Behavioristic Righteousness: Why Does It Matter?

I recently read a book recommended by one of my favorite theologians. Written in 2002, I was surprised at how well it connected all the dots of issues I’ve been wrestling with for the past decade. While I’ve tap-danced around the contributing philosophies and cultural influences that contributed to the church relegating the Gospel, Dr. Hordern succinctly outlined and analyzed the church’s bent toward “behavioristic righteousness.”

Why Does it Matter?

The church getting its focus wrong regarding justification by faith alone is a critical issue. The reformers called this the doctrine on which the church stands or falls. One of Dr. Hordern’s main points is that the church professes justification by faith alone with their mouths yet denies it by their actions, which robs the church of its credibility and power.

If the church operates from a paradigm of “behavioristic righteousness,” then it exchanges the lifeblood of Christianity for a litany of measurable accomplishments that merit nothing yet erode Gospel clarity.

Seen versus Unseen

It is much easier to see and measure progress when our metric is works righteousness. It’s impossible to see growth in pure faith and trust in Christ. Additionally, if we’re following Jesus’ teaching not to make our good works seen before men, they won’t be measurable by human perception anyway.

Can you see the conferred grace as believers partake of the Lord’s Supper? Can you measure strengthened faith through the proclamation of the Gospel to saints and sinners? Is the peace granted through confession and absolution able to be accounted for on a spreadsheet? These are not visible metrics, but to minimize the significance of these means of grace is as disastrous as it is misguided.

You can chart attendance, volunteer activity, and Bible reading plans. But faith, without which it is impossible to please God, is the size of a mustard seed and the substance of things unseen. When churches overemphasize the seen versus the unseen, they pursue behavioristic righteousness.

Verify then Trust

Forgiveness comes at a price in most evangelical churches. However, instead of that price being the precious blood of Christ, it is a verifiable change in behavior that meets the threshold of the church’s moral standards.

Instead of starting from a place that accepts the biblical reality of our ongoing brokenness, we tend to insist that people get their act together before they represent our organization. What we fail to realize is that nobody ever has their act together. Jesus associated with people that would have been poor representatives of our organization while rebuking those we would have considered model church members.

A few days ago, I listened to an Andy Gullahorn song entitled Let it Go. The last verse grabbed me powerfully.

You’re holding to an image of a disconnected God
Who needs to be protected from the darkness in your heart
Who waits for you to sober up before he gives his love
I think God would say that if that’s who he was
Then, let it go

Getting this right is a matter of the character of God. God doesn’t tell us to clean up our lives before he loves us. He has provided our salvation through Christ, calls us, redeems us, and sustains us with steadfast love. We shouldn’t operate by the adage “verify then trust.” Christians and churches should embrace trusting Christ, learn to trust more, then experience transformation as that trust presses its way into our hearts and out of our lives. The cycle will continue until we are finally delivered from this body of death and weakness.

Activism, Activity, and Acts

The church shouldn’t first seek activism or activity. Doing so is just pursuing behavioristic righteousness. Cultural and political wars lure the church into activism as the path toward spiritual transformation. The church’s mission can quickly morph into societal impact through policy and political leverage.

Being busy with church activity is a counterfeit means of assurance. We can make the committee meeting, run the soundboard twice a month, sing on the praise team, and regularly teach a children’s lesson, but to what avail? Those activities can be beautiful ways to serve; however, they must not be confused with ways to balance our spiritual ledger.

Acts of kindness and service to others are the fruit of God’s ultimate service to us in Christ. They are the overflow of God’s grace spilling into the lives of others in need. As they splash into the lives of others, they can lead to activity or even activism. It should always start with who we are in Christ and supernaturally cascade into something more significant. Churches should be so focused on Christ crucified and risen from the dead that followers of Jesus experience Gospel transformation that culminates in acts, activity, and perhaps activism.

Behavioristic righteousness is an oxymoron. The church must take a major step back and ask how they may be denying justification by faith alone through their ministry. No matter how passionately they proclaim the Gospel from the pulpit or in their statements of faith, their actions may well be proclaiming salvation by works to the world around them and their members. The only righteousness we have is that found in Christ.

Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

Chris Dunn
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