Reading Paul with the Reformers— Part Seven

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Ben. I would maintain that the phrase ‘the righteousness of God’ which is a major theme from the outset of Rom. 1 has to do with ‘the righteousness of God’, his character. This is made very clear from the next argument in Rom. 1.18-32 where one expression of the righteousness of God is his ‘orge’ against sin now revealed in the world. It does not have to do with ‘covenant faithfulness’ nor does it have a direct connection with ‘the righteousness of Christ’ a noun phrase not found in the NT. God, in Rom. 1 is God the Father, not Christ. And God the Father did not die on the cross for us. God wants his holy character replicated in us (‘be ye holy as I am holy’), not merely by imputation but by impartation. Here I think the Catholics have the better of the argument.

So, all this talk about a wholly alien righteousness of Christ being predicated of us, or some how we get connected to it through union with Christ, but it doesn’t result in actual righteousness on our part, seems a far too esoteric and unJewish a way of reading Paul. Here I think Luther is the bigger offender than Calvin who at least has an adequate doctrine of sanctification. Phil. 3.9 is rather clear— there is a righteousness that comes from God to us (see 2 Cor. 5—we become the righteousness of God). Yes, it comes through having faith in Christ, but it is not Christ’s righteousness that we are getting in the bargain.

One more thing, if by ‘alien’ all is meant is that it comes from God and in no sense from the one who believes due to his merit or works or even his faith, then I would not see that as problematic. But if it doesn’t involve the actual change that happens to the believer by means of the new birth (a subject I found remarkably absent in your study), but means, instead of ‘guilt by association’ we only have righteousness by association with or union with Christ, then we have a truncated understanding of what it means to be a new creature in Christ, with the old having already passed away (not ‘simul justus et peccator’ and not still in bondage to sin). If the righteousness we have remains entirely outside of us, extra nos, this hardly makes us subjectively new creatures having experienced new birth and working out the salvation that God has worked in us. Christ cannot be righteous for us (if by that one means something more than his once for all substitutionary atonement on the cross), any more than he can be saved for us. He can however be the source of our salvation and the mediator of God’s righteousness to us of course. How would you respond and how do you think Calvin and Luther would respond to this?

Stephen. I am glad you asked this question! It would be simply bizarre to hold anything other than that God wants his holy character to be replicated in us. This is a frequent misunderstanding of the whole sixteenth century debate, in which the Reformers were deeply concerned to reject the medieval view that faith is primarily knowledge (fides) of the saving facts of the gospel that must be formed by love in order to justify. They insist instead that faith is inherently active in good works and that faith that does not work is not faith. What they are passionately concerned to deny, however, is that the works of faith are meritorious. Works that are good in the sight of God are impossible for fallen human beings but not for Christ. Thus, all attempts to claim righteousness as the believer’s own can produce only the illusion of transformation. True transformation stems instead from receiving the alien righteousness of Christ, who, through the work of the Spirit, produces genuinely good works in the believer. For Luther it is axiomatic that good trees will produce good fruit (Matthew 7:17) and Melanchthon and Calvin will both frequently express a deep sense of the obligation of believers to be obedient to God. Such works are not a cause of justification, and they are the work of Christ in the believer rather than the believer’s own, but justification never exists without them. I think Luther can be accused of not offering an adequate account of how the believer grows in discipleship, but not of failing to express a proper sense that transformation takes place.

I deal with this relationship between faith and works at greater length in “Faith Working through Love (Gal 5:6): The Role of Human Deeds in Salvation in Luther and Calvin’s Exegesis,” in Doing Theology for the Church: Essays in Honor of Klyne Snodgrass (Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 41-54. I take your comment about the neglect of “new birth” in my book as fair criticism, less in the sense of a failure to focus on that particular metaphor, but rather in terms of the lack of a general discussion of conversion as a theme. That has been part of my research on Paul in the past and I hope that it will be again in the future.


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