It was during college when I first began struggling with the doctrine of imputed righteousness. This is the notion, as I'm sure you know, where the believer is saved by having the righteousness of Jesus reckoned or "imputed" to him or her. Growing up, this doctrine was conveyed through a variety of metaphors. The one that sticks out in my mind is the one where Jesus is God's rose-colored glasses. On Judgment Day when God looks at me in all my sin and wickedness he doesn't see me at all. Rather, he sees Jesus. Having Jesus' righteousness imputed to me Jesus functions like these glasses that God dons and, looking through the glasses, God doesn't see my sin, he sees the righteousness of Christ.
The trouble with this metaphor was that I had read The Wizard of Oz as a kid. I'm talking about the book written by L. Frank Baum not the movie, they are very different. In the movie the Emerald City is, well, made of emeralds. But in the book it's all a fraud, through and through. So why does everyone think the city is made of emeralds? Well, this is why:
There was a bell beside the gate, and Dorothy pushed the button and heard a silvery tinkle sound within. Then the big gate swung slowly open, and they all passed through and found themselves in a high arched room, the walls of which glistened with countless emeralds.The city is green--made of emeralds!--because everyone is wearing green sunglasses. It's all an illusion.
Before them stood a little man about the same size as the Munchkins. He was clothed all in green, from his head to his feet, and even his skin was of a greenish tint. At his side was a large green box.
When he saw Dorothy and her companions the man asked, "What do you wish in the Emerald City?"
"We came here to see the Great Oz," said Dorothy.
The man was so surprised at this answer that he sat down to think it over.
"It has been many years since anyone asked me to see Oz," he said, shaking his head in perplexity. "He is powerful and terrible, and if you come on an idle or foolish errand to bother the wise reflections of the Great Wizard, he might be angry and destroy you all in an instant."
"But it is not a foolish errand, nor an idle one," replied the Scarecrow; "it is important. And we have been told that Oz is a good Wizard."
"So he is," said the green man, "and he rules the Emerald City wisely and well. But to those who are not honest, or who approach him from curiosity, he is most terrible, and few have ever dared ask to see his face. I am the Guardian of the Gates, and since you demand to see the Great Oz I must take you to his Palace. But first you must put on the spectacles."
"Why?" asked Dorothy.
"Because if you did not wear spectacles the brightness and glory of the Emerald City would blind you. Even those who live in the City must wear spectacles night and day. They are all locked on, for Oz so ordered it when the City was first built, and I have the only key that will unlock them."
He opened the big box, and Dorothy saw that it was filled with spectacles of every size and shape. All of them had green glasses in them. The Guardian of the Gates found a pair that would just fit Dorothy and put them over her eyes. There were two golden bands fastened to them that passed around the back of her head, where they were locked together by a little key that was at the end of a chain the Guardian of the Gates wore around his neck. When they were on, Dorothy could not take them off had she wished, but of course she did not wish to be blinded by the glare of the Emerald City, so she said nothing.
Then the green man fitted spectacles for the Scarecrow and the Tin Woodman and the Lion, and even on little Toto; and all were locked fast with the key.
Then the Guardian of the Gates put on his own glasses and told them he was ready to show them to the Palace. Taking a big golden key from a peg on the wall, he opened another gate, and they all followed him through the portal into the streets of the Emerald City.
And I couldn't help but think that the doctrine of imputed righteousness made heaven look a lot like the Emerald City. Only this time the Wizard was wearing the tinted glasses making all of us look green.
So I couldn't shake all the questions that piled up about the doctrine of imputed righteousness. God still knows I'm a sinner, right? I mean, he's not fundamentally confused about my true nature, right? That, even though I've been reckoned as righteous I'm still, at root, a jerk. He knows that and can see that clearly, right? I'm in heaven, yes, but I'm still fundamentally a sinner. He sees that, right?
The root problem with the doctrine of imputed righteousness is that it trades the consequence for the cause. The goal, according to the doctrine, is to save you from hell (or, positively, to get to heaven). That is, the goal of salvation is to save you from the consequences of sin.
But that's confused and it creates the Emerald City Problem. Imputed righteousness--via those sunglasses--gets you into the city, you get saved from hell, but the fundamental problem--I'm selfish and self-absorbed--isn't really dealt with. So there we are, all sinners, now in the City. But still selfish, still holding grudges, still unkind.
In short, unless salvation deals with the cause--my distorted heart and mind--it fails to be a real salvation. Who cares about heaven and hell?! I want to be a better person. And, as best I can tell, there is no way this can just be handed to you. You can't borrow it from Jesus.
Nor would I, for one second, want that to be the case. I want to be known by God. From my fingertips to my toes. The good, the bad, the ugly. And I don't want sunglasses interfering. I want honesty. Transparency. No more games. Just God and me. Face to face. And boy, is that a scary prospect. And I'll need Jesus, but not between God and me. I'll need him standing beside me. Holding me up. Because I figure my knees will be feeling a little weak.
But I'm willing to go through this hell of exposure because I need some serious help. And it starts with entering the Wrath of God, the wrath I've learned to share and embrace. I'll allow the fire of God's love to begin to burn the sin, selfishness and pettiness out of my heart. And, Lord save me, it's gonna hurt. It will be embarrassing. Humiliating. But slowly, I'll come clean. With God, with you, with everyone I've ever wronged, and with everyone who suffered because I passed by on the other side of the road.
And you know what? If salvation doesn't involve this I don't want it. I want, more than anything in life, to be saved. Truly, deeply saved. No pretending. No sunglasses.
And guess who helped me see all this? You guessed it. My spiritual mentor and brother, George MacDonald. From his sermon the Last Farthing from Unspoken Sermons (Series II):
There has been much cherishing of the evil fancy, often without its taking formal shape, that there is some way of getting out of the region of strict justice, some mode of managing to escape doing all that is required of us; but there is no such escape. A way to avoid any demand of righteousness would be an infinitely worse way than the road to the everlasting fire, for its end would be eternal death. No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it--no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather! Neither shalt thou think to be delivered from the necessity of being good by being made good...Thou must be good; neither death nor any admittance into good company will make thee good; though, doubtless, if thou be willing and try, these and all other best helps will be given thee. There is no clothing in a robe of imputed righteousness, that poorest of legal cobwebs spun by spiritual spiders. To me it seems like an invention of well-meaning dulness to soothe insanity; and indeed it has proved a door of escape out of worse imaginations. It is apparently an old 'doctrine;' for St. John seems to point at it where he says, 'Little children, let no man lead you astray; he that doeth righteousness is righteous even as he is righteous.' Christ is our righteousness, not that we should escape punishment, still less escape being righteous, but as the live potent creator of righteousness in us, so that we, with our wills receiving his spirit, shall like him resist unto blood, striving against sin; shall know in ourselves, as he knows, what a lovely thing is righteousness, what a mean, ugly, unnatural thing is unrighteousness. He is our righteousness, and that righteousness is no fiction, no pretence, no imputation.Let's go to the real Emerald City where there will be no sunglasses. A City where, yes, the "little bit of hell" we carry in will need to be dealt with. So heaven will, initially, burn a bit. Because, really, who enjoys confession and repentance? But that fire will fade. Or, rather, will turn warm and cozy. It's the love of God after all. It's called salvation.