The Innocent Righteousness of Works

Too often a dispute has unintended consequences. In theology nearly all disputes are not between right and wrong, but rather an over- or under-emphasis that leads to error. Heresy (broadly understood) is not a matter of being wrong, it is a matter of being only almost right. But when sides are taken and battle lines are drawn, it is then very difficult to acknowledge the good teaching because of the little bit of bad teaching mixed in. Rather than acknowledge any good on the other side of the line, we wall off everything on the other side of the line.

With that in mind, I offer a very interesting quote from Karl Barth:

One such time was when Augustine had to take up arms because the … innocent righteousness of works of the first centuries had obviously ceased to be innocent in the teaching of Pelagius and his followers and now threatened actually to obscure the Gospel as the message of the free grace of God. CD IV/1, p. 523.

I agree with Barth that there is an innocent righteousness of works. The trouble is, in the west we have a hard time talking about such a righteousness of works without immediately jumping across the line and assuming that it’s the same thing as a necessary human work that precedes and makes divine grace possible (which was Pelagius’ error). We therefore come up with euphemisms, such as “authentic Christian living,” to replace the perfectly good biblical phrase. That pesky line causes us to veer toward the opposite error of denying “the innocent righteousness of works” altogether.

As the Brits would say, “Sad, that.”

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2 thoughts on “The Innocent Righteousness of Works

  1. I love this! Surely the New Testament preaches this, which I am happy to learn a name for, the Innocent Righteousness of Works. I spent many years immersing myself in Reformed theology, but after all of that, I had to admit that if I looked at the scriptures honestly, they were full of instructions and commands to do many things that would fall into this category. When, after I was received into the Orthodox Church, I read, to satisfy a friend, some of Luther’s own writings, and his warning against doing good works, it seemed so obviously wrongheaded.

    1. I’m with you on this. The phrase practically jumped off the page. All of my family is still in the anti-works camp, and all their euphemisms for doing good works are amusing and a bit sad.

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