The Divine Acceptilatio: God Accepts Your Imperfection
February 23, 2015
Does an infinitely holy and righteous God accept imperfection from his people? Thankfully, he does. This is a central truth of our Christian living, though in some respects either ignored or rejected by some in the church today. Understanding God's acceptance of our (very) imperfect obedience will keep us from despair and also exalt his fatherly graciousness.
How does he accept such imperfect obedience? Consider the following:
Christians have pure hearts.
If you are a Christian, you have a pure heart (1 Tim. 1:5). If you want to worship God, you need a pure heart (Ps. 24:4). Those who are pure in heart, and only those, will see God (Matt. 5:8). And we should constantly desire to receive the gift of a renewed purified heart (Ps. 51:10).
Christians are good and righteous.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are described in the following way: "And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord" (Lk. 1:6). Joseph of Arimathea is similarly described as a "good and righteous man" (Lk. 23:50). Christians are slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:18). We hunger and thirst after righteousness (Matt. 5:6).
Christians are blameless.
Paul writes to the Philippians: "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..." (Phil. 2:15). Paul expects that children of God should be blameless. He is not here saying: you are blameless because of your justification, but be blameless, innocent, and without blemish because of your conduct.
How can Christians be all of these things?
Because God accepts less - often, a lot less (i.e., "small beginnings") - than perfection from us because of his Son and for the sake of his Son, who is glorified in us (Jn. 17:10).
God is our Father. Parents will no doubt understand the joys that our children can bring to us in their obedience, even if their obedience falls short of what Christ would have offered to his own parents. God is not a hard task-master, reaping where he hasn't sown (Matt. 25:24). He remembers we are dust (Ps. 103:14), and treats us accordingly.
As our Father, he accepts less than absolute perfection because he accepted absolute perfection in our place. Moreover, our works are pleasing to God because we (i.e., our persons) are pleasing to God as a result of our identity in Christ. There is a "person-work" order in our Christian life.
In God's sight, we are good, righteous, blameless, and pure in heart. Indeed, we are to purify ourselves because of our hope in Christ's return (1 Jn. 3:3). If we can't admit these truths about ourselves, then we can't admit what the New Testament explicitly says of God's people. And that's not good.
The obedience we offer to God does not have to be sinless obedience or perfect obedience, but it must be sincere obedience. Sincere obedience means we may be called "blameless." The Westminster Confession of Faith sums up this principle well:
"Yet notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works also are accepted in him, not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God's sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections" (WCF 16.6).
In our imperfection, we may please God. God rewards imperfect works, according to the riches of his grace, because he is our Father. (Even if the devils would perform good works, God would delight in these works, according to Charnock and Witsius).
The fact that our works are tainted with sin does not invalidate them as good works. Just as the fact that we have indwelling sin does not mean we cannot be called good, holy, righteous, etc. It is wrong-headed, I believe, to suppose that we exalt the grace of God by suggesting that the only righteousness pleasing to God is Christ's righteousness. This is a radical form of substitution that would confuse any honest reader of the Scriptures.
God manifests his grace not only in providing a perfect (imputed) righteousness that can withstand the full demands of his law, but also an inherent, imperfect righteousness that he declares to be both good and pleasing.
What's the pastoral benefit?
We should encourage Christians that God accepts sincere obedience. The "divine acceptilatio" explains why and how we can be zealous for good works (Tit. 2:14). Children should be encouraged that obedience to their parents pleases the Lord (Col. 3:20).
Because we are accepted in Christ, God really does call us good. We really do have pure hearts. We really are blameless. We really can please God in our imperfection (Heb. 11:5). And that, to me, really is good news. This view reflects the already-not yet theology whereby we are now pure in heart but one day will be pure in heart. We are good, but we wait to be good.
Do we want to say that the widow's offering in Luke 21:1-4 was not pleasing to God, but instead "filthy rags"? Was God pleased with Joseph of Arimathea in Mark 15:43? What about the woman in Matthew 26:7ff? What about the mother who patiently teaches her children the things of the Lord? And the wife whose good conduct wins over her husband (1 Pet. 3:1).
Are we allowed to pray the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 18:20-24)? Or are these words only true of Christ?
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness;
according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me.
21 For I have kept the ways of the Lord,
and have not wickedly departed from my God.
22 For all his rules were before me,
and his statutes I did not put away from me.
23 I was blameless before him,
and I kept myself from my guilt.
24 So the Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness,
according to the cleanness of my hands in his sight.
Yes, as Christians, we often sin (1 Jn. 1:8). And we can act shamefully at times. The power of indwelling sin is real. Nothing above is intended to deny how vile we can be. But how amazing that notwithstanding the very powerful indwelling sin that remains in us, God thinks more of our obedience than we do. This keeps us from despair regarding obedience and highlights that the Reformed have historically done the most justice to the grace of the gospel.
God accepts imperfection because he is a gracious Father, who has a perfect Son, who sends his Spirit into our hearts (Gal. 4:6). Why are we called righteous and good? Why are our imperfect works acceptable and pleasing to God? The answer: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Pastor Mark Jones would like to thank the many Reformed theologians from the past who have written on this issue.
There is a word used by Arminius: acceptilatio. The concept behind the word is good, but he places it in the wrong category, namely, justification. Imperfect faith is "accepted" as righteousness. This is what distinguishes Arminians from the Reformed on the crucial doctrine by which the church stands or falls.
So in debates with Remonstrant (i.e., Arminian) theologians, the Reformed and the Remonstrants seemed to agree on the formal cause of justification, i.e., imputation. But they differed on the material cause. What is imputed to the believer, our act of faith or Christ's righteousness apprehended by faith? The Reformed held to the latter, whereas the Arminians typically held to the former. But even on the so-called "formal cause" there was an important difference between the two camps: for the Arminians, imputation is an aestimatio - God considers our righteousness (i.e., faith) as something that it is not (i.e., perfect). The Reformed, however, view imputation as secundum veritatem - God considers Christ's righteousness as our righteousness, precisely because it is, through union with Christ. The verdict that God passes on his Son is precisely the same verdict he passes on those who belong to Christ - but only through imputation.
So in saying that God accepts our imperfect obedience, we must be careful not to bring this "acceptilatio" into the realm of justification, but keep it in the realm of sanctification.