Pilgrims from Paradise:
In a couple of earlier podcasts, I talked about the Western notion of contractual salvation versus the Eastern concept of salvation by love. That discussion touched on the popular topic of imputed righteousness in a sort of tangential way. But recently, a number of folks have emailed me, asking me to hit the issue more head-on. Since this is a topic dear to the hearts of people in the Protestant Evangelical world, and since I have seen more than one inquirer into Orthodoxy get hung up on it, I have decided to oblige.
Over the next few podcasts, we are going to take a close look at the New Testament passage that addresses this matter of imputed righteousness, Romans 4. We are also going to explore the book of Genesis, specifically, some chapters in the life of the Patriarch Abraham, to help us understand what St. Paul is saying in Romans 4. As we do that, we will expose some of the critical problems in the typical Western interpretation of imputed righteousness and how it relates to the whole business of salvation.
Let us take a look at the scripture in question, Romans 4:1-8:
What then shall we say, that Abraham, our father, has found according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Now, to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace, but as debt. But to him who does not work, but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness, just as David also describes, “the blessedness of the man to whom God imputes righteousness apart from works. Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord shall not impute sin.”
In this passage, St. Paul is using the example of Abraham to explain to the Romans how the whole process of being saved works. God comes to the elderly Abraham, who is childless, and whose wife, Sarah, is decades beyond the age of childbearing, with a promise. The Lord tells him that his descendants will outnumber the stars. Incredibly, God assures Abraham, they will come from his very own seed. He is old. His wife is old. This is a crazy proposal. But Abraham does not flinch. As the text says, he believes God. And God, as the scripture goes on to say, accounts that belief as righteousness.
A couple of verses later, St. Paul finally uses the big theological word. In this act of accounting Abraham righteous, the apostle says, God imputes righteousness to Abraham. To impute means to reckon, or to consider, or to deem something to be the case. We will have much to say about this shortly, but for now, let us recognize that in some sense, God is reckoning Abraham to be righteous, as a result of his act of belief. That is important, because St. Paul has just reminded us in the previous chapter that “there is none righteous. No, not one.” (Romans 3:10).
Up to this point in his epistle to the Romans, the apostle has presented a lengthy proof that no human being, by virtue of his or her own strength, has the power to be righteous, that is, has the ability to live up to the moral standards of a righteous God. Left to our own devices, we can never do anything but sin. We can never do anything but fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
But Abraham overcomes that condemning judgment. How? St. Paul says it plainly. Abraham does not perform some good work, some excellent and noble moral feat to put him in such good stead with God. No, it is just Abraham’s belief that puts him in this righteous place. Through an act of faith, and not of good deeds, Abraham gets a new status with God. Instead of imputing sin to Abraham, that is, instead of reckoning him a sinner, as Abraham deserves, God imputes righteousness. He reckons Abraham to be righteous.
This passage is commonly understood, as I said, as presenting the model for how we all can go about being saved. Here is how Christians in the Protestant Evangelical world interpret it. Just as He did with Abraham, God comes to us with a promise—this time, the promise of salvation, through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. What God wants us to do with that promise is exactly what he wanted Abraham to do with the promise he made to him—to believe it.
From there, the Protestant Evangelical thinking goes like this: Just as God’s promise was fulfilled to Abraham, solely on the basis of his belief, so Christ’s promise of salvation is fulfilled for us, solely on the basis of our belief. Just as no works were required of Abraham, so nothing is required of us. We just believe and receive God’s promised salvation.
For all of us who have grown up in the Western world, Christian or otherwise, this rendition of salvation is familiar, but it reflects a way of looking at God, and at how God operates, which is unique to Western Christianity, and it runs counter to how the early Christians, and the Eastern Orthodox Christians who carry on their living tradition, see God, and encounter Him.
Here is the essential difference: Western Christianity meets God as an object of thought. Christians in the East meet God as a living person. In the early middle ages, Western Christian thinkers, albeit unwittingly, I think, began turning Christianity into a philosophical exercise and the West never recovered. My claim is easy to corroborate. Just turn on the Christian TV channels or take in a sermon at your local denominational or non-denominational church. What do you hear? You hear a preacher talking about God, about what He is like, and what He does, and what He wants for His human creatures.
The preacher’s job is to present theological arguments. He asks us to think about passages of Scripture, or to consider theological philosophical premises about the divine. From the East, we are to draw certain conclusions about God. We take those conclusions and we develop or refine our concept of who God is and what He expects of us, and then we apply that concept to the way we live our lives.
But Orthodox Christians come to God in a different manner. That is not to say Orthodox believers do not think about God, it is just that thinking about him is not the foundation of our life with Him. Eastern Christians know God by joining him in holy activities that God has prescribed for His people. These activities allow us to participate in the life of God.
Let me put it like this. Life with God in the Christian West is fundamentally a mental activity. In the East, it is a dance—a holy dance, in which we embrace God as a living, moving, literally present partner. He is not way out there somewhere, allowing us to contemplate Him. He is right here, and we are lovingly, repentantly, fearfully, humbly, and awesomely aware of His presence.
We call this dance the sacramental life. I introduced listeners to it in my first podcast. It includes, among other things, activities like baptism, receiving the literal body and blood of Christ in the eucharist, repenting of one’s sins in the presence of a priest, fasting, prayerfully seeking the intercession of departed saints, and venerating icons. What all these have in common is that they are things we do, not things we think. They make for an entirely different Christian experience.
For instance, I recently was telling one of my Evangelical Christian friends about the services of Holy Week, the week before Pascha, as Orthodox Christians refer to Easter. He was a bit flabbergasted when I told him that from Palm Sunday to Holy Friday night, I had spent roughly 24 hours or so attending services at my church. Some of those services were 3 or 4 hours long, and my fellow parishioners and I had stood on our feet from the beginning to the end of them.
My friend has never been in an Orthodox church and his response was very telling in how it revealed his typical Western Christian rational thought-oriented relationship to God. “Why do you think you need to spend all that time in church?” he asked rather critically. Of course, I knew what he was envisioning. He was thinking about himself spending all those hours and those long services in his church. I knew my friend was imaging long, indoctrinating sermons, presented to a bleary-eyed, mind-benumbed audience. So he got quite a befuddled expression on his face when I told him, “You know, I was in church all those hours, in all those different services, and I never heard one single sermon.” “Well, what did you do then?” he asked, completely puzzled. “We joined ourselves to the living Jesus as He journeyed toward His crucifixion and resurrection,” I said, and I mean, joined, in every literal sense of that word. I continued, “When your worship allows you to experience God like that, you can’t help but be there, and the last think you can think about doing is sitting down. You are with the suffering Christ. You are with Him in all those incredibly important moments of that week, but you are not imagining Him. You are not meditating on what it would have been like to have been there. The best way I can describe it is, you are experiencing His life from within His heart, and I have not words to explain to you what that is like.”
So, what does all that have to do with imputed righteousness? A lot, because the problems with the Western Christian concept of imputed righteousness are founded upon the West’s rational, objectifying approach to faith. That is apparent, even in the way we are having to define this discussion. What are we talking about? We are talking about imputed righteousness.
But let us look again at the passage of scripture where we find that notion: Romans 4:6. Notice, the verse speaks of the blessedness of a man to whom God imputes righteousness. Look at the word, imputes. What part of speech is imputes in this passage? It is a verb, and a verb in a sentence, as we recall from dear Mrs. Nee’s third grade grammar lessons, describes an action of the subject. In other words, to understand that the word impute means in this particular passage, we have to think about it as an action of God, but that is not what Western Christian thought does with the word, imputes. It treats it as something else entirely.
In a move completely consistent with the West’s rational, objectifying approach to God, Western theologians turn the verb, imputes, into the adjective, imputed. So, instead of discussing God’s activity of imputing righteousness, Western believers discuss this thing, this stuff, called imputed righteousness.
I must make this very clear. What I am getting at, is that when the Western Christian mind is done with this verse, it does not say God imputes righteousness. Instead, it says, God gives us imputed righteousness. See the difference? Something God does, that is, imputing righteousness, turns into this thing that God gives—that is, imputed righteousness.
When it attempts to understand this passage of scripture, Western Christianity does not ask the right question. Instead of correctly asking, “What is God doing when He imputes righteousness?” the West asks, “What is this thing, or this stuff, called imputed righteousness?” This is a problem for the West that goes far beyond just the issue of imputation. It affects the Western Christian understanding of all God’s dynamic activities in the life of a believer.
I had this brought home to me quite profoundly the second Sunday I attended an Orthodox church. My priest, Father Gregory Horton, had invited my wife and I to dinner at his home. As our wives worked together in the kitchen preparing the meal, he and I discussed theology. At one point, he posed the question to me, “Matthew, what is grace?” I must confess that I was a little put off by that. For a second, I felt, “Does Father really think me so spiritually immature that I do not know what grace is?” So I responded very quickly, and anyone who is listening to this who has had experience with Western Christian theology knows exactly how I answered it. I proudly asserted, and we all know this, right? “Grace is God’s unmerited favor.” Father smile at me, chuckled a little and said, “Why is it that everything is a thing for you Westerners?” I had no idea what he meant, so to end my confusion, I demanded, “Well then, you tell me, what is it?” “Grace, dear Matthew,” he replied, still smiling, “is the Holy Spirit.”
It was a revolutionizing moment in my Christian experience. As time passed, I began not just to comprehend, but also to experience what Father Gregory was telling me. The Orthodox Christian life quickly teaches us that God does not deal in things. Grace, for instance, is not some commodity that God produces. It is not something He wraps up in a spiritual package and sends to us so that we can open it up and apply it to our lives. The same must also be said for faith, or mercy, or wisdom. None of these are things. They are activities of God within the soul of a human being. Grace is God at work transforming me. Faith is the Christ who dwells within me, reaching out to the same Christ who sits on His throne in heaven. Mercy is God expressing His goodness in and through me. Wisdom is God thinking His thoughts in me. Again, this is so crucial, but it runs against the grain of this objectifying mindset that has determined, for Christians and non-Christians alike, how the Western world understand the Christian experience, and so I pray that those of you listening will really let this settle in.
Perhaps it will become clearer as we apply all this to the question of imputed righteousness. Just as with grace, or faith, or mercy, or wisdom, the Western mindset is at work here. It takes God’s activity of imputing righteousness and turns it into a thing called imputed righteousness. But just like grace, faith, mercy or wisdom, righteousness is not a thing. You cannot buy a can of it, nor is righteousness some sort of spiritual currency that God can apply to our account in heaven in order to erase the debt we owe Him for sinning against Him.
What is righteousness? It is not a thing, it is a state of being. Specifically, it is God’s state of being. It is not some thing that God produces. It is who He is. Righteousness is not even some quality or characteristic within God that He can somehow pull out chunks of and give to us to help us pay our debt to him, or use in some other way. No, righteousness is God’s perfectly humble, perfectly self-sacrificing, perfectly good, perfectly loving way of existing.
When we finally recognize that, how do we interpret that phrase, “God imputes righteousness.” What is God doing when He does it? We will begin to unravel that in the next podcast. We will also begin to examine the life of Abraham. In the story of God’s promise to him and how that promise came to be fulfilled, we will discover a much different picture of imputed righteousness than the Christian West presents.