I have often struggled with the notion of imputed righteousness in reformed theology. It grates my soul to read preachers talk about how we deserve punishment, wrath, etc, since I cannot picture the God I think I know as an angry judge. I’ve also read so many books about how this conception of God was used to justify colonialism and slavery and gained currency as part of the myth that Europeans had a duty to save the heathen Africans and Indians by conquering them from a much worse fate before a fiercely wrathful God. Because I genuinely believe that our Western Christian legacy has been poisoned by Eurocentric colonialist thought, I tend to struggle with the juridical understanding of atonement and prefer a more therapeutic description of it. In layman’s terms, I prefer to say that Jesus saves us from selfish self-imprisonment rather than from a sentence of eternal torment.
But I’ve been reading famous reformed pastor Tim Keller’s Prodigal God and Generous Justice and he’s helped me to see a side to this question that I hadn’t appreciated. Our illegality before God is an indispensable foundation to our ability to treat others with the undeserved mercy we have received through Christ’s blood.
I’ve had an ambivalent relationship with the book of Romans because it’s the most heavily cited book in those awful Four Spiritual Law tracts that megaphone-toting sidewalk evangelists tend to hand out. But I read Romans 3:23-24 again yesterday and saw that it really is the foundational paradigm for Christian ethics: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ.” Now I could go off on the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement at this point because the “all” in this passage is unequivocally πάντα for both our shortfall as sinners and God’s gracious offer to us (i.e. not “all” for the first part and “some” for the second). But I’m more interested today in affirming the foundational importance of our total depravity before God and unmerited reception of grace.
To put it in terms of a contemporary analogy, the one citizenship requirement for the kingdom of heaven is to know that you are utterly an illegal alien acceptable to God only through the amnesty of Christ’s blood. It is utterly, absolutely amnesty. Jesus doesn’t change the law; he doesn’t walk us to the embassy to wait in the mythical “line” that’s supposed to be there; he doesn’t find some loophole by which we can apply for a green card. He gives us amnesty and when we recognize that, we become a branch on his vine, a means by which this amnesty can be spread and extended to others so that the human family can be reorganized into a single loving body of equally guilty, equally grateful sinners.
If Jesus’ act on the cross is merely our moral influence or the evidence of God’s love or even that which heals our hearts, then our acts of mercy towards others come from a place of patronizing magnanimity. If our “righteousness” ever ceases to be an imputed, arbitrary declaration of amnesty, then we can view ourselves as being superior to others. Only God can be magnanimous in the Kingdom; we cannot; we can only relate to each other as pardoned criminals.
Through this amnesty, God creates a community of perfectly fraternal shalom unified around the worship of only one exalted King. Our illegality ensures the eradication of any hierarchy among us. It’s when we start thinking that we’re basically all right people whose sin is not that big a deal that we expect deference from others and justify withholding compassion from those who don’t “deserve” it. True Christians have renounced the right to use the word “deserve” in talking about other people. This realization requires confessing that I deserve condemnation but have received grace instead. Thanks to Tim Keller’s Generous Justice for these insights!