There are some peculiar perils prevalent among the professional holy – those in full time ministry or service for God. High on this list: We know a lot of stuff and we do a lot of good things. And it is easy to misconstrue either, or both, of these with being righteous. But neither of these things makes us righteous.
In Christ alone we are declared righteous, by God’s grace through faith in the substitutionary life and death of Jesus. (The theological word is “imputed”.) Actual righteousness is faith in Christ expressing itself in good actions; or to put it another way, only when our actions are driven by genuine faith are we actually righteous.
Knowing a lot of stuff, even sound, biblical theological stuff is not itself righteousness. It is not even faith. It may provide the substance for faith, but right knowledge alone does not necessarily lead to faith. There are a lot of things that I know, that I agree are true, yet that at any given time I still fail to trust and act upon. Many things I assent to are not manifest in my character. Such knowledge is my profession-al faith (that which I profess) but not a functional faith. And that disparity is important.
This is a particular problem in my denominational circles. We have a rich, deep, profound, and thoroughly biblical theological heritage. It takes discipline and commitment to get a firm grasp on the system of doctrine. And I suspect it may be for that reason that some have, historically as well as today, felt a sense of righteousness for enduring the rigors of study and learning.
But apart from actual faith there is no righteousness. In fact, even if faith is present there is no righteousness unless that faith is coupled with good works. (Please note: I am not suggesting that there is no salvation without “works”. We are saved – “justified” – by grace through faith in Christ alone. Nothing else added – nada. Nor am I suggesting that apart from works there is no “imputed righteousness” – the righteousness of Christ credited to us at the moment of conversion/justification. What I am saying is that there is no “actual righteousness”, no righteousness of our own, apart from faith being expressed through our conduct.)
Just what makes a good deed “good” I cannot say. At least I cannot say concisely enough to ponder in this post. I hope it will suffice to say that good deeds are those things that benefit others and honor God.
I suspect that many deeds are done to the benefit of others, whether there is any mind toward honoring God or not. In many cases we would never be able to tell, at least so far as those deeds are done by others. Sometimes, if we are honest, our own good deeds are done without conscious thought of honoring God. I do not want to make the case here that these deeds are therefore not “good”. But I do want to again suggest that they fail to qualify as righteous.
Again, righteousness may best be defined as Faith expressed through good deeds. Genuine faith has a conscious awareness of God, his glory, his grace to us, and his expectations of us. And in this we are all deficient, sometimes more so than at others.
Jerry Bridges, in his excellent book Respectable Sins, explains that our thoughtlessness about God, those moments or periods when we are not thinking about or conscious of God, demonstrates the very essence of “ungodliness”. It is the sin of not being conscious of God. And all are guilty of this sin, to varying degrees.
But if this is so, and I’m convinced it is, it is then possible to do good deeds and sin at the same time, and by the same act. (Again, it could be reasoned that this negates the idea that the act is good. But for practical reasons I am not making that argument.) People benefit from our actions, God may even be praised for our work, but we workers fail to recognize God – except maybe in hindsight. Good as this may be, we must never kid ourselves into mistaking these deeds as righteous.
Only when our genuine faith is expressed in action that honors God and benefits others, only when all those criteria are met, are we actually righteous.
As I write I am well aware that most who read this post are probably not in full-time ministry. Nevertheless you most likely will recognize this same tension, this same problem, in your own life. That’s because, while this problem is prevalent among ministers, it is not limted to us. It is universal among all who “profess” faith in Christ. And in that sense, with a little play on words, we can still say this problem is common to the “professional holy”.
So what is the solution?
I don’t have anything profound to say. I know nothing that will eliminate the problem from your life, this side of heaven. But a couple things do come to mind that may help us deal with it, and perhaps lessen the extent of it over time.
1. Reflect on the meaning of Righteousness. Train yourself to evaluate your life in light of the twin requisites of righteousness: Faith + Good Deeds. Don’t allow yourself to settle for one or the other. Remember these twins cannot be separated.
2. Deal with it. Recognize the problem, and the associated sin. Realize this is not the way it ought to be, but it is the way it is. Confess the sin.
3. Apply the Gospel to yourself. Remember, Christ did nto die for the righteous but for the ungodly. His death has paid the penalty of your sins of ungodliness and lack of righteousness. When you repent of these sins and believe what he has done on your behalf you grow in grace; his righteousness is credited to you. (What an amazing exchange!)
4. Live in light of that Gospel. Act toward God in accord with the love he has given to you. Act toward others with the grace & love you know God has demonstrated to you. And do you know what that is if you do these things? Righteousness.