imputed righteousness and switching tracks
In my ongoing quest to remove everything unreal from my religious life, I’ve run head-on into the concept of imputed righteousness.
If you’re not familiar with the idea, it’s the cornerstone of Calvinist theology, and the idea many people think is the core of Christianity. Expressed in the most generous way, it’s the idea that when Jesus died, his righteousness got credited to us, and God now considers us righteous without regards to our actual behavior or character.
To many people, this is what grace and forgiveness and salvation means.
But this seems problematic to me. It makes Christianity a matter of God’s scoreboard in the sky, not something that actually has to do with our quality of life. Taken to its logical conclusion, you would think that you could feel like a guilty miserable wretch all of your life, and still hold forth your existence as the Christian ideal. After all, it’s not about real righteousness, it’s about imputed righteousness.
This was my assumption for much of my theological life. But reading the apostle Paul and some of the other New Testament letters made me increasingly uncomfortable with the idea. Paul didn’t just claim that his hearers had been cleansed from their sins in some abstract sense, he claimed that they had been cleansed from their consciousness of guilt, from their awareness of sin.
That he could make such a claim struck me as remarkable. I certainly couldn’t say that about the Christians I knew, many of whom were wracked with guilt and insecurity. And Paul didn’t seem to think that this was an incidental point, he seemed to think this was a major point (if not the point) of Christianity.
Paul seemed to believe that the message of Jesus actually removes the feeling of guilt and sin from its hearers.
When I realized this is what he was saying, I couldn’t understand how it was possible. But I saw that this would be a much more consequential, much more concrete, thing. The scriptures wouldn’t be seen as talking about invisible scoreboards and diagrams, but about real changes in the minds and emotions of human beings. Christianity would be about the kind of life one can experience after being freed from guilt, the real-world transformation brought about by Jesus’ message.
My mind had switched tracks.