Tuesday, March 18, 2008

9. Righteousness and Salvation

It's first thing on Tuesday morning and I am going over my Radio talks to record later this morning. Here is the next post in the latest series here.

9. Righteousness and Salvation

Paul argued that not only are all humans unrighteous, but also left to themselves there is nothing they can do to become righteous. All are sinners, controlled by sin, and slaves of sin. This means that all we have to look forward to is the wrath of God, which even now is being revealed against all unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). People need saving from it. How are we to find salvation?

This is where perhaps this blog gets in to stormy waters! In Paul, judgement really does sound as if it is ‘by works’. This was a point made by Sanders and which has been taken up increasingly in recent years by scholars from various theological camps. I have already quoted Romans 2 where Paul says it is those who do good that will receive eternal life. In the Bible and in Judaism, it is the righteous who do good, in the sense of doing what God requires of them. How are we unrighteous sinners to do good and so be able to find salvation on the last day?

It is important, I think, at this point to make a distinction between righteousness (justification) and salvation. This is a point made somewhat controversially by N T Wright. While many have criticised him for making this distinction, it certainly sounds to me as if it is there in Paul. Paul argues that we can only find forgiveness for past sins, be freed from the power of sin in the present, and so become one of the righteous here and now by faith in Christ, not by works of the Law, but solely by faith. There is a big argument over whether righteousing (justification) in Paul is about being declared or being made righteous. Writers discuss whether justification is forensic or ethical. Many describe it as a legal decision made by God on the day of judgement. It is a declaration that a person is not guilty. I find all this extremely unhelpful.

First of all Paul talks about us being righteous now, in the present. It has a very immediate focus. Scholars claim that Paul can talk about righteousing (justification) being in the present because God’s future, final judgement is read back into the present. This is surely an unnecessary way to look at it. Sanders, on whose work the New Perspective is based, argued that righteousness and being righteous in Judaism at the time of Paul is very much a ‘here and now’ concept. As he puts it: ‘the righteous are alive and well’. In other words, it’s a present state of being based on what happens in the present, not something that rightly belongs in the future, but which is read back into the present.

Righteousness is about doing what God wants. Those who do what God wants are righteous.

Paul’s opponents argued that what God wants is for us to keep the Law. Paul argues that this is a bit difficult, as we are powerless to keep the Law. And, in any case, that was not what the Law was for anyway. The Law’s job, says Paul, was to show us how sinful we were and how powerless we were to do anything about it.

As sinners under the power of sin, we are estranged from God, without God or hope in this world. All that awaits us is God’s judgement and wrath. Our only hope is the blood of Jesus. God has shown us his love in the past so that he won’t have to show us his wrath in the future. By sending Christ to die for us, God demonstrates his love for the ungodly, that is, for those who are separated from him because of their sin.

Righteousing (justification) involves God forgiving our sins, reconciling us to himself, freeing us from sin’s power, transferring us from the jurisdiction of the Law, and giving us the Holy Spirit as an outpouring of his love in the present and as a guarantee both of future salvation from the wrath of God and also of the gift of eternal life. It also results in whoever this has happened to becoming part of the people of God made up of everyone without distinction. All really are one in Christ: one in their past sin and one in their desire for future salvation.

The critical question then is: how can we be righteoused (justified) so that all this can happen to us?

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