We give gifts to people we like. I generally withhold gift-giving from those with whom I have no fellowship or closeness. However, God decided to offer us a gift when we did not deserve it. In fact, there are those who will accept the gift and totally take advantage of His grace by not living a single day in pursuit of righteousness.
In the last chapter, we looked at Romans 4:5 as part of our discovery of what it means to be justified by faith. In this chapter we will use the same verse to explore the difference between positional righteousness and practical righteousness.
But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness,1
All people who come to Christ for salvation are justified at a moment when they are ungodly. In an instant God changes the core nature of the person. In judicial terms the new believer has positional righteous. This status is such that they will never be more or less righteous before God than the moment that they believe. The saved person has entered an eternal state where Christ’s righteousness is credited to us.2 It’s as if we have been given access to his righteousness credit card, and there is no limit.
Some moan that this concept encourages some to abuse God’s grace. However, it was Paul who said it. In case we become tempted to use this as a license to sin he discourages such thought when he says, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!”3 He further warns of the heavy consequence when a believer does not work, when he says they will suffer loss at the judgment seat of Christ.4
Despite his provisos and warnings, it doesn’t change the fact that he openly admits in Romans 4:5 that someone can have salvation completely without works before or after the moment he receives eternal life. The image of a person getting such a costly gift for free, and then doing nothing to show gratitude raises our ire. Though we must be cautious that we do not mistake our sinful jealousy for limits on grace that do not exist. Will some abuse this free gift? Of course, but grace-abusers can’t change the nature of the gospel. Righteousness is given as an inalienable position in Christ for the one who believes in Him. Positional righteousness is a finalized status of the believer.
It shouldn’t surprise you that the meaning of the word righteousness has some elasticity in the way that it can be translated. Although it often is used to describe positional righteousness for those that are saved, there are plenty of times when it’s referred to in reference to discipleship. In this context we call it practical righteousness.
Practical righteousness can be seen in 1 Timothy 6:11, when Paul says.
But you, O man of God, flee these things and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness.5
In the preceding section, Paul is teaching his young disciple, Timothy, that he should resist the pull of wealth and riches. He follows that with these wise instructions. The list in which righteousness falls here gives us the best indication as to what type Paul is referring.
Paul says, “pursue righteousness.” He can’t be talking about the kind of righteousness someone receives when they become a believer because it is not something to be pursued. To pursue positional righteousness would be the same as working for salvation, which negates one’s ability to have it. Where positional righteousness is received without effort or work by the one who believes in Jesus for everlasting life, this type of righteousness has to be sought with practical steps. Therefore, he’s talking about a righteousness that focuses on daily living as a disciple.
We’ve already discussed how it is technically possible for a believer to do no work, but once again Paul is warning against that sinful mindset and lifestyle. He instructs his student to chase after such fine things as these, among which is practical righteousness. The verse and its context gives virtually no further instruction on how to do what he’s been told, but that is because Paul views Timothy as a mature believer. This acts as a reminder to stay strong and is no new lesson for the well seasoned Timothy. The verdict is that godly living is in view when the disciple is encouraged to pursue righteousness.
These two verses serve to show us the clear distinction between positional righteousness, which is what all believers have in Christ, and practical righteousness, which is what all disciples should seek on a daily basis.
1 Romans 4:5.
2 Romans 4:24
3 Romans 6:1–2.
4 1 Corinthians 3:15
5 1 Timothy 6:11.