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Do All True Believers Live Righteous Lives?
Righteousness in the Pastoral Epistles

by Bob Wilkin

While there are many passages which speak of righteousness which is imputed to the believer (e.g., Rom 4:3-6; 2 Cor 5:21; Gal 3:6), the majority of passages speaking about righteousness do not refer to imputed righteousness. Rather, they refer to lives which are actually characterized by righteous deeds!

The terms righteous, righteousness, and righteously (Gk. dikaios, dikaiosune, and dikaios) occur nearly 200 times in the New Testament. That is too many usages to survey in a short paper such as this. I have chosen to narrow my focus to the eight uses of these terms in the Pastoral Epistles.

Titus 2:12 says that "we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age."

2 Tim 3:16-17 says that the Word of God is profitable for "instruction in righteousness."

Paul instructs Timothy in 1 Tim 6:11 and 2 Tim 2:22 to "pursue righteousness." Timothy was already righteous in his position as a justified child of God. Indeed, in 1 Tim 6:11 Paul refers to Timothy as a "man of God." Paul was calling a positionally righteous person to pursue practical righteousness in his daily walk.

Similarly, Paul indicates in Titus 1:8 that an elder must be a righteous or just (dikaios) man. Clearly all believers are not righteous in the sense Paul means in Titus 1:8 or else this requirement would be needless.

There are three possible ways to understand these references. The Arminian view understands these passages to be calling genuine believers to live righteously in their experience. Believers are viewed as being in danger of not living righteously. The consequence is seen as loss of salvation.

The Reformed view interprets these verses to be calling professing believers to live righteously in their experience. Genuine believers will do so. Guaranteed. False professors will not. The consequence of not living righteously is seen as hell. However, loss of salvation is not suggested. Rather, since according to this view God guarantees that all believers will live righteously, those who fail to do so prove that they aren't genuine believers.

The Free Grace view sees in these references a call to genuine believers to live righteously in their experience. Believers are viewed as being in danger of not doing so. The consequence is seen not as loss of salvation or proof that one was never saved in the first place, but loss of joy and peace now and loss of rewards eternally.

The Arminian view is ruled out since the Scriptures clearly teach that believers can't lose their salvation (e.g., John 5:24; Rom 8:38-39).

The Reformed view is eliminated for two reasons. First, Timothy and Titus were not merely professing believers. They were clearly true believers. Yet they were being commanded to pursue righteousness.

Second, it is clear from the contexts that compliance to these commands was not guaranteed. This can be easily seen, for instance, by comparing 1 Cor 9:24-27 with 2 Tim 4:6-8. Paul earlier in his life had feared not being approved by the Lord. Yet as the Lord reveals to him that he is about to die, he knows that the crown of righteousness is laid up for him. Why? Because he persevered in living righteously.

The Free Grace view is all that remains. Genuine believers like Timothy and Titus need to pursue righteousness. If they do, they too will receive the crown of righteousness which is reserved for all who love the Lord's appearing (2 Tim 4:8). Clearly this is a rewards issue. What is at stake is eternal rewards, not eternal salvation.

How does this impact us? It means we must exert daily effort to be righteous! It means that righteousness is an achievable aim! It means that righteousness is not perfection.

Practical righteousness is a life of obedience. It is a life characterized by godly and holy behavior. It is not, however, a sinless life. After all, Lot is called righteous in Scripture in a context clearly dealing with practical righteousness (2 Pet 2:7). Yet even if we didn't have passages like 1 Kings 8:26 and Rom 3:23 which say that all are sinners, even a casual reading of Genesis reveals that Lot was far from a perfect man.

Back to the question we raised in the title: Do all true believers live righteous lives? They all can. They all should. However, unfortunately, they all don't. Experiential righteousness is not guaranteed. Failure is a sad possibility for the believer.

Back in 1982 I asked Dr. Charles Ryrie to be on my ordination council and to speak at my ordination service. After he agreed I told him how much I enjoyed preaching the Word of God every week. I had been doing so for all of about 6 months at the time. Dr. Ryrie's response greatly challenged me. He said, "Bob, I'm glad you like preaching now. However, the real question is whether you will still be faithfully preaching and walking with the Lord forty years from now!"

"Let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart" (Gal 6:9).

Bob Wilkin is the Founder and Executive Director of Grace Evangelical Society.

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