A Second-Look At A Popular “Doctrine” That Clouds Spiritual Reality

Positional Righteousness Re-Examined

Does this make sense to you? Why do I need to make any effort to move forward spiritually when God sees me as perfectly righteous in Jesus Christ? Since I’m perfect in Christ, why would I struggle to pray, fast, love my neighbor, or give to the poor? This highlights another de-motivating idea (along with “faith alone”) that has entrenched itself into the belief systems of many evangelicals. It goes something like this: Since the Christian is declared and seen by God as perfectly righteous in Christ, it is not necessary to exercise any effort or engage any means to become like Christ. Here is another example of a theological idea interfering with actual spiritual reality. 

Here are some common phrases to describe what I’m talking about: 

“Imputed righteousness” – Protestant Christian doctrine that a sinner is accounted righteous by God purely by God’s grace through faith in Christ, and thus all depends on Christ’s merit and worthiness, rather that on one’s own merit and worthiness. It is a concept in Christian theology that proposes that the “righteousness of Christ is imputed to believers – that is, treated as if it were theirs through faith.” It is on the basis of this “alien” (i.e. from the outside) righteousness that God accepts humans. 

“Positional righteousness” – A Christian is in perfect standing before God in Christ. The believer is just as perfect as Christ in the Father’s sight. 

“Positional sanctification” – God declares a Christian to be absolutely holy the moment he/she believes in Jesus Christ. When God looks at a Christian, He sees the righteousness and holiness of Christ. 

Nowhere in scripture are Christians actually told to identify themselves as righteous because God sees them that way.  A few scripture passages (Philippians 3.8-9, Romans 5.17, 1 Corinthians 1.30, Ephesians 1.6) are interpreted with this notion in mind. However, this direct teaching is absent from scripture.

Why Is This Popular? 

Many cling to this teaching in order to convince themselves that, despite their unrighteous thoughts, behavior, and attitudes, they are actually righteous.

Many cling to this teaching because it seems logical. I am in Christ and He is righteous so that makes me righteous. Yet, Jesus is also love, kindness, peace, humble, wise, patient, gentle, meek, wonder-working, prayerful, and rightfully authoritative. Are you automatically all of those since you’re in Christ? No one speaks of “positional humility” (I am humble because Christ is humble) because we know better. Why then, positional righteousness? 

Key Passage 

2 Corinthians 5.21: For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (Unfortunately, the KJV mis-translates the Greek word genometha (might become) as “be made” – “that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.”)

Reasons to believe this verse does NOT support “positional righteousness:”

  1. The verse, in context, is speaking of the apostles not Christians in general.
  2. There is no mention of faith here as the hinge that makes us righteous.
  3. Imputation is not mentioned. Yet, the verse is often interpreted that our sin is laid on Him and by faith His righteousness is imputed to us. 
  4. When God took on flesh, He was made “to be sin for us.” This is not just a reference to the cross but to all of his earthly life from birth to death. 
  5. The phrase “that we might become” seems to speak of an ongoing process not a past, accomplished fact. 

In other words, if taken at face value, the verse is teaching that because Christ took sin upon himself, humans may become righteous. 

Remove a theological agenda and the verse reads:

For us, sinless Christ became like sinful man, so that sinful man might become like sinless God.

This is in agreement with Gregory of Nazianzen (329-390) who wrote: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” Jesus assumed human flesh, soul, and mind so that all that makes us human might be redeemed and healed.

He also wrote:

Let us seek to be like Christ, because Christ also became like us: to become gods through him since he himself, through us, became a man. He took the worst upon himself to make us a gift of the best.

Jesus became like you so that you might become like Him. 

Does that reality light a fire of desire in your heart? Does who Jesus is and what He did give you hope and drive to become like Him? 

Believing in positional righteousness does not inspire or give hope. But, Jesus does. 

Why is this so difficult to grasp? I’ll touch on that in my next post. 

Dr. K 

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

2 thoughts on “A Second-Look At A Popular “Doctrine” That Clouds Spiritual Reality

  1. It seems like “positional righteousness” might give hope–even if it is a false (or deeply flawed) hope. I know both I and my parents (when I was younger) often wrestled with fear and shame. We had a very dysfunctional home life. They could see their own unrighteousness, and they knew they could never be good enough. So it became an initially-hopeful thought: that Jesus would impute His righteousness to us.

    We knew we couldn’t earn it; plenty of pastors had told us how bad we were. So as a child, my family NEEDED imputed righteousness. Of course, in the end, since they (we) saw only the tiniest fraction of maturation in Christ–since we only got a little better than we were–we couldn’t rest in the assurance “positional righteousness” proposition; we waffled between a license to sin and the subsequent fear and shame at our own brokenness. . So though initially hopeful, the consequence of belief in “imputed righteousness” was hopeless.

    I am grateful now for the words “participation,” “sacramental,” and “becoming.” Also, it seems like we needed to begin knowing the mercy of the Trinity: the realization that we are deeply flawed–nothing before God–but loved with deep love and great mercy.

    I’m looking forward to more on this topic, Dr. K.

    JD

    • Hey Josh. Well put. As you said, there seems to be much hope based in “imputed righteousness.” It seems noble and correct to view ourselves as totally depraved and God as purely righteous giving us what we need freely. But what major component is absent from that scenario? True humanity is missing. God created us as whole human beings and became one himself that we might become like him, united in spirit/will, body, and mind. Yes, we are badly messed up. Yet, in the grace, love, and mercy of the Triune God, we can do what is unfathomable – be in communion with God and become like Him. That is so much more that being declared righteous or seeing ourselves as righteous. It’s relational not judicial. (A bit more on that in next post). Thanks for your companionship on the journey. Thanks for “getting it” (to the degree any of us are able!?!). Keith

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