No declaration by God can make a person righteous. It’s like saying headache can be made to stop hurting by applying a bandage to your elbow, or it’s like thinking to give penicillin for osteoporosis, or building a dam by sucking a lollipop. The two just don’t have anything in common. The one is unable to have any effect upon the other. Declarations and righteousness simply belong to completely different categories, different spheres of operation.
It would seem, at first, more logical to argue that a declaration by God means God now regards a person as righteous. But that would be to assert that God, Who sees us keep on sinning, denies the truth, Who is Truth. So that doesn’t work any better. It’s not as though (as I read in some other blog yesterday) He shoots a perfect round of golf and then hands me His scorecard and lets me, a terrible golfer, falsify it by signing my name to it. There is no trickery with God, no sleight of hand, no falsity, no gamesmanship. He doesn't scam Himself. He does not pretend Christ's righteousness is mine or that my sins are Christ's. He knows better.
Righteousness doesn’t come to us sacramentally, either. Healing does, healing of our wounded, sick, sinful human nature. That is why we receive the sacraments frequently. They give us strength. They are concrete forms of God’s grace. Christ washes us, takes us with Him through death to life, anoints us, allows Himself to be ingested by us, enters into our bones and sinews, gradually sanctifying and deifying us. Yet we continue to sin daily, hourly. We continue unrighteous.
And God, Who is no fool, knows it.
Moreover, we want Him to know it, which is why we go to confession, because unless He is aware of our sins and burdens, how shall He help us with them? How shall He forgive them or heal us or give us the strength or wisdom to do better next time?
No, righteousness comes from trying hard, in communion with Christ, to do righteousness. That's what nobody much wants to do, try hard. A declaration would be sweeter, or so at least we imagine. “Be not deceived,” writes St. Peter, “he who does righteousness is righteous.” Righteousness comes from struggling for it.
At every point, the struggle is God’s work. We get no credit for it at all. (And even if we did get any credit, we could not exchange it for anything; it would be worthless as Monopoly money. This is because God cannot be bought or bribed with anything whatsoever.)
Yet that does not mean He does it all for us while we sit on our fat bottoms doing nothing. All the work is God’s, yes; and all the effort is ours. We call it synergy, and it is what St. Paul perfectly describes when he urges us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God in us, both willing and working. All the work is God’s, all the effort is our own. And much effort is required.
No, this struggle for righteousness does not earn us any merit or any brownie points, does not in the least put God in our debt or oblige Him to save us if we succeed. Righteousness does not entitle us to salvation -- or to anything else.
Instead, righteousness IS salvation. After all, to the extent you have become righteous, you have been saved from committing any more sins. That is what you wanted, isn’t it? Not really? It should have been. But oh, well, then, hold on, there’s more. To the extent you have become righteous, you have become Christlike! Still not terribly motivating? You love Him less than you thought, then, but never mind, because here’s the best part of all. To the extent you have become righteous, you are letting Christ live His own Life in and through your flesh, and there is no greater intimacy with another person than that. THAT is what union with Him means in its deepest sense. He is living His righteous life in you. That is how you acquire His righteousness. And remember that He, in turn, is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit, so through Him, you have this ultimate intimacy of a shared life with the Holy Trinity, Whose life is immortal, too.
Can you achieve perfect union with Christ in this life? No. But if, by faith, you honestly struggle for it, God, in His mercy, will make up the difference in the end and perfect you. In and by your death, He will separate you from your remaining sins.
Or if you don’t struggle to do the right, to stop sinning, to become like Christ, to live in perfect union with Him -- in short, if you don't do the works of faith -- then you don’t actually have faith, which of course makes the whole issue moot.
Monday, January 7, 2008