The relationship between righteousness and sinfulness in the Christian life has always been a big theological issue. More than that, it is a big existential issue for any Christian with any self-awareness at all. Particularly, it is an issue where our self-awareness and our gospel-awareness apparently come into conflict, or at least into such sharp tension that resolution seems beyond us. To state the problem simply, the gospel tells me I am righteous, but I find myself to be sinful. What am I to do with these apparently irreconcilable insights? I want to explore that in a few posts (I've not yet decided how many). For those with a smattering of Latin, or some knowledge of classic Protestant Orthodoxy, my answer will already be apparent, although I may want to develop it in a way that differs somewhat from the Orthodox statement.
Let me put down some foundations. It seems to me that there are two basic ways of approaching this problem, two ways of relating the Christian's righteousness and his or her sinfulness.
On the one hand, there are constructions in which these two things are placed on one plane. At its most crude, this is expressed as a sort of sliding scale. You experience a mix of righteousness and sinfulness because you are a mix of righteousness and sinfulness. You are partly righteous, partly sinful. Righteousness and sinfulness are, on this model, considered to be basically the same sort of thing, albeit the same sort of thing in an opposite configuration. Now, I would guess this view is hardly ever expressed in such a crude way as this, but I think we can detect it lying behind the traditional Roman Catholic approach, for example. On this view, baptism is the beginning of righteousness, the first infusion of righteousness into me as a subject. Throughout my Christian life, I should expect that my righteousness increases (with the concurrent decrease in my sinfulness) as I make use of the means of grace, especially of course the sacraments. Of course, should I neglect the means of grace, or entertain temptation in some way, I can expect the scale to slide the other way. This view has the benefit of being straightforward, making sense of our experience, and being practical, giving us instructions in dealing with our relative sinfulness.
Before any Roman Catholics jump on me for presenting their theology in such a crude, and frankly shabby, fashion - I know it isn't quite like that. But that is the tendency I see at the heart of it. Am I wrong?
The other basic approach is to say that there is some sort of dialectical approach to righteousness/sinfulness, something which places them on different planes, or at least which makes their relationship much more complex than a sliding scale. On this side we have to place all Protestant answers, which have typically stated that the Christian is in some way both righteous and sinful at one and the same time (simul iustus et peccator) without implying that righteousness and sinfulness can be considered as present in different relative measures in the Christian. The classic Reformed position, which sees the Christian as totally righteous with the imputed righteousness of Christ, and yet in themselves sinful, is a good example of this.
The two approaches - the straightforward and the dialectical - can be related in one system, and indeed probably must be. So, for example, the Reformed see a sliding scale in the Christian's worked out or experienced righteousness/sinfulness, whilst holding an ultimately dialectical view; the Roman Catholic sees the righteousness of Christ lying behind the sacraments in a way which cannot be made to slot into the straightforward view. Nevertheless, the two positions are basically different in their approach.
There is of course the Wesleyan view, which to my mind is just confused as to which position it holds. Probably it ultimately comes down on the dialectical side. As a historical note, you could argue that Lutheranism is characterised by a more pure dialectical approach, whereas the Reformed tend towards a mixed view. More on that later, perhaps.
Now, it is my position that we must adopt the dialectical view: the Christian is both righteous and sinful, at one and the same time, but not in such a way that we can relate righteousness and sinfulness on a simple sliding scale. Righteousness is not the opposite of sinfulness in the Christian life, or at least not in the way that this sliding scale involves.
Well, that was all pretty obscure wasn't it? Might make more sense tomorrow, but I confess I'm thinking this stuff through as I type!