In the Apostle reading we heard today, St Paul uses a word that we often find in his writings. This word is righteousness. The trouble is that this is not a very good English word to use in translation. In the original Hebrew and Greek from the Old and New Testaments respectively, righteousness is not simply virtue, moral character or goodness although it certainly includes these. More specifically, it is the holiness of one who is able to stand confidently in the covenant relationship between God and His people. God alone is perfectly righteous but by His grace we are also able to acquire our own righteousness through active participation in and collaboration with Him. Righteousness is, therefore, a common work between God and humanity.
The heresies that have plagued the Christian West since the Middle Ages have derived from two tendencies. The first sees righteousness as something earned through moral effort and good works, a sort of prize for good behaviour. The second, reacting against this, sees righteousness as coming from God alone without any human agency, a sort of unsolicited gift which does not depend at all on any intrinsic goodness, moral effort or virtuous works. These two: - ‘righteousness-as-prize’ and ‘righteousness-as-gift’ are both not Orthodox. ‘Righteousness-as-prize’ leaves us without hope, for who on his own can attain to the perfection of God?
Righteousness-as-gift is simply not on offer, for then God would be replacing our faculties, not working with us to transform them. We Orthodox base our understanding of righteousness on the collaboration between God and humanity, in a common work, whereby the ability to remain within the covenant between God and humanity is both the gift of God’s grace and a work of human effort. He gives gifts then to those who work, but neither as a prize for their efforts nor as a substitute for the effort itself but rather as a means of helping the work attain to that which He promises: - salvation, union with Him.
This indeed is how St Paul sees the matter who, in Philippians, encourages his spiritual children thus: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13) We work it out… He works in us… neither a prize nor a gift but rather a common work. There are other ways of putting this. The ancient Greeks had a proverb which is now commonplace in English: “God helps those who help themselves”, so also the Arabs who pithily say: “Trust in God but tie your camel.” In matters of righteousness, we can say that we work for that, by which and for which, God freely gives and disposes.
How then do we work with God to acquire righteousness? It is a simple matter to exclude those things that we should not attempt because they do not work and God has not blessed them. We do not try to be holy by our own efforts and will alone, still less do we do this to earn God’s favour in some way. Neither do we sit still and passively expect God to do all the work. That is not humility, it is laziness and no good ever came of laziness even if it should dress itself prettily in a most becoming piety. God has given us faculties and powers. He expects us to use them but nonetheless, because these are not entirely free from deficiencies and flaws, weaknesses and sins, we cannot simply employ them safely without His grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, actively sought, to transform them and make them truly effective for salvation.
At the end of this process of transformation, this metamorphosis, we shall have acquired our own particular righteousness which will be both our own work and the work of God. It will be a righteousness that fits the shape of our personality, temperament and gifts. It will present us with confidence in the Day of Judgement for we shall have matured in Christ to the point where our own sins and even the devil itself will have left no lasting trace on an immaculate humanity, perfected in God, divinised, our natural potential fully realised by the grace and power of God. In that great Day we shall, each one of us, shine like the sun but with the particular spectrum of multifaceted light that is proper to each diverse creation.
How much more excellent is this vision and promise than the hopeless slavery of graceless good works and the hapless mockery of an untransformed life! True holiness, perfection, theosis, righteousness, comes with the sacred marriage of the human and the divine. It is present in all its fullness in Christ by nature; it is progressively realised in us, in all its fullness by grace and by our own will working within His will, our power within His.
Let us finally have recourse once more to St Paul who holds before us the call to perfect transformative righteousness, theosis in this way… “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” Amen, so be it. (2 Corinthians 3:18)