus died for our past sins, but, hey, we did a lot of work, too! If we realized just how great our need for forgiveness really was, we would be like the woman weeping at Jesus' feet, not Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50). I suspect this is exactly why God disconnected our salvation from our works - so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:9).

The Sinai Covenant - sometimes referred to as the Law - was never intended as a means to salvation, according to Romans 4:14. Many scriptures indicate God knew that Israel would fail, and that a New Covenant would be necessary. Instead, its purpose was to show what constituted a violation for Israel (God's chosen nation which was under that covenant), and to show us that righteousness could never, ever be attained by following it (Romans 3:20-21). Following it is helpful if we keep the whole thing - all of it - 100 percent (Romans 2:25). But if we stumble at just one point, we are guilty of breaking the whole thing (James 2:10). Most importantly, the Sinai Covenant was intended to demonstrate mankind's desperate need for a Savior. If God's chosen nation - which witnessed countless miracles and was richly physically blessed for obedience to its covenant - couldn't succeed, who on earth could? This is what Paul meant when described the law as a tutor to bring us to Christ, so that we could be justified by faith (Galatians 3:24).

Quit trying to obtain, maintain or cling on to your salvation through your own actions. Be honest with yourself about your life, your heart, your motivations. It's vitally important to recognize the magnitude of our sinfulness and see our efforts to maintain our righteousness for the filthy rags they are Isaiah 64:6).  Only then can we understand that our only hope for salvation is to fully place our faith in Jesus. And yes, I know that scripture symbolically associates righteous acts with clean, white linen. It's important to note that this passage is talking about people who have been justified and are being sanctified by the Holy Spirit. This means that these righteous acts are the Holy Spirit's righteous acts through us, and not our own righteous acts with a boost from the Holy Spirit. And to remember these works serve as evidence that a person has been saved, not that they could ever save them. Nothing from themselves can. Not striving to keep the Sabbath better, exhaustively researching Doritos ingredients or calculating the Holy Days by lunar observation. Even if we followed them as well as Old Testament heroes like Isaiah, it wouldn't make a difference. In Isaiah 64:5, the prophet states that God is angry even with the righteous man that He meets. The context indicates Isaiah includes himself in this statement. So even the righteous ones in Israel - those who faithfully observed the Sabbath and Holy Days and other tenets of the Sinai Covenant to the best of their ability - are included in that statement. Is there any chance that we do these things today better than Isaiah did? Polishing the outside of the cup is futile when the inside is filthy.

When we renounce any confidence in our own goodness or actions and fully place our faith in Jesus, the penalty for our sin is credited to Him. And His righteousness is credited, or imputed, to us, as it was Abraham (Romans 4:4-8; 20-25). He who wrote this passage gave up everything to follow Christ, but regarded all of it as worthless trash, "that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith (Philippians 3:9)."

And this, my friends, is why Paul was confident enough to write: "There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (Romans 8:1)." When God looks at one who has trusted Christ, He looks at us with Jesus-colored glasses, so to speak. Our sins are covered in His righteousness when we are justified. We are not to use this grace as an excuse to sin, as this same apostle instructed. We have been bought at a price, and we have a responsibility to obey the commands Jesus and His apostles gave once we have been redeemed. But when we fully comprehend the magnitude of the sacrifice Jesus made for us, our response will be one of love, gratitude and obedience to His teachings. One with a regenerate heart understands the folly and futility of a checklist mentality.

Imputed righteousness was not Plan B when Israel went astray. Jesus was slain for your sins and mine from the foundation of the world. Repent of your sins, place your full faith in Him, pledge to follow Him and accept the free gift of salvation. This is God's exit strategy, and it always has been.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourselfit is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; ) Acts 17:11


Martha said...

Just so you know, I can hear that warning bell in your head now - what about those who turn their hand from the plow? Protestants debate this, too. Those in the Calvinist camp believe that God will never allow those who have truly been justified to lose their salvation. According to them, true believers may backslide at times, but will never permanently turn from Him. They believe church-goers who fall away must never have been justified in the first place. In contrast, those who tend toward Arminianism believe those who have been justified can lose their salvation because man has free will to choose whether He will follow God or reject Him. Regardless, we need to remember that both sides agree on how justification occurs. And also that neither camp is talking about people trying their best to obey God but still struggle with sins and weaknesses. Nor are they talking about those who attempt - but fail - to live up to the requirements of the Sinai Covenant (or just a handful of cherry-picked ones, as the COGs endorse). The apostle Paul tells us this teaching gives birth to bondage (Galatians 4:7) and brings us under a curse (Galatians 3:10).

xHWA said...

Great article, Martha!

Luc said...

I so agree with x. This is one of several statements that I found to be profound:"We put down our chips for things like Sabbath-keeping and abstaining from murder, believing we'll get BINGO by the end of our lives and win a trip to the first resurrection."

Dr.Tony Evans frequently points out that there are two kinds of forgiveness in scripture that can be derived implicitly. the first makes you a child of God and the second can be seen in God's relationship with the patriarchs or Peter's restoration after his betrayal. Tony points out that if your own child rebels he/she doesn't cease being your child, but the behavior puts the child out of fellowship with the parent. You can see this in David's repentance after his great sin. The repentance re-establishes fellowship; it does not initiate salvation.