Thursday, April 19, 2007

The War with Sin and the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness

I have been doing a bit of reflecting on the text of Scripture (Galatians 5:16-21) that we studied in Sunday school this past weekend. We looked at the “deeds of the flesh” which are the evidences of an unsaved and unsanctified life that come directly before (in the context of Galatians 5) the “fruits of the Spirit”, and these are the evidences of a saved and sanctified life.

When I was studying, one of the major rabbit trails that I explored had to deal with our justification before almighty God, and what that means and implies for the daily lives of the believers. The verse that propelled me into this line of thinking was
“For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please.” (Galatians 5:17)
I know that it might be a bit of a stretch to say that this verse made me think of the doctrine of imputation, but that is where it led me. We are sinful by nature, and being regenerated doesn’t change the fact that we have a sinful inclination whose roots go down very, very deep. We cannot ignore the fact that we will continue to sin until we die or until Christ returns. However, as John MacArthur put it, as we grow and in holiness throughout our life as believers we will, “sin less, but feel worse.” In other words, as a Christian, I will be sanctified as I live and grow in Christ (sin less), and in that process I will have a fuller understanding of God’s holiness and my sinfulness and depravity. Therefore even the smallest of sins (as man might reckon them) are seen as exceedingly heinous and my understanding of my rebellion is poignant (feel worse).

Seeing Paul’s description of the way in which the Holy Spirit and my flesh are at odds with one another in that the desires of each is set against the other. It’s helpful to see this dichotomy both from this pseudo-detached way that he lays it out here as well as from the point of view of a personal and agonizing battle that he lays out in Romans.
“For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:19,24)
And I made a point to say that even though we know that we will sin until for as long as we live, that doesn’t give us some kind of “get out of jail free” card relating to our responsibility for our sins or the necessity to war against them. I quickly built the case that we are able to resist sins because of what we are being tempted with and because God can keep us from sinning.
“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
7 and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men 8 (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds), 9 then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment,” (2 Peter 2:7-9)
So you may be wondering how in the world did all of this lead me to think about the doctrine of imputation…well, I’ll tell you. First of all, one of the primary messages of the book of Galatians is the defense of the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works of the law. Or, in the language of the reformers, the declaration “sola fide,” which is translated as “faith alone.” This doctrine is at the heart and soul of what the entire Bible teaches. We see that man is made right before God – he does not make himself right nor does he assist in the making of himself right before God – and that is the only way that man has ever been made right with God.

Abraham believed God, before he ever was asked or attempted to follow through with the sacrificing of Isaac, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). The men of Nineveh were about to be destroyed by God because of their individual and national wickedness, but after hearing the prophet Jonah preaching, “the people of Nineveh believed in God” (Jonah 3:5). And because of their faith, the redeemed men of Nineveh will stand at the end of time and condemn the wicked contemporaries of Christ because “they repented at the preaching of Jonah” and the Pharisees did not. The wretched sinner, not the self righteous and condemned Pharisee, was justified because he pleaded, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner!” (Luke 18:13b) The thief on the cross didn’t perform any act of service or deed (no, not even baptism) to commend himself to the Lord but, like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, he knew what he deserved and he pleaded with Christ,
40 But the other answered, and rebuking him said, "Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 "And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." 42 And he was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!" 43 And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:40-43)
It is upon this basis of unmerited favor and unearned righteousness that my sins were imputed to Jesus and fully punished on the cross. It is also upon this basis of this same unmerited favor and unearned righteousness that Christ’s perfect righteousness was imputed to me on the day that I repented of my sins and placed my faith – my trust – in Christ. And because I am clothed with the righteousness of Christ, I am treated (eternally) as if I had lived his life, even though I still presently sin.

This whole line of thinking brought me to ponder the “what if” related to this awesome and infinitely valuable imputation. What if Christ’s righteousness weren’t fully imputed to me and I only received some of this righteousness and had to work with it until it was fully formed in me? That is the essence of the doctrine of the infusion of righteousness, as I understand it, as held by Roman Catholicism. This theological understanding is that we are given some of Christ’s righteousness, but before we can be accepted into heaven, we must be completely purified. That is where the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory comes into play.

Other than the problem (an enormous and insurmountable problem) that arises out of this theological framework that I must work to earn my righteous standing (justification) before God (simply based on the fact that Christ’s work was not sufficient to do it all completely), we have the bigger issue of continuing sin to deal with. And this problem is bigger than my Roman Catholic friends, I think, realize.

If I were given some righteousness of Christ (even up to 99.9% of it) I would still not be able to “attain” a righteous standing before God. Because if, immediately following this infusion, I was attempting to find a way to complete my righteousness and I sinned even one time, I would be back to square one; a wretched and completely unrighteous sinner.

Before the fall, Adam was perfectly sinless and right with God (i.e. blameless in His sight). It took only one sin for Adam to go from being sinless and perfectly acceptable before God to being a wretched sinner whose deserved end was death, both physically and spiritually. Only one sin! If Christ had sinned, but only once, what would have been the result of His death on the cross? I’ll tell you this, He wouldn’t have been an acceptable sacrifice that could atone for anyone’s sin…not even His own. He would have been justly under the condemnation of the Father. So what makes men think that we are somehow different than our father, the first Adam, or the Lord, the second Adam?

If I, after repenting of my sins and trusting in Christ and having received the infusion of 99.9% of Christ’s righteousness, The War with Sin and the Imputation of Christ’s Righteousnesssinned in any way, shape, or form, that righteousness would do me no good. I would be in the same predicament that I was prior to receiving that infusion of righteousness. I would, again, be a fallen and wretched sinner hanging over the chasm of God’s just wrath and judgment, and holding on for dear life, but only barely able to grasp the firmly rooted shrub of God’s divine patience. But once God has determined that his patience has run its course, the roots of that shrub give out, and I would fall to my eternal demise. (See 2 Peter 3:9)

So, you see, the necessary doctrine of imputation is directly linked to the clear biblical teaching of justification by faith apart from works of the law. Since scripture, from beginning to end, is clear that we are justified by faith alone and our works will not and cannot make us right before God, we must earnestly defend this doctrine. We cannot make any compromises on this doctrine, because if we do, the very infinite rock that we are trying to stand upon for our salvation will become an immeasurable boulder that looms above our heads and will completely and totally ruin us in the end.

May the Lamb receive all of the glory and reward for His suffering.

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