by Rick Philips
In this article, I want to examine the third of the Affirmations & Denials of the Gospel Reformation Network, which makes a point at the very heart of our concern in presenting a balanced view of the gospel:
We affirm that the gospel provides salvation for the whole man, including man’s need for both imputed and imparted righteousness.
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, where he went “proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Mt.4:23). The gospel, meaning “good news,” was the heralding of this great event, the coming of the long promised Messiah in the person of Jesus. The gospel, therefore, is the message of the coming of Jesus and his saving achievement for us.
In his first epistle, John summarizes Jesus’ first coming in these terms: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 Jn. 3:8). Jesus came to cast down the whole empire of sin that began when Satan tempted Adam and Eve in the Fall. Jesus came to overthrow the comprehensive reign of sin and to establish in its place his own reign of righteousness.
In recent years, the word “gospel” has benefited from a great deal of attention. At the same time, however, it has suffered a corresponding lack of clarity in terms of its meaning. In a time when everything must be “gospel-centered” we may easily lose sight of what “the gospel” is. One particular concern is the way that for many “the gospel” has been conflated into the doctrine of justification through faith alone.
In some quarters of Reformed Christianity, especially within the Contemporary Grace Movement, “the gospel” = justification + nothing. In these circles, the teaching of sanctificadtion is deemed “non-gospel” or even “anti-gospel.” Under this influence, “Christ-centered preaching” amounts to teaching justification the faith alone from every biblical text, whether it is there or not.
Against this tendency, we must emphasize the comprehensive nature of Christ’s mission and thus of the gospel which proclaims his coming. Indeed, we can joyfully assert that the gospel news of Jesus involves more than justification. Certainly, the gospel is not less than justification through faith alone. But the gospel includes the whole of Christ’s saving work. Christ came to overthrow the entire reign of sin; he is the strong man who broke into the tyrant’s house and set the captives free. Just as the reign of sin is multi-dimensional – comprehending not only the guilt of sin, but also the power of sin and the practice of sin – so also is Christ’s saving work multi-dimensional. Therefore, we proclaim that “the gospel provides salvation for the whole man.”
Included in this comprehensive understanding of the gospel is Christ’s provision for both “imputed and imparted righteousness.” Imputed righteousness is that righteous status attained for us by Christ in his perfect, active obedience to the Law of God. Imparted righteousness is the practical godliness that Christ provides through the active faith of his people. For many Reformed Christians, this seems a dangerous or even a wrong way of speaking. We have developed a working convention by which the term “righteousness” pertains only to our justification status, while the term “holiness” pertains to our progressive growth in godliness.
It is noteworthy, however, that the Bible does not follow this convention. It is a commonplace among biblical scholars to note that the Greek verb for righteousness (dikaioo and its associated noun, dikaiosune), are used both to describe our justification status in Christ and our practice of godliness.
A few examples will suffice to prove this point. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Mt. 6:1). Clearly, righteousness here refers to practical godliness. In Romans 14:17, Paul states that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit,” an example that more likely refers to practical rather than imputed righteousness. Examples could be multiplied from the New Testament (not to mention the Psalms) to show that “righteousness” is not a fixed theological term but one which must be interpreted in its context. Just as the word “salvation” may have a variety of nuances, so also is “righteousness” a word that does not merely refer to one’s legal status but may also refer to one’s lifestyle.
This situation would be noteworthy if only to point out that our doctrinal use of “righteousness” does not synch with the biblical use. But this problem seems to be having a wide-ranging effect in that the idea of living righteously has become disparaged. In the Bible, while there is a clear distinction between justification and sanctification, the two or so organically connected through union with Christ that they must always be thought of together.
Likewise, through faith the Christian receives Christ’s righteous status before God’s justice by imputation and with this receives the imparting of righteous living through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Consider the symbolism of the book of Revelation, in which the redeemed are frequently shown dressed in radiant white. Standard Reformed preaching would require that we see this as emphasizing imputed righteousness. The actual data of Revelation suggests otherwise, instead using this imagery primarily to depict the purity of lives that the believers lived. In his letter to Sardis, Jesus praised the few “who have not soiled their garments,” clearly referring to their abstention from sinful practices. As a result, “they will walk with me in white, for they are worthy. The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments” (Rev. 3:4-5). This passage sternly resists all attempts to prioritize the doctrine of justification, despite the imagery normally associated with imputed righteousness. If we study the imagery of the white robes in Revelation we will find that it combines the washing of sin through the blood of Christ with a lifestyle of moral purity in a way that the two are inseparable. Revelation 7:14 describes the martyrs as those who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” while in Revelation 19:7-8 the bride of Christ appears dressed in “fine linen, bright and pure – for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.”
Clearly the New Testament use of both the term “righteousness” and its symbolism involves both imputed and imparted righteousness. Therefore the Christian life must involve them both, and the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ declares his provision for this comprehensive righteousness through the totality of his victory over sin.
It is with this fuller biblical vision in mind that we make the following denial:
We deny that the gospel provides freedom from the guilt of sin in justification without deliverance from the power of sin in regeneration and liberation from the practice of sin in sanctification.
What do we mean when we insist that the gospel provides both imputed and imparted righteousness? We mean that salvation in Christ, by grace and through faith, involves the wonderful blessing of freedom from the guilt of sin (justification) as only part of the glorious work of grace that Christ has performed. To the freedom of justification, Christ adds “deliverance from the power of sin in regeneration.” The Christian is freed through the new birth from the tyrannical bondage of sin, having a new nature that is able not to sin. Paul writes of the radical change effected by our union with Christ: “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14).
But there is more! Because we have been delivered from the binding power of sin in regeneration, we may now experience liberation from even the practice of sin in sanctification. Paul thus urges: “Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness” (Rom. 6:13).
What a glorious gospel, the message of which is the coming of Christ and his comprehensive victory over sin for those who believe! What a celebration of his saving grace, when we not only refer to the gospel in terms of justification but when we press on to the righteous life to which we are called and equipped by the grace of Christ! How many rich themes we find in the gospel to sing the praise of the grace of Christ!
Grace, grace, God’s grace!
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within!
Grace, grace, God’s grace!
Grace that is greater than all of my sin!
Dr. Richard D. Phillips is the senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Greenville, SC and the chairman of the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.