Tuesday, February 24, 2009


I recently wrote a post at gush on the topic of "Works-Righteousness" and reckoned it reasonable to post here:

I was thinking about the term "Works-Righteousness" today and decided it is just another of those Christian Buzzwords that are thrown about without any care for their actual meaning. In this case, it's just a pejorative that's used to label a collection of beliefs without having a real meaning. It's like "Nazi" or "Fascist" for evangelicals.

So, I was wondering what you people think it means and if anyone can come up with a good actual definition.

Here are some thoughts I had [in an effort to show why I've decided it is just a junk-word Christians use to attack things.]

First, obviously the word indicates a philosophy/theology that links "works" to "righteousness"

The first and most important observation is that the term really cannot have anything to do with the Final Judgment if it has any meaning. People are described righteous or unrighteous throughout the Bible without any reference to the Final Judgment. So, whatever "righteous" means, it has to have a meaning/use that is not directly linked to the Judgment.

So, however one defines "works-righteousness," it cannot be defined by using the Final Judgment as a guide.

The second issue is that the word righteous refers to a state not a prize. In fact, we should probably stop using the word "righteous" altogether because 500 years of reformed writings have corrupted what the word means. The word really just means "to be as one ought to be." In today's language "acceptable" would probably be a better term.

The problem is that most of the time when people describe things having to do with works-righteousness, they do not treat "righteousness" as a state but rather as prize to be won, or as a label denoting someone is worthwhile rather than the worthwhileness itself.

The third issue, of course, is what is works, really. Do works refer to "good deeds" as in "doing the will of the father"? [a' la Matthew 7:21 and Matthew 12:50] I think that is mental definition people would often give...but often people who are attacking works-righteousness address people who are promoting "standard morality" things like not drinking, not dancing, not smoking, etc....items which are very much on the periphery of "doing the will of the father"

And, last but not least, what is the relationship that is assumed when someone decries a philosophy as "works-righteousness"?

Is it that works develop righteousness? Like pumping iron develops muscle or practicing develops mastery of the piano.

Is it that works secures righteousness, like having a majority of votes secures a person's election to government?

Is it that works demonstrates righteousness, like how the ability to scratch all other naturally occurring minerals demonstrates that something is a diamond.

Is it that works are demonstrated by the righteous in the same way that sentimental gifts are given by those who love others without really demonstrating or proving that love.

Or is that works and righteousness are tantamount to one another, like "having tons of money in the bank" and "being wealthy."

I don't really think people mean any of these because I believe most people use the term "works-righteousness" in a way that does not respect the fact that righteousness is a property someone has (or develops), not a evaluation or credential someone attains.

So... anyone care give a good definition for what "works-righteousness" means without appealing to the Final Judgment or treating "righteousness" as a credential?


Rachel said...

For me it simply captures the idea that there is some sort of a destruction of God's grace and its power going on for people who think that doing good things/deeds somehow guarantees them divine favour, when in actual fact, there is nothing that we can do to earn God's favour, it is a free gift there to be accepted through faith in his Son, who credits his righteousness to us, even when we are still sinners and so far off.

So for example the JWs thik that they can earn God's favour by proclamation and good deeds and following the letter of the law in scripture. Whilst there must be much about them that pleases God, their integrity, generosity, work ethic, study of scripture, they do however forfeit any real life in the trinitarian God because Jesus says that the only way to the Father is through him and they refuse to acknowlege Jesus as divine and as the son of God. For them he is merely great teacher/prophet.

Hope that's not too waffly, just my gut-reaction and from a tired brain too
God bless

David Rudel said...

Hi Rachel,
Thanks for your response.

I would agree that there is something that cannot be earned, and there is something [very possibly a different something] that is only by grace, I don't think "God's favor" can really be either of those somethings.

For example, the angel sent to Cornelius describes his charity and prayers as pleasing God, and every indication is that they were operative in Peter's being sent to him. Cornelius is relevant as he had neither heard of Jesus nor had any understanding of a gospel when all this occurred.

Another interesting example is Phinehas's actions appear to provoke God's favor in Numbers 25:7-13.

1st Peter 2:19-20 is both general and direct in this regard, as are Jesus' words in Matthew 6:1-4.

Now, these are not deeds apart from faith...but they definitely show favor being granted due to the deeds themselves, and in two of the cases the people involved had faith in God but no faith in Christ.

Indeed, it seems a general rule that God does reward people based on what they have done. This was deeply etched in Judaism and confirmed by both Christ [Matthew 10:41-42, Matthew 16:27] and Paul [Romans 2:6]. In none of the discussions where Jesus or Paul referred to rewards or being judged by our deeds [e.g., 2nd Corinthians 5;10] is there a notion of an "imputed righteousness."

In the case of Paul's discussion of God's grace, the conversation does not revolve around "how does one receive a reward" but rather the historical fact that nothing the Jews had done as a nation had caused Christ to come...and hence nothing had caused the gift of the Holy Spirit to be poured out.

The Jews did not receive the Christ due to their keeping of the Law, indeed it was rather in spite of their failure to maintain faith. The Gentiles certainly had no claim on the Jewish Messiah.

So, the grace aspect in Romans 3-8 [and even more clearly in Galatians 2-3] refers to God's sending of the Holy Spirit [the "gift" Paul refers to many times...] completely freely and not due to the Jew's keeping of the covenant [for, as Paul points out, the Spirit was promised BEFORE the Mosaic Law, so clearly the keeping of the Law can not be the reason.]

David Rudel said...

Oh, I forgot one other thing I wanted to point out.

Another general problem with claiming we cannot attain favor with God through our deeds is that it would logically imply we cannot gain God's disfavor through actively sinning, which poses obvious problems.

Some would claim that once we sin [ever] we no longer have any hope of gaining God's favor through our actions, but such a view would make a mockery of Matthew 5:19.

Anonymous said...

Hello David,
In reply to your post:
The first place in the bible I found in answer to your question is Gen. 4:7 where God is addressing Cain. "If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?" In my understanding God is telling Cain to choose to be righteous, rather than angry at his brother Abel, or more accurately jealous because Abel found favor with God.
In my copy of the Winston dictionary (c: 1955) the root of the word is given as Midieval English: right+wise, wise as to what is right, living according to or ruled by the law of God: blameless,virtuous, upright, good, Godly,just, moral, and yes in my old dictionary God is capitalised.
In Gen. 15:6 "Abraham believed God and he credited it to him as righteousness." Following this logic, if believing (faith) is credited as righteousness to Abraham, (and God hasn't changed because he is perfect) then faith is credited to us as righteousness as well. Later God tests Abrahams faith to the point of having him ready to plunge the knife into Isaac upon the altar, before stopping him and providing a ram as a "proper" sacrifice.
In the new testament letters Paul exhorts that "faith without works is dead", and I understand that the right-wise person who does not act upon (perfom a work) that is in accord with the understanding of what is right according to the law of God (illustrated best by the life/works/words of Jesus) is no more or less than a hypocrite.
Jesus said that we should not perform our works before men in order to be seen as righteous, but rather to do them in secret so that God, who sees what is done secretly, may credit us for those works. Those who see others as being works-righteous are judging the motives of others, Jesus warns us that God alone knows what is in a mans (or womans) heart, and that is why it is His place to judge.
Rich D, Calgary

David Rudel said...

Hi Rich,

Thanks for your contribution.

Your post brought up a good question. When we say "works-righteousness" do we use the word "righteousness" as its bare English word, or do we mean "righteousness" qua the "righteousness" that shows up in the Bible.

With regard to the passage Paul quotes where God "reckoned" Abraham's faith as righteousness, we must be very careful with what we draw from that. I'll give three reasons:

i) The cultural fabric of 1st century was a good deal different than ours today. In particular, narratives and stories held a much more inculcated role in society. For this reason, Paul can refer to a single line from the Genesis story to evoke, perhaps, the entire story in the mind of the readers. It's not always clear the effect of this upon the interpretation.

ii) It's not at all clear what "reckoned" really means in this context. The Greek word there is a very general one describing how one sees a situation...what it means for God to reckon [as opposed to someone else, who might have more limited facilities] is particularly unclear.

iii) While this passage shows that God reckoned Abraham's faith as righteousness, it is certainly not the only time righteousness shows up in the Bible.

iv) Most importantly, we have to be particularly clear about what point Paul is trying to make in the two passages he refers to this story. In both cases the point Paul is working up to is that God has opened up the kingdom to the Gentiles without any regard to the Mosaic Law...that is rather far afield from the "Works" most people think of, which have to do with "good deeds."

Note: none of the above is meant to disagree with your post...just a few things relevant to that particular story that I think people often overlook.

[Another interesting part about that story is that there is no indication the righteousness came from anywhere or was due to forgiveness of sins. That's a big deal because evangelicals tend to think of God as "making us righteous" by putting Jesus' good on us and forgiving our sins by placing them on Jesus...but none of that shows up in the Genesis account or in Paul's commentary in either Romans or Galatians...no sacrifice, no transferral of guilt, no transferral of righteousness, no forgiveness of sins needed.

Food for thought ;)
[A more elaborate discussion is in chapter 10 of my book.]

Anonymous said...

Phillipians 3 has a very good write up on this subject, I would suggest reading the entire chapter for context.

Phillipians 3:9And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith:

In another section the writer explains he will consider his personal righteousness as DUNG to claim hold of the prize of Christ.

I think it is EXTREMELY important to attribute all good things to God, Christ and the Holy Spirit. THEY are what makes us holy, THEY are what santifies us. HE is the author and finisher of OUR faith. HE gave them ALL over to unrighteousness so that he might have mercy on them ALL.

Bev said...

Hi David! Sorry this is short, I'm on my way out the door. The meaning of "works" is totally skewed by the modern church. When Paul writes of "works" he means "works of the Law," not "good deeds" or doing what is right. I believe (and no time at present to elaborate) that works of the Law refers to the sacrificial system of the Mosaic Law. The things one had to "do" to atone for their sins under the old covenant. The modern church seems to have twisted the meaning of works to mean obedience to God no matter the context. Wish I had more time. Take care and God bless.

David Rudel said...

Hey Bev, I agree, except I would not emphasize the sacrificial part but rather the various cultural requirements! I wrote on a forum recently something about this, and I devoted a few pages to the point in my book.

Here is the forum post:
Gush forum post

Bev said...

David, my reply is in two parts. I tried to post it as one, but there must be size limits.


Good morning, David.

I read your post at Gush. I agree with you! But to reinforce it some this morning, since I have a little time, I did some searching, and now I'm not so sure of our conclusions.

Here's one example where Paul compares faith and works:

Galatians 3:10-12 (NASB)

10 For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, "CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM."

11 Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, "THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH."

12 However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, "HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM."

In Galatians 3:10 he is referencing this verse in Deuteronomy 27:26 - "Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.' And all the people shall say, 'Amen.'"

Bev said...


The "this law" in Deut 27:26 includes not only the other "Cursed is he who..." laws that immediately precede it in that chapter, but all the laws given by God in the preceding chapters of Deuteronomy. Look at Deuteronomy 11:

Deut 11:26-28

26 "See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse:

27 the blessing, if you listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, which I am commanding you today;

28 and the curse, if you do not listen to the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way which I am commanding you today, by following other gods which you have not known.

Based on these connections, "works" does include the whole Mosaic Law. What do you think?

David Rudel said...

I'll look into the size limit issues with comments...not sure what is going on there.

With regard to what "works" refers to, I think the important thing to keep in mind is that "works" can refer to something different from "the Law."

"the Law" for Paul most definitely refers to the whole Mosaic law.

However, the "works" of the Law [in these letters] refers to those things that set Jews apart. Those things in the Mosaic law that are not part of the natural law. The special guidance that the Jews had received did not serve to keep them faithful, so Paul condemns the Jews with the Jews own writing [What the Law says, it say to those under the Law.]

Anything that is part of the natural law, even though it is re-iterated in the Mosaic law, is not really a "work" of the Mosaic law because it is not something above and beyond what anyone [Jew or Gentile] is called to do.

Bev said...

Good answer, David! Thanks.

Don Schiewer Jr said...

Abraham Heschel in his book - G_d in Search of Man does a good job of discussing this idea! Have you read it?

David Rudel said...

Nope, but it looks like a good book!


Don Schiewer Jr said...

btw David...I got a copy of your book and am looking forward to reading it!

Heschel's book that I referenced is one of the best theology books that I've read (and I am a theology geek)!

David Rudel said...

Thanks, Don!
I'm really hoping that people like you, who honestly and openly wrestle with scripture, will find it fulfilling.

When I read your blog posts I felt a sense of kindred-spirit.

Keep in touch.

Jen said...

The first and most important observation is that the term really cannot have anything to do with the Final Judgment if it has any meaning. People are described righteous or unrighteous throughout the Bible without any reference to the Final Judgment. So, whatever "righteous" means, it has to have a meaning/use that is not directly linked to the Judgment.
Your statement is a strawman....any lack of reference to the final judgement, could also mean that the definition of righteousness and its relation to what we will be judged for, is OBVIOUS!! We will be judged as to how well we followed Christ in our actions, call this "proof of our salvation" or "works" but, don't forget the scripture that says "faith without works is dead". You can't have one without the other. It is a form of Protestant-denial to say this (above). You are just trying to put your examniation of scriptue into certain perameters with which you are comfortable. I applaud you examining the scriptures, but if you really want to examine, stop being a chicken and examine the real meaning of justification as the Church Fathers declared it as necessary to our salvation. And, then when done, I predict you will be Catholic within a year!

David Rudel said...

I think you misunderstood something. I never claimed that the Final Judgment is done without reference to righteousness, I claimed that the definition of what it means to be "righteous" must be untethered to the Final Judgment as the term is used throughout the Bible in places that have nothing at all to do with the final Judgment. The term must have wider applicability than that. Therefore, whatever "works-righteousness" means, its meaning must logically have a meaning other than "someone who believes God accepts into heaven those who do works."

Secondly, if you read the first chapter of my book, you would see that it is not my own preferences regarding how God should be that shape my thinking or spur me to reason. Indeed, I was quite happy with the Reformed Protestant message until I began reading the Bible closely. I would be perfectly happy with that message if I thought it made any sense with regard to Scripture.

Finally, your remark about reading what the Catholic Fathers wrote about justification is a rather odd one. Origen's understanding of the term was very different from Athanasius', and Augustine's conception (which is the closest to modern Protestantism) was violently different from that...and those who followed Augustine reverted quickly from his views.

And what makes you think I am saying anything about justification not being required for our salvation? I never said that. But before you can say "Justification is necessary for our Salvation" (which I totally agree with) you have to have some understanding of what "Justification" and "Salvation" mean...and the definitions that are often attached to those words are not the definitions your own early Catholic Fathers held...and they certainly are not ones compatible in any way, shape, or form with what the Jewish writers who penned the New Testament would have understood them to mean.

A slave of Jesus said...

Hi David

It seems the apostle Paul clearly distinguished between three types of righteousness in his letters:

1. Absolute righteousness
2. Gifts righteousness
3. Works righteousness

A clearer picture may emerge if one was to categorize and analyze on a verse by verse basis.

Hope this helps.

Kind regards

David Rudel said...

Hi there, slave-of-Jesus.

First, thanks for commenting on the blog. I hope you'll contribute to the discussion on other articles as well.

Secondly, this is an interesting theory (which I have never really heard before).

Paul speaks of a righteousness that exists due to the law in Philippians 3:16 [the same kind of righteousness Luke might be alluding to in Luke 1:6, perhaps?]

He also speaks of a righteousness that comes "through faithfullness of Christ" or "through faith in Christ" or through "faith like Christ's" [any of the three are possible] in the same passage.

He speaks of God considering someone righteous "apart from works (of the Law)" but and speaks elsewhere of the above "righteousness that is through faith," but I'm not sure about the "gifts righteousness."

The picture is muddled because sometimes the word "gift" is translated as an adverb of sorts. For example, in Romans 3:24 the noun "gift" is next to the verb "justify," and it gets translated "justified freely." Paul may well have in mind "justified by the gift" or something similar. The "gift" here would then refer to the Spirit. [Note that pretty much ANY time the word "gift" is used by an apostle, it refers to the Spirit. Several times in Acts, a few times elsewhere in Paul, and in the combination of John 4:10-13 and 7:37-39.

I think any discussion of "righteousness" ends up very much relying on the definition of "justify," which is a hotly debated topic right now.

Pastor Russ said...

Noah was a preacher of righteousness.
The only righteousness he preached was a change of life that was pleasing to God.

When Jesus comes to live in us He lives a pleasing life to God in us. His righteousness becomes our righteousness. Its nothing more than living a right life.