by Robert Andrews

Last week we saw that trying to progress in our Christian lives by doing righteous deeds is a continuation of Aristotelian thinking and preserves the ladder theology that originated at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Today we will look at a more biblical, cross-centered concept of spiritual “progress.”

2 Corinthians 5:21 summarizes what happened at the cross: “He who knew no sin, became sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” In other words, God imputed (gave) our sin to Jesus Christ—and He imputed (gave) Jesus’ righteousness to us who are in Him.

When we hear a statement like that we very naturally want to say, “I know, Robert, the cross gets me saved and because of it God sees me as righteous, but doesn’t God demand that I be really righteous in my everyday conduct, not just righteous in His eyes?” This thinking preserves the ladder–the concept that I have imparted, infused, intrinsic righteousness that increases as I mature, while my sins conversely decrease.

The cross, however, introduces a whole new way to live, a whole new dynamic. Rather than partial, ever-increasing righteousness and partial, ever decreasing sinfulness, based on my success in living by and conforming to the law of God, I am, right now, fully righteous with the imputed righteousness that is only in Christ by faith.

This faith-based righteousness is the only kind available to fallen men, sons and daughters of Adam. Any perceived infused or imparted righteousness that becomes a part of me intrinsically is really not righteousness at all. Why not? It can’t be, because while I am perfectly righteous with the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, I remain a helpless, hopeless sinner while I still live in this body of sin, this body of death. “Every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5) is God’s evaluation of all of Adam’s descendants. “There is none righteous, no not one” (Romans 3:10). So a perceived imparted righteousness is hypocrisy!

We do not see ourselves as we really are. Even our most righteous-appearing acts are still fraught with self-seeking and impure motives. Because of the old Adam’s vested interest in preserving his life and avoiding the cross, we have too high a view of ourselves. That is who we are until Jesus returns and gives us new glorified bodies.

The ladder preserves the way of life of my old man, all that I was in Adam, trying to be good by what I do, but the ladder is an illusion. It is not there. God killed us in Christ at the cross and raised us to new life in Christ as a new man, holy, righteous and perfect with a new modus operandi, a new way to live, which is by faith alone. This new man is not partially righteous, not growing in righteousness, but completely RIGHTEOUS, living by faith alone, not by obedience to God’s law.

However, this new man lives in an as yet unredeemed body inherited from Adam that is not partially sinful, not getting less and less sinful, but completely EVIL, trying to live by obedience to God’s law! So, we remain, as Luther said so well; simul iustus et peccator—simultaneously saint and sinner. We are at once both perfectly righteous and completely sinful. As a result, each day the grace of God is as necessary as it was the first day I became a Christian. His mercies are, of necessity, new every morning; every morning I begin again. Like the manna in the wilderness, no righteousness is stored up from the previous day. I have not reached a righteousness plateau from which I can advance to the next level, thereby working my way to holiness. That is the ladder, and it is a mirage. There is no ladder.

Progress–the invasion of the kingdom

That is what progress is not—gradually increasing righteousness and gradually decreasing sinfulness. Now we are ready to discuss a way of thinking that allows us to see in a more biblical fashion what “progress” is, if we indeed can call it that. Is there genuine progress in the Christian life if I indeed already possess the absolute goodness of Jesus Christ and yet remain a wicked sinner, all the thoughts and intents of my heart only evil continually?

My relationship with Him is settled. I am already completely righteous by faith, and my life will show it if I but believe it! Is it not then believing, or living by faith, that is the issue, and not what comes forth from my life?

In Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans he was insistent that the simul must be considered as total states; the divine imputation of total righteousness for Christ’s sake makes us totally sinners at the same time.

The simul is not the battleground of two mutually limiting partial aspects but the battleground of two mutually exclusive totalities. It is not the case that a no-longer-entire-sinner and a not-yet completely righteous one can be pasted together in a psychologically conceivable mixture; it is rather that real and complete righteousness stands over against real and total sin…The Christian is not half-free and half-bound, but slave and free at once, not half-saint, but sinner and saint at once, not half alive, but dead and alive at once, not mixture but a gaping opposition of antitheses. [1]

Progress, or sanctification, according to Luther, is to simply believe the divine imputation. Listen to Gerhard Forde’s rendition of Luther’s idea of sanctification.

For there can be no more sanctification than where every knee bends and every mouth is silent before God, the only Holy One. And God is revered as the Holy One only where the sinner, the real sinner, stands still at the place where God enters the scene and speaks. That is the place where the sinner must realize that his or her way is at an end. Only those who are so grasped that they stand still here and confess to sin and give God the glory, only they are “sanctified.” And there cannot be more sanctification than that! [2]

Sanctification, or progress, is not, therefore, an endless process ahead that we traverse in order to “arrive.” Whoever has imputed righteousness can know that he or she already arrived, not at a goal that they have attained, but a goal that is granted to them anew, moment by moment, for the sake of Christ. Beginning and end are always equally near. God’s mercies are indeed new every morning.

Following are diagrams of three different perspectives on “progress” from immaturity to maturity in the Christian life. [3] In each of these three diagrams the top line pictures the position of the Christian as just and holy, as he is in fact and will be in his experience in the age to come after Christ returns; the bottom horizontal line is the Christian as completely sinful.

The first diagram represents the traditional view of progress in the Christian life. According to this scheme, by getting better and better, we “progress” upward, experiencing plateaus and times of growth, needing less and less of the grace of God as we grow because we have achieved an intrinsic righteousness that has been imparted to us as we have climbed the righteousness ladder.         

The second diagram is a picture of Luther’s simul, an attempt to picture the very difficult idea of simultaneously being completely sinful and completely righteous by an oscillation between two absolutes.

The last diagram adds to that concept the notion of “progress.” The life of the eschatological kingdom, the life that will be ours when the Lord returns, a life of experiential holiness, a life that will not be possible this side of the eschaton (the age to come), is attacking and subduing us as we walk by faith, more and more capturing our hearts without any effort on our part. The bottom line in the diagram remains the bottom line—we are utterly sinful, as we will be until the Lord’s return.

1. Infused or imparted righteousness

2. Simultaneously saint and sinner

3. The invasion of the kingdom

However, though we remain totally sinful, the kingdom of God, the rule of Jesus Christ, is taking us over, bringing us to a righteousness that is completely by faith. In Matthew 13, Jesus uses the analogy of leaven in a lump of dough that is working, working and never ceasing, and a grain of mustard seed that is growing, growing and never stopping. Another word picture is the kingdom as a D-9 bulldozer in our lives, always at work in response to our ever-increasing faith. Faith is the gasoline in the bulldozer that turns it loose to plow under all that remains in our lives of the old creation in Adam, and faith is all that remains after the bulldozer does its work. “I believe; help my unbelief,” is our prayer. Just as we are simultaneously saint and sinner, we are also simultaneously believer and unbeliever.

The natural production of fruit—not artificial attachment

The production of fruit is naturally, unconsciously and spontaneously occurring as we increasingly simply trust that it is. To try to climb the performance ladder, to try to be good, to try to be obedient as in the first diagram is to try to produce fruit in one’s life by works, like tying apples to the branches of an apple tree and trying to convince oneself that the tree has produced apples. Genuine fruit in one’s life is only the result of faith. As a matter of fact, if the perceived fruit is a result of trying to obey the law of God, it is not only not righteousness, it is not even harmlessly neutral—it is sin, for whatsoever is not produced by faith alone is sin (Romans 14:23). That is why Martin Luther, in what many believed was an overstatement, which really wasn’t an overstatement at all, could say, “good works will send you to Hell!”—self-righteous good works that are a result of efforts to obey.

Genuine apples grow on apple trees. It just happens. It is a result of the life within the tree. The tree doesn’t try to produce apples; it can’t help but produce apples! Righteousness is the result of faith. God is after us to capture our hearts and to conform us to the image of Christ, and He will not be denied. We have been “created in Christ Jesus for good works” that have been ordained by God for us to express. [4] We can do nothing else. Leave those good works to Him and just believe.

One could say that progress in our Christian lives is growth in our understanding of the grace of God expressed in the cross of Jesus Christ. Practically, that means seeing progressively more clearly the depths of my depravity in real life situations, and then embracing that depravity–not running from it, excusing it, rationalizing it, or blaming someone else by playing the victim. The more sinful I see that I am (“all the thoughts and intents of my heart are only evil continually”) and then embrace that, the more I see the extent of the limitless grace it takes for God to forgive me, therefore the more I am “growing in grace,” i.e., growing in my grasp of the extent of the miracle of what really happened at the cross.

This is how I take up my cross and follow Him; this is how I lose my life in order to find it. This is how, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12, I boast in my weaknesses, including moral weaknesses, even reveling in them,  for only while I am weak does His grace and His strength rush in and cover me and make me strong. May we say with David, “I acknowledge my transgressions and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3).

This is a whole new way to think, indeed to live, no longer in the manner of Aristotle (obedience producing righteousness), but according to the Bible: by faith in the power of the grace of God released at the cross to cover all my sin and, indeed, to render it irrelevant.

We must pray for eyes to see two things ever more clearly: the depths of our sin and the extent of the grace that takes it away, for this is not grasped by intellect or study, but because God has come near to us and opened our eyes. “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

[1] Wilfried Joest, Geseetz und Freiheit, 2nd edition (Gottengein: Vandenhoek and Ruprecht, 1956), pp. 58, 59. Quoted in Gerharde Forde, A More Radical Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans, 2004) pp. 121-129.
[2] Gerhard Forde, Justification by Faith—A Matter of Death and Life (Ramsey, NJ: Sigler Press, 1990) p. 50.
[3] Forde, A More Radical Gospel, pp. 121-129.
[4] Ephesians 2:10

Recommended further reading:

Robert Andrews: The Family-God’s Weapon for Victory
Steven Lawson: Foundations of Grace
John Calvin: Grace and its Fruits