Protestants love to use the phrase “works righteousness” when describing various positions even though they disagree as to what it is and therefore what theological positions support it.
It’s one of those “going nuclear” phrases. Like pushing the red button, it is used to annihilate another position in a single move.
For example, my blog last week about penance got some reactions about it being another form of salvation by works. If you have to do something as part of your repentance then you’re working to gain favor.
There are several misconceptions here beginning with what happens in salvation.
- Salvation begins with the exercise of faith
We can call this initial conversion. The sinner makes a turn toward Christ in faith.
How does this happen? The answer depends on who you ask.
Wesleyans think that the Spirit first moves the person toward Christ by initiating the act of faith. Faith itself is an inward movement of the heart toward Christ. We might see this as the beginning of regeneration.
To take the metaphor of birth, the Spirit initiates the labor that begins the process. The individual then must cooperate with the Spirit, but this cooperation is always contingent upon the Spirit’s prior movement.
In other words, Wesleyans do not hold that humans initiate conversion or the act of faith. They only hold that the person must complete the act of faith like pushing during labor. The Spirit represents the muscles that cause the contractions of faith while the individual pushes. The result is regeneration or new birth.
Wesleyans do not think that regeneration is inevitable. Unlike giving birth to a real child, the individual could resist the Spirit to the point of destroying the new life before it is even born.
Reformed folks would see the Wesleyan position I have just described as a form of “works righteousness.” This is because Wesleyans claim that persons can resist new birth by failing to cooperate. On the Reformed view, the new birth is inevitable. The individual may push, but the baby will come out regardless. What this means is that the initial turn toward Christ is irresistible.
SO, if you’re Wesleyan, you already think that initial conversion will not happen apart from a person’s cooperating with the Spirit.
AND, you don’t think this cooperation is a form of works righteousness.
- Salvation is about a new birth that justifies
If initial conversion is the new birth or regeneration, then it puts persons on a new path. They are now on the WAY of salvation.
The first step down this path takes one into God’s family. This is what justification secures. To say that I’m justified by faith alone means that God has forgiven my sinful actions and I am now accepted because I am “in Christ” and Christ is “in me.”
When Protestants claim that you cannot earn salvation, they generally mean you don’t earn justification. Admission to God’s family is God’s gift and it is not dependent upon any deeds. Grace here means God’s lavish love or favor to fully accept even the worst sinner.
- Salvation is a WAY or PATH of growth in sanctification
Justification says nothing about becoming like Christ in one’s character.
The image of God must be fully renewed and this is the job of sanctification. In other words, the new birth is the beginning of a process of growth in Christ likeness. Sanctification is always about being made holy in one’s thoughts, desires, and deeds.
To be made holy in character requires cooperation on multiple levels.
First, the person must continue to cooperate through ongoing acts of faith. Faith is not simply a one-time action, but a daily movement toward God.
We don’t move toward God without faith, even when that faith is simply, “I don’t get it, but I trust You.” We leap before we find; we believe before we understand. This does not mean that faith is irrational, it just means that you have reasoned as far as you can go.
Second, the person must continue to cooperate through righteous actions that are the tangible expression of their faith. James’ point that faith without works is dead means that the exercise of faith is more than a verbal commitment.
Because you cannot become Christ-like in your character apart from righteous actions. Desires lead to actions, which in turn create habits and habits form characters. It’s a sanctifying process.
Is this cooperation “works righteousness” because you have to do things to become righteous?
No, since the Spirit always supplies the grace to live righteously. Grace here means the power to do what God commands. We might say that God’s lavish love is not simply God’s acceptance into his family, but his divine strength at work within believers empowering them to grow.
- Salvation is a path along which one can go forward and backward
Here is where it gets a little dicey.
For Reformed folks (and Baptists who are not Reformed), you can never leave the path. You are eternally secure. To claim that one can leave the path is a form of “works righteousness” on this view.
All Wesleyans think you can leave the path because someone can always resist the Spirit.
But, all Protestants think that believers can move forward and backward along the path.
Part of the challenge here is with two ways Christians describe salvation: journey and growth.
Salvation is a path or movement toward God. We are going somewhere. It is also maturing in God. We are becoming someone.
To put journey and growth together, we say that we move toward God by becoming like God. The journey toward God is not like getting in a car and driving somewhere. We get closer to God by becoming like him and we move farther away from God when we become less like him.
If a Christian engages in sinful actions for a long period of time, those actions will impact the development of Christ-like character. Sinful actions lead to sinful habits that create an unrighteous character.
Take a case of adultery. If a Christian engages in adultery for two years, then he must practice deception for two years. Two-years of lying over and over tends to create the character of a liar. Rather than removing the habit of lying, asking for forgiveness initiates a process of restoration.
- Penance is a process of restoring someone on the path
Let me conclude by making some final points.
When we think about punishment for sinful actions, we have to differentiate between two kinds of punishment.
The first we’ll call eternal punishment insofar as it deals with our relationship with God. God’s lavish love means that he always stands ready to forgive and accept anyone into his family. This is the beauty of justification. It reminds us that we are God’s child. Works don’t justify us, ever. It’s always a gift.
The second kind we’ll call temporal punishment because it has to do with the effect of sinful behavior on ourselves and others. It deals with our relationship to ourselves and our neighbors. Adultery destroys the character of Christ within us and it destroys others as well.
God’s forgiveness does not right our character nor does it right all of those broken relationships. As part of the process of sanctification, we must make up for our sins. We must cooperate with God to restore the brokenness. Works further God’s sanctifying work and thereby strengthen our walk toward God.
This is the entire point of penance.
If we don’t work to restore the broken character and broken connection with others, then we stagnate in our walk with God and we become anemic Christians. We may even, eventually leave the path of faith completely on the Wesleyan view. Regardless, all Protestants think anemic Christians are ineffective Christians.
Is that the kind of person you want ministering from the pulpit every Sunday? A person who has serious character issues and is effectively ignoring them as though they don’t matter to his or her relationship with others.