I sometimes run this experiment in theology classes — classes mostly of Reformed Protestants aiming to be ministers. You might expect they would be fluent in Reformed theology.
The experiment goes like this: I say,
Raise your hand if you are righteous.
How many hands do you think would be in the air?
And yet Question 59 of the Heidelberg Catechism — one of the doctrinal standards of the Reformed tradition — makes a terse little assertion:
… I am righteous …
Why don’t these Reformed Christians, budding Reformed ministers even, want to make the claim of their own Catechism?
Okay, I’m taking the tiny phrase out of its tiny context. But I did not change its meaning.
Our problem is the heavy load of baggage we bring to the issue.
If someone claims to be righteous we fill in all kinds of definitions.
- We assume that being righteous comes from personal achievement of virtue, attained by personal effort.
- We hear these words as a claim that someone has kept the 10 Commandments and all else that is required to be good perfectly.
- We assume nobody can do that.
Our reaction is not unlike that of the high priest who heard Paul make that claim and ordered him to be slapped in the face (Acts 23:1-2).
We don’t want to get slapped in the face.
We don’t want to have to slap ourselves in the face.
This question comes just after the Heidelberg Catechism painstakingly explored every line — sometimes every word — of the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed is, in their view, the summary of biblical Christian faith. It is what any Christian should believe.
So then they ask this:
59 Q. What good does it do you, however, to believe all this?
That’s a familiar turn for the Catechism. They always work on the assumption that theology is good for you. If the Bible, and therefore the church, teaches it it must be there to help you in your journey toward God and new life.
A. In Christ I am righteous before God and heir to life everlasting.
I suspect that modern readers, even many Christian modern readers, politely say
Huh? These guys believe the Apostles’ Creed and so they say they are righteous?
It seems a tad absurd.
Are You righteous?
But to a 16th century Protestant, this was absolutely obvious.
In Genesis 15:6 Abraham trusted God, and God took that trust for righteousness. Paul emphasized the point in Romans 4:3.
The Apostles’ Creed tells us what we believe when we “believe God.” The good we get from that faith is that we too are righteous.
The catechism spends a few questions going more deeply into the topic, so tune back in for further explanation. But for now let it suffice to add in the little modifiers that the catechism puts around that claim.
In Christ I am righteous …
This flows from their earlier explanation of what saving faith is and does. It means to trust in Christ personally, and in God’s promise of grace embodied in Christ. That kind of trust draws us close, making us part of Christ’s own body: we are grafted into him like a branch of a grape vine or fruit tree.
What is the consequence?
- On my own I’m guilty. But I’m not on my own any more.
- Now I’m “in Christ.” And in Christ I am righteous.
There is another modifier too:
In Christ I am righteous before God.
The claim of righteousness is not about what you see in me.
And it is not a claim about my behavior.
It is certainly not a claim comparing myself to anyone else.
It’s a claim about my relationship with God: as I stand before God, God sees me as innocent. God sees me as part of the body of his Son Jesus.
So you can say it.
You ought to say it.
Maybe you should be discerning about who you should say it to.
But you are righteous.
When you’re down on yourself, feeling the pain of guilt and brokenness, but still listening to the promise of Christ know this: in Christ you really are righteous before God.
I’d love to send you a free copy of my new eBook on quirky and surprising saints. It’s called Role Models for Discipleship.
Click the button and I’ll send it along.
Fr. Dustin says
Your experiment reminds me of an experiment one of my seminary professors would do to us. He would ask, “If you were living in the 1st century, and Jesus walked by, would you say, ‘There goes the Son of God’?”
Of course, we raised our hands and said, “Yes! Of course, we would have recognized Jesus and we would have followed him immediately.” We students were, after all, in seminary, wanting to follow Jesus.
It is, at this point, that our professor would say, “Ah! You must be demons then because only demons recognized him before the resurrection!”
gary panetta says
This is a challenging post.
I keep having conversations with people who are down on themselves, who feel unworthy of God’s love.
Sometimes such people are relieved when they learn that God has been seeking them out for a loving relationship long before they gave God a second thought, long before they worried about being righteous, long before they had any faith at all — and that faith itself is God’s gift to them. So is Christ’s righteousness — the righteousness that allows us to stand before God. It is human to hold ourselves hostage to our failures and sins. But it isn’t God’s way in Jesus.