Blamelessness on Judgment Day
Before we jump into Romans 4 and begin discussing Paul’s locus classicus on imputation I thought it would be a good idea to first investigate a claim that is integral to the way Reformed folks treat the idea that God “imputes” righteousness to sinners. The claim we need to consider is the one that says that God demands a sinless perfection of would-be saints that is defined according to the letter of the law. To put it another way, the entire soteriological understanding of the Reformed with respect to imputation (and therefore to Romans 4) is driven — and indeed necessitated — by the idea that no one without blameless obedience to the law can ever hope to attain eternal life in the age to come, and since this blamelessness can never be achieved by fallen man, it therefore must be achieved for him by Christ and imputed to him by faith alone.
The Catholic, on the other hand, would agree that there is something called “blamelessness” that is needed, but he would deny that what constitutes this blamelessness is sinlessly perfect adherence to the letter of the law (indeed, he would see this idea as more representative of Pharisaism than of Christianity). Rather, the Catholic understands blamelessness as connected with the Spirit-infused love of God by which the New Testament says the law is fulfilled, and moreover, he understands this blamelessness to be something that the New Testament attributes to believers based not upon their justification but their sanctification.
The question for our purposes here is to determine which of these paradigmatic understandings of blamelessness would have been the most likely to give rise to the actual NT data on the matter. We have already considered the parents of John the Baptist and how that Luke attributes righteousness to them, rooting it in their walking in the Lord’s commands blamelessly. But consider this statement of Paul’s:
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Phil. 1:9-11).
Paul’s desire for the Philippians is one with which Catholics and Protestants would certainly agree — blamelessness on the day of Christ — and yet this blamelessness is clearly rooted in their abounding in the fruit of the Spirit, especially love (agape). In the next chapter Paul writes:
Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain (2:12-16).
It could not be more clear that Paul is discussing sanctification in this passage: he speaks of the Philippians’ obedience, their working out their salvation through God’s transforming power within them, their willing and working for God’s pleasure, and their cheerfully doing all things. The intended result of these things (and not of external imputation of alien righteousness) is “that they may be blameless,” in order that “on the day of Christ Paul may be proud” of the fruit of his labors in the gospel.
The connection between Spirit-wrought love and blamelessness on the day of judgment is perhaps even clearer in I Thess. 3:
… and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints (vv. 12-13).
Again, our blamelessness on the last day is tied directly to the abundance of love in our hearts, which is the fruit of the Spirit that fulfills the law. Finally, consider Paul’s benediction at the end of this letter, where the saints’ blamelessness on judgment day could not be tied more clearly to sanctification rather than justification:
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it (5:23-24).
Now, what are we to make of all these passages (and the many others that could be adduced)? Is it the case that only a Catholic could say such things? Of course not. My argument all along has not been that that only those holding a Catholic paradigm can agree with the apostle here, but rather, my argument is that the kind of person who would think to say such things is one who holds to a basic Catholic paradigm, and further, that if Paul held to a proto-Protestant paradigm he simply would not have put things in this way. Instead, he would have insisted that no sufficient level of blamelessness can ever arise from man’s sanctification (imperfect as it is in this life when judged by the letter of the law), and that the only rubric under which blamelessness on the day of judgment can be discussed is that of justification.
Of course, it is possible that Paul in fact did hold to a proto-Protestant paradigm and simply chose, for some unknown reason, not to emphasize it, choosing instead to use confusing language that he must have known could undermine the doctrine of imputation, the “article of a standing or falling church.” But isn’t it much more likely that Paul simply said what he meant and meant what he said?