Assurance and Righteousness

I’ve been thinking about the apparent tension between having confidence that we are safely Christian – if I can put it that way – and the biblical command to pursue righteousness. If we are already counted righteous, why do we have to work for it? Wrestling with this theological dilemma is a good thing. We should not neglect the pursuit of holiness, but it is not healthy to live in fear or false guilt if we are indeed in Christ.

Consider what the Apostle John says in 1 John 2:28-3:3 (ESV):

And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming. If you know that he is righteous, you know that everyone who does what is right has been born of him. See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Think through the logic here. Jesus is holy. Jesus is coming. Therefore, be holy because you will see him. If we are not practicing righteousness, we will be ashamed at his coming. So far, we are tilting the issue to the, “I’m feeling more guilt” side of the equation. But John is not finished.

How can we be holy? Where can we even find the “want-to” motivation for pursuing righteousness? Behold the love of God in Christ Jesus! (I like the KJV “behold” more than the softer “see” of the ESV). Marvel at the gift of God’s grace in the finished work of His Son! Wonder at the new nature that we are given as we believe in Christ – even God’s adoption of us as his children! If we are trusting Christ, we are God’s children now!

In 2:28 John says that we must “continue in Him” (or “abide in him”). In 3:3 Christians are described as those who “hope in him.” Our work, prior to pursing purity, is to look to Christ. Our work of pursuing righteousness will only be effective when we first recognize that God has done what is necessary for our salvation in Christ. Then, and only then, will we want to fight sin and seek holiness.

John has already told us that we are all sinners (1:10), and so our hope for holiness must come through faith in Christ, the Righteous One (2:1). More than that, John agrees with Peter that our salvation is ultimately reserved in Heaven for us (1 Peter 1:3-5). We know that because in 1 John 3:2 he tells us that we are not yet what we shall be, but “...we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

Don’t presume upon God’s grace – don’t coast! Don’t despair that you’re not good enough – you’re not, but Christ is! Look to Christ as the foundation for your hope, but also look to Christ as the motivation for your pursuit of righteousness. This is life-changing theology that is worth working out. Look for this tension as you read the Bible and as we continue to hear the Word together in our James series.