Position and Progress
‘For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.’
– Hebrews 10:14 ESV
Can we become any more or less ‘righteous’ over the course of Christian life than we are at the time of our conversion?
On the one hand, clearly we can increase in righteousness. Through the Holy Spirit, we are being sanctified – but we aren’t sanctified yet. We are being made more mature – but we still sin frequently. We are growing and producing good fruit, and when God sees this growth and maturity, he is pleased and satisfied. But we also have dead and broken branches which need frequent pruning.
On the other hand, it doesn’t seem like we can increase in righteousness. Christ has perfected us for all time. A person who is in Christ has all the righteousness that they need to be granted entrance into heaven – namely, all of Christ’s righteousness. They are already in that state here on earth, and they will be when they die. They can’t become any more ‘righteous’ in God’s eyes or earn any more ‘favor’ than they have today, because it’s not our unrighteousness which God sees, but Christ’s righteousness.
So, we both can and cannot increase in righteousness. How is this possible?
Our question gets at an important difference between two ways of looking at righteousness in the New Testament: positional righteousness, and progressive righteousness.
The first kind of righteousness, positional righteousness, is like a badge, an identity marker. It is granted to us from the outside. It is conferred on us by God through the cross-work of Christ. It is a permanent mark on us – which, once received, can never be removed. God declares us righteous in Christ. He will forever see us from that perspective. It is a decision which God has made, always to view us through the blood of Christ.
The second kind of righteousness, progressive righteousness, is more like a garment which we slowly put on. It is transformation on the inside. ‘Put on Christ’, says Paul to us – indicating that we haven’t yet fully done so. Having received the Holy Spirit, we will continually be changed by him into the image of Christ.
At the same time we are filled with all righteousness (by Christ), and yet we are in the process of becoming righteous (by the Holy Spirit) because we are still unrighteous (by ourselves). God has decided to accept us as fully righteous even though, until we see Jesus face to face, we will struggle with sin and the flesh and need progressive transformation.
The difference between positional and progressive righteousness is not the difference between grace and works. Both are entirely gifts of God’s grace. One gift we receive all at once; the other gift we receive gradually, across the entire course of our lives, in different ways at different times. Positional righteousness causes us to praise God for his remarkable gift of grace. The need for progressive righteousness causes us continually to seek more of that grace. But both push us to God’s grace!