The truth about God and how he relates to us, part 3: a helpful distinction of righteousness.
As someone who’s confessed to being a “grace-addict” on numerous occasions, there are certain questions and cautions that you hear a lot. It’s so difficult to get the Pharisee out of people that at the first hint of unmerited favor they pounce, wanting to be caveats and provisos where God has put a blank check. Such misunderstanding of grace is normal — it’s natural for us to want to justify ourselves by our works. As seasoned do-it-yourselfers, we baulk at grace and cling to our bootstraps. Which is why the message of grace is so important.
But what does this look like? How do we harmonize grace and works? Doesn’t grace remove our responsibility for good works? In the words of the apostle, “God forbid!” (Rom 6:2) “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:1–3) Indeed, grace doesn’t negate our responsibility — grace makes good works possible!
Two kinds of righteousness.
There’s a helpful distinction to be extrapolated from Scripture which I believe to be of utmost importance for every disciple. This distinction is between your passive and active righteousness. Huh?! Let me explain.
First coined by Martin Luther in a sermon in 1518 and later developed throughout his commentary on Galatians, “two kinds of righteousness” is a Lutheran principle that’s all but lost in modern Evangelicalism. Perhaps, though, it’s the one that most desperately needs to be revived. Essentially, the Christian possesses two distinct righteousnesses: one passive, meaning we have nothing to do with it; the other active, meaning we have everything to do with it. And it’s absolutely vital that we don’t mistake the two.
A believer’s passive righteousness is his righteousness coram deo, “in the eyes of God.” Consider this your vertical righteousness, your vertical goodness; that which establishes your acceptance between you and God. Luther calls this your “alien righteousness,” that is, “the righteousness of another” because it comes from outside you. This passive righteousness is bestowed upon you the moment you believe in Jesus as the Lord and Savior of your life — it’s what you receive at salvation that allows you to be declared justified and forgiven in God’s sight. It’s the righteousness of faith and identity — indeed, it’s the very perfection of Jesus imputed to us.
You see, one way to sum up what happens at salvation is the term “substitution.” This is the truth wherein Jesus’s righteousness is put on us and our rebellion is put on Jesus. The moment you believe, Christ’s perfect holiness is substituted in place of your pathetic account so that now, when God sees us, he sees his Son. All your paltry “goodness” and heinous sins are “hidden with Christ in God” and nailed to his cross. (Col 3:3; cf. 2:14) This what we might refer to as “double imputation”: Jesus’s righteousness on us and our sin on him.
This is the glory of the gospel, the sum and substance of God’s glad tidings. The Son of God has stood in our place, borne the wrath we deserved, endured the damnation we warranted, and was punished in our stead. Paul says, “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) We’re made to wear the Son’s righteousness, having the Sinless One’s perfection put upon us and our sin upon him. This is the reason that we’re accepted (justified) in God’s sight: not only that Jesus has taken our sins away but that he has given us his righteousness! “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” (Is 61:10) This is your passive righteousness, “the robe of righteousness” which Jesus puts upon you by grace through faith in his work.
But, with all that grace, with this passivity, what are you supposed to do? You might be thinking, So I can kick back now ‘cause Jesus’s done it all. And true, he has, but that in no way negates your vital responsibility in the world. This is where your active righteous comes into play.
A believer’s active righteousness is his righteousness coram mundo, “in the eyes of the world.” Consider this your horizontal righteousness, the righteousness of character, civility, propriety. This is that which concerns your actions, words, behaviors, and attitudes.
Make no mistake, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in no way negates man’s responsibilities in the world. As the apostle James says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” (Jas 1:27) The evidence of true religion, then, is the proof of our standing before God — and this is an all-important distinction. The active righteousness of the Christian is his responsibility to prove, honor, and glorify God by how he lives. This is what gives him purpose and mission in the world, in life — and this why we mustn’t be idle or inactive in the will of God.
The spiritual life of a Christian is wrapped up in proving and evidencing Jesus’s work in their lives. This is what Paul was intending when he said to the Galatians, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:22–24) The urgency of the Christian life lies not in clawing or climbing our way to God but in confirming and demonstrating the truth of the gospel by how we live.
You see, God doesn’t really need your obedience. God’s demand for holiness is already satisfied, his law already fulfilled in the person and work of his Son. He’s not waiting with bated breath for you to keep it. God doesn’t need your obedience — but your neighbor does! Your active righteousness can’t alter your standing before God but it can affect your neighbor’s perception of you and your relationship with God — which is why we can’t just “let go and let God.” Christianity is not a “hands-off” faith, it’s very much hands-on — the gospel is super relational.
As Luther reiterates, the believer’s active goodness, which is nothing but the fruit and consequence of the righteousness of God imputed to him by Christ through the Spirit, never seeks “its own good,” Luther continues, “but that of another, and in this its whole way of living consists.” Your active righteousness, or horizontal goodness will permeate outwards and impact those around you. Look at the helpful graphic to the side, which visually displays these concepts. Understanding the differences and implications of two distinct yet vitally related righteousnesses is crucial to understanding many other Christian doctrines and Bible passages.
You see, your vertical righteousness is the fuel and ignition of your horizontal righteousness. And your active righteousness is the proof and evidence of your passive standing. Your sanctification doesn’t win your justification, it proves it. You can’t alter your heavenly standing by your earthly doing. Your spiritual fruit is a proof of God’s love, an evidence that you are his. Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.” (Jn 15:8) The bearing of fruit is a proof and evidence of your discipleship — it has no affect on your deliverance. Your activity can’t affect your acceptance. God’s favor of you who are in Christ is unflinching, unwavering, unalterable. This is the “glorious gospel of the happy God” in which we rest and rejoice. These are God’s glad tidings that nothing, absolutely nothing can separate you from his love. (Rom 8:38–39) As Jerry Bridges has rightly said:
Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.1
Is God happy? Yes, and he is — and he’s leading us into his happiness by his glorious gospel of grace!
Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2006), 19.