Declared Righteous

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God has declared us righteous. What is going on when He does this? It is clear that we were once unrighteous and that now were are considered righteous. What is going on in this transition and how does it happen? There are three explanations (that I know of) which try to describe what happens in this declaration.

1. Legal Fiction

The first explanation is that we are not changed. We remain unrighteous forever, but God legally considers us righteous anyway. Legally we are righteous, but in reality we are unrighteous.

This explanation is not generally accepted by anyone, though it is charged against quite a few. Sloppy Penal Substitution language and metaphors can by highly vulnerable to this charge. "When God looks at us, He doesn't see us, He sees Jesus" is an example of sloppy speech; it implies that that we really aren't righteous. In addition to maintaining that we remain unrighteous, this view also hold that God in some way is deceiving Himself--not seeing the sin in us that is plainly there so that He can declare us righteous.

When Evangelicals have the accusation of "Legal Fiction" leveled at us, we usually respond with...

2. Divine Command

When God declares something to be true, it becomes true even if it wasn't true before. His words have the power to change reality. (c.f. the Genesis creation accounts.) Thus, when God declares us righteous, even though we were unrighteous before, His declaration makes us righteous.

While this has become the standard Evangelical response (and in particular, the standard Reformed response), it suffers from several flaws. For the sake of space, I will only point out the worst one: this shifts the Atonement off of the cross and into the courtroom. No longer is the death and resurrection of Jesus what makes us righteous. It is merely the declaration of God that makes us righteous. In this scheme, if we had been righteous just prior to the declaration, the declaration would not have been needed at all. So we are unrighteous immediately prior to the declaration and righteous afterwards. Where does the cross fit in? What does Jesus have to do with any of it? If the divine command is sufficient, then was Jesus unnecessary for gaining righteousness?

The typical response to this challenge is to claim that the cross and resurrection are the basis upon which God makes this declaration of righteousness.

However, this reinforces my point. If the cross and resurrection are the basis, the prerequisite of the declaration that makes us righteous, then it is not itself that which makes us righteous. What makes us righteous is the declaration itself.

That is unacceptable to me. It must be the cross and resurrection which accomplishes this great work of making me righteous, not a declaration. The cross and resurrection don't just pave the way for some greater act of atonement/reconciliation/justification/salvation. The cross and resurrection are the great work of atonement/reconciliation/justification/salvation. This leads us to my position...

3. Recognizing Reality

When God declares us to be righteous, he is legally recognizing that we have already become righteous some time in the (recent) past. This is much more in line with the legal traditions we are familiar with: Birth certificates recognize that a child has been born, it does not itself cause the child to be born. Death certificates recognize that a person has died, but it does not kill the person. Marriage certificates (ones given in conjunction with religious marriages at any rate) recognize that a marriage has taken place, but it does not itself make them married. So it is with God's declaration: He is recognizing that we are already righteous in Christ. The declaration itself does nothing. It simply records that God acknowledges our newfound righteousness.


I would agree with you. The only problem is that I am not sure that the historical use of the phrase "declared righteous" is in line with your use. If it is not, then it seems that you are using it in a new way. Do you know whether it is or not?

Thinking out loud:
I mean, Jesus is the one who condemns, okay--he's given authority in that respect...but that doesn't happen until later on (Jn 5, Rom 8). God is the one who justifies, but under this idea of Recognizing Reality he's pointing at the person and saying "yup, righteous." Romans 4 comes into play but even in Abraham's case it was a declaration after Abraham believed God. But I don't know, it almost sounds like God doesn't have an active role in this concept...unless the activity is in the Holy Spirt. And yet, we're told that Jesus is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit so there it sounds like an active role by Christ. Christ doing the work by means of the Cross, the regeneration by the Holy Spirit and God's judicial claim of "Righteous". Hrmm...I'll think some more but not in the comments section.

This is an interesting post. I wonder if there are sources you can point to that would fit within the three conceptual schools you've defined.

I agree with your conclusion--based on your definitions, number 3 is it. However, I wonder how you think this works itself out into the life of the individual believer. Does one just need to work on focusing on Jesus in the mind so that the rest of the life will fall into place--i.e. is it just a matter of bringing the heart into the reality that he is already righteous? On the other hand, is he only righteous to the extent he as surrendered that area of his life to Christ and is united with Christ in that particular area of his life? I guess the gist of the question is how do we make sense of the eternal truth and the experiential life of the believer that doesn't match up?

Wink, I agree with your conclusion as well, but it calls out for explanation, and is not itself one. The 'recognizing reality' response is good, but doesn't explain anything until we understand how the atonement works. I don't think the problem of being declared righteous is a different one from the efficacy of the atonement.

Mark, that's like saying you haven't taken a view on God's relation to morality if you say that God recognizes what's already good rather than simply declaring it arbitrarily and with no basis. It's true that you haven't given an account of what morality is, but that's not the issue when you're simply trying to see how God relates to morality. For that, a response like 3 is sufficient. It's just not an answer yet to the further question of what constitutes morality.

The same is going to be true here. 3 isn't a theory of the atonement. It's a view about how God's declaration relates to the atonement. Of course you still need a theory of what the atonement is, but that's a further question.

Matthew - I have no idea if my Recognizing Reality usage is in line with the historical usage of "Declared Righteous". I am pretty sure (but not totally sure) that my Recognizing Reality usage is not in line with recent Reformed usage.

Rey - it almost sounds like God doesn't have an active role in this concept...

Your further thinking is exactly where I'd go with this. The entire Godhead is involved in the process of making us righteous (the Father sends the Son, the Son is crucified and raised, the Spirit engenders faith). I'm just saying that the Declaration is not actually a part of the process of making us righteous. Rather, it recognizes when that process is done. (Qualification: done in a "now but not yet" way.)

MWC - I wonder if there are sources you can point to that would fit within the three conceptual schools you've defined.

I'm no historical scholar on this point. This is just what I've noticed. Anyone else want to help out on this one?

I guess the gist of the question is how do we make sense of the eternal truth and the experiential life of the believer that doesn't match up?

Here I again fall back on "now but not yet". There is a sense in which we really are truly righteous right now. And there is another snese in which this righteousness has not yet reached its fullness. This should satify most theological camps. Getting into more idiosyncratic theology, I believe that inasmuch as we are united with Christ, we are truly righteous, and inasmuch as we are not united with Christ, we are not righteous. This union has a "now but not yet" nature--we are truly united to Christ now, but that union has not yet reached its full consummation (and will not until the wedding supper of the lamb).

marksteen - but it calls out for explanation, and is not itself one...[it] doesn't explain anything until we understand how the atonement works.

I agree. But it helps to delineate what is part of the atonement and what isn't. I have run across a distressing number of people who feel that the Declaration of Righteousness is part of what actually makes us righteous. (And indeed a couple who feel that the Declaration alone is what makes us righteous.) I'm trying to draw some boundaries to show that the Declaration is not part of the Atonement per se, but that it is a result or a benefit of the Atonement. As for what indeed makes us righteous, that is indeed the same discussion as "How does the Atonement work?" But that discussion probably deserves its own post.

Good post, and I agree with you overall. I think there must also be something to be said about our participation in Christ leading to a righteous status in God's eyes rather than the atonement being something purely objective.

I have a blossoming thought on this matter but i have to be up for work in 5 hours so it will have to wait.

I'm satisfied with that response. I think it's easy to conflate different scopes of what an explanation covers.

I think I accept what you've described as the legal fiction account. Particularly, I think that at the moment we are declared righteous, we are not in reality righteous. Of course, it greatly depends upon what you mean both by "righteous" and "in reality." I presume by "righteous" you mean morally perfect--wholly just, complete. I presume by "in reality" you mean something like "intrinisically", that is, without respect to other factors outside of the person.

Under these definitions, I believe we are not in reality righteous when we are declared righteous. If we were righteous, then why would there need to be a process of sanctification? Something perfect cannot be made more perfect, can it? But, if a thing has a lack such that it is in need of further sanctification then it is not yet perfect, is it?

Now, perhaps by "righteous" you don't mean something as strong as "perfect," but instead mean something like "has been given a new heart such that one generally loves God and hates evil." In that case, I would agree with you, since I think God takes out our heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh prior to declaring us righteous. But, this sense of righteous is weaker than the sense we usually intend, and is weaker than the sense in which I used it in my last sentance. The declaration of our righteousness that God makes is a declaration of total righteousness, a freedom from the penalty of sin. This is not a statement about the animating principles of our heart at a particular time, it's a declaration regarding the final penalty for our sin. So, on this interpretation of the terms, legal fiction seems the correct description.

Also, perhaps by "in reality" you don't mean merely "intrisically", but rather something like "as things truly stand now"--a more general description of the real or actual state of affairs. In that case, I would agree with you that we are in reality righteous when we are declared righteous because I believe we are (fully) righteous in virtue of our being positionally in Christ. But on this view I'm wondering why you resist the "legal fiction" moniker--it seems more apt than the "recognizing reality" one.

Perhaps you could clarify a bit so we can see if there is real disagreement....

By "in reality", I don't mean "intrinsically", for our righteousness is never ours separate from Christ. It is always an "alien righteousness". That said, we have truly appropriated this alien righteousness because we are the body of Christ. This is similar to how when someone gets married, they immediately own everything that their spouse owns (and vice versa) (generally--there are of course exceptions).

Regarding the word "perfect", you said "Something perfect cannot be made more perfect, can it?" I don't see why not. In particular, Christ was made perfect in His sufferings. And I think we would both agree that He was perfect to begin with. So He must have become more perfect. Hence there is room for sanctification even when we are already righteous.

I'm wondering why you resist the "legal fiction" moniker

There are some serious problems regarding the justice of God if you go the "Legal Fiction" route. If we really are not righteous, but God aquits us as if we are righteous, then He is being unjust. Similarly, if He sees us as righteous when we really are not, then He is not seeing truly--he is deceiving Himself. Neither of these things seems consistent with what we know about God.

Christ's sufferings were completed. I'm not sure we should assume that that word has anything to do with metaphysical perfection. Its more general sense of completion or achieving a goal fits the context better anyway.

It seems to me that, your "inner man" is holy, blameless, and righteous (For in my inner being I delight in God's law- Romans 7:22). You may struggle with sin, but what you really want deep down are the things of God. At the same time this journey seems to be to the end of whatever is on top of your inner man.

Declared righteous comment.
How is the everyday christian to benefit from God's proclamation that we are "declare righteous" if when school students in the Word can not even agree on what it means.Did God intend this to be some hugh mystery that is not attainable until we get to heavon? NO! We need to be blessed, now, by this proclamation as we walk out our lives as Christians cause it not easy living on this ball floating out in space.
Four major points but not all that came out of the cross:
1. Demonstration of love
2. Payment of our sins
3. Adoption into his family
4. Declare righteous
From the laymen's point of view:
1.Incredible act of love on the cross, especially being Jesus was God!
2.Sin that kept me from relationship, done away with, Yea!
3.God is my father "Abba Father" very intimate!
4.But, I have not changed, I still want to sin, and I am sinning, and I am a disappointment to God, therefore, I am susceptable to rejection, judgement, disappointment from God, so I better try harder to be good, because I fear rejection.Is this not what we have learn on earth? But wait, God says I AM RIGHTEOUS, But wait, I say I am not righteous!But God says I am cleansed from all unrighteousness when I repent, He says I became sin so that you might become the righteousness of God, He said, If your going to try and be good, (righteous)on your own than Christ died needlessly.Gal 2:21. Gods says, stop disagreeing with me, I am doing you favor and you need the encouragement.
This declaration is not base on our behavior, our sin, but on how God wants us to know how he feels about us in a very positive way because we are so prone to condemnation of ourselfes and falling into the legalistic walk of Galatians. Than ks for listening!

This was part of my study this morning (5-31-11). Glad I found it.
Two points.
> Makes me think back to a book I read years back ..'Birthright'
In it the reader is made to know that he/she is ACTUALLY born again. It was so uplifting when I read it ...seeming to release me from religious dogma which apparently had created with a conflict within.
> All this really speaks to pure Calvinism, something I have come to see more clearly in recent years. We are chosen ..and if so, God help us to awaken to the purpose he has for us. He is sovereign, and the doctrinal bend we have set to allow any and all to be accepted, no matter the reality ...strikes strong pose against the simplicity of His Word.
Andy Smith

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