Personal Righteousness -- By: Philip Stafford Moxom
BSac 57:225 (Jan 1900) p. 54
In the Jewish religious thought which developed after Ezra, righteousness came to have a predominantly formal and even forensic meaning. This is eminently true of the Pharisaic theology. In the epistles of Paul, who was rigorously trained in the Pharisaic theology, there is a marked survival of this meaning,1 alongside of a deeper, more ethical, and more spiritual meaning. From him comes the use of righteousness in a forensic sense which we find in theology from the days of Augustine down to the time of Charles Hodge.
Forensic righteousness is an objective state of freedom from the demands of law, and does not necessarily involve any consideration of character.2 Personal righteousness, on the contrary, has nothing to do, fundamentally, with legal relations, and has everything to do with character and that conduct which is the proper result and expression of character. In Christian theology, “righteousness” has been used both in the formal and in the ethical sense. This is unfortunate, though quite explicable, and perhaps even inevitable. The earliest idea of righteousness was outward conformity to an objective law, and it had not necessarily any moral significance. With the development of moral thought and life, the deeper and essentially spiritual meaning came in. Even among the Hebrews, previous to the rise of the great prophets of the eighth cen-
BSac 57:225 (Jan 1900) p. 55
tury before Christ, there was no necessary connection between righteousness and sinlessness. For us it is difficult to conceive of righteousness as purely formal, except as we have been schooled in a certain artificial habit of theological thinking; and even those of us who have been so schooled, the moment we leave the domain of theology and pass into the realm of ethics or ordinary moral thought, instinctively drop every trace of the purely formal idea.
Much discussion and confusion of thought have been caused by the use of the same word to designate two ideas so different that they do not belong on the same plane. More than this, Christian theology has vastly suffered from the anachronism of perpetuating the archaic meaning of the word and putting it on the same plane with the later and vital meaning, thus destroying the perspective of moral progress.
Whatever merely formal meaning righteousness once may have had, its predominant, if not exclusive, meaning now is essentially moral. The righteous man is not one who is declared free from penalty, but one who does not deserve penalty, and this guiltlessness is but the negative side of a character of whic...
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