Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Redemptive Righteousness

By Peter J. Leithart

Jesus teaches His disciples that we have to exhibit a righteousness that surpassed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20), a demand that is one of the central themes of the Sermon on the Mount. What does it mean? How should a disciple’s righteousness go beyond the righteousness of Jewish leaders?

Perhaps the Torah was God’s will for the Old Testament, but now Jesus brings a new law that is not only different from but contrary to the law of Moses. That explanation doesn’t work, since Jesus Himself says that He has not come to abolish but to fulfill the Torah or prophets. Whatever He means by “fulfill,” we can be sure it doesn’t mean “abolish.”

Perhaps, then, Jesus is emphasizing the internal demands of the law. Instead of focusing on externals, like the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus focuses on the internal attitudes and desires. This doesn’t work either. Jesus does address attitudes, but so did the Mosaic law. More importantly, Jesus commands actions, not just attitudes. When He warns against practicing righteousness before men, He goes on to require a different set of practices concerning alms, prayer and fasting. He doesn’t say, Do these things with a different attitude. He says, Do them differently.

Perhaps, then, the Sermon outlines an impossible ethical ideal that Jesus never really expected us to fulfill. The sermon is the law part of a law-gospel dialectic: It drives us to holy despair about our own sinfulness, so that we throw ourselves on the imputed righteousness of Christ. Much as we might like this to be the case, this reading is not correct. Jesus’ sermon is about right living.

So what does he mean? Let’s start with the term “righteousness.” Though the word often means something close to “law-abiding,” it doesn’t always mean that. When Paul talks about the righteousness of God revealed in the gospel (Romans 1:16-17), he refers to the righteous, powerful action of God in Christ that restores sinners to God and mends the world. For God, righteousness is not merely conformity to rules, but redemptive action.

For us too. That’s what Jesus is demanding of His disciples: He has come as the embodied righteousness of God to bring in the restoration of all things, what he announces as the kingdom of heaven. And His instructions show us how we participate in that restoration. The life that Jesus requires surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees because the practices, habits, and actions of disciples break through the perverse customs and habits of sinful humanity and bring the kingdom of God onto earth.

To see how this works, we need to notice a structural feature of the sermon. Matthew 5:21-48 is often read as a series of “antinomies.” On this interpretation, Jesus is saying something like this: “The elders teach only an external and visible obedience, but I teach something deeper. The ancients say, Don’t murder, but they imply that we need not worry overmuch about hatred. Don’t commit adultery, but don’t worry overmuch about lust. Jesus deepens the commandment, so that it applies to desires, attitudes of the heart.”

As Glen Stassen has convincingly argued, this section of the sermon is not a series of antinomies but a series of triads. On murder, Jesus doesn’t say, “1) You have heard, do not murder, 2) but I say don’t hate.” Rather, He says: 1) You have heard, do not murder, and those who murder are liable to court; 2) but I say that anger and insults leave you in danger of the court and even of hell; therefore 3) leave your offering and go be reconciled to your brother. Only section 3 is an imperative. Jesus commandment is not: “Don’t be angry.” Jesus’ commandment is: “Go be reconciled.” That is the greater righteousness. Jesus never commands us to avoid anger. He teaches how to defuse anger so that it doesn’t escalate to murder. In that way, we share in the establishment of God’s kingdom of peace.

On lust, we have the same thing. He doesn’t merely contrast the command “Do not commit adultery” with the command “Do not lust.” He does deepen the commandment against adultery by teaching that lust is already adultery, not merely a prelude to it. But the statement about lust is not an imperative. The imperative follows in 5:29-30: Cut it off. Remove the offending organ. That is the greater righteousness, the righteousness that shares in God’s redemptive righteousness.

To be righteous as Jesus is righteous, it’s not enough to avoid anger or lust. Jesus is not giving us a transformed set of purity regulations – “Avoid this, avoid that, don’t touch that!” He gives us a set of positive commands. To practice the righteousness greater than that of the scribes we have to obey Jesus’ commands in order to break through the chains of lust so that we can cultivate chaste relations with the opposite sex. It’s not enough to avoid hating enemies; you need to do good to them, to break through the habits of hatred, counter-hatred, escalating hatred, that destroys life.

Similarly, it’s not enough passively to avoid retaliation (5:38-42); we must actively give to those who abuse us. Indifference to enemies is not enough (5:43-48); Jesus demands that we love our enemies, in ways that reflect the righteous generosity of our Father. It’s not enough for us to avoid pride when we give alms, pray, or fast (6:1-18); we should do all these things in secret.

Our instinct is, Get real, Jesus! His demands may all be great for a perfect world, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a hard world, and you’ve got to cut some corners, break some eggs, defend yourself, take a little bit of vengeance, if you’re going to survive. Jesus says, No. The whole issue comes down to trust. Do we trust our Father to give us what you need? Do we trust that we’ll still have clothes if we keep giving them away, that we’ll still have bread if we are generous, that we’ll still have a face if we keep letting our cheeks be used as a punching bag, that we’ll still have dignity if we give things away to our enemies?

Jesus says: Trust your Father, and obey my commandments. Trust your Father, and live out the righteousness of that faith. Trust your Father, and live the redemptive, transforming righteousness that surpasses the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.



Nick said...

I think you have a wrong view of imputation:

In my study on this topic of imputed righteousness, the Greek term “logizomai” is the English term for “reckon/impute/credit/etc,” (all terms are basically equivalently used) and when I look up that term in a popular lexicon here is what it is defined as:

QUOTE: “This word deals with reality. If I “logizomai” or reckon that my bank book has $25 in it, it has $25 in it. Otherwise I am deceiving myself. This word refers to facts not suppositions.”

The lexicon states this term first and foremost refers to the actual status of something. So if Abraham’s faith is “logizomai as righteousness,” it must be an actually righteous act of faith, otherwise (as the Lexicon says) “I am deceiving myself.” This seems to rule out any notion of an alien righteousness, and instead points to a local/inherent righteousness.

The Lexicon gives other examples where “logizomai” appears, here are some examples:
Rom 3:28 Therefore we conclude [logizomai] that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

Rom 4:4 Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted [logizomai] as a gift but as his due.

Rom 6:11 Likewise reckon [logizomai] ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Rom 8:18 For I reckon [logizomai] that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

Notice in these examples that “logizomai” means to consider the actual truth of an object. In 3:28 Paul ‘reckons’ faith saves while the Law does not, this is a fact, the Law never saves. In 4:4 the worker’s wages are ‘reckoned’ as a debt because the boss is in debt to the worker, not giving a gift to him. In 6:11 the Christian is ‘reckoned’ dead to sin because he is in fact dead to sin. In 8:18 Paul ‘reckons’ the present sufferings as having no comparison to Heavenly glory, and that is true because nothing compares to Heavenly glory.

To use logizomai in the “alien status” way would mean in: (1) 3:28 faith doesn’t really save apart from works, but we are going to go ahead and say it does; (2) 4:4 the boss gives payment to the worker as a gift rather than obligation/debt; (3) 6:11 that we are not really dead to sin but are going to say we are; (4) 8:18 the present sufferings are comparable to Heaven’s glory.
This cannot be right.

So when the text plainly says “faith is logizomai as righteousness,” I must read that as ‘faith is reckoned as a truly righteous act’, and that is precisely how Paul explains that phrase in 4:18-22. That despite the doubts that could be raised in Abraham’s heart, his faith grew strong and convinced and “that is why his faith was credited as righteousness” (v4:22). This is also confirmed by noting the only other time “credited as righteousness” appears in Scripture, Psalm 106:30-31, where Phinehas’ righteous action was reckoned as such. This is confirmed even more when one compares another similar passage, Hebrews 11:4, where by faith Abel was commended as righteous.

sh said...

First of all, I did not write the post, Peter Leithart did. Perhaps you'll want to take up your issue with him. (The Link is at the bottom.) Secondly, he is NOT referring to the initial justification of the sinner,(forensic, legally declared, reckoned.) He is referring to the manner of life subsequent to that imputation that he requires of his disciples.

Nick said...


I did not realize you were not the same author of the post. I'm not sure what you mean by your second sentence, since Peter said: "It drives us to holy despair about our own sinfulness, so that we throw ourselves on the imputed righteousness of Christ." Meaning this is the foundation he is building from here on out.

sh said...

Perhaps you should read more carefully... the statement you quote is another option that others have proposed and Peter is simply repeating... look at the following sentence for Peter's actual thought concerning that proposal: "Much as we might like this to be the case, this reading is not correct. Jesus’ sermon is about right living." This is NOT, as you say, "the foundation he is building from here on out."