I have been working my way through Tullian Tchividjian’s latest book, One Way Love, and I read a passage in chapter 9 today that I thought was particularly insightful and excellently articulated. In this passage, he discusses the potential dangers and implications of viewing our good works as being essential for salvation and as a way of maintaining righteous standing before God, versus good works that are simply done as an expression to God in love that directly benefits our neighbor.
The distinction is striking and it drastically calls into question the motivations fueling our acts of morality.
Check it out:
What usually follows the laziness and license objections is a concern that championing the cause of unconditional grace overlooks or understates the importance and necessity of good works. This concern revolves around what someone means by “good works” and, more specifically, who are they for? There is a lot of confusion inside the church today regarding these questions. Misunderstanding this issue may be, in my opinion, the primary thing that keeps Christians feeling exhausted.
No one dealt with this better than Martin Luther. One of his most helpful contributions was his distinction between passive righteousness and active righteousness. This distinction was Luther’s way to describe the two relationships in which Christians live: before God vertically and before one another horizontally.
Luther asserted that our righteousness before God (coram Deo) is received and defined by faith. Our righteousness before one another (coram mundo), on the other hand, is active and defined by service. The passive righteousness of faith (vertical righteousness) is what makes us right before God—fully and finally. The active righteousness of works (horizontal righteousness) serves the well-being of creation and culture by loving and serving our neighbors.
This distinction is so helpful because whenever we discuss Christian growth, the doctrine of sanctification, or the practice of godliness, the insinuation is that my effort, my works, my faith, my response, and my obedience keep me in God’s good graces—the more I do “for God,” the more He loves me. This, however, undermines the clear biblical teaching that things between Christians and God are forever settled because of what Jesus accomplished on the cross (Rom. 8:1, 31–39; Col. 2:13–14). When we imply that our works are for God and not for others, we perpetuate the idea that God’s love for us is dependent on what we do instead of on what Christ has done. We also fall prey to what John Piper calls “the debtors ethic”—paying God back for all He’s done for us.
However, when we understand that everything between God and us has been fully and finally made right—that Christians live their lives under a banner that reads “It is finished”—we necessarily turn away from ourselves and turn toward our neighbors. Forever freed from our need to pay God back or secure His love, we are now free to love and serve others. We work for others horizontally (active righteousness), because God has worked for us vertically (passive righteousness). The Christian lives from belovedness (passive righteousness) to loving action (active righteousness). His love for us begets love from us. “We are objects of love before we are subjects who love,” as my friend Jono Linebaugh likes to say. So, good works and the imperatives that describe them are not called for to establish standing with God, but to serve our neighbors. Life after justification does not eliminate good works, it just “horizontalizes” them.
This is what Paul was getting at when he said in Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that counts is faith [passive righteousness] expressing itself through love [active righteousness]” (NIV). Faith alone, in other words, gives the power to love.
Passive righteousness tells us that God does not need our good works. Active righteousness tells us that our neighbors do. The aim and direction of good works are horizontal, not vertical. So on the horizontal plane—in creature-to-creature relationships (active righteousness)—we can happily talk about effort, action, good works, etc. But it’s important to remember two things.
First, it is the passive righteousness of faith that precedes and produces the active righteousness of love for others. Or, to put it another way, our active righteousness, which plays out horizontally, is the fruit of our passive righteousness we are given from God, vertically.
Second, and this is extremely important, our hearts work like magnets that always draw the horizontal (nonsaving) plane toward the vertical. Like a car with bad wheel alignment, we will naturally veer toward viewing our good works as a way of keeping things settled with God on the vertical plane rather than as a way of serving our neighbors on the horizontal. So while we never want to eschew talking about and praising the works of faith-fueled service that spring out of a forgiven heart, we err on the side of emphasizing the passive righteousness that inspires such works.
Excerpt from Tchividjian, Tullian. One Way Love, p. 209-212. David C Cook, 2013-08-06.